Reviews of the Ephemeral

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Review: Pete (the Temp) versus Climate Change! 03/05/12

In Performance Poetry on June 29, 2012 at 5:20 pm


@ The Cockpit

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

Pete (the Temp) is a bit of a legend.

Very well known on the poetry circuit; he’s won a string of slams (including the prestigious Hammer & Tongue National Slam), made entertaining poetry and music appearances at a bunch of festivals, and he’s a damn fine administrator to boot.

He has now turned to creating a one man show based on his passionate interest in climate change, which I saw the first time it was performed in its entirety, so some of the teething problems should be ironed out by now as it continues its tour.

A “theatrical, multimedia, stand-up poetry show”

It was split into five chapters of set pieces of poems, videos, photo slides and props, Pete talked us through his set in an amicable way. Billed as a “theatrical, multimedia, stand-up poetry show”, I was quite excited- immediately, this made me draw comparisons to Superbard‘s multimedia storytelling (reviewed), but, ultimately, they do different things. Superbard’s multimedia is integrated into the storytelling, while Pete’s is more a comment on media: with skits amusingly appropriating the language of popular ads and pitches.

But the closing is perhaps the best use of multimedia in the piece.

It culminates in a simply brilliant subversion of Cameron’s post-riots speech that tied inextricably the damage companies do to the planet to Cameron’s verbose blaming of the rioters who think “rights outweigh responsibilities”. He also uses the quotes “consequences of actions” and the “full force of the law” very effectively (echoed with images of the tsunami) and with a stirring soundtrack. 

Elsewhere, however, it seemed stodgy and slightly presentation-like, although his off-the-cuff delivery is highly personable and makes up for the somewhat dated visual aids of animations and graphs. He introduces the idea well, too, with his initial mimed “low emission poetry” (with subs). Also, his transformation into Pete the Temp-lar with shield, sword, helmet and cape, was very well done.

Make no mistake, this is an activist spectacle:

The flyer has a list of various Climate Change activist groups and the show is peppered with information and statistics and analogies to better illustrate his points. Playing to a home crowd (many of whom he had been protesting with earlier that day), he was fantastically received as an eloquent, passionate speaker. The passion he feels even transfers to those in the audience not caught up in active protesting, particularly in an absurd set of call-and-responses to “what do we want?”.

That said, there were some points of the show that seemed only to pander to the activist crowd: namely a section of documentation, with film and photographs, of their protest at RBS HQ (for their support of Canada’s Tar Sands). It comes across like catching up in the pub, as he gleefully recounts their actions (which included a magnificent siege tower, thwarted by a narrow wooden footbridge). Which he does in all the absurdity that often occurs at such events, particularly so in his breakdown of the Police’s reported injuries (inc. toothaches, insect bites and damaged by their own car).

Another anecdote that is rather famous: his BP inspired Oil Orgy at an energy summit. With fake credentials, he and his co-conspirator mingled in “the belly of the beast” before stripping off and roleplaying Canada and the UK’s relationship in an orgy of treacle and entreaties (“I’ll be your bitumen if you’ll be my crude boy” & etc.). While the youtube clips do speak for themselves, I wished there were a better way to integrate them into the show than producing the props and recounting the events. That said, a strong running technique he used was bait-and-switch captions, used well here, with the “criminal damage” of the small spot of treacle on a chair flicking to images of the oil spill. The message was clear: it is not the activists who should be held accountable.

His subversion of popular media was pretty fab.

Taking on familiar jingles and graphic styles, there were several intermissions of ‘ads’ with added facts: Morrison’s becomes the “Texas Chainstore Massacre” where they’ve “knocked a third off plantation wages” and you can get “all the toxins you need”. Another, a take on the traditional charity sponsorship ads, was spot on: “Sponsor an Activist”, it asks, with the all-too-familiar jargon (“registered charity, low admin costs…”), poking fun both at the format and protesters (complete with photos of ‘Charlie’ handcuffed to things & money breakdowns like “£10/m would provide soya milk for a month”). But its barbs had a point, a subtle jab at “armchair activists” (“go on, just sit there and sponsor…”).

But what about his poetry? I hear you cry. Surely if I’m going to see Pete The Temp, I am going for his wit and verbal dexterity?

Well, yes and no. Near the start, he acknowledges poetry’s power to “distil” subjects, and distil he does, into powerful set pieces that are emotively performed throughout the show. His personification of London as an obscene, twisted old man with a “corporate umbilical cord” was fantastically grotesque: the bowler-hatted figure is seething with rot, with alcoholic burns and drowning in insolvency. Pete eloquently makes our skin crawl, before ending with a bitter “it does have an awful lot of perks”.

His other poem, on telephone fundraising for charities, was heartbreaking. Confession: I’ve worked the same job, and his dialogue between an old woman and the fundraiser was painfully accurate. The use of a score elevated the emotions as you felt for the distress of the woman, her cyclical repetitions getting more abstract (“I give to the cancer, I give to the heart…”). The weaving together of the two narratives, who “get/give what they can when they can”, who are called/hear the same replies “every day, every day” is brilliant, with both sides sympathetic.

The Conclusion of the show leaves us with a question: “has he succeeded?” Pete the Temp vs Climate Change certainly is a firebrand for his cause. The set pieces are fantastic, the discussion amiable. With better integration of past exploits, the show would stick together somewhat more, but should you wish to be challenged, amused and given something to consider, do try and catch it where it next appears at The Secret Garden Party.


Review: Not the OxfordLiterary Festival – Friday 30th March Installment

In Novel, Performance Poetry, Short Stories on June 27, 2012 at 4:28 pm

– reviewed by James Webster –

Alternative Poetry and Publishing!

In this, its third year, the Not the Oxford Literary Festival ran from the 27th to the 30th of March; parallel with the mainstream Literary Festival. Organised by Dan Holloway, it’s an interesting indie alternative to the somewhat ubiquitous literary festival that tours many UK cities.

So arriving at the inestimable venue that is the Albion Beatnik a little early, I was distressed to find out that the Not the Oxford Literary Festival’s Wednesday event had not only featured a plethora of joyous poets, but had also seen the first ever occurrence (to my knowledge) of a fight at a poetry event (I can only assume someone called Wordsworth an annoying hippy and things descended from there). ‘How will tonight live up to that excitement?’ I asked myself. Incredibly well, it turns out.

As well as talks from a variety of small publishers about their various intriguing ventures, we also had performances from some very proficient political poets and the poetical experiment that was Gin-Soaked Sheets (brought to us by Lucy Ayrton): a selection of writing exercises the audience could take part in through the night, that coincided neatly with the breaks and thus the participants level of intoxication (you had to write down the number of drinks you’d had when you did each exercise, for science!). And some very good music performed by the very talented Jessie, too!

The variety of different talks and performances made sure the night never got stale (until the very end) and everything was ably presided over by Dan Holloway’s warm hosting. Indeed, Dan’s enthusiasm for the event and clear affection for all the people he’d brought together to the event was a definite factor in the audience’s collective enjoyment.

After a charming intro from Dan we had the introduction of the:

Gin Soaked Sheets task 1: write a poem that takes the form of a selection of information about a book that doesn’t exist.

We then had our first talk from:

  • Frank Burton (Philistine Books) gave an intriguing explanation of Philistine’s activities over the last two years, in which they’ve published 20 e-books and discussed the motivation behind making all their books available only online and all for free.
  • Philistine Writers who read:
  • Patrick Whittaker read from ‘Sybernika’ a clash of entertaining sci-fi and the all-too recognisable mindset of a reckless driver, with some expressively described music mixed in (the speaker tells his car’s AI ‘I’m not reducing speed in the middle of Mozart’s 40th!’).
  • Rick read several variations of the Lord’s Prayer, aimed at Toddlers (‘Halloween be thy name’), Middle England (‘give us this day our Daily Mail’), Gay Men (‘it’s raining, amen’) and Zen (‘your name is sky beyond sky’). They varied from appropriately and amusingly juvenile to really quite beautiful, succeeding in making the Lord’s Prayer more human and humorous.
  • Clare Fisher read the opening of her new novel ‘Avalon’, dissecting the question: ‘how do you know when your sister is missing?’ with quiet hope and despair hovering around the edges of her words.

Organiser Dan Holloway then gave us a preview of the political poetry with his movingly grimy and clever piece ‘Monsters on Our Streets’ that weaves together different ideas of monsters; the hoodies, drunks and drug-users, and then the men in suits who made the system that threw these supposed ‘monsters’ of our generation up and ‘let its body rot like meat … and pocketed their change’.

NOTE: Dan’s own collection ‘Last Man Out of Eden’ has just been released and will be reviewed soon on Sabotage!

Gin Soaked Sheets Task 2: Write down 20 quotes from the readers and then use 5 to make a poem.

Kirsty Clark railed against the advice writers are always given that say you have to follow certain rules, and also read two extracts from her book ‘Going Back’ (possibly the most commercial book of the night). It evoked a nice atmosphere of homeliness and comfort while its bare writing style (while maybe seeming to lack originality) highlighted the danger of loved ones overseas, and gave a sense of quiet trauma when they returned.

Orna Ross from the Alliance of Independent Authors talked about her own writing experience (64 rejections, then the 65th submission resulted in a 2-book deal), and how surprised she was by the cynicism of the book business (her editor once told her ‘every time you come here you leave feeling really shit’). She found that writers in the indie publishing system had a much better time of it and launched ALLi at the London Book Fair back in April with the belief that by combining resources publishers can do more than they could alone.

Banana the Poet and partner Andy spoke on their efforts with Endaxi Press in publishing books of poetry. They focus on professional and beautiful looking books, which they do in both print and electronic versions so readers can choose their format.

Authors Electric are a group of 28 authors, whose spokesperson Dennis spoke on the importance of Indie publishers building reputations and giving a defined image of who they are, so the indie publishing scene can continue to develop into a viable alternative to mainstream publishing.

He also read a 30-minute section from his book ‘Spirit of the Place’ which dragged on long after losing audience interest.

3rd Gin Soaked Sheets Task: listen to the following music, imagine you’re listening to it at a train station, look down at your hands: now write a thank you letter to them.

Musical Interlude

  • Jessie Grace gave a fun musical set of jangly, but discordant, guitar that was much fun (and occasionally wistfully melancholic). With the guitar strings bending and her voice crooning, you could feel the music thrumming through you. Very enjoyable (and apparently she’s Eight Cuts’ oldest collaborator).

Political Poetry

  • Danny Chivers kicked off the political poetry with a poem on the ‘armani army’ who are ‘out of control, feral’ in their corruption of the system. A fluidly angry poem, resonating strongly with the occupy movement, that encourages us to take back control as ‘we are the 99%, and if we take back our consent, they’re irrelevant’.
  • His second ‘Shopper-Scrounger’ is a slightly illegal poem that he performed during the occupation of Fortnum & Mason, which promptly got him arrested. It made use of his faux-reasonable smarm to great effect as Chivers directed his funny and flowing scorn at companies that evade taxes.
  • Davy Mac‘s powerful voice came across well in ‘Your Loot’, expressing the unfairness of politicians trying to make sleeping rough illegal.
  •  ‘Cutting Edge’ evoked a gradual chipping away of optimism and confidence, mirroring how constant persecution of the poor from the media and society grinds people down.
  • While ‘PTSD’ was chilling and torn glimpse of former soldiers on Remembrance Day being reminded of ‘what they drink all year to forget’, ending with the powerful ‘I’ll be dying for your freedom, in a war lost before you were born.’
  • Finally, Dot 23 performed ‘Evisceration of Democracy Village’, a brittle poem giving glimpses of late-night fractures of violence and chaos, as peaceful idealists are evicted from a camp in the confusion of the early morning.

Overall: a really entertaining and elucidating night, providing a plethora of alternatives to mainstream publishing and poets!

Long Poem Magazine #7 (Winter 2012)

In Magazine on June 25, 2012 at 9:00 am

-Reviewed by Rishi Dastidar

Maybe it’s because it has felt like winter this year has been interminable that it has taken me a similarly lengthy amount of time to finish the winter edition of Long Poem Magazine.

That makes it sounds like a negative experience, but far from it. In issue 7 there are plenty of things to be revelled in and savoured slowly, rather than devoured too quickly. After all, devotion doesn’t come from a hasty glance, but a deep look into the eyes. And eyeballing these poems, what do we find?

Well, for starters a ‘long poem’ doesn’t need to be all that long. For example, Abi Curtis’ reconstruction of Mrs Beeton’s household is a sequence of five, short interlinked sections, playing off the idea of control underlying the famous bible of household management. She plangently draws a picture of the inner turmoil of Isabella due to the various miscarriages and still births she suffered, out of her control.

Neither does it have to be an endless waterfall of text, indulgently falling down the page. In fact, some the most successful poems here marshal the unique power of semi-strict adherence to form and rhyme to drive their narratives along, sometimes in a rollicking fashion, sometimes smoothly, but nearly always to somewhere interesting. Paul Bentley’s ‘Don’ is a prime example of this, using an ottava rima to create a drama that focuses on the whimsical, the absurd and the forgotten of Yorkshire, which owes as much to Jarvis Cocker and Arctic Monkeys as it does to Horace.

What binds all the poems together is a sense of the epic, yet on an intimate scale. This covers the ‘big’ themes, such as Janet Sutherland’s shattering fragments of dementia and depression in ‘Bone Monkey’ (‘Is this what time does – / smears a memory / across her face?’); and the ‘big’ poets who are taken on here, such as Robert Chandler’s translation of Pushkin’s ‘A Tale about Priest and his Servant Balda’, which retains a riotous, sardonic energy amidst all the devilry, and Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’, translated by Martyn Crucefix.

My three favourite poems in this edition manage to combine this sense of playing on a big canvas, while never losing sight of the telling – the poetic – detail. Luke Irwin’s ‘Murder’ does this most brilliantly, being (as far as one can tell) a cacophony of disagreeable, argumentative kitchen appliances illustrating the point that language obfuscates as much as it provides clarity. All through the poem are delicious ‘eyeball kicks’, which startle and delight in equal measure:

‘She had an old derringer,
and he never believed in the lunar landings
because his generation was that kind of depraved.
The way cigarette butts talk about shag carpet

Robert Vas Dias’ ‘London Cityscape Sijo’ provides a series of sharp and salty vignettes about his North London patch, in a form that is new to me, but fits perfectly with what he’s attempting. (The sijo is a Korean form, usually with three line verses, with the line cut in half, making six-line stanzas, which should have between 43 to 45 syllables. Think of it as a super haiku.) Vas Dias conjures up a sense of being a lazy, almost static kind of flâneur, peeking through curtains, opening doors – and always leaving himself open to the wonders that might follow.

Language and conceit come together perfectly in Oliver Dixon’s ‘The Night-Keeper’, a dream-like dramatic monologue about people breaking into a zoo, and feasting on the inhabitants within. It is at once creepy and shocking, with a black energy about it, but also a black humour too: ‘My stomach / would wake you with aggrieved whale-song.’ Most impressively, the poem never descends into hysteria as the events it portrays do; its calm and stately power providing a sharp counterpoint, and insight too:

‘If hunger’s a delirium, so too
is sudden satiety after famine:
you giggle tipsily, hardly
crediting how sublime an underdone
tapir’s haunch can taste, or the devilled brain
of a sloth.’

There’s only one real misfire in the edition, and that’s an essay about verse novels that provides an overview of some recent, notable additions to the genre, but doesn’t come to a conclusion. But overall, this is a fine magazine, with plenty to get your teeth into. I look forward to spending another season with the next issue.

‘lapping water’ by Dan Flore III

In Pamphlets on June 22, 2012 at 9:49 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

lapping water is Dan Flore III’s self-published first collection of poetry, with cover art and illustrations by Andrew Amuso. However, the fact that this is a self-published work should not put anyone off from exploring Flore’s work, as there are some good poems to be found here. Opening poem ‘tap water’ announces the aquatic imagery that recurs in many of the subsequent poems, as well as showing that Flore can present us with a striking image: ‘I am only the dash / between years on the tombstone / a fear tumour’. Fittingly, water imagery in this collection flows between different associations. It can be playful and tactile, as it is at the end of ‘I would like to wake up in the ocean’: ‘I’d just like to be a wave / climbing up her thigh’. Or it may invoke water’s traditionally expiatory function, like in ‘to Red’ (‘may I wash my blood from your feet / so you could dance / through the years between us?’) or ‘upon seeing my father’s blood’ (‘the rain can only wash away what it can touch’).

That last poem also points to another subject that crops up several times in the collection, that of the poet’s father, which in turn provides a link to the Christian idea of God the Father. Lines from this poem like ‘the tide moans stories about my mother / songs of my father abandoning her / I have been swimming in that current too long’ find resolution later in ‘press 1 to speak to your father’, where the speaker is able to declare, ‘I am predivorce me again’, and thus finds some sort of peace: ‘I will no longer pray to the bags under my dad’s eyes / they are the worry of this dead lighter earth / I want to pop them like I tried to when I was a child’. There is an arch humour contained in that final line, which also shines through in a short poem like ‘after pumping his gas…’:

he buys a box of condoms
so he can look into the assuming eyes of the gas station attendant
to feel for that one moment
like there really is some Tracy or Elizabeth or Sandra

Ultimately, the most compelling feature of lapping water is its intimacy. The danger for the lyric ‘I’ to lapse into solipsism is averted in Flore’s collection because his poems frequently reach out to draw a ‘you’ into their imaginative space. While several poems are addressed to family and friends, [‘pick a shape to form me (letter to my mother)’, ‘little note to Rob’, ‘letter to my father’], Flore is equally happy to write a poem ‘to the woman smiling at me from her car’, celebrating the momentary connection that even strangers can share: ‘I am in love with your smile / how you look at me / pleased with what you see’. Barring the occasional confusion of ‘it’s’ versus ‘its’, I dare say that lapping water contains poetry that is on a level with that of pamphlets and chapbooks from the presses, deserving of a readership.

‘Cosmonauts’ by William Winfield Wright

In Pamphlets on June 21, 2012 at 9:41 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

As the first publication from Wormwood Chapbooks (a division of Rough Writers Publishing), William Winfield Wright’s Cosmonauts makes for an engaging and promising debut. (I was pleased to see that Wright already has another chapbook forthcoming from the press). Despite consisting of only 10 poems over 18 pages, the chapbook succeeds admirably in demonstrating the thematic range of Wright’s poetry, as well as his facility in inhabiting others’ voices and wielding language. Of particular note is Wright’s use of poetic sequences, as reflected in the titular poem with which the chapbook opens, and midway through, the straightforwardly titled ’32 Fucking Poems About Chess’.

While ‘Cosmonauts’ references the twentieth-century space race between the former Soviet Union and the United States (‘Our sky is the higher sky, / above whatever they might put there’), all seven sections of the sequence appear less concerned about the grand sweep of history and more preoccupied with its impact on individuals. Even when the poem seems to make general statements (‘It is we who hit the moon, we who smile / into their faces with our practical Soviet teeth’, ‘Television has made everything famous’), these have already been grounded within an individual’s voice (‘What Khrushchev Knows’ and ‘Retirement for Yuri Gagarin’ respectively), so that the effect is to draw attention to both what is being said and who is saying it (and by extension, why). Wright is also attentive to the frailty of the interpersonal in the face of the march of historical time, as in this single sentence that makes up the fourth section, ‘The Hands on Einstein’s Watch:

‘The clock you take with
will slowly lag
the clock you leave behind
until the moment when
your twin marries your lover
and their bearded children
welcome you back
to whatever year it is.’

This interest in human relationships takes an interesting turn when mediated through the game of chess. Many of the 32 poems decry the boredom induced by chess, e.g. ‘I never call it fucking / but wouldn’t it / be better than this?’ or ‘Two rooks chase each other / around and around and around / while the kings just sit’. There is also plenty of passive-aggressive behaviour on display that lends humour to the poem: ‘if I catch you / moving the pieces again / I’ll fucking kill you’, ‘You can’t do that. / You can’t fucking do that. / Oh, ok.’ Yet as the sequence progresses, moments of muted tenderness begin to emerge and thread themselves through the anger:

‘I had that dream again
where I’m a pawn off the board
and the queen’s already been taken
and we are talking and she’s laughing
and then the game is suddenly over
and she has to go back
to her stupid fucking husband.’

By the final page of ’32 Fucking Poems About Chess’, the ‘I’ of the sequence is allowed to make this confession: ‘She did everything wrong, / … / and I’d tear my fucking arm off / to see her again.’ It feels like an instant of raw, unguarded honesty, and it works precisely because so much of the rest of the sequence is about venting frustration at the game of chess and at the other player. In spite of its title, there are actually two sections in the sequence that do not feature the word ‘fuck’ or its derivatives, 16 in the very middle of the sequence (‘Actually those trophies / aren’t for playing chess, / baby’) and 32 at the very end (‘Now let’s try it together’). These act to temper the sequence’s hostility, allowing it to end on a conciliatory note (‘Now let’s try it together’), which is at the same time already undermined by the sequence’s temporal uncertainty, so that what appears to be a positive ending might just as well have been the catalyst for producing all this chess-related anger in the first place.

Outside of these sequences, Wright is equally adept at the single self-contained poem. A poem like ‘Hotel Lycanthropy’ infuses its central metaphor with a painful desperation, portraying two people who seem to bring out the worst in each other (‘the full moon of your forehead’), and who now have to face up to the realisation that despite their best efforts, ‘still nothing can stop this transformation / where we use this small space to run wild.’ Yet here, too, the relationship seems fraught with ambiguity, as there is a clear hint that this hotel room is in fact their habitual haunt (‘I shave three times a day’). So are they really bad for each other, or is there a perverse freedom to be gained in this ‘transformation’ that traps them? Perhaps the penultimate poem of the chapbook, ‘Gary Kasparov’s Little Brother’, best captures this paradox that animates many of the poems in Cosmonauts:

‘The problem with longing
is that there is no object
you cannot know when you’re done
or how to stop.

The problem with desire
is that there is an object
and when everything points toward it
everything else is aligned to keep it away.

‘TWEET TWEET TWEET’ by Greg Santos

In Pamphlets on June 20, 2012 at 10:00 am

-Reviewed by Christopher Crawford

Greg Santos’ Corrupt Press chapbook is named TWEET TWEET TWEET. The clue is in the title and this is a mixed bag of whimsical musings much as if the poet has used the quotidian random associations we all make to construct his lighthearted poems.

Many of the poems here refer to the fact that they are poems, which can seem playful, irritating or a massive no-no depending on your point of view.

Consider ‘To Whom It May Concern’, short enough to quote in its entirety, typical enough for the chapbook to highlight a concern about TWEET TWEET TWEET as a whole:

‘I went to the grocery store today.

I made the man at the grocery store nervous.

My mom called me.

No one cares about poetry.

Probably going to die alone.

I want to write a poem with you’.

So what? True, thoughts like these pass through this reviewer’s head regularly but only on days when I bore even myself. There is no music here, no originality or freshness. Where is the attention to the musical relationship the words form with each other? It all seems a bit flat, except for the second line which gives us a little respite from the monotonous voice.

Other poems set out from a moment of imagination only to dive bomb into the ground when their wings snap off.

‘While munching on an apple and daydreaming about hydraulic pumps, Leonardo
witnessed a falcon divebombing a smaller bird and instantly became obsessed with

The poem goes on to speak about Leonardo speaking to family members in a bird-voice ‘Caw caw caw’, before ending:

‘“Squawk,” he said closing his eyes, stepping off the cliff, and swooping into history;
unsuccessfully testing the world’s first flying machine’.

A poem, literally, that is going nowhere or nowhere very interesting. And that is the problem with the chapbook. It is all very well being whimsical and lighthearted in approach but when all is said and done there must be a heart to sink one’s teeth into or we come away with an empty belly.

From a total of 22 poems, 10 of them mention poets or the poem itself which is being written. Who is the judge of how much is too much? I’m going to say ten poems from twenty-two is too much for me.

Santos tries to make his musings fun, no bad thing, here is ‘I am a Bird and I Love Poets’:

‘I am a bird
and I love

They look
so tiny
from up

There’s something here of William Carlos Williams’ thoughtful, almost bashful phrasing from ‘This Is Just To Say’ and a nice mixing of viewpoints that seems fresh (with a little nod to ants who aren’t mentioned) although it is a pity one whole stanza (and there are only two) is a straight repetition of the title. It lends itself to the feeling Santos is struggling to find something of substance to say.

In ‘It is Snowing in Paris’ the couplets please the eye and the imagery and phrasing are married to the form. It is one of the better poems in the chapbook:

‘Charcoal roasted chestnuts glow,
Incandescent bulbs on the verge of exploding.

Wayward snowflakes
Rip through the heavens like tiny white meteors

Parisians whip their umbrellas open in a mad rush
Force-fields to keep the snowflakes at bay.

The snow is terrible but nothing like back home
Where the bitter cold squeezes your soul like a vice

I keep my soul in a fur-lined case in the boreal wastes of Canada’.

The poem starts well with unusual imagery and energy and has a thought-provoking and pleasing last line but again is let down by what seems to be a lack of full effort from the poet, especially in the fourth stanza with easy associations spoiling the effect of the weirder preceding associations. Cold…what kind of cold? Bitter. Squeezes… like a what? What about vice? Ok, why not? ‘Squeezes…like a vice’ it is. He also manages to squeeze the word ‘soul’ into the poem twice and it is a nine line poem.

Here’s the problem: if you are going to write very short poems, they should be working pretty damn hard to say something, there is little excuse for boring the reader. The poems can show how hard they’re working or hide it from view but they should lift a finger.

Poets like Philip Whalen, and Laurence Ferlinghetti (to whom Santos gives a nod in ‘A Versailles of The Mind’) have walked us through such meanderings in fresher, and behind all the fun, more serious ways.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, fast-moving advertising and want-it-all-now-and-in an-easy-to-swallow-form, where are the serious things that need saying? Are these forms even compatible with the most important hopes and ambitions of the individual or are we diluting ourselves and each other with the mass communication of mindless frippery these social networks encourage? Must poems always deal with the most serious matters of the human condition? No, of course not but poems are perhaps the greatest means we have for exploring the great themes in ways less-or-more serious and it is easy to come away disappointed if the poet glides through his work at cruise altitude.

Greg Santos is finding his way through these questions and coming up with very mixed levels of success. Let’s see what the results of these experiments end up being in the future.

‘Close’ by Theresa Muñoz

In Pamphlets on June 19, 2012 at 9:32 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

As the title of Theresa Muñoz’s chapbook suggests, these are poems that have ‘been felt’ as Elaine Feinstein puts it. The poetry in Theresa Muñoz’s début chapbook has an almost haiku-like clarity, accessible and delicate, full of the imagery of early love: ‘the old rain glowing in the street’; ‘your hand on my back/the din of others round us’; ‘You, in winter//hatless, stepping/backwards’.

Muñoz’s opening poem establishes her voice immediately – ‘Zoo’ is a confessional piece about an afternoon spent apart from her lover, he to go to a gallery, she to a zoo, where for €17, she sees ‘drowsy creatures// yawning hippos/bowed flamingos/and jungle cats curled//in their wire enclosures.’  It’s only later, when she sees ‘you standing/beyond the exit’s/turnstiles’ that she feels ‘freed, the instant/we spot/each other.’

And yet, in many of these subtle, small moments, something else happens too, a reflection, a memory, a glimpse of a different aspect of the relationship.  In ‘Fight’:

by the sounds
in the kitchen

you’re building a sandwich
and thinking,
what a mess

you and I
are making
living together’

The simple omission of the word ‘of’ in the last line changes the meaning, while the title creates the implication anyway. The parallel of ‘you’ downstairs and the speaker upstairs ‘under the covers’ symbolically reveals the rift between the two, his noisy action in the kitchen, while she lies curled up in bed, thinking ‘how things could be/if we didn’t know/each other’.

Muñoz favours two- or three-line stanzas, and there is the sense of each being a fleeting thought/image/emotion. A pumpkin becomes a metaphor: ‘who couldn’t love/a fat orange ball/its innocent plumpness?’ she writes, and then later: ‘who pushed a knife into its face,/carved features of hate?’ There’s also a Japanese wishing tree, ‘white slips tied/to a thin branch’, but later: ‘just/what you wished for/you might not get’. There’s a poignancy, a sort of innocence, with perhaps subconscious allusions to a children’s story: ‘am I or am I not/falling out of the sky?’ (Travelling).

Winter is the season of the poems early in the chapbook, and there are mirrored moments, first in the way ‘you’ ‘gaze at the spotted gray sky’ (‘You, in winter’) and then ‘I stop at the top/looking down/at the cold blue lights’ (December). The different angles (up, and down) of these observations evocatively suggest differing states of mind. As a Spanish-Filipino originally from Canada,  now living in Scotland, Muñoz is also displaced, and sometimes longs for the familiarity of home: ‘something about the early dark…takes me home,/warm waking/in a red-roofed house’ (December).

While there is a spontaneous, stream of consciousness atmosphere to these poem-fragments, echoes resonate throughout, adding depth. The image of ‘stepping backwards’ in ‘You, in winter’ is repeated later in ‘Hard to know’: ‘the sky clear for the first time that day/and both of us riding/backwards into it’ – only now there is the suggestion of an ending, not the beginning, of a relationship.

There are also moments of charm and magic, as, for example in Skin:

Nice tan said a man
leaning outside
The Captain’s Rest.
Thanks I said
and kept on running’

The contemporary world of regulations is also well evoked, and underneath the apparently matter-of-fact tone of acceptance, a silent protest can be felt in the last lines:  ‘rental agreements     bank statements/ the cat’s adoption certificate’(‘Settlement’); and ‘at security/I shrug off my jacket/pull off my shoes/pad through the frame//avoiding the face/of the woman whose hands/slide down my chest’ (Travelling).

There’s a painterly impressionism here, of landscape, climate, intimacy, and although none stands out as a key poem, the whole is gossamer-like, tender, sad. The title of the chapbook, Close, with its potential for a secondary meaning, is poignant and apt. It is in the accumulative effect of this chapbook that Muñoz communicates her internal world, her fragile and migrant soul.

Four Rack Press Pamphlets 2012

In Pamphlets on June 18, 2012 at 9:38 am

House of Blue by Denise Saul; Spring Journal by Dan Wyke; Oh Bart by Martina Evans; The Heretic’s Feast by Michèle Roberts. £5 each from Rack Press. A set of 4 signed copies can be ordered for £15 while stocks last.

-Reviewed by Angela Topping

Every year Nicholas Murray publishes four austerely produced, elegant and slender pamphlets of new work from poets, which have included Christopher Reid, Ian Parks and Katy Evans-Bush. This year’s crop comprises Denise Saul, Dan Wyke, Martina Evans and Michèle Roberts.

Denise Saul’s is called House of Blue. The seven poems within serve as a good introduction to her work. They are poems of transformation and storytelling, with a strong feminist twist which explores the strength of women, their beauty and their magical power.  In the opening poem, ‘One’, Saul is inspired by the discovery of ‘Lucy’, fossilised remains of a female early human who walked upright. The leg bone which demonstrates this fact is the starting point of Saul’s poem, but she extends this descent into a memory of her grandmother. In the fourth stanza, ‘Lucy’ and her grandmother are as one:

‘Grandmother wore black obsidian,
even though the desert cracked beneath her feet.
The belt was carved from the upper delta
and an emerald stream ran down her back.’

By extension, Lucy and the grandmother figure become linked as the cipher, number one, mother of all. Saul’s poetry is concerned with shape-shifting and transformation, such as ‘Lotus-Woman’ and ‘Werehyena’, which is an Angela Carteresque narrative poem in which a blacksmith can change into a hyena, like his pet. Saul frames the story with the idea of telling it at a wedding, a nod to ‘The Ancient Mariner’.  The sea is present in the final poem, ‘Leaving Abyssinia’, a beautiful poem in which the speaker is surrounded by myths and legends recalling earlier voyages such as Odysseus’, and rich with sensuous descriptions of the surroundings.

A pivotal poem is ‘House of Blue’, placed dead centre of the 12 page selection. It is a many-layered poem which celebrates the power of music but is also about poetry, the making of it and the cultural influences which combine to inform it. Saul has not yet published a full collection, but I will certainly be looking out for one in the near future.

Dan Wyke’s  Spring Journal  is very different. This is a strength of Rack Press: that very diverse styles are placed together, informed by a taste for what is excellent rather than a desire to promote a particular style of poetry. Wyke’s pamphlet is a sequence of short but delicious poems taken from his notebook from last spring, presumably. Obviously these are edited and honed. I love short poems, little quotables that can be learned and digested quickly, displayed on posters, scattered through days like shells on a beach. There is wordplay and fun here:

‘The Buddha of suburbia
beneath the buddleia.’

Bird song, weather, light, nature, are threads which run through these delights, alongside what poetry is and why he writes. I love this perfect quatrain:

‘Blackbird, not very good at flying –
straight, low and long –
you have stayed in the park
and perfected your song.’

This is reminiscent of John Clare, but Wyke can give bird poems a modern twist, with his starling ‘overdosed on last night’s/left over hoi-sin’ and the blackbird’ ‘printing a row of continuation dots’. A poem for those with writer’s block which beautifully recalls A.E. Housman:

‘Days pass, unwritten poems vanish.
How many more times
will I see lilac blossom?’

The second sequence, ‘Days of March’ brings in more of the poet’s everyday life, including love poems which are touching and funny, such as the one where he texts his loved one about vegetables:

‘Courgettes, aubergines and the humble swede
stand in for all the inarticulate power of my heart.’

This is a wonderful book to carry around on a journey. Each little perfect poem would give much to ponder on, as you look out of a train window. Anyone can enjoy these poems so buy one for the person who thinks poetry leaves them out. But for poets, the honesty of Wyke’s thoughts about writing are some of the most exquisite parts of this rich, beautifully formed yet undaunting book:

‘I am not trying to sit closer to something else.
I am trying to sit closer to myself.’

Martina Evans is an Irish novelist and poet. As soon as one begins to read her pamphlet, her Irishness shines out, not just in the subject matter but in the style. There is a bit of a raconteur about her, a smattering of music and wit. She doesn’t take herself seriously, which is obvious from the first poem, ‘Prizes’. She presents herself as endearingly cack-handed in her inability to handle the award ceremonies with style and grace. These are memory poems, soaked in detail, giving a fresh childlike view of schooldays and the powerlessness of children to get things right in the face of adult implacability. Many of the poems reference Bart Simpson:

‘Even Bart Simpson felt the shame,
Yellow and unreal as he was and
Everything distracted him but especially
the snowstorm that god sent – he slumped
slogging over a book while everyone
in Springfield linked arms in a circle
singing A Winter Wonderland.’
(‘Kept Back’)

She goes on to tell the reader how she came to be kept in a lower class because she loved reading stories. Because of this she was not allowed to make her first holy communion with the rest of the class, their ‘ring’ of white dresses contrasting with the bright clothes of the fairy tales she loved: Cinderella’s three dresses, blue and / pink and gold and roses’. The Bart Simpson reference is unlocked at the end, the white dresses, leaving her out of the circle, ‘white and crisp as a Winter Wonderland’.

The poems are carefully arranged to open up one from the other chronologically. I always enjoy the journey of collections which are assembled this way.  The injustice of a draconian school is a linking thread, as is growing up and having to help in the shop. The strongest link is the passion for reading, which is beautifully expressed in the closing poem, which recaptures the joys of a much loved book:

‘Today, the first edition – 1947 – with fine cross
-hatched illustrations arrives from eBay,
in a cellophane-covered never-before-
seen dust wrapper.’

It’s Enid Blyton, of course, the Jacqueline Wilson of the fifties and sixties, whom we all devoured despite the disapproval of straight-laced teachers who thought they were not sufficiently ‘improving’.  The adult self is presented here as finally having the freedom to do as she wishes. Evans expresses the joy of discovering reading in a strong image:

      ’… the miracle
of the black marks straightening themselves
out into sense across the page,
saying this way, this way
you’ll escape.’

For all the suffering and unfair punishments the child suffered, this is a sequence full of subversive joy. It has so much in common with my own childhood that I would love to crack open a bottle with Evans and settle down for a right good natter. These poems are vivid, at times funny and at other times burning with injustice.

Michèle Roberts is also a novelist and much more widely known for her prowess in that area, so it is good to see that she can also write poetry that is at once spare and lush. A novelist’s love of storytelling drives the sequence, but these are personal pieces, about her mother, exploring in particular the shift from seeing one’s mother as all powerful, a saviour and a rock, to seeing her as someone childlike who needs care, then someone whose death one must come to terms with. The mother is Roberts’ ‘saint’, with ‘varnished gold toes’. She compares her mother to communion bread at mass in a perfectly description of a tabernacle:

‘You were the tabernacle
aproned in white brocade
God’s diet food. You hid
in the shuttered shrine.’

This image is developed later in the poem, when, fifty years later, her relationship with her mother changes and she sees her as more human, less divine:

‘Transfiguration: you reveal
your dazzling face
lean forward
into my listening
frightened you will fall.
I catch you on my tongue
and in my hands.’

Catholics believe that the host of unleavened bread becomes the body of Christ. Just as Christ is believed to enter the body of the communicant, Roberts is receiving the essence of her mother, a beautiful way to describe their sudden communication at what appears to be the deathbed of her father.

The last poem in the sequence picks up on this image but it has become sacrilegious:

‘Unholy communion: we separate you
Into black sacks
for paper, plastic, metal, wood
drive you to the dump
tip you over the edge of
boat-sized skips.’

Anyone who has had the experience of clearing out a loved one’s house after their death will tell you that is exactly how it feels, as though their unwanted possessions ARE somehow them. But there is a resolution which brings a new start:

‘And now your empty house
laid open, bare
fills up with light
gleams pearly as a half-shell
on wet sand under the running tide.’

This closing stanza completes the circle started in the first stanza: a memory of beachcombing as a child, finding treasure. The empty house is now full of possibility.  The poems in between are equally luscious: all poems about her mother’s absence in her life but written in a joyous celebratory way which brings into focus the way the child’s inner life remains tied to closeness with the mother, even when death has severed the physical contact.

These four pamphlets go beautifully together as a set, as well as each one standing confidently on its own ground. They are limited editions so you should hurry to acquire them. Rack Press has been shortlisted for the Michael Marks publishers award on the basis of last year’s pamphlets, and Denise Saul’s House of Blue from Rack Press is a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Spring 2012. These accolades go to show that Rack Press pamphlets are starting to make their mark in the poetry world.

‘the day maybe died (tributes and torched songs) Imagining China’ by Nathan Thompson

In Pamphlets on June 15, 2012 at 12:00 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

The title of Nathan Thompson’s chapbook might strike some people as confusing or unwieldy, but I would venture that it really represents the continuum along which the poems in this chapbook flow. At one end of the spectrum, ‘the day maybe died’ delights in its fragmentation, making leaps of language and imagery. At the other, ‘Imagining China’ is a tenderly lyrical piece. The poems in between then blend traits from both, demonstrating what Rupert Loydell means when he praises Thompson as ‘one of a new breed of postmodernist lyricists who have learnt from both the centre and the edges of contemporary writing and are not afraid to freely use processes, techniques, confession and invention’.

‘the day maybe died’ owes an unmistakeable debt to Frank O’Hara’s ‘The Day Lady Died’, which it acknowledges at the end of the poem: ‘dear Frank / for having a coke with the wrong sponsor     you’re fired’. Like O’Hara’s poem, Thompson’s eschews punctuation, and both poems adopt a conversational tone, beginning in media res, as it were (‘It is 12:20 in New York a Friday’ versus ‘running out on the new book half way through’). Where the former reads almost like a relentless internal monologue, however, the latter has a tendency to open up, literally, as spaces fill in for the commas and full stops that would normally help to regulate the pace of a poem. The punning title also announces Thompson’s brand of postmodern wit, which finds fulfilment in lines like ‘the criminal loops smooth fingers / about a tree     it is all too tall and obvious / how about a short tomato’ or ‘the exercise bike of broken images had flown away with itself / making a mockery of my cigarette’.

Kicking off the ‘tributes and torched songs’ that comprise the bulk of this chapbook, ‘checklist’ contains what might be interpreted as a morose sentiment: ‘I am here to meet a man who knows / how little point there is in meeting // neither of us will reach home better as a result’. Yet the poem later works to undermine this nihilism, suggesting that ‘it really isn’t that simple’, and it eventually ends with a grudging sort of conviviality: ‘if it comes to it there’s a spare room at my place’. The poems in Thompson’s chapbook are also poised between the spaces of intimacy and surrealism, constantly trying to assert that ‘everything yields meaning’ (‘the book in our hands’) but also doubtful if that is really the case, ‘not certain this matters’ (‘the Texan with the instamatic’). What reconciles the two spaces are ultimately images like the one in ‘Chatterton’s patent home-globe’:

you rub my eyes and the lashes
slip to their new appointments between blank pages
black moons in a white sky     let’s start again
with what was left behind

As the final poem in the sequence, ‘Imagining China’ might serve as a sharp contrast to the earlier poems, almost as if for a parting shot, Thompson is demonstrating that, yes, he, too, can write the familiar-looking stanzas of the conventional lyric, punctuation and all. Nonetheless, to see the poem simply in that light would be to belittle the poet’s achievement. ‘Imagining China’ deploys the same strategy of proffering and then retracting an image/idea that runs throughout the rest of the chapbook: ‘This morning looks too low to me across its thighs, / which verge on almost being yours’ versus ‘I will / not say any morning sky is two thighs again (I mean / your thighs aren’t grey, though I guess I did say ‘almost’)’. Acutely aware that ‘chatter costs idleness, and that’s increasingly precious’, what the poem is really reaching for is ‘our imaginary China:     a place / we’d always planned to go, well once’.

As the blank spaces and punctuation begin to mix in the closing lines of the poem, it is as though the imaginary space being opened up can now afford for this sort of multiplicity to exist, to coexist: ‘I believe the morning sky is open / there,     painted intricately over several backgrounds’. Those final lines are placed in quotation marks on the page, also a recurrent feature throughout the chapbook, at once expanding the space of the poem to include another voice and hinting at contexts lying beyond the sphere of the poem, ‘backgrounds’ that are obliquely accessible through it. Perhaps what is most attractive about Thompson’s poetry here is thus this sense of genuine human warmth that grounds it, even when his writing pushes language in directions that can seem alien or threatening in their fragmentation and aleatory nature.

Preview: Hammer & Tongue Oxford 2012 Final

In Performance Poetry, Seasonal/End of year on June 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm

-preview by James Webster

This coming Tuesday the 12th of June sees the culmination of another year of Hammer & Tongue: Oxford with their Slam Final, pitting the winners of all 7 of this year’s heats against each other. Champion will slam against champion in an intriguing mix of established veterans and up-and-comers, youth and experience, with only one winner able to go on to the National Final (which if it is anything as exciting as this year’s finals at the Walton Music Hall, will be very special indeed).

As an added point of interest the winners will also be joined at this slam by the ‘Best of the Rest’, as the H&T team put all the runners up from this year into an online vote, allowing public opinion to decide which poet would take the ‘Wildcard’ spot in the final. After a close-run vote Neil Spokes emerged the victor!

With less than two days to go until the slam itself, Sabotage takes a look at each of the poets who will take to the stage to try and claim their spot in the national final.

October: Paul Askew

The self-styled ‘Official Sex Symbol of Oxford Poetry’, Paul booked the first place in the final by winning against stiff competition at the H&T February heat at Turl Street Kitchen (an event that included fellow finalist Anna Macrory as one of the feature poets and was headlined by Henry Bowers). Sabotage have reviewed Paul several times since, and if anything his comically surreal (and often surprising perceptive) poetry has improved. Askew’s more recent pieces like ‘Chaos Café’ and ‘The Extremely Abridged History of Paul Askew in 5 Dream Sequences’ have remained funny, while showing considerable depth and a talent for performance. Paul also edits the Ferment magazine.

Biggest Strength: his capability for blending humour and pathos, with an extremely original and absurdist voice.

Weakness?: his surrealism, while excellent, may not be for everyone, and he often reads his poems off the page, which usually hinders slam performance. But Askew is nothing if not a bucker of trends.

November: Pete the Temp

Pete the Temp should be known to most spoken word fans. A veteran of Hammer & Tongue he’s a former H&T National Slam champion (2009), and his funny, political, exceptionally performed works have wowed audiences all over the country at all kinds of poetry events and festivals. Boasting an easy and engaging stage presence, and a wealth of material (his ode to pedestrians and piece about working in a charity call centre always go down well), he has also just debuted his one-man show “Pete the Temp versus Climate Change” (soon to be reviewed on Sabotage).

Biggest Strength: performance experience. As well as having a way with audiences honed over years of gigging, he knows what it takes to win a slam and could easily do it again.

Weakness?: motivation. Having gone all the way before, and with the one-man show to concentrate on, he might just not want it as much as the other slammers, which could hinder his performance.

December: Aubrey Mvula

Sabotage have only seen him perform once. As a virtual unknown, he came out of nowhere to deliver an intensely moving poem about abuse and vulnerability, his understatedly powerful performance stunning the audience into silence. He won the slam (from a difficult early slot) and is possibly more of a wildcard in this slam than the actual ‘Wildcard’ Neil Spokes.

Biggest Strength: the power and clear emotion of his poetry.

Weakness?: from what we saw in December, he doesn’t lean towards comedy, and comic poems tend to win more often than not.

February: Davy Mac

Mac won the Valentine’s Day Slam with a funny and socially relevant poem about homosexuality and ‘Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell’ attitudes in the military. Having seen him perform several times now he’s got a range of poems about powerful issues that are always well expressed and often have a strong grasp of comic timing. His subject matter, while brave and always interesting, doesn’t always carry his audience with him, as his poem at the last H&T event (an odd mixture of juvenile fart jokes and creationism) demonstrated. But he maintains a talent for tackling bold issues clearly, boldly, and often with surprising beauty.

Biggest Strength: the strength of his beliefs that comes across in his poetry.

Weakness?: some of those beliefs may not take the audience with him.

March: Dan Holloway

Another poet that Sabotage have known and admired for a while, Dan runs Eight Cuts (Oxford multi-discipline arts organisation), organises gigs with a collective of poets known as the New Libertines, was the mastermind behind the Not the Oxford Literary Festival in March, and has just released a collection ‘Last Man out of Eden’ (soon to be reviewed on Sabotage). While his intricately constructed poems don’t always play well at slams, he crafts beautifully haunting images like few other poets I’ve seen. He also has a talent for social and political subject matter, pieces like ‘Mentalist’ and ‘Monsters’ tackle issues of riots, workfare schemes and mental health in original and intelligent manner (without ever descending into rhyming rants as some poets might).

Biggest Strength: the way in which he uses rhyme to flow seamlessly and quickly between his striking imagery.

Weakness?: honestly he has a tendency to over-perform his poems, as if trying to adopt a ‘slam style’, making the emotion and imagery seem a little forced.

April: Mark Niel

Another seasoned spoken word performer, he’s won a clutch of slams (he appeared in the H&T National Final this year) and always goes down a storm with audiences. He’s the epitome of the comic poet: voice, structure, body language and writing all leading towards the inevitable punchline. While it could be argued that doing so comes at the expense of meaning, it cannot be said that he doesn’t do it well; his poems have been greeted with big laughs every time I’ve seen him perform. But for me his poems sacrifice too much for the laugh, even their own internal logic lost to the funny (such as a comic poem about poets who perform in silly voices, delivered entirely in a silly voice and only enjoyable for that reason).

Biggest Strength: his aptitude for comedy, which almost always wins over the audience.

Weakness?: the nagging feeling that every one of his poems is fundamentally the same kind of joke, always delivered in the same way, which may hamper him when performing multiple pieces.

May: Anna McCrory

President of OUPS (Oxford University Poetry Society), Anna has performed aroundOxford,ManchesterandLondonand she organises a bunch of events too. She writes poems that are rich in whimsy and comedy, inviting the audience into her own charming world in which geeks rock out (in the library), children rap andArgoshas its very own wizard. While her material might come off as trite in the hands of a lesser poet, it’s her warmth as a performer and perceptiveness as a writer that make her poems more than just rhyming stand-up.

Biggest Strength: her easygoing and geeky performance.

Weakness?: perhaps a lack of the weighty themes that tend to garner high scores in slam.

Wildcard: Neil Spokes

Spokes performed strongly at two different H&T slams this year (coming second and third), which was enough to get him through to the Wildcard round and win his place in the final. His poetry when Sabotage has seen him has been strong, with a real aptitude for the slightly comic slam style. At best his poetry has been funny and adorably sweet, and even his poem about dropping his phone down the toilet was funny, if not especially deep (unless it was a really deep toilet).

Biggest Strength: his humour and sweetness.

Weakness?: toilet humour may not always go down well.

Conclusion: honestly with a real mix of styles and experiences, it seems to Sabotage that anyone could win. But regardless of who actually emerges victorious, we’re pretty sure after a night of excellent poetry it’ll be the audience who feel like champions.

Hammer & Tongue Oxford 2012 Final: Tuesday 12th May, 8pm, The Old Fire Station