Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Words Through a Hole Where Once There Was a Chimpanzee’s Face’ by Kelvin Corcoran

In Pamphlets on March 29, 2012 at 10:44 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Kelvin Corcoran has already published eleven collections of poetry. But this Longbarrow Press chapbook is really ‘an intimate work for a few friends’ he tells us, obscurely, in broken-up words. The title is also portrayed as a scrambled series of letters on the cover, which, in itself, is a striking image. The dedication reads: ‘For and from…’ followed by twelve names, all of which are mentioned in subsequent poems. So it’s with a sense of voyeurism and intrigue that the reader (who happens not to be one of those named) approaches the poems.

Part 1 is titled ‘Going Down’, and down we go, with the narrator, into the abyss. He finds himself, after a stroke, among ‘the blurred and breathless dead’, the only thread connecting him back to reality being ‘you / sifting through my hands – a shadow’. The impact of the poems accumulates as meanings are unscrambled. The title symbolizes the narrator’s mind which is hallucinating, seeing noises, being invaded by colours. He touches a mouth, a nose: ‘This is your face isn’t it?’ he asks his lover. The title comes from a second-hand book, The Wonder Book of Wonders, sent to him by a friend and from which, on p.88, ‘someone has cut out the face of the chimpanzee’. When even the face of his loved one is insubstantial to him, this absence is all the more alarming. Through the hole, the narrator reads random words:

wet season

most for

animals                  earth

Herr Forelegs

These words acquire a resonance for the poet, and act as a springboard for many of the subsequent poems. He uses prose to give the reader some context: ‘I was blind and suffered some short term memory loss because that area of the brain was hit by the blood clot’. But I wonder if explanation in an otherwise lyrical collection is really necessary.

‘Herr Forelegs’ becomes a human entity, ‘a lurking confident bastard / his shirt of bloody platelets / his heart like a fist – bastard’. The tone of the poems swerves from bewilderment to hostility, to a dark humour: ‘come on you anti-coagulants – take these chains from my heart and set me free’.

In one sense, The Wonder Book of Wonders takes him out of his own terrifying mental experiences, to focus on external images: ‘A man in a weighted diving suit, / acetylene torch in hand makes wrecks fit to float’. This of course suggests the resurrection of his own physical and mental wreck of a body.

Other outside influences, such as music (a motif throughout the chapbook) penetrate his altered state: ‘John Coltrane bends time / Bach straightens it out again’. But Herr Forelegs continues to haunt him: ‘in the crowded darkness, you belong to me,’ he says.

His friends call and email, and Herr Forelegs calls too: ‘with eyes for inner darkness: the shit’. Here there is a little too much telling, when simple showing would do: ‘Andres called, his voice / his restorative conversation’. There is an echo of Frost when ‘Goldberg skips decorous sprightly / along the neural tracks, / down the digital wood dark and deep’ where ‘light walks through the trees’. And we remember, ‘I have miles to go before I sleep’. Corcoran blends nature images with technology in a number of poems:

‘These trees look designed,

them birds is on fire

in loops and swirls the sky ablaze.

A radar script inscribed

what does it say? what does it say?

the word as non-conductor of electricity’

In ‘He stared at death. Death stared straight back’, Corcoran writes:

‘MRI shows the riot here and here,

let it rip, Elijah, roll us in our boat;

phosphor trails a migrant route’

but moves from this bravado to sincerity when addressing his lover:

‘Did you fear I could leave you so easily…?

…I would see you leaning over me, your dark hair,

your eyes stare down burning

like the first night we spent ourselves on each other.’

Poems are connected by motifs: boats (the journey, salvage), animals, words, numbers, faces.  The narrator slowly begins to return from ‘katabasis’ (from the Greek, meaning retreat or descent) when he realizes that:

‘there’s no shape for me out there if not you,

our days like silver boxes open in our hands.’

Part 2 is titled ‘Coming Back’, and in the first poem he sets out on the journey to recovery, observing the external world: ‘Three women walk down the street / red coat, black coat, something else coat’. Still very susceptible to the surreal effect of stimuli, colours pulse into the narrator’s consciousness: ‘an unknown yellow world…lettering the sky;’ ‘a square of yellow light;’ ‘a man in a red t-shirt’. The narrator continues to struggle to get a grip of reality: ‘I think I taught that girl, worked with that man, but…not in the world’. Still, ‘that my legs hurt tells me I’m coming through’.

A sense of wonder and awe touches the narrator, as he becomes aware of his surroundings again and begins to recognize people: ‘To walk away from all of that / and to say I know you, I know your names’. Surreal events still occur, however. In ‘Eight Things About The Arctic’, ‘the faces of tourists rip and fly over the white hill’. In the next poem, he seeks ‘the source of chill in my bones; and says ‘leave me here where nothing moves…empty and endless for the mind to lodge at zero’. Letters and numbers surface frequently in these poems: ‘a language holding low around the edges of the world;’, ‘random numbers’ that are uttered aloud, ‘twists of light’ that ‘letter the air’.

In the last few poems, Corcoran moves the landscape several times, from the freezing Arctic to the warmth of Greece. In previous collections, he has drawn analogies from Greek mythology to universalize his themes, and does so again here, linking his personal journey with the story of Odysseus. The poems are narrated in different voices, with threads connecting to the first part of the chapbook: ‘I poured my heart into a hole in the air’. These are polished pieces, but their inclusion here is possibly a little self-conscious, the style and tone quite different. All in all, however, this collection is a fascinating journey through several mental states, worlds and weathers until finally it is love which brings him back from the brink: ‘the only thing to hold onto at the dark door.’ These poems reflect a voice that is assured and sometimes refreshingly original.


PUREandGOODandRIGHT @ The Sozzled Sausage

In Performance Poetry on March 28, 2012 at 5:05 pm

12/03/2012, Leamington Spa

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

Venue and Atmosphere

The Sozzled Sausage is one of those faux-decadent bars with fairy lights, rustic tables and curly-footed upholstery. As it was a Monday, the venue was empty, save for one of its side rooms in which the open mic took place. The room itself was awkwardly crowded by unnecessarily large tables that led my friends and me to sit in bus-like fashion, one behind each other. It became rapidly full, leading to other audience members sitting outside of the room.

The setting also meant that, in spite of a microphone, noise from the bar frequently polluted the readings. However, what it lacked in practical charms, it more than made up for in friendliness. The mostly middle-aged regulars were all too happy to strike up conversation and make potential performers feel at ease.


PGR is very clearly a labour of love run by soon-to-be-wed couple George and Fran, and supported by Kim while they spent the last four months in India. It has been running for half-decade and has a well-oiled set-up: twelve open mic spots divided by an interval, as well as a guest poet, who performs on either side of the interval. George compered the evening and was a warm and entertaining host, quick to welcome newcomers to the stand, and often introducing acts with a little anecdote or amusing story to give the spectator a context. Thus, Jean-Pierre is a ‘painter of words’, while he self-deprecatingly called forth his own reading as ‘doggerel’.

The Open Mic

As you might expect, humorous poetry was prevalent throughout the evening.  Highlights included John Mason’s surreal take on the ‘what if’s’, and John Myers’ increasingly hysterical series of poems on giving blood and dreaming of food.

Unsuitable dating was a theme of the evening, which began with Rosemary’s ‘Single and 60’, a poem that described the seven dwarfs of dating: ‘he lived with his mother / now she was too frail / he wanted another’ (Sneezy). The emphasis on humour, while useful for keeping a drinking audience’s attention, was all too often an end in itself rather than the means to express anything deeper. This is fine, of course, as proved by Rose Biggin’s brilliant ‘Complete Berks’, which took us through Shakespeare’s entire play output thanks to an ‘I walked into a bar and I ordered a Shakesbeer’ narrative.

There wasn’t just original poetry, Augustus sang ‘You’ve got nothing to look forward to’ and other amusingly eeyore-esque songs on love and the insides of bars. Jean-Pierre Kunzler (whose voice eerily resembles Peter Serafinowicz’s in his appearance in Black Books) read from Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khayyan’s poems.  Pauline movingly shared with us the poetry of her friend, who died 26 years ago, which included the wonderfully succinct ‘The Housewife’s Nearly Tantrum’.

The Guest Poet: Mstr Morrison

Mstr Morrison has only been performing for ten months but is already stacking up the accolades; most recently he won the Cambridge Hammer and Tongue Slam. He also wore a very good hat on the night. It’s easy to see what makes him so popular, he was a charismatic and sweetly charming performer, and his narratives were equally endearing with their pin-balling rhymes.

However, the content of his poems did not always live up to their delivery, suffering at times from an overtly preachy slant, as in ‘Ask Mona Lisa’ when he called to halt the hogwash and the spoonfeeding.  Elsewhere, in ‘Strings and Stars’, the use of multiple characters helped to evade these pitfalls in spite of its clear anti-capitalist agenda. Seen from the point of view of a teacher, it gave voices to a primary school child romanticizing a homeless musician ‘How can I experience and fully appreciate the delights of nature with paper walls and a roof between us?’ His poem ‘Danny Boy’ was another highlight, an attempt to make things right with a brother he’d bullied in his youth: ‘if only my only crime was igniting your laughter’. While in ‘Perfection’, he quoted Oscar Wilde, so really, it’s hard to have anything negative to say.


PGR is a fun, unchallenging night of spoken word poetry and music in a supportive atmosphere. It’s a good place to start if you want to test a new piece or dip your toes into the poetry scene, and many towns could do with its equivalent. An event you should definitely endorse if you live in the area.

Hammer & Tongue Cambridge featuring Anna Freeman

In Performance Poetry on March 26, 2012 at 10:26 am

@ The Fountain Inn, Cambridge



reviewed by Seán Hewitt

When I arrive at a poetry slam, I usually anticipate having to execute a kind of soul-splitting which I’ve nearly perfected now. It goes like this: the outer-me sits listening to cringingly-confessional poetry read in a faux-‘working-class’ accent, as the inner-me writhes like a foetus in my torso trying to cover its ears and saying ‘NO MORE! PLEASE, NO MORE!’ Thankfully, I was spared (for the most part) from undergoing such a procedure at tonight’s Hammer & Tongue: Cambridge. This evening’s slam often relied on comedy, and tongue-in-cheek melancholy, as opposed to the more common ‘earnestness’ that I’ve come to expect from more amateur slams.

Hammer & Tongue is a much-lauded night, and this evening’s event comes at the end of a two-week tour featuring guest poet Anna Freeman, who really stole the show. But more on her later.

Let’s start at the start.

The upstairs room above The Fountain is bare and spiritless, and there’re very few people here when I arrive to give any sense of atmosphere. In fact, at one point, when the host, Fay Roberts, was doing some plugs for a show in another venue, someone shouted out, with a tone of desperation, ‘Will it be warmer there??’ Okay, so the room might not be great, I thought, but that’s not why I’m here.

The trademark Hammer & Tongue banner stands in the performance area, promising professionalism, and I get a nice ego-boost when I’m asked to be a judge for the slam (anyone who knows me knows judging is my forte), so things are looking up. The two supporting poets tonight are Anthea Lee (the first Cambridge slam finalist) and Jessie Durrant.

Anthea set the evening off on a shocking and bleak tone, giving a starkly emotional performance of a poem about sexual abuse; but she shrugged the seriousness off in favour of comedy in her next few pieces.

Then Jessie, a poet who almost dances out her own poems, came onstage. She tackled serious issues of social isolation head-on, a brave move which paid off in places, but at other times led her to saying things that were a little obvious. There was a continuous ‘slam-style’ repetitive intonation in her voice which quickly started to grate, but she managed to counterbalance it with a husky quality which made her voice seem on the edge of breaking. She put it down to a cold and, if that’s the case, then her illness was fortuitous, actually working to her advantage.

Then came the slam

And my time to shine like the star I am (an unexpected rhyme, I assure you). Actually, I was so afraid of seeming bitchy that I spent most of the judging time asking the old woman next to me what she thought, so I could offset the blame. The thing is, the people in this room (including the ‘judges’) are so friendly, so nice, that I don’t think that harsher (or what I call ‘realistic’, ahem) judgment would go down too well. In fact, at one point I gave a slammer 8.6/10 and was booed for my harshness. Seriously.

The slam only featured two poets (well, three if you count the guy that got up to ‘freestyle’ but then sat down without performing, blaming it, 8-Mile-style, on nerves), and the first was up and off so quickly that I didn’t catch her name, though she did stop long enough to confess herself to be a ‘poetry virgin’ before launching into an admirable performance for a first-timer.

Then came Anthony Fairweather, dressed like a modern-day Wyndham Lewis, who gave an easy but humorous poem about the impending and inevitable disaster of the London Olympics.

Overall, the slam was okay. Nothing to write home about.

Anna Freeman reminded the audience what performance poetry was all about.

Anna (tonight’s guest feature) shone out like a beacon at the end of a night that had balanced out at palatable mediocrity. Her poetry is well-considered, genuinely hilarious, and always leaves room for poignancy. We get a real sense of who she is from her poems, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all about her. She takes us on a whistle stop tour through births, break-ups and sex, but none of it was cringy.

When I go to a poetry slam, I like to keep myself a little tally of ‘onstage orgasms’ (where, unsurprisingly, the poet pants their way through a poem about sexual climax), but there were only two this evening (yes, poetry-slam virgins, I said only two) and neither came from Anna, who managed to get across all the tingling sexual desire of her situations without collapsing into easy cliché.


Fay, the host, did a brilliant job of pulling together the pieces, but there was a little incoherency in the evening, and a wild variation in talent (always a risk in an open slam). But the crowd seemed to be enjoying it, and the barman especially seemed to have had his eyes opened to the world of performance poetry. But Anna’s superb performance really highlighted that there was something missing in parts of the evening; and that was a lack of wit, a lack of real poetic invention, and so a lack of real inspiration.

Antiphon #1

In Blogzines, online magazine, Website on March 26, 2012 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by John McGhee

House lights darken. A baton taps. Rows in black tie. Opening night.

The editorial in Antiphon’s premiere issue draws parallels between poetry and classical music: the role in each of pitch and patterns, the flow of sound and the unexpected. So perhaps it follows naturally to find Antiphon’s poems structured as a performance in four acts, complete with prologue, interval and closing ovation.

Antiphon is a quarterly online journal coedited by poet Rosemary Badcoe (incidentally also a moderator of the excellent forum at Poets’ Graves) and poet and writer Noel Williams. The first issue features twenty poems in a range of contemporary styles, from twenty poets, most well-known and widely-published. It is a strong selection for a debut publication.

Catherine Edmunds’ ‘topple and fall’ opens Act 1, inviting the audience to share in its sly rustic fantasy. There is a particular delight in the playful passage ‘and the little dog scampers / pursued by a duck like a dodo, a headless torso / and sphinxes that look out with children’s faces’.  Martyn Crucefix’s succinct and assured ‘On foot’ ruminates on the value and effects of ‘treading carefully’ though life. It seems composed with great confidence and there is a succession of delicate images, such as ‘full grown men / ghosting the undergrowth / gliding like phantoms’. The first act concludes to the inflections of Andrew Shields’ biting break-up sonnet ‘The View From Here’, the mythic wanderings of Larry Jordan’s ‘A Way’ and the taut domestic dread of Angelina Ayer’s ‘Breech’.

In Act 2, Norwegian Jane Røken plays a plaintive take on a Celtic standard in ‘It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me’, accompanied by the sounds of keening voices and the humming and howling wind. The tempo of ‘Cochlea’, Richard Moorhead’s dissection of knotted relationships, increases towards its conclusion, building to the potent lines: ‘Placed four in an empty snail shell. / Crushed them with a click of a heel / as we walked home’. This is immediately followed by a lively moment, when one character voices her – entirely justified ­– suspicions of the writer-narrator: ‘She said / No doubt you’ll write about that’.

One of my favourite pieces here is James Howard’s ‘Conversations with Guru ii’. It uses humour to contrast with its more sinister elements: from ‘Now guru is doing handstands and making teas and coffees with his feet’ to ‘The large bird crushing my chest has a claw / on my heart’. ‘Why do you live on your own, without any children?’ soundtracks a bittersweet family incident. Michaela Ridgway uses simple rhymes as a technique to draw the reader through the piece: Crocs / socks, with her / weather, not so far / morning star. Cora Greenhill rounds off the first half with ‘Nil by Mouth, week 3’, a graceful reflection on the diminution of the senses in the dying. Its closing notes are certainly affecting: ‘this ballooning happiness, held on rope of grief’.

Curtain down.  The audience files to the foyer for its pre-ordered refreshments.

After the interval, consisting of several perceptive reviews and a thinkpiece on ‘truth in poetry’, all worth reading, the performance recommences with Mario Petrucci’s virtuosic ‘when a gaze’.  This is reminiscent of his sequence ‘i tulips’, sharing the economy and invention of that collection. Claire Dyer’s ‘Triptych’ is another highlight, with its three permutations of houses and bedrooms transmitting both character and feeling. The ‘rime-hardened fields, / white and unwelcome’ is the setting for John C Nash’s ‘White’, visited by splendidly ominous ‘morning tourists’. The work of living is likened to horticulture in Janet Fisher’s stoic ‘Life and other terms’ and the contemporary and colloquial sonnet of Thomas Zimmerman’s globetrotting narrator in ‘Mind in Flight’ completes Act Three with a flourish.

The final act commences with excerpts from Jan Fortune’s sequence on an abandoned slate mining village, ‘Tŷ Schrödinger’ (which is also featured in the recent first-rate collection of British prose poetry, This Line is Not for Turning). The second section of the extract, ‘Cwmorthin for two voices’, is a chanting cascade where the emptiness, grey and white of the ghost village in winter is fully realised. Brian Edwards’ ‘Eating for Two’ describes childbirth through a succession of bold half-rhymes and well-observed details (including the jolly ‘brief encounter with a tuna-mayo sandwich’). David Harmer’s ‘Archie’s Paris’, a requiem for poet and short story writer EA Markham, reads as a memoir of a New Year’s trip to France. Harmer’s voice, a mourning tourist, stumbles through familiar Parisian landmarks, as echoed thoughts of his friend are called to mind. This is followed by Pippa Little’s ‘The Cartographer’s Morning-After Shirt’, which performs aerial swoops across wheatfields and meadows, like images taken from the Landscape Channel, only more heartfelt. In this poem, a map provides no assistance: ‘you have erased the scale / and I may never get home’. The audience remains in the clouds for the finale, David Callin’s ‘In Babel’: ‘we are rising all the time’ / ‘The eagles will look upward when they fly’.

The Antiphon site has a clean design, is easy to navigate and the smidgen of artwork on the site harmonises but does not overpower. In fact, Antiphon reads rather like a traditional print journal. The poems look good on the screen but it feels like a missed opportunity when an online collection does not find a way to use audio and video. Perhaps some A/V Easter eggs for readers in future issues?

The highest praise for Antiphon #1 is that it does not feel like a debut issue. It has launched fully-formed and already has its own style. To risk oversimplification, it is rather more symphonic than punk, more pastoral than urban, and is diverse and high-quality but not revolutionary or subversive (there is not a single swearword, fairly unusual for an online journal, I think). Antiphon, accomplished and ambitious, is well worth your time.

The orchestra, mute. Applause.

‘On How The Cockroach, After Having Died…’ by V. Campudoni

In Kindle chapbook, Short Stories on March 25, 2012 at 12:38 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

V. Campudoni’s illustrated short story – On how the Cockroach, after having died, and after a short conversation with Saint Peter, entered the Gates of Heaven – is a sort of modern-day Socratic dialogue, in which a humble cockroach is pitted against a sanctimonious Saint Peter. As the proverbial keeper of the pearly gates, Saint Peter offers various excuses to deny the cockroach entry to the kingdom of Heaven, even as he lets through a succession of figures who appear to contradict the very logic of those excuses, e.g. he first insists that to enter Heaven one must be as tall as himself, and then permits someone shorter than him to pass through the gates. Saint Peter’s pompous manner comes across most clearly when he tells the cockroach, ‘I will miss you greatly. Our time together shall not be forgotten. Moments like these are to be treasured like gold, savored like wine, captured like a smile on canvas. […] You have enriched me and I shall never be the same.’ The exchange is later parodied after the cockroach has persuaded him to bring out ‘the smallest, tiniest, portion of bread’, which it then proceeds to lavish with extravagant praise, hailing the moment of charity with the same words that Saint Peter has already used.

On How The Cockroach

As charming as the dialogue between the cockroach and Saint Peter is, the overall story is not without its minor problems. On the one hand, the increasingly ridiculous reasons Saint Peter provides do make for some amusingly polite exchanges with the cockroach. Yet on the other, their repetitive nature also somewhat belabours the clearly evident point being made about religious hypocrisy through the story. Also problematic is the manner in which the cockroach eventually does make it through the gates of Heaven. Proceeding in ostensibly Socratic fashion, the cockroach succeeds in convincing Saint Peter that ‘if the perception that [they] are standing outside of the gates is indeed not reality’, ‘the alternative must be that [they] are standing within the gates’. The trouble is, of course, that the assertion depends on the assumption that perception and reality must always be ‘Completely different’, eliding the possibility of their coincidence. For a story whose exchanges otherwise rely on sound logic, however absurd the premises from which that logic is derived, this sleight of hand feels disingenuous.

Perhaps though, this is simply taking too seriously a story that calls for a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief in the first place. The overall point of the story—exposing the nature of our prejudices and the unreasonable lengths to which we will go in order to justify and maintain them—still remains valid. The stylised black-and-white illustrations also complement the story, being somewhat reminiscent of the kind of comics one might encounter in The New Yorker. It is worth mentioning that On how the Cockroach… might be thought of as a brief introduction to Campudoni’s only other published work, a novel entitled Wendal, His Cat, and the Progress of Man. This was originally issued in print in 1994, but has now been made available for the Kindle alongside On how the Cockroach…

‘I Wrote This For You’ by Iain Thomas & Jon Ellis

In Object on March 22, 2012 at 1:52 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

The digital age has seen the emergence of sites like Frank Warren’s PostSecret (2005) and Iain Thomas’s I Wrote This For You (2007) that have acquired loyal online followings. PostSecret made the leap from digital to print within a year of the site’s founding, and the book series now consists of five volumes. By contrast, it has taken just over four years for I Wrote This For You to make the transition into print. Published by Central Avenue, the book version of I Wrote This For You features selected entries from the site, as well as several that are exclusive to the print volume.

I Wrote This For You

For those unfamiliar with I Wrote This For You, the site is a transcontinental collaboration between Jon Ellis and Iain Thomas (aka @pleasefindthis), with the former providing the images and the latter writing the captions, which are always addressed to a person only ever referred to as ‘You’. The two men communicate online but have never met in person, as Thomas lives in South Africa and, until recently, Ellis was based in Japan (he now lives in Hamburg, Germany). For further insight into the thinking that underpins the project, read the HESO Magazine interview with Ellis or listen to Thomas’s talk at TEDxJohannesburg in 2009:


In a blog entry written on the day of the book’s launch, Thomas explains that the four different sections of the book version of I Wrote This For You ‘collect the posts into four distinct phases that describe, hopefully, the human condition. Sun is about looking for love or the potential for love. Moon is about the act of being in love. Stars is the loss of that love. Rain is about rediscovering hope in life, at the end of that cycle.’ Out of this arrangement, I suppose an oblique sort of narrative does emerge along those lines, especially with the last three posts (‘The Day You Read This’, ‘The Arrivals Lounge’, ‘The Last Thing You Said’). On the whole though, each picture and its accompanying caption still exist primarily as self-contained instances of what Thomas calls ‘ambiguous micro-stories’ in his TEDxJohannesburg talk. He goes on to explain that ‘by leaving out things like gender, age, race, location, people apply the stories to themselves’.

Paradoxically, it is precisely this stripping away of detail that allows the posts to acquire a certain universalised/universalising resonance, as though they capture something intrinsic about the experience of being ‘you’. Some of the post titles alone are already brilliant, e.g. ‘The Circus Is Cheaper When It Rains’, ‘The Place Sentences Go To Die’, or my personal favourite, ‘The Shop That Lets You Rent Happiness’. At their shortest, the captions themselves read like haiku (‘The Things That Are Left’: The world made me cold. You made me water. // One day we’ll be clouds.) or epigrams (‘The Skeletons In The Sea’: Truth is the last thing I can take because it’s the last thing you took.), while the slightly longer ones work much like prose poems (‘The Simple Shattering Of Water’: ‘It’s because you and them were made of the same pieces. And afterwards, when you put yourself back together, some piece of them remained.)

Ultimately, Thomas suggests in his talk, ‘There’s no story I can tell you that is as powerful as the story you can tell yourself.’ This is where the true power of a project like I Wrote This For You lies. At the risk of courting the scorn of those who would prefer to remain fashionably cynical, I would like to suggest that I Wrote This For You is an inspirational book and project. Not in the trite sense of cheap and easy Hallmark-style sentimentality, but because working together, Thomas and Ellis seem to have distilled something of what it means to remain profoundly human in a digital society. It is difficult to summarise the effect of I Wrote This For You beyond that, so I would definitely recommend visiting the project site  for a taste of the duo’s work, treating the book version as one possible shaping of the project into an overarching narrative.

Sage and Time @ The Charterhouse Bar 22/02/12

In Performance Poetry on March 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

Perhaps it was the weather that kept this night to an intimate gig of fewer people than usual, which is a shame, as it was another event of the fantastic standard that we are used to with Sage and Time.


The hosts opened each half with their own poems, setting the tone of the evening with effusive introductions to both the open mic poets and the excellent features.

  • Richard Marsh’s take on the bizarre love between two people at the gym, each embodying each other’s ideals was a nice opening to an evening whose theme seemed love-bent. It’s a shame he forgot sections, but with asides like “basically, it turns out she likes him too” to continue the narrative, he acquitted himself admirably.
  • Anna Le‘s All The While was a tender take on love whilst the world continues. She acknowledges politics and injustice (“teachers not renumerated”) and in doing so, the declaration becomes more powerful for not being rose-tinted. There’s a beautiful calm, amidst the “commotion” of the world, where the poet is “inescapably falling in love with you”.


  • Dean Atta has a great stage presence, performing his confessional poetry with confidence. His sensual first poem was about Grindr in Italy, where “new technology found intimacy…in an ancient city”. His second, My Love, (5th Draft),was a delicate portrayal of feelings not ready to be pinned down. As a “manifesto of love”, I Don’t Want To Write You Poems, also sought to define feelings with a lovely mix of ephemeral messages left on mirror steam and physical demonstrations.
  • Mother Tongue is an interesting one about not sharing his mother’s first language (Greek), leaving him an outsider when “forgetting to translate”. I loved the line: “our mother has swallowed her tongue”.
  • This is not supposed to be Therapy was a great take on the expectations placed upon us by both society and ourselves. Congenially taking us through familiar doubt (“I am a leader… right?”), Atta turns away from what we’re “supposed to do” as a way to define the self, vowing instead to do so individually by “any app necessary”.
  • He finished with the poem that brought him most into the public eye via Youtube (& now iTunes), “I am nobody’s nigger”: a commentary on language (“don’t tell me it’s a reclaimed word”) in relation to racially incited violence (“that’s one of the last words Steven Lawrence heard”). It’s performed passionately, with stirring references to ancestry and the slave trade, finishing elegantly: “call me nigger cause you’re scared of what brother means”.
  • Deanna Rodger was an exuberant performer whose work is very rooted in her past.  My favourite begins: “I always get asked, where’re you from?”. It’s a great take on the frustration of growing up in London, steeped in British culture while also (and more visually apparent) “a product of miscegenation”.
  • Her main focus is her youth, mostly in its innocence. In her 22 Now and 22 to 19, she we see her hanging out after school, mooching with friends on routemaster buses like “fresh princesses” with a breathlessly sincere nostalgia that that certainly took a few of the audience back. Young love doesn’t escape her canny gaze: from the plausibly confused 1432, complete with premature declarations “slipping out as easily as he slipped in” to the obsessive Love Ambitions (I liked wanting to be their student ID  “so you need me to get into the library”, and that she peppered her delivery with interjections like “I feel like a stalker!”)
  • Turning to the present were two poems: If Chloe Can and Nowadays. The former, about a young girl’s shattered self esteem, was earnest and hopeful. Nowadays tackled contemporary apathy in a heartfelt plea for people to once more pay attention to the world around them (“who cares about voting nowadays?”) While not new in content, it was passionately performed and a great close to her set.
  • Peter Hayhoe and Sarah Redington performed Dalston, a poem accompanied by music. Descending into Someone Like You worked, but could have been more effective in a smaller dose for those inured to Adele. I enjoyed most the poem’s performative aspect: its emphasis on the act of story-telling (“I say, ‘your coffee is getting cold'”), complete with distinctions between on truth and might-have-beens: “Pause. This is not a true story…The real story involves…”

Open Mic

  • Richard Purnell spoke of the N word in rap music as a white fan, addressing its contribution to the vilification of black people in society. He could have been more fluid and the beginning section (“what rhymes with…”) was horrifically awkward.
  • Lettie McKie performed three sonnets of which the third, about her elderly neighbours, was the most powerful, starting from a lovely first line “before the hospital, he always slept beside her”.
  • Edward Unique‘s Valentine’s Day poem, in the interests of balance, had a clearly defined three part structure, but alas lines like “she said I’m too nice for her” and “[it was left for] the nice guy to sweep up your stupidity”, left a bitter taste.
  • Joshua Seigal‘s AA Milne-esque Kid’s Poem about bullying was appropriately simplistic with a comic twist. His adult poems displayed an extensive vocabulary, with fast paced patter strewn with literary terminology. Camden Town was my favourite, conjuring peacefully stoned hipsters with “hours to shoot from the sky like ducks”. He is up in Edinburgh this year with We all love Llamas!.
  • Ben Newberry’s character pieces were nice enough: my favourite was “Royal Oak” a nod to the old guard of traditional pubs, less transient than their surroundings.
  • Sophie Cameron‘s modern fairytale of a Prince and his poor yet “ridiculously attractive” squeeze certainly uses some visceral imagery. Juxtaposing love that “transcends all bounds” with raucous sexuality (“and by swooned I mean he wanked his dick off”) Her second poem, “I am a posh cunt” set up a familiar straw man who likes oysters “because they’re expensive rather than their taste”.
  • Jethro performed three sombre poems, only one of which was his own. His delivery suited  Tennyson better than  Keats, but was best for his own, Time Passes, a lament for his lost brother who feels “just a moment ago”.
  • James Webster performed two poems: Fate (a little spoilt by phone scrolling), about unexpectedly meeting and bonding with someone not seen in years, (“not inevitability but an extra glass of wine”). The second was nicely done, filled with entreaties to “listen” to poetry “beneath the skin”, in its beats of “iambs and trochees”.
  • Keith Jarrett, finished the evening with two poems: an uplifting old favourite that with, fluid plays on words, takes on political slogans, making them his own for people who “believe in change but [are] still short changed”. The main argument of I do not believe in casual sex was that there’s “no such thing” because “casual suggests ease”. Its playful conclusion, “however…I do believe in a damn good time…”, lightened what could have been interpreted as overt moralising.

To conclude: Fantastic night. More soon, please.

There will indeed be more, coming up soon on the 28th of March! – Ed

Edinburgh’s International Women’s Day All-Female Slam

In Performance Poetry on March 17, 2012 at 11:16 am


@ The Banshee Labyrinth

– reviewed by Harry Giles

A couple of days ago we reviewed the International Women’s Day event Poetry in the Parlour, now continuing this theme Harry Giles reviews another of the plethora of IWD events, this one in Edinburgh – ed

The Event

Poetry slam can be difficult, chaotic, oppressive, liberatory, or many other things besides – but at its best it’s a beautiful expression of poetic community. At its best, slam stops being about competition and starts being a celebration of poetry’s diversity  and of our direct and passionate relationship to an audience.

Edinburgh’s International Women’s Day All-Female Slam, organised by local poet Claire Askew, set out to redress the male bias often prevalent in Scotland’s slam scene (a bias both in numbers competing and in those winning) by showcasing some of the most talented and ambitious of our female poetry talent. The make-up of the slam was also aiming to break down some of the perceived barriers between page and stage, welcoming poets more comfortable on the page into the performance arena.

This deliberate mix led to one of the most surprising and delightful slams I’ve ever attended. Though I attend and compete in slams regularly, I often find myself twitching impatiently through tired forms and heard-it-before comic turns – but every performer at the women’s slam brought something fresh and new to the stage. The audience was packed into the Banshee Labyrinth, filling every available corner, but host Claire Askew’s welcoming enthusiasm made sure everyone was happy. Although her nerves were sometimes clear, she used her passionate belief in the event and warm encouragement of every single poet to ensure that every participant has the best possible time.

The Slam

In the first round, Gayle Smith and Rose Ritchie both gave us comic observations from the tradition of Scots ballad verse. Both performances were rough and unpolished, but had real heart and warmth. Hayley Shields and Theresa Munoz‘s poems, very much from the page-led tradition, had the complexity and richness of imagery we often miss in slam, though again more practised and paced performance might have helped the audience appreciate their depth. Elizabeth Rimmer and Katie Craig both had wit and charm, and performed with enough aplomb to carry the audience with them in true slam style. A surprise performance late in the night from Lara S Williams, although she arrived to late to compete, treated us to a romp through the difficulties of trans-national identity – something that certainly spoke to a diverse audience in a country like Scotland.

Amongst the stand-out performances in the first half, qualifying for the second, Katherine McMahon startled thhe audience with real joy in her delicate but celebratory performances of “Shine” and “Forest”, which drew on the American declamatory slam style as well as a more English simplicity. I’d like to see more texture in her delivery, to help navigate her often quick and surprising poetic moves – she feels like a performer still discovering the power of her rage. Camilla Chen‘s tight, sparse verse journeyed through both snap puns (“Camilla Chen is a vegetable”) and moments of astonishing grace and insight (“Tell me the sea”). All I could wish for here is more time to enjoy the full range of what she’s reading. Tracey S Rosenberg treated us to a dry transatlantic wit with both “Genderclusterfuck” and “So where are you from?” – she found a raconteurish style that kept well away from the cynical comedy prevalent in slams through its audience-focussed warmth, while still revelling in wordplay and cynicism. Sally Evans – the editor of the venerable Poetry Scotland, who it was thus a real delight to find at a slam – gave us poems so rich in meaning and direct intention, so pleasingly funny, that her inexperience with a microphone barely mattered at all.

The Final

Tracey and Camilla both qualified for the final, and both again changed pace to perform some of the most lyrically beautiful moments of the evening. Tracey’s “Miracle”, which she revealed to be a wedding poem, was an extraordinary expression of love, while Camilla’s “France, Spring 2011 (as soundtracked by Badly Drawn Boy)” evoked waves of place, experience, and feeling with sharp, quiet stanzas. Both poets seemed slightly fazed by finding themselves in the slam final – or perhaps it was simply tiredness from the many highs of the evening. Nevertheless, it was a real pleasure to hear these last performances.

The star of the night, though, and its eventual winner, was Rachel McCrum, whose frank and resounding poems captivated the audience every time. “Are the Kids Alright?” reflected on urban unrest and violence with an enquiring and passionate concern, while “Last Night Ashore” delivered timely reflections on masculinity and poetry. Her finest turn was “Broad”, for me the highlight of the night, which moving journey through the working female bodies of the poet and her mother. This performance, in the first round, held every breath in the room: a poet talking simply, directly and beautifully about her own experience of her body while she stands just a few feet away from you is just the kind of extraordinary magic that slam at its best can work.

The Allies

Alongside these great female talents, Claire had invited a number of local male performers (including myself – see the disclosure below) to be sacrifical poets, or warm-up acts, before each round. The male performers took this opportunity to express their solidarity, and both performed with great aplomb. Matt McDonald‘s devastating poem on male shame, “Open Letter to a Rapist”, was delivered with an unrushed quiet sincerity and written with honesty and, astonishingly, tenderness: it was a highlight of the evening for many.

Colin McGuire‘s exploration of Glasgow’s queer masculine identity, “Filthy Man” brought the house down multiple times per minute – but had real depth too. The decision to include male performers was important to the integrity of he slam – it demonstrated quite clearly that this was about celebrating diversity rather than separating female poets somehow, and allowed men to vocally express their support for the slam

Colin’s set saw an extraordinary expression of just how strong the sense of solidarity and community in the venue was. Earlier in the evening, Rose Ritchie had been forced to leave the stage when, as has happened to so many slam poets, nerves claimed her memory of her poem: Colin used his own stage time to welcome her back to the stage to perform the poem she had left unfinished, which she did brilliantly.

It’s hard to say whether this slam was so exciting just because it was an all-female slam. Certainly, a sense of purpose and solidarity united the audience behind every performer, and gave each performer a definite support and welcome to play to. Certainly, a slam setting out to improve diversity will always have a better chance of surprising us with something fresh. But in the end, the success is down to something much more basic: great performers, speaking directly to the audience with skill, style and originality. That’s something that every slam needs. I hope the legacy of the first all-women’s slam is that we see it more.

Claire Askew’s own reflections on the event can be found here and here.

‘Kindling’ by Stephen Livingston

In anthology, Short Stories on March 16, 2012 at 1:05 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Kindling Stephen Livingston
Stephen Livingston’s short story ‘Choose Your Future’ was one of the winning seventeen stories to appear in Scotland Into the New Era, a collection of short stories published by Canongate that celebrated the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. This story also heads up Kindling, the writer’s first collection of a dozen stories. It’s a fitting reappearance for the short as Scotland reappraises her political powers and role within the Union. I bought Scotland Into the New Era when it first came out back in 2000. It’s interesting reading ‘Choose Your Future’ again, a story effectively date stamped by its decade, being somewhat wrought from the tracks of Trainspotting. Written in the second person you are told it is “decision time…time for you to choose.” A Ewan McGregor hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Mark Renton delivers the question, but Donald Dewar (Scotland’s First Minister at the time) dressed as a clown is also present to offer advice. Bill Drummond, Ian Wilmut, Dolly the Sheep all appear to convince you to choose a future. It’s an accomplished tale, a little derivative perhaps, but Livingston sweeps you along fairly effortlessly.

‘Recycling’ is another prize-winning story. It concerns a household battling to keep itself together. Angela attends school, whilst her mother Mags has turned to alcohol after finding out her husband was having an affair with one of his students.

Oh, the irony of it all. Her working to support the family while he researched his doctorate in Moral Philosophy and tutored undergraduates in Ethics.

This is a technique that Livingston favours, labouring little nuggets of circumstantial information so that they ultimately appear contrived or caricatured. Sometimes he pulls it off, but a few stories in, I found it lessening the impact the story could have made. This short ends with the mum determined to make a new go of it. “Recycle herself.” Underscoring the title of the story here is unnecessary. The few remaining paragraphs that follow are poignantly understated and handled much more dexterously. Mags takes the first few steps of regaining control of her own life and mending broken bonds with her daughter. It’s well handled but undone by those loose words thrown down beforehand.

The writer has a good ear for rhythm of speech in dialect. The next short, ‘The Waster’s Tale’, won the EndPapers Tales Series prize. A modern inebriated Canterbury Tale, relocated to Glasgow and written in the local first person. Wine for breakfast, the pub for lunch, a club for supper and topped off with a short stay in a police cell. The following morning begins afresh with a quest for picking mushrooms. Livingston creates a memorable character and the tale is well-paced and funny:

Jist aroon the corner fae the scaffoldin’ buildin’ there wiz a nice comfy lookin’ bush, so ah jumps intae it an’ right enough it wiz really comfy. The branches hud jist enough give in them tae support ma body weight an act like a springy mattress. John dived intae the bush beside mae an’ agreed it wiz a good place tae lie aboot.

By turn, ‘The Wheel of Justice’ is a clumsy, farcical story. Yes, this is supposed to be satire, but it doesn’t excuse the heavy handedness of the text. A TV game show whereby previously wronged contestants can exact revenge by winning the opportunity to execute someone on death row. Rainbow, the ‘executionee…flashes a feral smile’. The host is a Christian fundamentalist Bob Vicarage (geddit?) who asks the questions:

“…what former football star was acquitted after murdering his wife and her…” Bzzz. “Yes Davor.”
“It was J.J. Simpleton, Bob.” The crowd go wild, split between cries of “the bitch deserved it” and outrage at the failure of the judicial system.

This could have been a memorable story for all the right reasons. It’s a clever enough conceit undone by the writer’s inability to trust his readers’ intelligence. Everything gets spelled out. It annoyed me. Perhaps this was the intention, crank up the ridiculousness to show how close reality actually measures up. Ironically his point would have been made much more explicitly simply by turning down the volume. Instead it’s like playing a game of poker with all your cards face up.

Kindling is an inadequate collection. Some pieces shine but even they can be let down by some sloppy writing – the plane ‘dropped like a stone into the East River’. It’s unoriginal and detracting. I get the feeling that Livingston has more to offer, but he’ll need to up his game. The reader will only forgive so many times before s/he closes the cover for good.

Radgepacket #6

In anthology, Short Stories on March 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm

-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-

If short stories about East End cannibalism, council estate dawn raids, petty murder or smack-happy voyeurs busting a paedophile ring aren’t currently on your ‘to-read’ list, then prepare to take a literary smack in the chops like never before.

This is because the wonderful, if slightly crazy, people at Byker Books have just published their sixth Radgepacket volume of Tales from the Inner Cities – and they’ll make sure you pick up a copy by whatever means necessary.

Radgepacket 6, published by Byker Books

It is a compendium of good ol’ British grassroots literature that – by the end – will ensure you know your Sky Rocket from your Loaf of Bread, how best to retrieve the wallet you carelessly left behind after sleeping with the fiancée of a well-known mobster, and the most sensible means of exacting revenge upon a ganglord who likes to fiddle young men.

It features a total of 23 pint-sized tales of underworld despair, torment and anguish – pinning you up in a darkened alleyway as you embark on one story, as the one just gone quietly picks your pocket.

Fans of the poetry that the Arctic Monkeys unearthed in tower-block, bus-stop Britain will like this.

But despite the tragedy (and, my word, there is tragedy) comedy and hope remain important themes.

Examples include a poignant fable about a local darts champion’s struggle to come to terms with the grave his middle-age lifestyle is digging for him, in ‘The Greatest Sportsman in the World’. The likeable Trev knocks back between fifteen and twenty pints a day – his mammoth ale sessions punctuated by success on the oche and daily trips to the kebab shop. Doom drags us down as his overweight, wheezy and drunken presence gets the better of his wife as well as us. It is nice of author Danny Hill to offer us solace within an otherwise desperate story as his health takes a turn for the best (sinking just the ten pints now and again) – his changes in fortune neatly underlined by the narrative of two darts commentators egging him on.

Sally Spedding is less forgiving, though. In ‘Tea for Two’, she offers us a revenge tale that will have you struggling to keep down your greasy spoon breakfast.

The subjects of resentment for one’s life (or lack of) and rampant alcoholism are dealt with sternly in Ian Ayris’s ‘Shadows in the Rain’. The extent to which it affects character Len paralyses his ability to display any rational temperament towards the people around him, and had me drawing immediate parallels with Emile Zola’s L’assommoir (The Drinking Den).

There are just the two burial scenes over the 23 stories. One comes unexpectedly in ‘All you Fascists bound to lose’, by Nick Quantrill, in a rather comic twist as two friends chat and smoke over a tinny having put their acquaintance six feet under, while the second is less welcome. Hippies – or friends of hippies – must avoid reading Charlie Wade’s ‘Environmentally Sound’ if you’re in a particularly earth-loving mood.

So do it. Grab an overly-salted bag of chips, crack open a can of Special Brew and allow your baser instincts to ride this gritty and hilarious rollercoaster. And I promise I haven’t been held at gunpoint to say that.