Reviews of the Ephemeral

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Review: Sage & Time’s 2nd Birthday 18/07/12

In Performance Poetry, Seasonal/End of year on February 21, 2013 at 9:00 am

– reviewed by James Webster, Dana Bubulj and Koel Mukherjee –

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The Birthday Boy, um, Girl, um, Evening.

Regular readers will know I’ve hardly been restrained in my love of Sage & Time. The brainchild of Anna Le and home of the Dirty Hands collective, it has been a welcome mainstay of my spoken word experience and that’s why it was so lovely to attend its 2nd birthday party back in July. The evening had an uplifting celebratory feel that was reinforced by the various poems from both the regular and newer performers and it was all totally lovely.

No party’s complete without an excellent host …

The evening was hosted by the confident and fiercely warm Kat Francois, who was always quick to quip and jest with the audience. She focused us into rapt silence before the performances, and provoked rapturous applause after them; you can really see how her experience as a stand-up comic has honed her crowd-handling skills. Francois kicked things off with a machine-gun rata-tat of words explaining why she performs. It was a storm of a poem, stressing the importance of poetry, claiming her place on the stage and asserting her ownership of words. And ‘I Love Being a Woman’ was amazing fun, full of sing-song joy, sensual language, silly orgasm noises, and a perceptive take on the give-and-take of relationships (though it was a bit odd that a poem with that title was all about her relationship with a man). Top stuff.

The party’s welcome guests – highlights of the Open Mic

  • Mark ‘Mr T’ Thompson, S&T regular, kicked off the open mic with a quick and powerful flash of a poem on Usain Bolt, before giving us an incredibly sweet take on his youthful gawkish self’s inability to dance.
  • Elaine O’Neil then showed off her way with words with ‘Light Rail’. I really enjoyed how she penciled in the potential of the places railways can take you to, and she took us on a witty and intelligent journey from hope to capitalism.
  • The Wizard of Skill gave his usual madcap performance, full of amusing repetition and imaginative phrasing. Though, some might say that the repetition and disparate references that characterise his offbeat style sacrifices structure and progression.
  • Jazz Man John’s ‘Advice to Young Poets’ was a short piece on classic poets that was nicely witty (if a bit off-kilter).
  • Anna Em’s ‘Chain Letter’ was impressively haunting, had some good natural and supernatural imagery and some killer lines like “he counts his lost days on a calendar of broken dreams”.
  • Errol McGlashen’s ‘One Drop’ (inspired by Stephen Lawrence) was full of powerful rhythm, ranging across civil rights history to a brutal depiction of Lawrence’s death. It was powerful and chilling (and occasionally very funny).
  • Jill Abram performed ‘I have Forgotten my Father’, an endearingly nostalgic piece that was full of touchingly tiny remembered details that captured the miracle-magic that parents can make for their children.
  • Achilles read ‘My Finger’, an amusing take on technology making fingers obsolete that elicited ripples of laughter from the audience.
  • Richard Watkins had some wonderfully tinkly sing-song language in his piece that was a celebration of the mineral world and send-up of the material world. The point was a bit hackneyed, but it worked.
  • Tim Wells gave two poems, the first a witty ‘love poem to anger’, while the second was dedicated to girls his daughter’s age who date hipsters with “tight trousers, a weak moustache and pox” and was super-bleak, but much fun.
  • Koel Mukherjee’s ‘Love Poem to the Universe’ was a stunning mix of pure beauty and ultimate whimsy. Having started performing at S&T only recently, she had clearly grown massively in confidence to reinforce her heady talent with words.
  • Edward Unique’s piece ‘The Rainforests’ came together really well, mixing images together into a cohesive whole he sometimes struggles to achieve with his plurality of ideas.

The guests of honour – Features

  • Anna Le performed two pieces herself, the first ‘What is it?’ was an evocative and endearing description of walking into an open mic for the first time and segueing on to sum up some of the lovely things about Sage & Time (“S&T loves the jokes, but doesn’t need the happy every after”). And her ‘All the While’ was especially heartfelt on the night, its verse reaching out to you, the cadences rising and dropping just as you think it’s going to peak.
  • Lettie McKie: Lettie’s first poem was a humorous take on getting groped on the tube, which hilariously summed up a familiar feeling, but didn’t seem to offer any new/interesting perspective. That said, her performance (complete with amped-up middle class voice) was top notch.
  • While her second was a poem of two halves, the first essentially a very well constructed list of minor annoyances and first world problems that combined to blow each other out of all proportion. While the over the top hatred of life was fun, it didn’t really speak to me and felt a bit trite. The second half, however, was a lovely, soft and tender piece on the joy of words, friends and people’s differences and segued charmingly into congratulations for Sage & Time’s 2nd Birthday.
  • Keith Jarrett is a charming performer. Coupling intense and lush poetry with a winning stage presence, he started with an awesome piece made entirely of references to the previous performer’s poems that was a lovely and inclusive way to start his set. He also performed a fun, lyrical and accessible poem that was great on how the young construct their sense of selves and sense of ‘cool’ and also turned into a surprisingly good sing-a-long. It was rich with nostalgia and warmth and it really invited the audience into his reminisces.
  • Amy Acre continued the trend of poems celebrating Sage & Time with an immensely fun rap to introduce herself to the stage. She followed up with ‘Run’, a poem apparently inspired by a woman she met travelling in Nepal. Now … I’m usually wary of this kind of introduction, as far too often it leads solely to a vacuous poem that either reduces the locations talked of to mere exoticism or exposes nothing but the poet’s own privilege. However, this piece was a beautifully simple and incredibly powerful poem on gender disparity and the dangers of tradition for tradition’s sake that actually acknowledged the speaker’s own privilege along the way. Gorgeous stuff.
  • James Webster performed “Flat-Pack Lover”, his contribution to the Penning Perfumes collection of poetry inspired by different scents. The imagery was a rich, sensual, slightly quirky jumble, describing a personified piece of furniture, a warm, inviting, pinewood-and-brass lover. This was followed by a lovely tribute rooted in the there-and-then – “The House of Sage and Time” imagined Sage & Time as a home, the walls made of words that you could spend a hundred years reading, the spice cupboard full of sage, and the doors only open to those with “words in their hearts and fire on their tongues” – an electrifying statement of welcome and intent for anybody who loves poetry.
  • Peter Hayhoe … how do I even describe the ridiculous genius of his poem? He performed a poem that was pretty much his entire life in poetry form (all the way up to that very moment) and it was spellbinding. It was filled with geeky nostalgia, teenage doubts and plenty of jokes; a disarmingly honest and adorable performance.
  • Maddy Carty finished the night off with an ice-cool set of songs that we both perceptive and entertaining; a real treat for the ears.

Overall this was a warm embrace of an event. An inclusive welcome for the new, a celebration for the regulars, and a damn good party for all involved. While there were some poets I enjoyed more than others, the joy of Sage & Time is how inclusive and supportive it is of everyone and that tells in the ever-improving and enjoyable poetry its regulars perform. And this was such a fun night I’m already excited about the 3rd birthday!

‘Count from Zero to One Hundred’ by Alan Cunningham

In Novella on February 18, 2013 at 1:40 pm

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

In Count from Zero to One Hundred, Alan Cunningham opens windows into a life in transit, into a mind that is only at times happy with the distortions and indecisions it produces. It is an interrupted life, with repetitions doomed not to reach any fruition, though there is sometimes a sense of conclusions that may, or may not, have occurred. An un-named, male narrator moves around in a seemingly purposeless world of events or non-events. There are liaisons with sketchily-drawn women, evenings out, meetings with friends that are shadowy in form, and, adding to the fluidity, trips to different countries. He seems to get a low-key sense of satisfaction from this life: as the narrator rarely commits to this, it is sometimes difficult for the reader to do so. However, life is like that, so there is a real sense of true realism – not novelistic ‘realism’.

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The narrator is physically disabled, but this is not a ‘disability issues’ book. He is not a ranter, which makes this aspect of his sketches intriguing and readable; his disability is not denied or ignored, but it is a part of him that he adapts to everyday life – as he must, and as his friends must, if they are to be part of his life. If there is a message about disability, it is that disabled people are like non-disabled people in most respects, and whereas it would be trite to spell this out directly, it is still, unfortunately, a message that many of us need to be reminded of. 

The book description cites ‘traces of Beckett and Joyce’, and I did indeed catch the occasional sense of cheerful despair associated with Beckett. The sketches reminded me more of the very short stories of Kafka, which appear to fizzle out without the little jolt of epiphany (of which too much is sometimes made) in Joyce’s short stories. Robert Walser’s Berlin stories also come to mind. The form of the book, in which some chapters are only a paragraph, a few lines or, finally, a single short sentence, made me think of Richard Brautigan. However, I wasn’t always convinced that such a form was necessary – there is a bit of ‘art for art’s sake’ in the layout. 

I think, in describing the book as a novella, the publishers or author are setting up expectations that may be disappointed. Cunningham states in his introduction:

I decided to start writing every day about myself and my body in a contemporary and much more instantaneous and instinctive style. 

So is it a novella, or life writing? The two are distinct forms. I don’t mind the crossover of forms and, therefore, the aim and motives of the work. The disclaimer deals with this wittily, talking of a ‘resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead’ being ‘perhaps entirely coincidental, but then again, perhaps… not’. Cunningham uses opposites in this way throughout the text. Some acts are ‘seen, unseen, imagined, unimagined’; he feels strong, and at the same time weak; we are given an intro to ‘the story of another’, described later on the page as ‘not the story of another’. This creates a dissonance that is unsettling, sometimes, but Cunningham puts these awkward feelings very eloquently.

At one point, as if sensing the reader’s unease, he writes:

I’m thinking of a proper story for you now, I realise you are tiring, you need to be entertained, something will occur to me, patience, patience.

He keeps this promise with some short third-person narratives out of the blue, featuring celebs like Zadie Smith and Charlie Sheen and what they might be thinking as they go about the mundanities in their lives – the Charlie Sheen one is a treat. Despite the promise, they are incongruous, but I’m glad they are there. 

I thought the prose was at its best when the inward-thinking passages were abandoned for more direct scenes of people occupied, such as the scene in Berlin’s former Hungarian embassy, now a bar, and a vignette on the U-Bahn, in which a friend discovers that ‘one could easily utilise the windows of the train as a mirror’ – beautiful! – or the photographic exhibition organised, on a whim, by the narrator.

He often uses the second-person tense. In the wrong hands, it makes everything mawkish. Cunningham turns it on its head, however, and the second-person ‘you’ stands for the ‘I’ of first-person: 

As you begin to feel that you are sleeping, you think: in that strong land your mind is seen as a deformity, but your mind is clear, you are not lying and your body can never be untruthful.

This device brings out a natural way of thinking and talking, and therefore puts over the ideas more gently, less self-consciously. It can also be ambiguous. The ‘you still hate yourself’ passage late in the book could be about the narrator, but it could also be about any reader who identifies with it.

Characters and events are introduced without unnecessary fanfare, thus we suddenly hear about ‘Martin’ and ‘the birthday party’. I prefer this to ‘a friend…’ or ‘a man called…’, etc, and we don’t really need to know details about the party. Great economy.

The cities featured in the description are, like many of the characters, rendered sketchily. While I hate reading fiction that is disguised travelogue, I think, if the back cover is going to make so much of it, there should be more of a flavour present. I didn’t get much sense of London, Dublin or Budapest in the book – all cities I know well. Strangely enough, the one I saw most clearly was Berlin, and I’ve only ever been there twice, for short periods – yet I can say that Cunningham shows it with great accuracy.

He invites us all into these experiences, reminding us of times when we have been in exactly the same situations. You don’t need to be disabled – and it probably doesn’t help with this book – to go through the doubts, fears and stop-start frustrations of everyday life, and it’s not essential to be ‘able-bodied’ to take part in life’s little triumphs.

Annexe Magazine’s ‘Introducing’ Series

In Pamphlets on February 18, 2013 at 10:57 am

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

All three beautiful pamphlets in Annexe Magazine’s ‘Introducing’ series are very small (A6) and very short (12 pages). They are: The Audience Member by Amber Massie-Blomfield, which is short fiction; Selected Poems by Charlotte Newman and The Histories by Michael C. Schuller, which are poetry.

The Audience Member by Amber Massie-Blomfield

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Like many short stories, The Audience Member is essentially the dramatisation of a single image: a man, the sole audience member of a “one woman show”, wildly applauding the end “like an embarrassing dad at a school concert”. The day of the play is in the present tense, with the rest as past tense narrative of how he came to be there, of how this moment has come to mean so much, all starting with his secretary’s suggestion of going to the theatre on the first page. In doing so, in aiming at this climactic moment, Massie-Blomfield has two related challenges: to dramatise this back story effectively, and to do so concisely but without squashing the characters into subservience to the plot.

The characterisation is mostly effective. The main figure, John, is driven by inordinate emotional stress, and stress which the reader can’t (and shouldn’t) ever be able to appreciate, which means that he, and the narrator’s closeness to him, must be dealt with carefully. Sometimes the moments of closest free indirect discourse can seem a little improbable and less meaningful; in his minor breakdown before his first theatre visit, “he was standing in the middle of the empty kitchen, and he found that he was unable to move” is much more affecting than “This wouldn’t do. He wasn’t the kind of man that cried.” Otherwise, John grows through the pamphlet, especially so when it moves into the present tense; something about the present tense in sentences like “But he’s learning to be alone with his thoughts” is very powerful. The ‘supporting cast’, on the other hand, is a little less successful. The secretary, whose role in the plot is functional, could’ve done with some hints of a life beyond John’s. Otherwise, we’ve the crucial characters of John’s wife and son, who are present only in his recollections, which brings us to the back story.

In order to dramatise the reasons why John comes to be alone and why the final image is so powerful, Massie-Blomfield must manage the revelation of details as an element of the plot. The pacing of this, within the whole plot, is very good. This is achieved, in part, by some obfuscation, especially in relation to John’s son, Charlie. It is never entirely clear what has happened to John’s wife (Clare) or Charlie, although working out what happened to the latter is hampered unnecessarily in a crucial paragraph: the narrator is simultaneously talking about Charlie and John, in multiple moments in time, and referring to them interchangeably as “he”. The result is quite baffling, even on multiple readings.  Despite this, the character of John makes a lot more sense in relation to that of Clare and Charlie, and this structure of story, the way in which everything crystallises into a single final moment, is potent, as a challenge for repeat readings and for thinking of plot in more than linear terms. Massie-Blomfield’s pamphlet accelerates as it goes, and, as it should, hits its final sentence at full speed, with everything accumulating more significance:

“Thank you so much for coming,” she says.

Selected Poems by Charlotte Newman

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Charlotte Newman’s poems’ difficulty is amplified by their menace. To quote a passage from Selected Poems as soon as possible:

Ours is a charnel house, yours is a wreck.
Circumspect, your rig docks on a ripcord,
embellished by destruction manuals and hard
rock. Our temper senses reward, and
tends a terminal treasure.

The anchors for poetry such as this are the pronouns and the characters they imply, as the rest serves as the emotional reality of their relations. There is, in this regard, always the sense that something is at stake. The terror is in working out what it is.

The first apparent feature of the pamphlet is the tight patterns of sound. In the example above there’s: the rhyme in “wreck … circumspect”; the repetition in “wreck … rig … ripcord … rock … reward”, enhanced by the rhyme on “ripcord … reward”; and the accelerating series of Ts in the final lines. Newman returns to sounds obsessively; she frequently rhymes the last word of a line with the first of the next, as if impatient to return. These (often trochaic) patterns are closed up and bumped, as if a drawstring through them has been pulled tight, which increases the tempo,  turns the contrast up, and  makes us more aware of the words as words and more aware of the process of reading. It is language referring insistently to itself.

The second apparent feature of the pamphlet is an expansive field of reference and the allusiveness. Take, for instance, some lines from ‘Bloodwork’:

Half-meant by second readings,
and hell-bent on structure;
this Sodom’s lot’s a deuteronomy of infra-
red. That said the wife

shall prick her finger on a spinning wheel and meet
the beat behind the bloodlust;
O peak of a changed changed heart,
the mark of a thrifty maker.

‘Beach’ in particular becomes a tissue of altered quotations and puns, and includes a passage of virtuose playing on the names of fonts. It makes clear that, for everything we wish to say, we are using other people’s words to say them. There is a sense of complete freedom with her allusions, her half-formed parodies and sudden changes in register. The poems come at you from everything you’ve ever read. Like a howl of feedback, the stronger poems in this pamphlet create themselves entirely and solely out of the features which cause difficulty and are limitless as a result. The best of these then interrogate an idea through its own terms, and turn the process of reading back onto itself. It’s impossible to read Selected Poems without having to be a critic too. But the art form, and these poems, is worth the effort.

The Histories by Michael C. Schuller

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Both Selected Poems and The Histories are, we are told, parts of a larger work, which I think is what all literature is and should feel like.

What’s most remarkable about Schuller’s poems is their slowness. He is rarely saying more than one thing at once in long poems with long lines of long, conversational sentences. For instance, from ‘Melpomene’:

The city comes and goes underfoot.
The strangest things are the streets you no longer walk down,
the ones that used to be familiar.

Certain stops and routes, they have specific meanings,
the way a song might make you remember.
Now it is just pavement, concrete, stones, and lines of paint.

The movement is unhurried; the images are slow and in soft focus, elongated with detail (“pavement, concrete, stones”…). As ‘histories’, the poems are mostly nostalgic and retrospective, looking back at memories, family, travel, “space and time”, with reverent meticulousness. The figure of “Grandmama” is portrayed with particular strength, providing the best lines of the pamphlet, such as:

I knew her in the still and steady tailwaters of life, although much later
heard all the stories of her rising and her course.

However, the trouble with nostalgia as a mood for poetry is nostalgia is rarely compatible with unresolved or complex thoughts. The nostalgic memory has long decided what it wants to feel, leaving little for the reader to do. Furthermore, the subject matter of The Histories is mostly the context of the individual – place or family or the past – rather than the individual itself; the poetry strolls around a tidy, unexamined centre. There is then very little that the poems are being asked to do. An example of this is in the final poem, ‘Urania’:

From the air, at night, all cities are an array of light.
Some are dim, some are bright,
most look like burning spill on black water.

They all rise up to meet you. Like Germelshausen,
and they go on without you.

(Germelshausen is a village in a story which rises out of the ground.) The “night…light…bright” rhyme invites the trite “Some are dim, some are bright”, which is almost expository as well as a little silly and would’ve been better cut. Similarly, the last sentence offers very little besides some awkward syntax. This is all part of an over-explanatory tendency, best illustrated by how the speaker asks a rhetorical question and then answers it in ‘Terpsichore’:

How many maps do I have in my head
of places I will never go again?

Whole cities of flats, streets, shops.

It is hard to know what the poems of The Histories are reaching for. At their worst, these poems are like bad jazz, in that they seem to be more for the performer than the audience, and their self-proclaimed seriousness is not enough to persuade otherwise. At their best, they remember to withhold things from the reader (which is generous, not selfish) and to challenge, but this is regrettably seldom.

The Histories contains the sort of sober and reflective poems that are always going to be shouted over by those of Charlotte Newman, but it’s hard to shake the suspicion that contemporary poetics have rendered Michael C Schuller’s style of poetry redundant.

‘Treasure in the History of Things’ by Katherine McMahon

In Pamphlets on February 17, 2013 at 10:19 am

 

-Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

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Published by Stewed Rhubarb Press, Treasure in the History of Things by Katherine McMahon (of the Inky Fingers collective) is a gorgeous pamphlet of twelve poems, complete with an audio CD of them performed accompanied with the occasional music and atmospheric sound-base. McMahon really impressed us when we caught her perform in Edinburgh this Summer, so that it seemed fitting to review how her words translate to the page. While the CD is a nice touch in principle, her engaging performance is slightly lost in the recording, a weak reminder of the real thing. Fortunately, the pamphlet itself holds up well to individual scrutiny.

The poems could be split into two categories: that of finding and developing a personal, poetic voice and using that voice to evoke memories of past relationships. Some of the strongest images are in the latter, firmly tied to weather and seasonality, with the warmth of beds like the “leaf litter in the summertime” (‘Afforestation’) and berries shared between lovers like “shared secrets” (‘Blackberries’).

‘Blackberries’, one of my favourites in the book, features a lovely line about giving blackberries to a small child who’d not seen them before: ‘wide-eyed, he put it in his pocket for safekeeping’. It’s fitting that this first poem in the collection echoes the idea of preserving memories for our delight. Another stand-out poem, ‘Gold’, expresses the lure of the past, like “pie-steam from an open window” without becoming maudlin. Instead, it acknowledges the changes in people and relationships: the ‘sticky stained glass’ of boiled sweets in the ‘gingerbread home’ past is too sickly to last for instance, leading McMahon to call for ‘something bitter / to make it stick. / Give me gin and lime… give me anger’. Similarly the line: “sometimes dealing with [struggle] / looks a lot like being a dick” grounds the poems in an accessible reality.

The vignettes are strongly tied to the Scottish Coast, with namechecks of Bass Rock, Arthur’s Seat and Haar (coastal fog). Water is a strong presence, both as the familiar and comforting sea (‘Jetsam’) and as the lush storms that echo the characters (‘me and her, we were so full of weather’). McMahon does manage to engage with such familiar imagery without it becoming trite, and with a self-awareness (‘they call that ‘pathetic fallacy’ / and I think, oh really?’) coupled with wonder at nature that makes it rather charming. There should be more poets who can both marvel at anthropomorphised wind that ‘scrawls its name across my cheeks’ and discuss astronomers’ wavelengths. Or germination, come to that. It helps the poems stay away from the realms of the overdone sublime and stay fresh.

The nod to pathetic fallacy is a relevant one, as the emotional developments are closely linked to the workings of nature. Much like storms are ‘mirror[ed] in your own breath’, comfort in being a poet is likened to ‘sea-legs’ (‘Labyrinth’). And take this line from ‘Nautical Almanac’:

‘I want to reach out to the constellations
and be held by their far-flung fiery arms.’

The searching for a ‘polestar’, or a voice (a “warm heart and a steady rhythm / somewhere in that mechanism”) is given a response in the final poem, ‘Shine’, a fantastically jubilant statement (“this is my voice / take it how you will”) that urges for ‘solidarity’, acknowledges the importance of having someone ‘reaching across voids’ to help those lost, despite how difficult it may be. After the car journey of ‘Labyrinth’, with a scratchy John Cooper Clarke record and a friend’s confidence in them, it is a testament to paying it forward.

The title of the pamphlet comes from ‘Gold’, which we saw live & loved. An excerpt:

“They aggrandise the damage
by filling the cracks with gold,
because they believe that there is treasure
in the history of things.

She said that she thought that
culturally, that was a load of balls,
but she liked the idea.”

It’s a nice sentiment that sits well with the poems that deal with their relationship: a nod to the history wrought between them. The creation of the pot itself (before its mending), works as a good simile for their relationship (“maybe love is like wet clay”): borne of a myriad of reactions and processes and tested by heat and water. And on that note, what better way to aggrandise memories than with poetry?

Treasure in the History of Things, published by Stewed Rhubarb Press and can be bought at Bandcamp.

Review: John Cooper Clarke w/ Mike Garry and Salena Godden – Apple & Snakes 30th Anniversary 01/12/12

In Performance Poetry on February 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

– reviewed by Charlotte Henson

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Towards the end of last year Apples and Snakes put on a number of poetry and spoken word events to celebrate ’30 years of spoken word’ – aka, their 30th anniversary. One of these events, and one I had the pleasure of attending back in December was a night at The Albany featuring John Cooper Clarke, supported by Mike Garry and Salena Godden.

As expected at any JCC gig the venue was packed out, with the words ‘sold out’ plastered loudly over the event posters. At £16 a pop, it definitely wasn’t the cheapest gig, but it’s about what I’d pay for a music gig and so there’s no reason I shouldn’t pay it to hear some damn fine poets.

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The first poet to be introduced by compère Penny Arcade was Salena Godden. Now, Godden is a poet I had previously never heard of, but after such a fun set I feel as if I should have. After all, she says she’s been in the game for no less than twenty years now. Her theatrical style and knack for ingenious insults had the audience in hysterics. And it was a joy to watch an act who was so comfortable on the stage, was excited about the event and was obviously having such a fabulous time. Though she did comparatively few poems compared to Mike Garry and headliner John Cooper Clarke, her slot was still a big highlight.

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The second support was from Mike Garry. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of Mr Garry and tonight was no exception. Mike has a rare ability to build up characters in a matter of seconds, make you love them in milliseconds, and then destroy them in nanoseconds. This may sound like an awful experience, but his poems are so profoundly affecting that they’ve had me close to tears before. His work is steeped in his Manchester background, full of references that resonate strongly for any proud Mancunian, while still being easily accessible those who aren’t familiar with Manchester geography. The addition of another Manchester voice supporting John ‘The Bard of Salford’ Cooper Clarke’s made the evening feel more cohesive as a whole.

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And then of course there was John Cooper Clarke. Now I have to admit that I’ve never really been a fan, but he is much more personable and endearing in person than on any youtube video I’ve seen; his pre-poem banter is especially hilarious and he’s got a real skill for driving along the rhythm of his poetry. But the banter does lead into one of the two main problems I had with the performance: first, there was too high a waffle to poem ratio, and second, he ran somewhat over schedule. While he has had a long and very interesting career, and admittedly some of the audience were probably there to experience his larger-than-life personality as well as his poetry, it’s possible that fifteen minutes of preamble for a two line poem is overdoing it. He also regularly interrupts his own poems with various interesting interjections, which can work if done occasionally, but again it seemed overdone. In the end his set ran over (despite the stage manager’s exasperated watch-tapping) and I had to leave before the end (as did a few others) to avoid missing the last train. No one can deny Cooper Clarke is very skill and truly entertaining, but perhaps his timings could be improved.

All in all, the gig was a good one – with plenty of high points offsetting comparatively few low points.

Oxford Poetry XIV.2 (Winter 2012)

In Magazine on February 13, 2013 at 12:46 am

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-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

It’s a compliment to say that Oxford Poetry, one of the oldest poetry magazines of its kind (113 years old to be precise), does not look its age. The cover may be quietly unassuming, in a vintage picnic basket kind of way, but the list of contributors reads like a who’s who of the Next Big Thing (with some exceptions, such as Fiona Sampson who, we can agree, is no longer emerging). Just like a previous generation of poets centred around the workshops of Michael Donaghy, many of these are regulars at Roddy Lumsden’s Poetry School workshop.

This leads naturally to another compliment, that in spite of there being a sense that this grouping of poets are all part of the same ‘pack’, there is no uniformity of voice. No one could accuse Sophie Mayer and Matthew Hollis’ poems of being too similar in tone, form, or subject. Nevertheless, some themes do emerge, reflecting the tastes of editors Lavinia Singer and Aime Williams, for storytelling and still lives. Still lives here is meant as freeze-framing of a particular time, as epitomized by Daniel W.K. Lee’s ‘The Way we Wore Young’ whose snapshot of 1995 America erects cultural and time barriers, pelting information like a Windows screensaver from which a killer last line emerges. On the storytelling side, Emily Hasler’s poem ‘What Gretel Knows’ is a stand-out, a delightfully dark take on the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, set out in long barbed lines:

‘Gretel knows, put a girl in water and she’ll drown; boil it;
and she’ll cook. Gretel knows there’s no salvation; only storage,’

Each line powers forward scattering on the way clashing registers: part dark incantation, part childish glee, part sweary delicious humour. It’s an exhilarating trip, relying on our pre-knowledge of the tale to transform it into a larger meditation on these archetypal characters all ‘obsessed with our stomachs’.

Not all poems are exceptional, a number try to deal with historical or fictitious events but struggle to bring added interest to the table. For instance, Ben Parker and Alex Niven’s reports from unknown places feel insubstantial, though the latter has turns of phrase that add colour to the depictions: ‘Warriors were / expunged from the phonebook’ and ‘Friends withered and sank’, he writes. Parker’s ‘From the Histories I’ would have perhaps benefited from being partnered with his more intriguing poem ‘From the Histories II’ (also from his pamphlet, reviewed here by James Webster), which reveals the limitations of Oxford Poetry‘s current one poem format. As a standalone, however, there is little of interest in the language though the premise shows promise:

‘Conflicting reports were delivered daily
from the city of high walls and no gates.
The crops were flourishing even
as the wells came up dry.’

Also disappointing is Fiona Sampson’s ‘The Night-Drive’, a poem which doesn’t add anything to its title save for the blossom which hangs ‘hallucinatory / in darkness, beside the road’. Perhaps most frustrating with these poems is that there is no active ‘flaw’ within them, but they are unsatisfyingly straightforward descriptive poems lacking in intent or purpose.

Thankfully, there is no lack of exciting poetry elsewhere in this journal which more than makes up for this. Indeed, there are more standout poems than can fit in this review, such as Sophie Mayer’s intoxicating flight of fancy ‘The Mayer’, or Dai George’s ‘My Peace, the Ornament’, which begins with a delightfully playful description of the invasion of noise into his flat from ‘the witless bus and incontinent van /unloading on the kerb’ before ziplining the reader, along with the narrator ‘to days when childhood’s brain / was a rammed junction.’ Other favourites include a creative translation by Sophie Collins of Astrid Lampe, and Caleb Klaces’ ‘An Agreement’, whose elastic mixture of theatrics, birds and claustrophobia is set playfully on the page making the eyes leap from line to line.

Meanwhile Phillip Crymble shows what it means to take a risk; his poem ‘Brogue’ flirts with disaster with its bordering-on-cliché definitions. Taken individually its sentences feel frustratingly predictable, but they build up into an intriguing exploration of language and identity for today’s third culture kid:

‘All over. Meaning lost or gone. A local idiom that speaks
of disappointment. When asked it’s here I say I’m from.

All over. Meaning don’t belong. An orphan with no mother
tongue. The aspirated consonants of Ulster. Low-mouthed

vowel sounds. A confederacy of opposites.’

Where Crymble plays on simple expressions to create a complex tableau, John Canfield’s ‘Amortisation’ prefers to borrow from the ‘”Jargon Buster’ of a commercial property developer’ to create a humourously obscure take on a relationship:

‘Real trust exempts participants both
from growth and service. The exchange is total
return earned over a specific period
and often expressed at the beginning of the year.
Turnover. Yield.’

By turns conservative and experimental, modern and old-fashioned, this issue of Oxford Poetry is designed to please everyone, which won’t be to the taste of everyone, but who are we to point fingers at an institution for having democratic tastes?

‘The Escape Artists’ by Ben Parker

In Pamphlets on February 12, 2013 at 9:37 am

photo (18)

-Reviewed by James Webster

Ben Parker’s debut pamphlet from Tall Lighthouse is beautifully and disconcertingly not-quite-familiar. Approaching familiar objects and ideas through a variety of unsettling and alien lenses that make the everyday unfamiliar, it is thoughtful, funny and full of inventive expression.

And no poem in the collection embodies this more than ‘The Restaurant’ where Parker playfully deconstructs and rebuilds the idea of a restaurant with ever increasing oddness. For instance on the walls:

“hang candid photos of your distant relatives
committing petty and archaic crimes”

And the piece is full of other oddities, each distorted from the norm with intelligence and wit, creating a tableaux-like poem of vivid interweaving ideas. The cleverness with which these are put together means there are a lot of unexpected laughs here, while the overwhelming impression the poem leaves is one of exciting unsettlement, like stepping into a parallel worlds where things are just recognisable and all the stranger for it. The final image is one where the alien nature of the scene is created by the diners themselves:

“Sensitive microphones have been fixed
under some of the tables and the sounds
are relayed instantly to speakers set at a volume
just high enough to be heard. Today the first hints
of feedback are creeping into the layered chatter.”

The title poem ‘The Escape Artists’ takes a slightly different tact, using a fantastical idea (planetary geo-exploration) and making a sideshow-spectacle of the wait for the intrepid astronaut-explorers to come out of their dive. At first, the language describing the planet and the descent is verdantly spiky as you “watch them sink into the end-boil”, while language like “chemical churn and kinetic noise of total decay” gives a cool sense of danger. Then Parker leaves the reader hanging,  building that suspense into the very point of the poem. He takes the strange and makes it stranger by making it more recognisable, creating a kind of sci-fi vaudeville.

Shifts in perspective are a primary concern in this pamphlet: the couple who reinvent a mongrel-dog as a majestic proto-horse in ‘Do you remember’; the man lost in a circus who imagines his lost-ness as its star attraction in ‘Sideshow’; the person drawn to watch the “grey saturated flesh of the dead” in ‘Cinema of the Drowned’. In all of these the perspective makes us at home with the strange and surreal, but also almost alien to ourselves.

Possibly the best example of this is ‘House of Rivers’ where the man-made and natural are thrown into unlikely symbiosis, as the house itself becomes river-like:

“The walls are unscrolling from the roof
and going to ground in breaking waves.”

It’s an unsettling image to read and the poem only becomes more so, as Parker leads the reader into the house and describes an eerie metamorphosis:

“By morning your lungs have sunk
to stones; your neck flares as you breathe.”

And thus the viewpoint shifts from outsider to insider, the transformation giving the poem a feel of myth, like a more personal take on Ovid’s Metamorphosis.

Indeed, there’s something mythic about a lot of this pamphlet. The way poems like ‘The Lake and The Way’ weave action into a magic spell that allows you entry into an unknown world, be it a one-way ticket to a mysterious island or immersion into an indescribable moment of sound and strangeness (a hair’s breadth from the familiarity of ‘your lover’s breath’).

‘The Lake’ describes (in language both lush and rough) an island “too distant/ to be seen from the shore although the lake/ is small and could be shouted over”, twisting physics and crafting a primal and remote feel to the poem. The trick is that Parker then draws you into the place’s mythos, offering inviting-but-frightening sentences that lead the reader to the island, but never back:

“And if you choose to make the walk
don’t stop. The surface creaks
and mutters at your back. Speed up,
keep the looming island in your sight.
The freeze will only hold you once.”

It’s tingling and exhilarating to read. I recommend you do that.

Similarly, ‘The Way’ also teases you along a journey, giving that same blend of remoteness and lone adventure, with an added dollop of heady discord as it tells the reader to “wait for the rising background static/ to mingle with the trumpet’s sombre melody”. I have to say I loved the idea of concocting a new and powerful sound out of music and static, out of structure and void. And Parker defines this sound only ever in the negative:

“That sound is not the shifting of the continents,
not the heaving of the gathered clouds
or stretching of the oak’s dark roots.
That sound is not your lover’s breath
but tonight it’s near enough.”

The poem feels like emotion illuminated by black-light and it is gorgeous.

Or there’s the way ‘Storm Line’ imagines a direct connection to a tempest, marrying the humdrum nature of the ‘beige handset’ with the primal power of storm whose “lightning will sear the sky”. Or ‘Remembrances’ which describes a sweetly domestic mess with tender intricacy, but the urgency with which the narrator searches for the ‘remembrances’ left for him by his partner gives them a touch of the mythic too, as if they’re a nymph-like being he’s unsure will return (did I mention this poem is super-sweet? It is.).

As a whole this is a phenomenal, disturbing, but still very accessible collection. The poems sit very well together, tied by common themes and feelings, but still containing a lot of variety in tone and subject. If your tastes in poetry run to the provoking, the funny, or the speculative, then I recommend you grab a copy from Tall Lighthouse.

‘The Necropolis Boat’ by Luke Kennard

In Pamphlets on February 11, 2013 at 9:53 am

-Reviewed by Andrew Bailey

necropolis-boat

Luke Kennard’s The Necropolis Boat has a subtitle that offers a handy way in to the sequence: “Five songs and a tortured context”. Let’s trust that. Let’s start with the songs.

Each is titled ‘The Great Necropolis Songbook’, from #1 to #5, and most use the kind of end-stopping rhymes that explain their hobbled rhythms as the result of hitting a chime that doesn’t arise naturally:

Why go to Ireland
When you can go to O’Neil’s?
Do you really want to hang around with people
Who use platitudes like “real’?

– ‘The Great Necropolis Songbook #4’

In brief: they’re not, in themselves, terribly good. But they’re not really there in themselves, as you needn’t even leave the page that the songs are on for that “tortured context” to kick in. This particular song carries three footnotes, two of which consist of an “I” telling “Maria”, who wrote the song, about its problems. One reads “‘Oh, for the love of God, your syntax,’ I mutter”, attached to a point where I’d expect a reader to agree.

An earlier footnote, to the first song, tells us that the songs aren’t for us anyway – “Her songs are for me and me alone” – and probably unfinished, as Maria is bringing the speaker her new material “which I am only too happy to critique. Precious little to do, etc.” Through his critique, his description of the songs and his taking part in their performance, that I is more the focus than the songs are, which is to say the songs are actually contextualising him. Let’s not trust that subtitle after all, then. Let’s look at the world the songs come from.

The reason he has “Precious little to do” is that our speaker is General Baliol, a deposed dictator spending a life sentence in exile on a prison ship, the Necropolis Boat of the title. The prose poems that occupy the spaces between the songs speak of his careers (military, political, poetic), of his crimes and of his punishment. These share the tone of the Solex Brothers narratives, dressing the unbelievable and the irrational in sentences seemingly cut for naturalistic, logical prose that almost fit: “And as we outnumbered them four-to-one and had already demonstrated our moral superiority we took their jagged kitchen knives and cut their throats.”

We’re further distanced from that narrative level by three ‘Ring-pulls of Hell’. This is further contextualising that sets the Baliol sequence up as a produced object, with comments from the editor and translator, these also being found within a manuscript left for the hero of a previous pamphlet, itself framed by the worry that “Many of these thoughts should just be thrown away immediately: the ring-pull.” That’s accompanied by a diagram of the kind of modern ring-pull that stays attached to the can. All of which means that if you, like me, enjoy the kind of graphite-slippery mistrust you end up with here, you’ll probably find a lot of pleasure in the way your head has to hold the relations between the elements when one of the songs is remembered in one of the poems that is referred to in one of the contextualisations that supports the songs with the footnotes from the general on the boat in the edited document received by the Planet-Shaped Horse hero in the first ring-pull. And that’s before mentioning the chaplain, the chef or the overture poem that seems to owe something to Stephen Dobyns’ ‘Confession.

I did worry sometimes that there’s a defensive note to writing some mockable songs, then mocking them before readers can, but it’s done with enough charm that I ended up in a forgiving mood toward that worry. Not so much, sadly, toward whoever was responsible for the kerning in the book; on occasion, its words spider into each other so awkwardly, as if they’d set the line breaks before changing the typeface, that I wanted the typesetter on that damn boat. There’s some business about the physicality of the text in the third ring-pull, but if that is a reason it’s still a reason why I was left with a headache afterwards.

It seems a shame to cavil on the incarnation of the book when I’ve enjoyed the platonics of it, though. If I’m going to close on a headache, let’s close instead on this moment from one of the General’s poems: “Y’know, the other day I saw a squash plant growing in the scrubland and it was just the most obscene sight. You have a headache? Good.”

‘This Jealous Earth’ by Scott Dominic Carpenter

In Short Stories on February 8, 2013 at 1:05 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

This Jealous Earth is Scott Dominic Carpenter’s first collection of short stories, and it is also the first title to launch for MG Press, the publishing arm of Midwestern Gothic. Both literary journal and micro-press share the same core values of ‘shining a spotlight on Midwest authors by focusing on works that showcase all aspects of life—good, bad, or ugly’. Carpenter’s collection also stays true to this in the variety of characters that it showcases, all of whom are united by what he refers to as ‘the question of choice: in each story characters arrive at a fork in the road, and they need to choose a path that will alter their future in important ways’.

This Jealous Earth by Scott Dominic Carpenter

The book opens with ‘The Tender Knife’, a story underpinned by the tension between youth and age, pragmatism and sentimentality. At his young wife’s insistence, Walter is steeling himself to cull the population of his koi pond. What should be an ordinary affair becomes complicated by his guilt at having to kill a bunch of fish ‘built to outlive him’: ‘What bothered him more than the killing was the parting, the leave-taking. Harder to sever than flesh were all those other filaments, the invisible ties that bound him like live nerves to those he loved.’ When Walter’s decision at the end of the story is to once again avoid the problem, having gone through one traumatic almost-botched koi beheading, it is hard not to sympathise with his wish to just be with his grandchildren, ‘escaping, however briefly, from this warm land with its bubbling ponds and its lies of eternal summer’.

As for title story ‘This Jealous Earth’, it serves up an interesting variation on the usual ‘end times’ narrative by presenting events from the perspective of Catherine, a young girl who refuses to let her blaspheming, unbelieving older brother be left behind, even at the cost of her place among the supposed elect. Midway through the story, there is a moment where Catherine keeps stuffing more and more items into her dress pocket, thinking to herself, ‘Her pocket felt heavy now. It weighed her down. This jealous earth didn’t want to let her go.’ Rather than taking the easy option of turning his story into a straightforward critique of the Driscoll family’s cultic beliefs, Carpenter instead uses the ending to demonstrate that in extremis, the bond of family may prove to be the strongest force of all, and it is really we who do not want to let each other go.

Alongside these short stories, Carpenter’s collection also mixes in a couple of flash fictions. Pieces like ‘Foundering’ and ‘The Phrasebook’ succinctly portray relationships in various states of crisis. The former contains this heartbreaking evocation of empty nest syndrome: ‘Even the children, it turned out, were only on long-term loan, and the departure of each cardboard box felt like another melon ball scooped ever closer to the rind.’ The latter matter-of-factly relates: ‘Something went wrong. The turns were too sharp. We were going too fast. We thought it was all under control. By the time we understood, it was too late. The collision was too violent. The damage had been done. Only the formalities remained, the paperwork.’ After this paragraph of relatively short sentences, the final ‘Please, I need to report an accident’ forms a sobering coda to the whole flash fiction.

It is a testament to the consistency of Carpenter’s narrative skill that I could have picked any story in This Jealous Earth and found something about it to recommend in this review. As it is, there is not enough space to say much about the surreally funny ‘Sincerely Yours’, beyond that as a one-time student dealing with utility bills, I completely empathise with the protagonist’s predicament. Or ‘The Death Button’, which despite its title, turns out to be a rather morbidly sweet love story. Or ‘General Relativity’, a story made all the more effective by its refusal to explain its fantastical element, in which the narrator experiences whatever he reads. So This Jealous Earth is packed full of surprising tales, and best of all, if like me, you read it and really enjoy Carpenter’s writing, you can look forward to his debut novel, Theory of Remainders, coming out later this year from Winter Goose Publishing.

[You can read Ian’s full interview with Scott Dominic Carpenter here]

Interview with Scott Dominic Carpenter (This Jealous Earth)

In Interview, Short Stories on February 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm

-Scott Dominic-Carpenter spoke to Ian Chung

Scott Dominic Carpenter teaches literature and critical theory at Carleton College (MN), where he has written extensively on the representation of madness in the novel, political allegory, and literary hoaxes. His fiction has appeared in such journals as Chamber Four, Ducts, Midwestern Gothic, The MacGuffin, Prime Number and Spilling Ink. A Pushcart Prize nominee and a semi-finalist for the MVP competition at New Rivers Press, he has just released his first collection of short stories, This Jealous Earth (MG Press). His debut novel, Theory of Remainders is due to appear in May (Winter Goose Publishing). His website is at http://www.sdcarpenter.com.

1) How did your collaboration with MG Press come about? How does it feel for This Jealous Earth to be their first title?

It was a happy coincidence. MG Press is the brainchild of a literary journal called Midwestern Gothic. They’d been putting out excellent issues for the past few years, and one of my stories had appeared in their pages. Just as I was ironing out the last wrinkles in my collection, they put out their initial call for book submissions. I think they expected to be publishing a novel, but I managed to win them over with the stories—and I couldn’t be happier about it. MG Press is a class operation, and they provided more support (both in editing and promotion) than you’d get from presses many times larger.

Midwestern Gothic Press

2) What holds the stories in This Jealous Earth together as a collection? Are there any writers that have influenced either particular stories or you as a writer in general?

It’s quite a varied collection, featuring main characters of all backgrounds—men and women, old and young. No setting appears twice, and readers will find the gamut of emotions. However, the stories are bound together by the question of choice: in each story characters arrive at a fork in the road, and they need to choose a path that will alter their future in important ways. I try to show these choices in real time, and then illustrate the consequences.

Stylistically I find myself drawing on many authors, and much depends on who I’m currently reading. But special favourites are Paul Auster, David Mitchell, Arthur Phillips. I also love the short story greats of the nineteenth-century: Poe, Hoffmann, Gogol, Balzac.

3) In 2011, The Millions published an essay by Cathy Day, in which she argued that talk of the renaissance of the short story is reflective of the rise of creative writing classes/workshops and their preference for the standalone story or poem, rather than any actual shift in what people want to read. As someone with both a published collection of short stories and a forthcoming novel, what are your thoughts on this?

It’s an interesting theory, and there may be a grain of truth to it. The fact is that public taste shapes what people write at the same time that what we write shapes public taste. There’s give and take. The short story used to be a tremendously popular genre, then it subsided, and now it seems to be coming back. Given how marked our preference is for shortness (on the web, for example), I wouldn’t be surprised to see even more interest in short stories. That said, I don’t think the novel is in any danger of being knocked off its champion’s pedestal.

Scott Dominic Carpenter_headshot copyright Paul Carpenter

4) On your website, you note that you ‘came to creative writing rather late’. As someone whose academic background is in nineteenth-century French literature, what eventually led you to creative writing, and how has the journey shaped you as a writer?

In some ways, it’s the most natural of transitions: you spend twenty-odd years studying literature, and that gives you the tools you need to start writing it. It’s certainly true that reading is the best preparation for writing; I may just have pushed that formula a little farther than most. What’s been interesting to me is how my creative writing still revolves around the preoccupations I developed in my reading: the difficulty of expression, the search for transcendence, humour. I find myself drawing on my analytical background quite often, though in indirect ways.

5) What’s next for you? Could you say something about Theory of Remainders, your forthcoming novel with Winter Goose Publishing, and how it compares with This Jealous Earth?

As you say, the next thing up is the novel. Theory of Remainders is a wonderfully exciting project (they’re already trying to hawk the movie rights), and we’ve just finished the galleys. (It comes out in May.) Theory… is a literary novel with a well-honed edge of suspense. It deals with an American psychiatrist, Philip Adler, who seeks to resolve a trauma he suffered — the death of his daughter — over a decade earlier. Most of the story takes place in France, where Adler lived for several years, and it weaves together notions of insanity, language, and cultural difference in a tale that is both moving and touched with humour.

At the same time, I have other pots simmering on the stove: more stories, some travel writing, and another novel.

[ED: We’ll publish Ian’s review of Scott’s collection, This Jealous Earth very soon, so keep an eye out for it…]