Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for April, 2013|Monthly archive page

‘Swarming’ by Edward Mackay

In Pamphlets on April 29, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Richard Watt


Swarming by Edward Mackay is in esteemed company. His 19 poems sit in the Salt Modern Voices series, from which several pamphlets have been my favourite poetry releases of the last couple of years. Several pages in it’s obvious Mackay’s a romantic, and very well read even for a modern poet, but the extent of his references and influences do not impede the reader. Often his poetry reads like a personal pilgrimage through the margins of revolutionary textbooks and mythos round-ups. These jostle boisterously against the more corporeal concerns of the body and desire.

So we have, then, the discomforting, iconoclastic stomp comprising ‘Of or Pertaining to a Raven’, which restlessly tosses its bestiary of Gnostic entities across the Risk board:

I’m God Mahakala and long before he rode on fire and sky
I fed Elijah meat and bread. I’m trickster and creator god of Haida.

Mackay introduces here something of a West-East travelogue, on which he could have gone – should Poe have denied the ticket from the weary traveller Hart Crane in his central work The Tunnel.

‘Stone House Asylum, 1932’ methodically weaves a familiar tale of male bonding during the First World War with Helen Thomas’ care for her husband Edward, a poet killed in action in 1915. Looking at her wartime memorabilia, ‘She spreads their youth upon the bed/as if, beneath the ordnance of loss, all three can walk together’. There is a feeling of verdancy in the story-telling which sets the poem apart from the grey, trench-sodden tropes the reader will expect.

A map-poem such as ‘The Size of Wales’ could certainly be described as visually pleasing but it’s also oddly tactile. Reading its several dozen scale analogies, it gave me a great and sudden feeling that I could reach in with my hand and pull out a fragment. As a journalist I laughed at comparisons to ‘166 million Olympic swimming pools’ and ‘39 million fewer rugby pitches’, and as a Scot I sympathised with ‘a great lake of language, each spoken word that’s lost the ears that understand it.’

Musical influences are neatly folioed in tribute to Bob Dylan and Jesus and Mary Chain, in ‘If You See Her’ and ‘Love Song to Feedback’. I got the feeling of the Mary Chain very well – whirling and giddy, disconnected. These poems work well as a pair, a kind of explanatory or biographical lemma for Mackay.

No small amount of pith inhabits the cursive script of wedding-invite-reply RSVP, where Mackay invokes the awkwardness of Church Going, then hurtles it into someone else’s Larkin:

I’ll even think of other things
(between the hymned injunctions that you don’t believe)
To put aside the memory of your fresh grown curves

‘Against Gratitude’ mixes in a frequent capacity for the taste of biological process or (sometimes and) desire.

Cuts, wheezes and fevers re-frame a romantic tryst as hospital diorama – ‘Resentment curdles, call it gratitude:/that marbled belly fat on coercion’s underside’ examines a previous relationship with the disinterested eye of a butcher or grocer inspecting their wares.

‘These Gathering Days’ conjure the spectre of Czeslaw Milosz with solemn, curatorial perspective, and the tidy ‘Pinhole Camera’ introduced me to the photograph of Michael Chrisman (for which I’m indebted).

My favourites here are ‘Midden Burial’ from ‘Postcards from Doggerland’, which hops along with a vague urgency that put me in mind of GM Hopkins, and The Abbat, the high diction of which recalls the stately splendour of modern fiction classic Canticle For Liebowitz. A torch and dictionary are occasionally needed to see into Swarming’s corners because the references are often so outward-looking, but Mackay’s direction and wording always signpost his intention.

To qualify that comment: Mackay’s writing hovers somewhere between the academic and the dystopian revolutionary, and is appropriately dispassionate and sanguine by turns. I believe his writing to be informed by classic British fiction, world mythos and a fascination with ancient cultures.  For all that, a traditional (call it classic) streak runs through Swarming.


Front Lines Anthology

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on April 28, 2013 at 1:30 pm

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

The stories are introduced as interpretations of ‘modern society’ conveying foreboding, dreams and apprehension. I think that one way of gauging decent writing is to see how well it reflects its socio-political environment (among other criteria, of course) and to my mind these stories do the job more than well. They are also well-written and entertaining.

Front Lines Valley Press reviewed by Nick Sweeney

Editor Dan Formby’s ‘Dead Stone’ opens the collection. The eloquent language, and the feel of the story, is reminiscent of Dostoevsky, which sets up certain expectations in the reader. His narrator sketches his initial journey:

I would not say that the exploration I undertook was much of an adventure. It did not require the traversing of treacherous chasms or unknown lands, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be; a removal of society from my life – or at least, the society that I was a part of and had come to deplore.

There is a sure hint of Raskolnikov in his seeking to escape from ‘a country at the height of vulgarity’. The narrator’s life among the homeless, and his meeting with a self-styled leader of homeless men, who speaks verging on the flourish of an orator, also takes the reader into the short stories of Franz Kafka, and Kafka’s often anonymous characters’ search for a self that cannot exist in the world around them.

It works very well on an allegorical level, although the story remains open-ended, leaving the reader wondering, and with the option to decide what might happen next.

The main character in Felice Howden’s accomplished ‘Stop Gap’ is in transit in small-town Britain after a visit to the US. His encounter with a kid in a run-down pub has a genuine sense of foreboding to it. There is a telling moment of chill when Roger realises that he ‘had nowhere else to be until the next day, and the kid’s eyes were suggesting something deadly that roused a sharp interest in Roger’s mind.’ The story imposes a kind of helplessness on the reader, as well as on Roger. It is full of sharply-drawn characters, instantly visible, unforgettable: a boy with ‘blonde hair and a jaw that could slice through stone… shudders like a mirage’, another vomits, looks up ‘with eyes like black holes in his head’, and a big guy is ‘laughing, scared’. Since Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, it’s difficult for any writer to come up with a new take on the stoner household, but Felice Howden achieves it with great verve.

One of the themes running through David Whelan’s ‘Viral Marketing’ is the western world’s voluntary entrapment by tools that we should be controlling, such as TV and computers. It also focuses on the sometimes strange relationships between people who meet in cyberspace, in this case while rivals in a bidding war. The losers decide to meet in real life:

The next to enter was a woman. She told him her name was Norton and that she wasn’t particularly good at conversation.
Conversation?’ Rupert asked.
‘Yeah – you know, talking. I prefer to write. It’s hard to say what you mean, but it’s easier to write it.’

Norton is a gem of a character, her meeting with Rupert one of the best scenes in the story, which cements the senses of fracture and dislocation – a disturbing scene, rendered with expertise and understatement. In other stories within the story, a man undergoes the paradoxical scene of a shared experience – watching a football match in a pub along with a roomful of football fans – in which nobody shares anything, as nobody is aware of anybody else. Whelan has nailed the condition of many people in our modern, western life in these scenes; most of his characters have become desensitised to whatever might have once seemed normal. Nobody has done it to them; they have used those tools that could be a boon to destroy themselves in this way and to lose what people may once have called their souls. This motif reminded me of Greek myths and, of course, the misuse of the free will given to people in Christian mythology.

That’s not all that is going on in this multi-layered story – there is the encroachment of America into the Middle East, China’s taking on of the western world, and the small matter of nuclear war. There is also an anxiety about the world’s scarcity of water, and, of course, the greed for it as for any scarce commodity. Whelan is addressing the fears of our times here, a big ambition for a short story. And he pulls it off; the black humour lifts it soaring beyond po-faced environmentalism or up-itself sci-fi.

You have to feel sorry for Malcolm in James Mcloughlin’s ‘This Hopeless War’, chained outside Liverpool Crown Court to hassle passers-by in protest at the incarceration of his brother, Justin, convicted of manslaughter after a trial by media. His protest, emotional and rather romantic, soon becomes that staple of British life, the ‘town centre nuisance’.

The words made sense to him, through the fog of injustice; he just couldn’t render them into any sort of coherence for others, so he had become a joke, scorched by the burning belief inside and the twisted image out.

It is this lack of coherence that is one of the pitfalls of translating emotion to protest; what can be a good idea in principle can go wrong when it is executed. But worse, there is the apathy which follows when novelty wears off, leaving Malcolm ‘at the mercy of his own estrangement from society’.

Ryan Whittaker’s ‘Climb’ is full of haunting images, framed in an expedition up Everest, which stands as a challenge to mountaineers, a religious focus for the Nepalese, and, ultimately, a graveyard, studded with decomposed bodies still wearing designer sunglasses and cold-weather jackets, with heart rate monitors blinking out a steady zero. It is also the search for a lost son, and a lost relationship.

On the same theme, Nathan Ouriach’s ‘Patrick’ traces a relationship to a phrase that sums up its seeming decline: ‘Looking back at the bed I see she has dribbled on my pillow. I used to think it was sweet but now it is just her saliva on my pillow.’ This tale is made up of such statements, putting the reader immediately into the story.

I’ve heard rumours of the short story’s demise ever since I started reading them, but on the evidence of this collection, it’s alive and well, and it’s good, and a relief, to see it in the hands of writers so young and talented.

Interview: The Inky Fingers Open Mic

In Interview, Performance Poetry, Saboteur Awards on April 27, 2013 at 4:45 pm

interviewed by James Webster

inky banner

The Inky Fingers Open Mic has been nominated for the Best Regular Spoken Word Night category in this year’s Saboteur Awards. Here, I chat with the Inky Fingers collective about what makes their event unique.

Let’s start with the basics: how long has Inky Fingers Open Mic been running and when/where does it take place?

 We kicked off in October 2010, and we’ve run an open mic on the last Tuesday of every month ever since. Our much-loved home, the Forest Café, has had to move in that time, so the open mic’s moved three times since, but we’re now ensconced at the Forest on 141 Lauriston Place. Keep track of us at!


Who are the Inky Fingers collective and how did the group come into being?

The core collective currently comprises a shifting, non hierarchical, boundlessly energetic group of the following people, found in varying combinations in time and space at any one time: Freddie Alexander (Soapbox), Alec Beattie (Blind Poetics), Mairi Campbell-Jack, Harry Giles (Anatomy), Ioannis Kalkounnis (Fledgling Press), Rachel McCrum (Rally & Broad, Stewed Rhubarb Press), Katherine McMahon (Outspoken), Rose Ritchie (Craigmillar Writers Group), Tracey S. Rosenberg and Agnes Török (Soapbox). And of the group are also involved organising various spoken word and performance events in Edinburgh (specifics in the brackets).


I set up the open mic back in 2010 with another writer named Alice Tarbuck, and when we realised we were onto a good thing we decided to open up the organisation to whoever had the energy and inclination! So it keeps changing and growing with whoever wants to make things happen.

We’ve answered this interview collectively as well, so you can track us by our initials.


The way you describe your open mic seems to make a point of being inclusive, inviting all different kinds of work, genres and types of performance. Why did you decide on that particular focus/ethos?

Open mics grow us, not just through giving us places to practise, but also because they feed us a wonderful diversity of words. We can find out not what one editor or host thinks we want to hear, but what a scrappy, diverse collective wants to say. Open mics are also the fertiliser of a scene, because they create new performers, and that creates new organisers and events. Without them, we wouldn’t have everything else.

When I have new work in new forms I want to try out, open mics are the first place I go to. A well-hosted open mic is warm and welcoming, and the audience is there not to judge you but to enjoy being with you. An open mic gives me the license to not be that good, to get it wrong, to make a mistake and for that to be OK. Without open mics, I’d just perform the same style of thing over and over, because I’d feel too scared to try something I didn’t know worked. And every open mic I go to – literally every one – has at least one person doing something new with words I never expected.

More than that, people do words, do art, for all sorts of different reasons. Some of them want a career. Some of them find it therapeutic. Some of them want to get their anger out. Some of them want you to fall in love with them. Some of them are desperate for a place to speak out in a world that prevents them from speaking. Some of them are in love with beauty, with many different kinds of beauty. Some of them find that only doing art makes them feel good. Some of them don’t even know why they’re doing this. All of this needs a space. All of this should have a space. That’s what an open mic is. Open, and free, always.


And what have the highlights of this inclusivity been? What kinds of really surprising or different performances have emerged from the open mic?

OK, so for me the best moments aren’t always the most surprising or outré. What I really live for is when a writer performs their words into a microphone for the first time. There’s this look they get, this total joy of connection with the audience, that I’m just so grateful for. That makes me keep hosting open mics more than anything else! Supporting people in finding a voice.

That said. Someone once read the instructions on a loudhailer box, that was good. Someone once performed the poems of Marilyn Monroe. There was a great flash-fiction about toothless zombies last month that made me smile. You know, words!


And what do you look for when you book your feature performers and what have some of the highlights been of their sets?

Availability, variety, experimentation. We want to be a stopping point for international poets on tour, as well as a platform for up and coming local talent. Kristiana Rae Colon was a recent pleasure and privilege to put on; last year a big set from Jon Sands and Ken Arkind was joyous.


What have the challenges been in running Inky Fingers in general and the Open Mic in particular?

As we’re all volunteers, sometimes we get tired…the advantage of working as a collective means that there are (usually) just enough of us to cover everything, should one or two people take a(n entirely reasonable) sabbatical.

We run an open platform and you really never know what you’re going to get. We have had, on occasion, difficult performers – drunk, offensive or over running – and it’s the host-of-the-evening’s job to manage that, and the audience… it can get interesting.


What’s the spoken word scene like in Edinburgh in general?

 It’s as dynamic as a circus held inside a dance club within range of an exploding supernova.

Scheduling spoken word events in Edinburgh is notoriously difficult because no matter what night you choose, something else is always happening. A classic example of this was one Tuesday night when Ian Rankin was speaking at the Central Library, Janice Galloway was talking across the street at the National Library of Scotland, and the City of Literature folks were having their monthly salon about five minutes away. But here’s the beauty of it – all three had a good audience.


You also have a focus on open mic performances being entertaining and engaging, encouraging people to ‘bring their words to life’. Has this been a challenge for some open mic performers?

 It just takes practise and passion, really. As long as you feel it, the more you practise, and the more different kinds of audience you practise with, the better you get. Some people are more nervous, or more over-confident, or have frailer voices, or aren’t used to speaking, but everyone can live their words in time.


If you’re trying to convince someone who’s never heard of the Inky Fingers Open Mic to come to your events then what do you say?

 When I first performed, I remember thinking I would need a whisky or two to get up and do this if I was prepared to be criticised for my offerings. It was not like that at all, in fact the audience couldn’t have been more encouraging. When I finally got to run away from the scene of my first ever slam poetry event my heart still beating fast with nerves and excitement. At one time I still preferred the 5 minute spots. My nerves couldn’t stand it! I stuck with it because I didn’t want to be unstuck from this amazing feeling of performing your own words.

I have been inspired so much over the last two years by so many people. The person that I nervously was changed and became more dramatic. That is because the words that I am expressing are mine. I edit them in my head, I own them. I listen and believe people when they tell me that they enjoy my poetry.


Try it. What do you have to lose? Also, you look lovely today.


And finally, have you heard of Sabotage before and are you pleased to be nominated for a Saboteur award?

 Sabotage provides a platform for some of the most insightful, original reviews out there. Long live Sabotage. And Yes! We’ve been squealing with delight!


‘My Mother Was An Upright Piano’ by Tania Hershman

In Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on April 26, 2013 at 2:30 pm

-Reviewed by Martin Macaulay-

Tania Hershman’s My Mother was an Upright Piano compacts 56 stories into 136 pages. Her short-short stories and micro-fictions are concise, impressively constructed examples of the form; stories with soul despite their brevity. Hershman’s writing is cross-discipline, eschewing a specialist streak that in lesser hands might have resulted in sets of navel-gazing motifs or a hermetically sealed collection. Instead she plunders from science and the arts, creating dense philosophical microcosms that have more to say about the human condition than the attempts of some lengthier works.

My Mother Was An Upright Piano Tania Hershman

Each sentence is stripped back; their words scraped or polished until the paragraphs are whittled into shape. These are sculpted fictions that fizz with intelligence. They spark ideas in the reader that linger afterwards, like ball lightning coring into your mind.

I was hooked before the book had even properly begun, sucked into the introductory note on the font that is used – Crimson Text – and its backstory. The opener, ‘The Google 250’ is a modern take on personal gratification as technology supplants sex to satisfy our base desires. Google fuels ego, and the narcissistic need to look at what others say is interwoven into everyday life, ultimately to replace sexual satisfaction.

People were having dreams about browser pages that had words missing, their names had wings and had taken flight, like heads off a goldfish.

It’s a tight story, playful, but the premise isn’t too outrageous. This tale is more cautionary than comical.

Hershman writes with a lyrical precision that slices apart what it is to be human. In ‘My Uncle’s Son’ a young man regards life from the periphery until someone reaches out to drag him into the living. ‘Under the Tree’ is one of the longer pieces at over three pages. A mother worries as her son has begun to sit under a tree all day, distant and withdrawn. She longs for his deceased father to be alive again, to help her understand. Her desperation is palpable:

Help me, I say at night, lying in the lonely bed, the marriage bed of not-John and me. Where are you?

Mother and son are reunited but what lies ahead is left hanging. Is this merely a temporary reunification? Has the mother pulled the son over, or is it vice versa? Open to interpretation, there is no doubting the intensity of emotion packed into this short.

‘The Prologue’ is a wonderful piece, barely a page in size. In a role reversal, here the prologue is the story, the novel itself succinctly wrapped in a few sentences in the final paragraph. ‘Missy’ is a mere paragraph but shows us the devastating impact that nurture can have on fucking up future generations. A would-be mother transfers the undermining statements and vicious words onto a would-be daughter, unable to blunt the phrases that cut her deep, open wounds that have failed to heal:

If I had a daughter, this is how it would be. It would be all, Stand up straight, missy, shoulders back, no slouching, and she’d be sulky, sullen, pouting, wilful

My Mother was an Upright Piano is more than the sum of its parts. The book is structured into seven groups of six and two groups of seven, bonding this collection together as tightly as a chemical compound. It’s a solid, unbreakable and inspiring collection. Hershman creates worlds with depth and heart. She shows us lives soaked in loss; some with glimpses of hope, others dystopian. Reading My Mother… is a bit like discovering a boxful of unfamiliar photographs in a curiosity shop. You study each picture, try to decipher the look on the subject’s face, or work out what that object is in the foreground. Hershman pulls you in to these beautifully condensed fictions. The difficulty is in trying to climb back out again.

‘Synthetic Saints’ by Jason Rolfe

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on April 24, 2013 at 1:15 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

If my reading career has taught me anything, it is that for a book to survive in the current publishing climate, it needs to bring something extraordinary and unique to the reading audience. Jason Rolfe’s bold and experimental novella, Synthetic Saints, certainly caters to this industry requirement. The futuristic text catapults you into a somewhat terrifying version of our future both as a planet and a civilisation in which humans are accompanied by their synthetics, a term used to describe a simulated human, if you will.

The short text follows the journey of protagonist Alex Hargreaves, who is a security specialist for the ISA. After losing communication with a Deep Space Observatory, Alex and his synthetic partner Persephone are sent to investigate what happened to the data analyst, Amanda Hayes, that was in charge of this particular station. We are informed before the novella begins that each data analyst within this kind of position runs their respective observatories alone and that they work on a six-month rotation period. Naturally, the feelings of isolation and depression are over-whelming in such a unique situation thus, Alex makes no secret of the fact that accidental death and suicide are common amongst those who adopt the role. With this startling reality in mind, Alex and Persephone are on a journey to identify which of the above options has occurred this time.

Jason Rolfe Synthetic Saints

Alongside the difficulties faced in his professional life, Alex is also burdened by his personal one. We learn that he once had a wife and a daughter, both of whom are now deceased; due to a memory manipulation program that is mandatory for Alex’s line of work, these are not memories that fade over time but rather stay as fresh now as they were on the days they were made.

To begin with I felt a slight apprehension at reading what appeared to be yet another generic science fiction novella, in which the world has dramatically changed for the worse. However as I delved deeper into the tale I slowly found myself drawn into a truly fascinating scenario which is made all the more enjoyable thanks to the brilliant character of Alex Hargreaves. The emotion that is weaved throughout the consciousness of this individual is over-powering; his thoughts frequently return to the loss of his wife and daughter, memories which he fails to escape, ultimately meaning that we also fail to escape them. As Alex returns to his daughter’s accident and his wife’s suicide, we inevitably feel the pain with him, making this a much more forceful story than I initially anticipated it being.

In addition to his role as the emotionally tortured widower, Alex also adopts the role of detective. Throughout the duration of the novella Alex is constantly discovering clues and deciphering information that ultimately leads us to the complex resolution to the text. After finishing the text, I did feel somewhat inclined to conclude that it what a hybrid of both science fiction and detective fiction; the futuristic nature of the text is integral to our reading of it, therefore it cannot be simply overlooked, but the ‘Whodunit’ principle is also prominent within this text. While on paper the genres may not seem to be soul mates, Rolfe has combined them to create something truly entertaining.

Overall I felt that Synthetic Saints was a thoroughly interesting read and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for something that offers a more unique take on literary genres.

‘i wrote a poem dedicated to god that i considered to be extremely disrespectful’ by Diane Marie

In online chapbook, Pamphlets on April 23, 2013 at 11:00 am

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

Diane Marie’s i wrote a poem dedicated to god that i considered to be extremely disrespectful is self-published as a 20 page PDF on Scribd. It appears to have been written for a PDF format: each page marks a new poem in the sequence, and each word is aware of its position on the page. It is typographically quirky; every single I, on its own or within words, is italicised (I won’t attempt to reproduce this in my quotations). In publishing online like this, the sequence marks itself out as part of alt lit, which can be better described as a community than a movement or a genre. Indeed, often the only distinguishing characteristic of alt lit, as i wrote a poem dedicated to god… can be categorised, seems to be its publication practice; however, alt lit, and Diane Marie’s poetry, show signs of a shared aesthetic that is best described as post-internet. The simplest definition of post-internet art I’ve seen is that it treats the internet as banal rather than novel. I suppose the online publication can be seen as part of this, as it is easier to pretend the C21st doesn’t exist when one’s poems are in print. And whilst artists are often placed as pre- or post-internet based on their age – as in, whether they grew up without or with the internet – their art, by birth, is post-internet, and so has no reason not to reflect the same pressures. It is fair to accuse pre-internet poetry written in a post-internet age of redundancy. i wrote a poem dedicated to god… is certainly post-internet in its outlook and aware of the backwards glance in ‘post’.

It is a sequence mostly concerned with connectedness despite everything. The backdrop of the poems is a gentle apocalypticism, of the melancholy of those of us hanging around after the end of history. A dog-walker, who appears in a few of the poems, “thinks about the way the earth moves slower every year” as, we are told elsewhere, “ev’rything is/slowing down”. The dog-walker, with his stopped watch, is trapped in inactivity through the sequence, waiting “for the dog to change his mind about the rest of/the walk”. Something like this idea appears in the sequence: “JOAN OF ARC WAS A WITCH AND A BELIEVER//I AM NOT EITHER”. The first line, to be heretical, can be understood as “Joan of Arc partook in the system by which she was condemned” or “Joan of Arc still drew personal meaning from a system which would kill her”. The speaker of the poem is free from accusations of witchcraft but also excluded from belief. This mood invokes the paradoxical situation of the networked post-internet individuals of the C21st: more connected than ever, yet more aware of our isolation as a result.

It is against this backdrop that the sequence explores the possibility of connections. To quote the penultimate poem in full:

it is the future now
and we are both dead
a long time ago
but i still love you

Much of the sequence covers the characters within the dog-walker’s “tableau of dog and lead and/ man and bench”, connected by their views of each other. Some of the best lines in the poems are descriptive, as they play with sublimity and excess and the way in which the external world connects to the individual, or the individual practices a mode of sight upon the world. The third poem, for example, is one long sentence, beginning:

and the beach below is wild and coarse dark
sand and great green-smeared curves and the
sea is huge and deep and wholly blue and
overhung with a thick grey wall of cotton-wool
sky and climbing the dunes and dry rock bluff
are samphire glasswort aster and thrift

The unbearable excess of the external world is portrayed most in a poem which begins “There was visibility in all directions”, and follows a pattern of slowly varying sentences about the horizon and the sky and everything creating the appearance of being “in the center of some body of water”, accumulating into “The/impression was obliterating.” The impression, the subjective sensation that obliterates the observer’s mode of seeing, is what we are looking at, not the object of their sight. This is important, as the mode of seeing incorporates an emotional response, and it is this emotional response to impressions that gives rise to the empathetic connections between people that the sequence also explores.

Crucially, the characters in the dog-walking tableau never seem to share a glance, as a smoking woman “wonders what would/happen if the man standing still looked up”. Many of these gazes act as a prompt towards connection via the common experience (as a burden and a joy) of the body. As well as the smoking woman, the dog-walker and his dog are seen by a “passing cyclist” who “notices/all four eyes on the man and the dog/blinking in unison and blinks also”. That the man and dog’s eyes are numbered individually rather than pairs implies surprise not only that the man and dog are blinking in unison with each other, but that they are blinking in unison with themselves. The cyclist then becomes aware of his own body, as in a later poem, “suddenly acutely/aware of his eyelids.” This poem then fills the rest of the page with closing brackets, which make the reader’s eyes feel funny too; we are blinking at the cyclist’s blinking at the man and dog’s blinking. As the sequence’s second poem, coming directly after the cyclist’s blink, runs: “oh shit i have//”feelings”.” There is a joke in the faux-ironic speech marks, but it suggests the sense of physical sensation in the word “feelings” (rather than, say, ‘emotions’) and holds this up against C21st isolation. The sequence, like much post-internet literature, exploits the visceral and the physiological as a route towards sincerity, or as a route at least to provoke any sort of reaction at all.

It’s a very impressive set of poems, albeit with some messiness; I can’t get much out of one poem which goes over the words “rain”, “rein” and “reign”, even if it does combine this with some of the wittiest lines of the sequence, such as the sequence’s title or the final lines: “do a radio interview and/i don’t know the exact reasons.” But i wrote a poem dedicated to god…’s patchiness can be forgiven for its cleverness and the direction of literature that it represents.

You can read some more poems by Diane Marie here

Review: Sadcore Dadwave (Not the Oxford Literary Festival) 20/03/13

In Performance Poetry on April 23, 2013 at 9:30 am


-reviewed by James Webster

The Event

Sadcore Dadwave is a night I was hugely intrigued by; with a really cool line-up, a bafflingly unspecific name and mission statement, and a spot in the always impressive Not the Oxford Literary Festival. Spawned from the minds of Sian S. Rathore and Paul Askew, this night was part of the performance facet of Sadcore Dadwave, an organisation that also encompasses an e-zine and seems to have a strong focus on transgressive and alternative literature. These genres both seem to have a focus on pushing at the barriers of genre, crossing lines of convention and style, and it was perhaps appropriate then that my reaction to the night was split. Indeed, looking back at it in different ways gives an impression of two different events, one hugely enjoyable and the other … not so much.

The Positive View

An immense evening with a series of thoughtful, funny and frankly fascinating performers, all ably spliced together by our two hosting ‘dads’, Sian and Paul, who used the device of being our theoretical parents to clever comic effect.

Sian opened with ‘We Are All Anagrams of Something Else Entirely’, which won me over with its fun overarching anarchic imagery tied together by the poet’s playful way with words. Her twin pieces ‘I’m So Miserable’ and ‘I’m So Jacked’ were both hilarious in their exaggerated misery/cheerful mania, listing with a whimsical joy the ways in which she’s so miserable/jacked (“I’m so jacked I fucked Lord Byron to death!”).

Paul brought his usual blend of thoughtfully amusing absurdity with the damaged, darkly sweet and beautiful ‘Battlefields’, while his ‘Holiday’ began as basic comic satire of holiday-makers (“let’s get refused service in pubs and bars”), but evolved into an insightful and laugh-rousing piece on the idea of holiday itself (“let’s declare war on our home towns”).

Emily Harrison gave a set with a clarity of expression that many other poets would be envious of, while also offering up some really powerful imagery and imaginative ideas. Particular highlights were her raw and visceral piece on Mark Quinn’s ‘Self’, her ‘Making John Lennon Cum’ with its playful visuals and the way it interacted with a public entity on an intimate and personal level, and the brief and adorably bittersweet ‘Taxidermy’.

Diane Marie‘s extracts from her e-book ‘I Wrote a Poem Dedicated to God that I Considered to be Extremely Disrespectful’ were way cool. I really loved the way she painted scenes with her words, layering them part by part, building meaning through repetition and gradual change. It seemed she was giving us fragmentary extracts from a whole that also appears to be made up of interlocking fragments, a kind of study/deconstruction of words, jokes and typeset.

Luke Kennard‘s feature set was a phenomenon of super-clever satire, blended with his own uniquely creative way with words to create an ice-cool set. Old favourite ‘The Murderer’ is a nice take on how the rehabilitation process can be subverted by constant reminders and cultural demonisation (presented with amped up amusement). ‘Leatherbound Road’ was a sweet and unique twist on a love poem, viewing emotion only through reference and analogy. And his big set piece ‘Insufferably Upbeat Spies’ deconstructed the various clichés, tropes and annoying cocky-cheerfulness of spy shows with great aplomb and a surprisingly tight plot. He made superb use of comic exaggeration with spies chirping things like “being a spy is just so wonderful I could burst into animated stars” and a villain known as “the Heart-fucker” who pretty much does what it says on the tin …

And in the open mic Lucy Ayrton‘s ‘Bonfire Juice’ was at its usual nostalgic and heartbreaking best, Joe Briggs‘s lecture-cum-anecdote-cum-poem on punk music painted a rich and spiky smorgasboard of anarchic ridiculosity, Lysander fit some big words and ideas into a rapid-fire political rap, Molly Arenberg gave an extremely affecting piece addressed to her girlfriend’s parents that had some very powerful things to say on gay acceptance, and George Chopping gave his social-awkwardness-as-comic-performance turn that always works well for him.

All in all, a night of intelligent, thoughtful and often gut-bustingly funny poetry, which walked the fine line between clever confidence and arrogance with the poise of a tightrope walker.

The Negative View

A clumsily organised event (the hosts were 20 minutes late) that always felt just a bit too pleased with how clever it was being, this night had the feeling of an in-joke that I was being judged for not getting. The somewhat exclusory atmosphere of the evening was not helped by the specious nature of what ‘Sadcore Dadwave‘ actually is, or what it’s mission statement and intent are as regards the kind of poetry they’re trying to promote, which didn’t stop them from policing the open mic and forbidding some poets to perform, because they didn’t fit the ‘feel’.

Sian‘s ‘We Are All Anagrams of Something Else Entirely’ had some fun and anarchic overarching imagery, but it didn’t do enough for me to tie together the otherwise massively disparate nature of the poem. While her two list-style pieces ‘I’m So Jacked’ and ‘I’m So Miserable’ seemed lazy in their formats and, while funny and original, effectively repeated the same joke over and over again, as if hammering you over the head with how good said joke was.

While ‘Battlefields’ and ‘Holiday’ were solid pieces, the latter started off as disappointingly 1-dimensional and Paul sacrificed his usually thoughtful and nuanced performance of ‘The Life and History of Paul Askew in 5 Dream Sequences’ in order to emphasise the comedy, which robbed the poem of some of its depth.

Emily Harrison‘s poems, while occasionally powerful and imaginative, tended towards over-explaining, which made her overall style seem clunky and could lead to some poems coming across as forced and obvious. I can’t help but feel her genuinely interesting ideas and engaging imagery may have been better served by suggesting more and explaining less, giving the audience more to sink their imaginative teeth into.

The fragmented nature of Diane Marie‘s work, by contrast, could be seen as having the opposite problem, as it could be said to have lacked focus and drive. While the individual images were gorgeous, they did not always succeed in suggesting a connecting theme or narrative and perhaps her work did not lend itself perfectly to performance.

Luke Kennard‘s performance, for all its wit and mammoth intelligence (or perhaps because of it), seemed smug in the extreme. His piece on tabloid journalism was expertly constructed, but seemed too pleased with itself in its almost vindictive humour. ‘Insufferably Upbeat Spies’ suffered from the same problem, its hilarious deconstruction of the spy genre becoming increasingly repetitive and seeming to revel in its own cleverness. “The Heart-fucker” was possible the best example of this, for in his exaggeration/satire of the negative stereotypes that spy/crime shows indulge in with their villains, Kennard seemed to indulge his cleverness to the point of obnoxiousness, which undermined the satire.

And in the open mic Lysander‘s delivery was monotonous, his politics undeveloped and obvious, and his lyrics unimaginative. Molly Arenberg‘s poem, for all her clear emotion and moving subject matter, was over-long and perhaps needed more artful language and expression, while it could have done without the artificial-seeming actions. Joe Briggs‘s punk elegy was more of a list than poem and lacked any more coherent message than ‘punk is pretty cool’. While George Chopping‘s absurdly long intro was embarrassingly awkward and rambling, while his poetry was amusing, but somewhat trite.

Overall this event was smug, exclusive and pretentious. While a lot of the material was very good and very funny, there was too much of sense that people were only trying to entertain themselves which came across as masturbatory. Not that I have a problem with masturbation (literary or otherwise), but often these things are more fun when they’re a more collaborative effort …

A Cappella Zoo 10 – Spring 2013

In Magazine on April 22, 2013 at 1:39 pm

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

About thirty or so pages into this collection is a set of illustrations by Cheryl Gross, drawn to accompany Nicelle Davis’s three ‘In the Circus of You’ poems. Although I would never claim to be an artistic specialist, Gross’s drawings remind me of John Tenniel’s illustrations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories. This strikes me as particularly apt, for the Bestiary Special of A Cappella Zoo is a strange, eclectic wonderland of prose and poetry, drawing together the real with the imagined and fantastic.

A Capella 10

Weighing in at a hefty 345 pages, A Cappella Zoo is comprised of seven sections, with titles like ‘Crematorium’, ‘Shelter’, ‘Aquarium’. Its editor, Gina Ochsner, sets out the journal’s remit in the introduction – to provide a space where magic realism can be presented as a ‘viable and legitimate form for narrative and image-rich poetry’. In this respect, A Cappella Zoo succeeds; gruesome, zombie-like stories jostle alongside shorter pieces about oddly fragmented families. Some are disturbing, others powerful. A disinterested father disappears into sand at a children’s playground, an elderly grandfather turns into a tree, the body of great-uncle who had been severely wounded during the Second World War falls apart time and time again.

Some pieces in the collection really shine; for example, ‘When The Weather Changes You’ by Amber Sparks. The empty sadness of the great-grandmother, the story’s protagonist, is captured perfectly in the metaphor of ash – decaying inside, the great grandmother is unable to love but urgently longs for the physical heat exerted by her only lover. Sparks portrays the grandmother’s conflicted desires with sensitivity, leaving the reader sympathetic rather than frustrated with her plight. Similarly, the ghoulish intrigue of ‘Three Conrad Poems’ by Kristine Ong Muslim is equally well done. The poems juxtapose the theme of familial love and Frankenstein-esque grotesquery of a zombie family: “I squeezed his hand to make him stop. It crackled./‘Don’t worry,’ I whispered over a mouthful/Of grass, earth, and dark river water. A family recipe./‘I’ll weld the bones later […].’ Such loving grotesquery is repeated later in Randolph Schmidt’s ‘Larva’, where a father imitates his son – in order to understand him – in the eating of insects and wood.

I was also moved by the sad, respectful tone of ‘War Crumbs’ by Joe Kapitan. The great-uncle in this story ‘falls apart’; literally, his body breaking apart at the joints. The disintegration of the self is repeated elsewhere in the collection, as in ‘The Adventures of Star Fish Girl’ by Lindsay Miller. This piece has a distinctly female take on the theme and provides an interesting take on the consumptive nature of relationships – that sense of something being taken by a lover.

Another standout story is ‘Trouble in Mind’ by Julia A. Rosenthal, which portrays the loss of language and its replacement with a number-driven intelligence. It is cleverly done, with Rosenthal skewing the common experience of partners becoming unable to talk to each other. In the parallel world of ‘Trouble in Mind’, this inability to talk occurs to characters following an illness. They become infected with a condition that takes away their vocal abilities and understanding of spoken language, replacing it with a new, number-driven intelligence. The ‘infected’ characters thus communicate with each other through Byrons – machines that translate and transfer the silent speaker’s words. It is an interesting premise and Rosenthal is skilful in her representation of the loneliness created by a decaying language. The only thing that didn’t settle with me in this story was the use of word Byron. To my mind, Byron conjures a sensual, brooding poet, who used language to challenge and provoke. Perhaps calling the translation machines Lovelaces would work – Ada Lovelace was Byron’s daughter, and a pioneer in maths and forerunner of computer algorithms.

I enjoyed and was challenged by this collection. Some poems and stories took me well out of my comfort zone and I applaud the ambition. The Bestiary edition of A Cappella Zoo is a journal to revisit and re-read.

Rebecca Burns is the author of Catching the Barramundi, longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award.

Lummox #1

In Magazine, Saboteur Awards on April 22, 2013 at 9:00 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills


This first issue of the annual poetry journal Lummox is a great unwieldy beast of a thing. Two hundred and thirty pages of closely-packed text, with, as the cover is at pains to point out, over 160 poets included, along with interviews, articles, featured poets sections and testimonials to others recently dead. And when I say packed, I mean it. Poems are frequently bent out of shape to squeeze an extra one on the page, and everyone gets their biographical note at the foot of their contribution.

The overall sense of clutter is largely a product of editor RD Armstrong’s ambitious approach as outlined in his informative introduction. There are a dozen guest-edited sections intended to represent either a region of the States, a loose-knit school or, in one case, Nigeria. The editorial process for these sections was that the guest editor selected the poets, asked them to submit 3 or 4 of their favourites from among their own poems and then Armstrong whittled this down to 1 or 2 each. Interleaved between these are eleven numbered sections called ‘The Poetry I to XI’, containing the seventy five additional submissions that Armstrong had already accepted.

The titling of these sections has the unfortunate, and presumably unintended, consequence of at least implying that the remaining verse may be something other than poetry. To be fair, this is not the case. While little of the work presented lives up the ‘fantastics’, ‘marvelouses’ and so on that pepper most of the guest editor introductions, the vast bulk of it is perfectly competent, the product of that vast army of semi-professional poets that inhabit the world of local poetry groups, creative writing workshops and residencies that form such a dominant part of the American poetry landscape, at least if the individual bios are to be believed.

There is little difference in quality or tone between the guest-edited contributions and the rest. The dominant influences are the plain speech of William Carlos Williams, but without his acuteness of perception, the hallucinogenic cowboy effects of Ed Dorn, but lacking his metaphysics, the earth-mother Buddhism of Diane di Prima, minus her energy, the debauchery of Charles Bukowski, without whatever it is of merit that people find in his verses, and, oddly, a smattering of Eavan Boland’s early-period domestic politics. This is, I suppose, what happens when an avant garde style become the everyday manner of a body of poetry. Surveying these 160 writers, almost all Americans, you would be forgiven for believing that nothing new had happened in the world of US poetry since about 1963. The one section that doesn’t conform to this pattern is the Nigerian one, where the primary impression is of reading texts that were written in the authors’ second or third language, which is probably the case.

All of which is not to say that there is no interesting writing in Lummox. There is a fine untitled poem by Simon Perchik where the sounds of words are weighed carefully:

–he must dread the splash
is trained to wade slowly and where
the waves are buried, where these stones
harden, climb to that same altitude
they once flew

an equally interesting one by Jared Smith called Equinox which opens:

A grasshopper crawls over the twisted steel rail, rusting
within a hand’s reach from where I sag down on haunches,
tumbles on its head, flails its feet on the rotting wooden ties
and takes to air tick-wickering the way grasshoppers do.

and one of the featured poets, the late Kell Robertson worked the outlaw mode with more conviction that most.

Among the essays, interviews and reviews at the back there’s an impassioned rant by Jack Foley against the professionalization of poetry as a result both of the proliferation of MFA programmes in American universities and what he calls the tolerated poetry ghettoes of ‘the coffee house, the college or university, the precious little literary group, the workshop, the library and the bookstore or museum’. It reads like a direct attack on most of the preceding 160 biographies and, indeed, on the likely readership.

The most positive outcome of reading Lummox is that it made me ponder what it is I want from a poetry journal. I don’t want bulk-purchase poetry; I want an editor with a clear vision of the kind(s) of work that interests them and the ability to be brutally selective in presenting it. I want generous and representative selections from each poet that are given space to breathe on the page. Most of all I don’t want to be told how great the poetry is; that’s a judgement for me to make. I’ll assume the editor believes in it anyway.

‘The Flood’ by Superbard (George Lewkowicz)

In Interactive Literature, Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on April 21, 2013 at 1:57 pm

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

What is particularly interesting about The Flood is how it translates the live storytelling experience into a digitally portable medium. For instance, the first story ‘Dr Who and the Water’ was performed by Superbard (aka George Lewkowicz) at the Birkbeck Writer’s Hub October Hubbub last year, and he plans to continue performing stories from The Flood around the UK. At the moment, the ebook features three stories by Superbard and illustrations by Maria Forrester, accompanied by music and narration from the former. The latest update in iBooks added music and narration for the third story, ‘The Ark’, plus a burst of social commentary in the form of new song, ‘Two by Two’.
The Flood - Superbard
A complaint that is sometimes levelled at digital storytelling is that it resorts to gimmickry, privileging the manipulation of form at the expense of good stories. Thankfully, there is no danger of that in The Flood. Opening story ‘Dr Who and the Water’ nicely sets up the arrival of the titular flood. Rather than spend time trying to explain why the flood has happened, the story self-assuredly brings the reader into a remoulded reality where London is ‘Venice with no buildings’, and everyone is still unconcernedly going about their business, including watching the Doctor’s onscreen triumph. (I would quibble with the story’s referencing a particular Doctor Who episode though, since that so precisely dates the story’s time setting.)

‘Brixton’s Afloat’ is my favourite story of the three, due in no small part to its catchy refrain (vocals by Nikki Blemings):

Now that Brixton’s afloat will you lay your body next to mine,
And we’ll sink to the bottom of the sea.
For now my darling we should smother ourselves in brine,
Now that Brixton’s afloat upon the sea.

The story itself is told in a familiar form, making use of diary entries, but even the tiniest detail like how the narrator begins each entry by describing what kind of tie he wore that day (the tie is later dropped in favour of jeans, then waterproof trousers, and finally a wetsuit, as the flood progresses) lends a twist, especially when one is experiencing the story aurally.

As for final story (for now) ‘The Ark’, it manages to evoke a blend of pathos and disgust simply from the device of having the characters sit down to play a game of bridge. The addition of song ‘Two by Two’ just before the story emphasises the class aspect of the card game choice, but there is also something pitiful about a group of people (illustrated as animals though, which is apt on multiple symbolic levels), the ‘worst of humanity’, carrying on as if they were not stuck in a sinking ark. Superbard also displays his gift for live storytelling in the story’s closing line: ‘and then for the first time, they started to breathe’.

Frankly, if The Flood were to just finish on that note, I would consider it a satisfying book. Fortunately, The Flood is an ongoing project, and readers are invited to contact Superbard on Facebook or Twitter to suggest storylines or characters. With any luck, you might even be made a character in the stories, with your choices determining Superbard’s handling of your character, turning The Flood into a form of collaborative storytelling. (The credits for the current three stories connect the various characters to their real-world inspirations.) On the whole, this is a project that makes for great reading-cum-listening, and my only regret is that I cannot be in the UK to catch Superbard performing one of these stories live.