Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for May, 2013|Monthly archive page

Saboteur Awards 2013: The Winners!

In All of the Above, Saboteur Awards on May 30, 2013 at 1:24 pm

A more in-depth post will come soon, with comments from voters, logos for each winner, pictures and links to videos from the night (if you have any, do email them to us!), but we thought some of you might like to know as soon as possible who won in each category. You can find links to reviews of the shortlisted works here. We’re also featured in the Guardian today here, while Dan Holloway reviewed the event here! There is also a storify here of the event.

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The Results!

Best one-off 

Winner: Shake the dust
Runners up (joint-place): Penning Perfumes and Poetry Parnassus

Shake the Dust represented by Sam-La Rose, Kareem Parkins-Brown and Charlotte Higgins (photo Dan Holloway)

Shake the Dust represented by Sam-La Rose, Kareem Parkins-Brown and Charlotte Higgins (photo Dan Holloway)

From @jsamlarose's twitter after Shake The Dust's win

From @jsamlarose’s twitter after Shake The Dust’s win

Best short story collection

Winner: Tony Williams, All the bananas I’ve never eaten
Runner up: Tania Hershman, My Mother was an Upright Piano

Best magazine:

Winner: Rising.
Runner up: Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts.

Rising Editor Tim Wells

Rising Editor Tim Wells

Best poetry pamphlet:

Winner: Selected Poems by Charlotte Newman
Runner up: Lune by Sarah Hymas

Best spoken word performer:

Winner: Vanessa Kisuule
Runner Up: Dan Cockrill

Best regular spoken word night:

Winner: Bang said the Gun
Runner Up: Jibba Jabba

The Bang Said the Gun team at the awards!

The Bang Said the Gun team at the awards! Photo from @bangsaidthegun twitter feed

'They don't shake themselves' (Bang said the gun)

‘They don’t shake themselves’ (Bang said the gun)

Best spoken word show:

Winner: ‘Whistle’ by Martin Figura
Runner Up: ‘Lullabies to Make your Children Cry’ by Lucy Ayrton

Best poetry anthology:

Winner: Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot
Runner-Up: Adventures with Form

Best fiction anthology:

Overheard: Stories to be read aloud
Runner Up: Unthology volume 3.

Overheard editor and contributor Jonathan Taylor

Overheard editor and contributor Jonathan Taylor

Best mixed anthology:

Winner: Estuary: a Confluence of Art and Poetry
Runner Up: Still (Negative Press).

Best novella:

Winner: ‘Holophin’ by Luke Kennard
Runner-Up: ‘Count from Zero to One Hundred’ by Alan Cunningham

Tom Chivers, editor of Penned in the Margins

Tom Chivers, editor of Penned in the Margins

Most innovative publisher:

Winner: Penned in the Margins
Runner-up: Unthank Books

A birthday card for Sabotage from the Sidekick Book team!

A birthday card for Sabotage from the Sidekick Book team!

Runner up for best poetry show Lucy Ayrton, event organizer Thea Buen, poetry editor Claire Trévien

Runner up for best poetry show Lucy Ayrton, event organizer Thea Buen, poetry editor Claire Trévien (photo by Tim Wells)

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‘SILVER’ (ed. Melanie Villines & Joan Jobe Smith)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm

-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-

Here’s an idea: invite some of your colleagues in the writing scene to submit individual pieces of short fiction, novel excerpts, verse, screenplay and other literary minutiae – all of which must honour a pre-determined theme – collate them, shuffle them into a polished sequence, then sit back and watch your anthology receive all the plaudits it deserves.

Unfortunately, we’ve been beaten to it. So we’ll have to make do with Silver Birch Press showing us how it’s done.

Silver anthology Silver Birch Press

The Los Angeles-based publisher have brought us SILVER: An Eclectic Anthology of Poetry and Prose, a compendium of silver-themed literature featuring work from established as well as up-and-coming writers.

Editors Joan Jobe Smith and Melanie Villines (who themselves appear extensively) will doubtless have been pleased by the vast range of subject matter, tone, style and form that the numerous contributions threw up – each one offering a varying salute to the concept of silver from one to the next.

Of the many connotations of silver, it’s little surprise that age – or, rather, ageing – features prominently. ‘Yoga Teacher’ by Tamara Madison is a poem that suggests how greying and getting old can be a graceful, almost beautiful, process in a physical sense but warns that the mental equivalent can leave a lot to be desired. Grey hairs are treated differently in ‘This gray hair means something’ by Thomas Kudla, a piece of fiction that explores the trauma of youth and its effect on appearance.

Indeed, many of the pieces in the collection share sub-themes of silver but leave us with contrasting perceptions of them. Love – and the many ways this is manifest through the colour silver – is no different. For example, a silver ring in ‘Today you open the wooden cabinet’ by Meghan Pinson marks the end of couple’s marriage, and serves a similar purpose in Tim Wells’ two-stanza ‘Talvisota’, whereas silver is celebrated in ‘Silver threads among Gold’: Barbara Dahl with a heartwarming tribute to love’s potential longevity and her 25 years of ‘untarnished’ wedlock.

Another stark category of the silver pre-requisite comes in the form of weather, climate and seasonality: the off-white clouds in ‘Mystic mists of Rotorura’ and ‘Foggy November’ by Dale Sprowl; the moonlight that creates silver linings on fallen leaves in Amy Lowell’s ‘Autumn’; the clouds and their silver lining in Barbara Eknoian’s ‘Glimmer’; not to mention the beautifully poetic depiction of a crescent moon in Lowell’s ‘Silver eyelash’.

We also encounter a melancholy side to silver. ‘The Dancer Downstairs’ by Paul Kareem Tayyar tells the tale of a boy transfixed by the out-of-body meditations of a woman in a neighbouring flat that is a nod towards voodooism and magical realism, while the religious and the supernatural are brought to light in ‘Car Ma’ by Barbara Alfaro. Merrill Farnsworth’s ‘My Divine Comedy’ considers the diabolic implications of a recurring nightmare. The subject of hell also touched on by Fred Voss, who questions why it should take the work of Dante to inspire anyone to compose an landmark piece of literature.

Voss is partly responsible for another of the major manifestations of silver. Along with a poem by Linda King, he offers an illuminating tribute to the late Jack Micheline, whose birth name is actually Harold Marton Silver. Voss honours the famous Beat poet with a literary profile and a poem of his own, while three examples of work from the great man himself are included.

Indeed, much of the anthology’s ‘cast’ are accomplished professionals – Walter de la Mare and Lowell, to name two other poets that fit such a billing. That may well deny a total sense of the ‘ephemeral’ as many of the contributors are established to some degree, but it’s fair to say the anthology’s freshness owes a lot to the grassroots arena.

For all its brilliance on a micro scale, it’s easy to lose sight of the anthology’s vastness. I really have barely scratched the surface. It weighs in at a hefty 240 pages, and features no fewer than 62 different contributors. That’s contributors, not contributions – and some, including Smith – chip in with a handful each. Words? Just the 51,000 of them.

The great benefit of the anthology’s size is that it allows for a seemingly endless comparative scope, to which I’ve given a disproportionately modest indication. And that certainly seems to be Smith’s intention, if her initial idea for a silver-themed anthology is anything to go by. After briefing the invited contributors, she was hoping to receive anything ‘from second-place finishes, to eating utensils, twenty-fifth wedding anniversaries, hair color, swirling fog, coins, bells, jewelry, the tin man, space suits, car bumpers, airplanes, family heirlooms and on and on. Let silver spark your imagination’ – that final thought, which comes towards the end of the collection’s introduction, carrying a certain irony, for it ends up as an instruction not to the author, but to the reader. I, for one, obeyed.

One outcome is that I’ll be following many of the names this anthology has brought to my attention, their work blazing a silver trail that I urge you to explore with as much curiosity as I will be.

Lakeview: International Journal of Literature and Arts #1

In Magazine, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 11:50 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts is a new literary magazine published by the Writers’ Forum at Sacred Heart College, India. At the risk of sounding overly glib, the preceding sentence encapsulates what I found most problematic about this literary project, namely its lack of focus. It almost feels as if there are two versions of Lakeview competing for one’s attention. The first aspires to the ‘International’ portion of the publication’s title, featuring an advisory board drawn from all over the world and publishing work from prominent writers like George Szirtes and Hanif Kureishi. The other comes across more like a college publication, right down to publishing the winning pieces from competitions run by the Sacred Heart Writers’ Forum. This is not to say that either approach to creating a literary magazine is better, but rather that Lakeview might have done better to settle on one or the other, at least for its first issue.

Lakeview

This sense of excess and/or confusion also extends to some of the work in the magazine. An extended sonnet sequence like Sofiul Azam’s ‘Time and Memories’ is admirable in its ambition, and contains interesting turns of phrase like ‘the living iceberg’ and ‘the verb of each and every folly’. Yet it also contains plenty of what feel like filler lines, e.g. ‘With Coldie, I turn cold, hot with Hottie’, which likely would have been edited out in something shorter. Or consider a story like Prathap Kamath’s ‘Jacoba Came to Conquer’. Although the title essentially gives away the story’s twist, the core of the narrative has the potential to make salient points about the nature of post-colonial hang-ups and the complex position of Anglo-Indians in Indian society, and for the first half, actually seems to be heading in that direction. Instead, the main narrative pay-off consists largely of a cringe-worthy seduction scene: ‘A tongue entered his mouth like a snake and probed its fleshy insides in a coiling motion. […] His hands ran over a field of soft mounts and shrubby valleys, and in an oblivious abandon his body danced to a hitherto unknown rhythm.’

However, there is still enjoyable writing on display here, especially in the trio of Sudeep Sen, Hanif Kureishi and George Szirtes, whose work opens the issue. Sen’s ‘Banyan’ is a sequence of delicate images, tracing ‘what is revealed’, ‘As winter secrets / melt’. Kureishi’s ‘Weddings and Beheadings’ is a surreal tale of filmmakers who are forced to film beheadings, which are then ‘broadcast everywhere, on most of the news channels worldwide’. In its stately rhythms and triple rhyme, George Szirtes’s ‘The Voices’ demonstrates the argument from his Poetry Foundation essay that ‘[r]hyme can be unexpected salvation, the paper nurse that somehow, against all the odds, helps us stick the world together while all the time drawing attention to its own fabricated nature’. Lakeview also has paintings and photography interspersed throughout the issue, with the paintings by Bijay Biswaal and Abdul Saleem being particularly noteworthy.

Thus on the whole, the debut issue of Lakeview is a mixed bag, but also demonstrates potential to grow as a literary endeavour. While the magazine’s eclectic selection of material offers something for almost any reader (besides poetry, short fiction, paintings and photography, there is also an essay on gendai haiku by Alan Summers and an interview by Chief Editor Jose Varghese with Jewish American author, Michelle Cohen Corasanti), this means it is also frequently unclear whom its target audience is. That said, growing pains are almost a given for any new publication. Hopefully, as more readers, and therefore potential contributors, become aware of Lakeview, it will have an easier time fully living up to the ‘International’ portion of its name, as well as figuring out precisely what sort of magazine it wants to be.

‘The Middle’ by Django Wylie

In Novella, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 10:10 am

-Reviewed by Nick Sweeney

The Middle is a short, powerful book about journeys, both actual and metaphorical, through hope and failure, but ultimately towards the suggestion, at least, of some kind of redemption. The characters, a boy – actually in his late teens – a man who feels the breath of middle age on his neck, and an old man facing his last journey, are un-named, but never simple ciphers; they are recognisably and uncomfortably real, and may well be looking out of a mirror at you at various times in your life.

The Middle Django Wylie

The boy is on the London Tube on the way to Heathrow. We witness his surveillance of the types around him with their cheap clothes, electronic gizmos and air of failure and disappointment. I like the timelessness of his gaze and passing conclusions, that Holden Caulfield-like contempt of the world of phonies, the notion that youth knows best. The boy contemplates his possible futures:

The choice was stark, and the outcomes bleak: drop out and probably end up in the Argos stock room, or keep trudging on for the entitlement to spend eight hours a day in an artificially-lit office.

The writing is superb, with some great metaphors: the Tube as a ‘living Rubik’s cube’, the ‘wandering nihilism of late adolescence’, a ‘pint-sized Terry Waite – a Terry Lightweight’, and this gem:

He’d once heard some motivational speaker on the radio who’d been going on about how opportunity was always knocking. The problem was, the boy thought, so are salesmen and Jehovah’s Witnesses. He couldn’t help but
wish it used the bell.

Despite its resigned tone, its consideration of failure and suicide put off partly because he has to get his farewell note to hit exactly the right spot, the boy’s narrative is a celebration of youth. With all its flaws, youth still doesn’t hold the terrors of ageing.

The empty pointlessness in politics, culture, academia and student life falls under his pitiless gaze, but he never loses sight of where he is going, and you get the impression that he gets taken along with it all somewhat helplessly but, importantly, with the spark of indignation in knowing that he goes unwillingly. He refers to God as ‘our dear creator’, and notes the self-serving nature of ‘a god that would change water into wine to inebriate some broads at a wedding but ignore the cries of those on board United 93, or suffering Mamma Mia the Musical’.

Stuff like this makes it one of the funniest books I’ve read on the modern condition.

Like any sensitive, misunderstood young man, the boy wants to write, and he has a refreshingly honest take on it:

All he wanted was the chance to call himself a writer to girls in the pub (it sounded better than unemployed), and to possibly see his name, or that of his ridiculous nom de plume, in bookshops.

Those who people the boy’s journey distract him from his thoughts, but they prompt new ones too. These people – painted unforgettably in a few lines – serve a catalytic purpose in the narrative. Were they to be without this purpose, then they might just have appeared to be the butt of what might seem cheap jokes – I like them anyway, I should say – but they put the finishing touches to each thought, and start the next.

The boy’s aim of getting to Paris may only be a dream. It may also be better left as one. His journey reminds me of an episode in J K Huysman’s Against Nature, when his hero Des Esseintes starts for London but then, surrounded by English travellers in the waiting room at the Gare du Nord, realises that he has got the essence of it.

In part two,‘the man’ is at the airport. He starts off thinking about his regrets, not writing a novel – like the boy – and not making it with the band he was once in. Time has stolen everything from him, he reflects, ‘like Lehman Bros’, has delivered him away from his dreams into the clutches of wife, children and mortgage.

Unlike the boy, the man seems to have reached the stage at which he will get on a plane. Like the boy, he makes a fantasy out of his New York trip, all the while the reality of it – a dull business meeting – in the corner of his mind.

He ponders one of the many crises of capitalism, and his place in it:

Providence had given him everything, and yet everything was not enough. In fact, nothing was ever enough. Having more things created more opportunities for it all to malfunction… the man couldn’t help but think he had been the compliant architect in the construction of his own suffocating prison.

The man’s story has the most melancholic turn to it. The cheerfulness is missing from the humour, and, more chillingly, hope is also absent. We can believe the boy when he dreams, can accept that he may well turn his life into something. The man has lost that optimism. Like the boy, he has escape in mind, and sees himself ‘disappearing; reinventing himself’, but we can’t take this as a serious proposition at any time.

‘The old man’ is also fixed on travel in part three, though we can assume that this journey is probably going to be his last:

It would be a stretch to say that the old man couldn’t wait for the final throes of his earthly existence, but he wasn’t particularly enamoured with the idea of
hanging around too long. Hospital life was inane and dull – it was just like real life.

Doctors are sinister and vulpine, and the old man’s fellow-patients are sheeplike, content to waste their final hours in watching daytime TV. However, my main impression of this part was that the old man had regained the comic, but also generous, eye of the boy in this sequence, which could be depressing, but isn’t.

The old man is another who regrets the not-done. There is yet another unwritten book here – but at least it got a little further than those of the man and the boy. He also thinks of ‘unimpregnated woman’ and, a comic note of chill, the people he didn’t kill in a spree.

Django Wylie has given us a stunning novella, sometimes heartbreaking, but always funny. ‘Start over’, the last page exhorts us (before we go on to a playlist of music I don’t feel qualified to comment on – though I will be investigating it) and I wanted to, and I will.

‘Adventures in Form’ ed. by Tom Chivers

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on May 29, 2013 at 8:30 am

-Reviewed by Lucy Ayrton

Adventures-in-Form

Adventures in Form is a beautifully curated anthology of contemporary poets engaging strongly with form in their work. The poems are clustered under 15 areas (Code is Poetry, Traditional Revised and Correspondence, to name three), each reflecting an approach to exploring form.

The introduction to the book (by Tom Chivers) was a joy to read. Chivers is clear and passionate about his subject matter, and this felt like one of the most coherent and tightly curated anthologies I’ve seen.

“Form is not something to be ignored as irrelevant and old fashioned or, conversely, defended at all costs against the barbarians of free verse. In any vital literary culture, form must be subject to repeated renewal.” Tom Chivers

The strength of the collection was its diversity. It was nice to be challenged as well as have a selection of poems that I’d have chosen to read anyway, and I took something from each of the authors. Some of the poems, however, were exceptional.

‘Note’ by Hannah Jane Walker was a beautiful, narratively driven piece of surrealism with a precision of detail that shoves the poem off the page and into your face (“I see her sometimes sock-shuffle in and stand in front of the DVDs./ I saw her pick off pieces of your Thorntons easter chick and melt/ hold them on her tongue.”) The use of occasional grammatical inaccuracies contributes to a kind of disjointed, broken feeling – like this correspondence is more about disconnections than communication.

This is the kind of book that makes you interrupt your happily telly-watching boyfriend and ask him if he knows what a Univocalist poem is (“Frosty mongs bosh shots of scotch/ on London’s Brook Common,/ rock-off to soppy mono toss;/ lost songs of London:/ Town of Bop.” – ‘Two Moons for Mongs’, Ross Sutherland).

Some of the poems I just flat out didn’t “get” (‘Eating Chinese Food in a Straw Bale House, Snowmass, Colorado, January 2011’ by Paul Muldoon was just a string of letters, repeating and slowly changing. I guess if you read them aloud it sounds like an eating noise. But is that it? Is that the whole point? Surely I’m missing something? Gah!) and some felt like exercises rather than finished pieces. Much like improv, I suspect some were more fun to write than they are to read. The form N+7 (“a translation process in which each noun in the original text is replaced by the seventh noun after it in the dictionary”) in particular, struck me as more of a starting point than a poem. Having said that, Ross Sutherland’s ‘The Liverish Red-Blooded Riffraff Hoo-Ha’ (actually an N+27 poem) felt much more carefully constructed than the form implied. Also, what’s wrong with providing starting points? If read as a “some cool things you might like to try if you’re a bit blocked” compendium, Adventures in Form is no less satisfying than when read as an anthology.

The ideas are delightful to skim through, even without the poem. A poemixtape (where one word must link each song title to the next), a quantum poem (words written on sheep, their juxtapositions left to chance) and The Analogue Guide to Parenting (Chris McCabe wrote down 12 inane things they said to their toddler. The toddler chose the order by pointing at a toy clock) were particularly delicious concepts.

Adventures in Form is a wonderful book. Like a literary equivalent of a pinterest board, it makes you want to have a go at creating your own versions of the poem as much as to stare and coo over them. I’m not sure I’ve done it justice, but trust me. Properly exciting in a way that anthologies can rarely sustain, Adventures in Form should be the next poetry book you buy.

‘Second Lives: Tales From Two Cities’ (ed. Rodge Glass & Jane Bernstein)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on May 28, 2013 at 9:20 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

I approached Second Lives: Tales From Two Cities with apprehension, given that I was somewhat unprepared for what the anthology would contain. It markets itself as a collection of views provided by various writers in order to portray individual perceptions on the once-industrial cities of Glasgow and Pittsburgh. The anthology combines various examples of art, with some writers expressing themselves through the medium of short stories, some opting for a harsher and more accurate non-fiction approach and some even refusing to use words, choosing to portray their city through images that they have either taken or created themselves.

Second Lives Cargo Press

The basic purpose of the book wasn’t apparent to me initially, perhaps because I do not usually delve into this sort of literature. However, upon reading the introduction, which is a transcript of a conversation that occurred between the editors, Jane Bernstein and Rodge Glass, I found myself immediately pulled into the anthology.

As we flit between cities, beginning with Allan Wilson’s perspective of Glasgow, the true essence of these places soon becomes filtered through the writing and, ultimately, your reading of the texts. Wilson’s ‘Remember when this was a farm?’ is a particularly emotive story, with clear references to the developments in Glasgow that were slowly appearing where simple land used to be. Despite the emotional torment that seems apparent in the protagonist Jamieson, there still seems to be a final tone of optimism within the tale.

Lori Jakiela contributes a number of memorable poems to the anthology, offering her insight into Pittsburgh, before Kapka Kassabova plummets us back into the artistic depths of Glasgow, delivering another heart-warming example of short fiction.

Pittsburgh writer Gerry Stern delivers another interesting view into the city through his assessment that he has, ‘a love-hate relationship with Pittsburgh’. In detailing what he adores and despises about the city, it feels that we have taken another step closer to understanding the fundamentals of this land that so many artists appear to be enamoured of. Stern’s poetic musings are followed by Mitch Miller, writing for Glasgow, who proceeds to divulge details about his ‘dialectograms’ – while I won’t make a mockery of this art by attempting to explain it in my own layman terms, I will say that it’s a truly unique art form that is yet another contributing factor to what makes this collection so special.

One piece in particular that I enjoyed was ‘Dear Mr Billy Connolly’, written by Peter Mackie Burns; this short extract tells the tale of a pub in Glasgow that always has a Billy Connelly CD playing in the toilets. For me, this particular piece is a wonderful example of the quirks that are hidden beneath both Glasgow and Pittsburgh and, after reading and enjoying this anthology, I would like to thank all the writers involved for awakening me to those quirks which, before now, I was ignorant of.

Charlotte Glynn’s recollection of her younger years in Pittsburgh, followed by her abandonment of and eventual return to the city, I found particularly moving – more so given the diagram she supplies on which she plots her growing love for the city. If nothing else, this collection will encourage you to firstly, appreciate the world around you that you have not yet explored; and secondly, it with surely ignite some curiosity for your own hometown and exactly how you feel about it.

The Pittsburgh and Glasgow writers had very different impacts on me during my reading: something that I particularly enjoyed during my reading of Glasgow’s tales was how artistic this city is, something that I was completely unaware of until my reading of this anthology. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, endowed me with a wonderful picture of a town that is full of different perspectives, all of the same thing; I particularly enjoyed the over-laps between tales in which different writers referred to the same thing but in an entirely different manner – it was eye-opening, to say the least.

Despite my initial mixed feelings for the anthology, I am pleased to say that I would now recommend Second Lives to anyone – including people like myself who would no doubt grumble the same, ‘I don’t read these books’, moan that I did. I thoroughly enjoyed delving in and out of these people’s lives and their cities, and I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to do so.

‘Pressed By Unseen Feet’ (ed. Rose Drew & Alan Gillott)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards, Short Stories on May 27, 2013 at 3:54 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

Around ten per cent of York’s working population is employed in tourism, directly or indirectly, and more than a handful of those are employed in the city’s competitive ghost story industry. The historic centre is crammed with ghost tours, the spooks seeping through ancient cobblestone streets that have seen Romans, Vikings, Saxons and generations of people since. York is a city proud of its long history – last year celebrating the 800th anniversary of its city charter – and its streets, like the lawns of TS Eliot’s poem, have often been ‘pressed by unseen feet’.

Pressed By Unseen Feet

York-based Stairwell Books has put together an anthology of prose and poetry taking its title (Pressed By Unseen Feet: An Anthology of Ghostly Writing) from Eliot, and offering up a series of chilling stories and spooky poems from Yorkshire writers. They are stories from the stones of York, or occasionally ghosts from farther afield. These are mostly concerned with things seen out of the corner of your eye, or poetic landscapes haunted by a feeling of unease or even just a memory.

Over the centuries, we’ve understood ghosts to be many different things. Sometimes, the souls of the dead, caught between this world and the next, that haven’t managed to pass on, to Heaven or Hell, maybe because they have unfinished business with the living. Or they’re memories of the dead, of those we cared about who have gone forever but somehow remain. Or guides/guardians from a higher plane of existence, hanging around to help mere mortals get through the process of living. Occasionally, as in Pressed By Unseen Feet, they appear as figures from history, when the distant past bleeds into our modern times. Then sometimes they’re something else even harder to describe and explain.

For example, ‘Cavern’ by Pauline Quirk, has as its narrator the spirit of a cave – its conscious essence, if you like. Like many of the other entries in Pressed By Unseen Feet the story hints at a world beyond human or mortal comprehension, pointing to a consciousness that can’t be explained by rational thinking or science. The anthology as a whole urges the reader to push the boundaries of our understanding and open ourselves up to the possibilities of a world we can’t fully explain. It asks what’s so special about the rational world in the first place, and suggests we’re limited by mortal blinkers.

Jim Fairfoot’s ‘Existential Pizza’ is another entry that asks the reader to look at the world in another way – it’s about what it sounds like it’s about – calling into question the reliability of the traditional five senses and rationality. What evidence do you need that the pizza is, in fact, a pizza? Like much of Pressed…, this debunks rational thinking with something not quite explicable.

On the other side (of the coin, perhaps, but maybe a spookier ‘other side’), there are the entries that imply we live our lives surrounded by the memories and debris of former lives – our own, those of people we knew, or of our ancestors. A lot of the entries set outside of York, for example, focus on the memory of the stones or of buildings. John Coopey’s poem ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane’ ties ghosts to the memory of a physical place, a sort of collective consciousness of a shared history – shared with other people and with a specific place. In this case, it’s a football stadium – and there’s an attendant sense of loss as Spurs get ready to move to a new ground – but it’s a feeling that applies in countless situations. Meanwhile John Gilham writes about Roman sandals and the ghostly shades in the mud of the Thames, in his poem ‘The Fish-Eyes of the Dead’. These are perhaps Pressed by Unseen Feet‘s more credible kinds of ghost story in an anthology that contains plenty of stories of the shiver-down-the-spine variety, and poems haunted by loss.

In a smart combination of the traditional ghost story with the more subtle ghost-as-memory story, Andrew Brown delivers one of his excellent and touching tales from a nursing home. In ‘The Return of Uncle Clarrie’, Clarrie’s retelling of childhood trauma – and a ghostly encounter – forces a turning point in his life, in which he himself has barely played any part for decades.

Despite its long and solemn history, its famous city walls and countless tales of the dead, York has its amusing quirks, and so does Pressed by Unseen Feet: ‘Game Over’ by Ed Cooke. It’s a funny, off-the-wall warning about the dangers of technology and human nature, with a very British take on nuclear apocalypse. It’s a little dark, yet perfectly pitched. But it’s not spooky, ghostly or creepy, nor does it have any obvious connection with York or Yorkshire. But it is brilliant, all the same.

That aside, Pressed by Unseen Feet succeeds in giving the reader a taste of the ghosts we often create for ourselves: half-remembered lives, departed loved ones, and the flicker in the peripheral vision that we can never quite place. It hints at those we’ve lost but not really lost, sitting beside us, with their lives (or some sort of life) still going on around us, only occasionally seen.

The Centrifugal Eye’s 5th Anniversary Anthology

In anthology on May 27, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Paul McMenemy

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This collection’s (commendably brief) introduction informs us that this is not a “best of” the first five years of The Centrifugal Eye, but merely a selection of the personal favourites of the editorial staff. This is rather like saying that any given edition of a poetry magazine is not a “best of” the poems submitted, but merely a selection of the editor’s own personal favourites from those poems. A statement like this in itself is not worth becoming exercised by, and not something I would even have noticed had I not been led, after reading the anthology, to question the importance the publication attaches to meaning.

I first wondered about this when reading Earl J. Wilcox’s “Garden Gerontology”, which gives us a new way of looking at a garden bench. Do we need a new way of looking at a garden bench? One may read the poem as an allegory for human aging; but even then, it has little to say – we get old; we fall apart; we get fixed up; diminishing returns. There are thousands of great poems about old age, but they are about old age; this poem is about a bench. A few pages later we come across John Terpstra’s mostly effective poem about Canada, “Morning at Fort Wellington”. Terpstra shows us over six lines that the fort never saw active service, always being out of commission when it might have been needed. He then adds the astonishingly redundant line “(thus missing its three opportunities for military action)”. The poem recovers, but again the reader wonders about TCE’s understanding of, and interest in, communicating meaning.

However I do not think meaning is TCE’s main concern – I think sound is. Many of the poets in the collection have a “voice”: The American Poetry Voice – the default intonation of all those who have spent the last hundred or so years banging their head against Whitman. The American Poetry Voice (or North American, we should say, as TCE is a Canadian publication) has gone through any number of evolutions over the years, but it has always retained a certain desiccated New England aloofness. TCE’s particular flavour also contains this base, but infused with the slacker-academic tone of the dominant American prose style of the last twenty years. Occasionally one has the suspicion that these poets are really novelists on an awayday.

I am not saying that these poems are “really” prose, but they do often resemble a specific kind of prose – the garrulous but flat prose of many American fiction writers. For instance, the extremely well-constructed poem, “Teaching an Old Bird New Tricks”, again by Wilcox, describes an old sparrow moving into a hat-shaped bird-box:

She was a Burberry brown, dusky-looking sparrow, common
as red clay in the Carolinas. Didn’t even have to check
out whether the hat was pointed in the right direction like
picky bluebirds, who require an open field and a south-
eastern view. Did not matter to Sarah Sparrow if the hat
was slap-dashed onto an ageing dogwood tree, either.

Another poet, having come up with the central conceit of the bird as a middle-aged woman moving to a new neighbourhood, the cares of child-rearing and sex behind her; and having taken the fateful step of anthropomorphising the bird to the point of giving it a name, might then have found scope for all sorts of experiments with sound and structure. Not a Centrifugal Eye poet: Wilcox gives us four hefty breezeblocks of intense yet effete commentary, which never loses its passivity even at the story’s inevitable punchline. Had I come across this poem in the midst of a more varied anthology, I would have been very pleased to see it; here it is a struggle to recognise its quality.

This sameness is exacerbated by the anthology’s chronological organisation. Poets featured more than once have their poems scattered throughout the book. In a less uniform collection, this need not be a disadvantage; but here the poets tend to run into one another. Grouping the anthology by author might have counteracted this, highlighting dissimilarities in similar voices.

There are poems, though, which stand out: Margaret A. Robertson’s, “Jubilation” delivers exactly that, rather unexpectedly. John Milbury-Steen’s “Animal Soap” is an uncomplicatedly fun poem – not simply because it is, 132 pages in, the first with a traditional rhyme-scheme and metre, but because its narrator does not appear to be recalling events through a fluoxetine fug. It’s by no means perfect but it is not dour, not distant and definitely not cool, and, in the context of this collection, can be forgiven a lot for that:

She cut loose from a bar of Lifebuoy® soap
a dog that looked like a chihuahua pup,
but had an eye of wolf and mouth of grr
like you wouldn’t mess with, so we were

(dad and I) surprised to see an attack
disposition marring a knickknack.

Each issue of TCE is themed, although we are never told in the anthology what an issue’s theme was. A reader unfamiliar with the magazine, who missed or misconstrued the editor’s glancing mention of “themes” in the introduction (the context does not specify these as themes dictated, rather than detected, by the editor), would be bemused by the gardening-heavy nature of the first twenty pages. Some themes produce stronger poems than others. Donna M. Marbach and Ellaraine Lockie write movingly about meals. “Oh, Canada!” produces some of the most effective poetry in the collection, being recognisably about something. E.g. William Doreski’s “Howling with the Wolf Pack” on being Canadian in America:

Wolves have come down from Canada
to howl on my stoop. Their eyes
burn like incense, their teeth gleam
with expertise.

Many of the problems I have with this collection are due to the nature of how a reviewer reads an anthology – from front to back, in a small number of sittings – which is not how most readers read such collections. On the other hand, although this anthology is available to buy in hard copy, most readers are likely to read it, like me, in its electronic form, which is not really adapted for flicking through until something catches one’s eye, as one might with a paper copy. If treated like any other anthology, this collection will produce rewards – it is often hard, dry stuff, but we could all do with a pumicing of this sort from time to time – but it does not encourage the reader, once alit, to read another, and another poem, as the best anthologies do.

‘Best European Fiction 2013’ (ed. Alexsander Hemon)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on May 26, 2013 at 11:40 am

-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-

I haven’t read much in the way of translated texts before so this was my first exposure to many of the writers featured in Best European Fiction 2013. And, as the editors of the anthology might hope, as too the individual writers, I was so struck by the quality of the work that I plan on reading more by the authors in the future.

Introducing European writers to a wider audience is the anthology’s ambition, as cheerfully alluded to in the Preface by John Banville and Introduction by Aleksander Hemon. Yet Hemon is not fixated upon sales, more the continued ‘flow of communication’ between writer and reader; Banville is keen to celebrate the ‘infinite undependability of words’, the endless negotiation between origin and meaning that emblemises the act of translation. The writers picked for this anthology range across every country in Europe and the quality of their prose is very high.

Best European Fiction 2013 Dalkey Archive

The opening story in the collection is a cracker. ‘Before The Breakup’ by Balla (Slovakia) is a powerful exposition of an overbearing, unspecified sense of threat. Miša, the central character, has ‘something’ growing behind her TV set. We never learn what this ‘something’ is, only that it is ‘moving sinister, slowly and inevitable’. We discover that a similar, unidentified thing appears in Miša’s friends’ apartments, driving them out, controlling their behaviour in so much as they pretend it isn’t there. Is this thing a representation of the interference of the state, alluded to by the link one character makes between the thing and ‘actually existing socialism’? Setting this interpretation aside, the story is a great precursor to a collection of European writing.

Similarly, ‘My Creator, My Creation’ by Tiina Raevaara (Finland), is riveting. It is a story told from the perspective of a female robot, designed to cater for her male creator’s needs. The reader is jammed into the robot’s consciousness from the shocking and very first line: ‘Sticks his finger into me and adjusts something, tok-tok, fiddles with some tiny part inside me and gets me moving better […].’ Such a sentence is evocative of the transgressive control the creator has of the robot. She is programmed to conform to the traditional female role, being demure and friendly, and amenable to men. This is not, however, a straightforward story of suppressed outrage or a cry for emancipation. It is more complex than that; indeed, it is a touching love story. The robot strives to connect to her creator, beyond occasional moments of ‘stroking’. The narrative moves along in elliptical, jerky phrases, mirroring the robot’s attempts to understand her growing emotions and make sense of her existence. It is also incredibly sensual, for all the talk of metal and wires:

After that keeps me on later in the evenings, strokes me more slowly than before, maybe he wants to smooth my lumps and bumps, remove the dark oxides from my case, maybe he wants to make me gleam. When it is already far into the night—I have never been on so late in the night—he sighs, touches my innards, and switches me off.

Tiina Raevaara is a writer I want to read again.

The style of ‘Angels on the Inside’ by Dulce Maria Cardosa (Portugal) is different but no less moving. A young man recalls an incident from his childhood, which was essentially a moment when his brother was almost hit by a car. The story is written in an unobtrusive manner with the odd, heart-tugging phrase thrown in; the man and his brother were cherished as ‘our mom was proud of us, more than she was of anything else in life’. Cardosa’s straightforward style allows a sense of foreboding to develop, though the danger is not apparent until the very end of the tale. She is also adept at capturing the sense of being a child; tiny outrages and disappointments produce fleeting emotions as the boys ‘still felt everything in a provisional sort of way’. Lovely, lovely.

There are other gems: ‘Music in the Bone’ (Tomás Mac Símóin, Irish), about a man who is compelled to conduct an imaginary orchestra; ‘Migration’ (Ray French, Welsh), in which a son grieves for his father, suffering from dementia, whom we eventually learn has died; ‘When the Glasses are Lost’ (Žarko Kujundžiski, Macedonian), where characters are trapped in a lift and represent society in microcosm, with all its suspicions and distrust.

There are stories within this Best European Fiction collection that I will revisit again and again. The editor’s ambition – that the collection will encourage readers to pick up books by European writers new to them – has worked for me.

‘To the Lost’ by Jack Foster

In Pamphlets on May 24, 2013 at 7:37 am

-Reviewed by Ian Chung

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Memory and loss are inextricably bound in most of the poems from To the Lost, Jack Foster’s chapbook from Finishing Line Press. From a literary perspective, this thematic pairing is hardly unexpected, and To the Lost might be thought of as an elegiac sequence. What is interesting about Foster’s poems, however, is the manner in which their recognition of loss is consistently inscribed within an act of remembering, which itself is situated within a wider awareness of the cyclical nature of life, the echoes that may be observed across lifetimes or generations. While the overall effect of these poems remains consolatory, they also display a tendency to resist conventional elegiac closure.

For instance, ‘Belated’ begins with a graveyard visit that becomes an auditory revivification:

‘I finally visit your grave on a Wednesday
and press my ear to the ground,
thinking the crinkling of the grass
is you telling me a story.’

The word ‘finally’ suggests this is the first step towards attaining a long-delayed closure, while ‘thinking’ conveys the self-consciously fanciful nature of imagining the voice of the dead person. Foster further envisions the person ‘knitting’ and ‘fashioning baby booties / for my children you’ll never meet’. Yet these flights of imagination are curtailed by the fourth stanza’s sobering bluntness: ‘You’ve been atomized and scattered – / reduced down to a slab of marble, / letting only strangers know you in death’. Nonetheless, the final stanza fervently insists, ‘I swear I hear you though’. Thus the earlier ‘crinkling of the grass’ is brought up again, except now there is the certainty of ‘know[ing] the crinkling / is only the insects that separate us’, as opposed to merely ‘thinking’. The final line’s ‘I start to remember your voice’ then reveals the emotional crux of the poem, i.e. the dead person’s voice has in fact already been forgotten until this graveside moment.

This technique of ending a poem with a line that gestures towards new beginnings or at least non-resolution also occurs in ‘Blackout in Nan Ning’ and ‘How Fast We Grow’. The latter literally breaks off in midsentence: ‘She stands by the window and cries, / Not for death, but, finally –’. As for ‘Blackout in Nan Ning’, given its title, it unsurprisingly ends with the image of a blackout, ‘a place beyond my own comprehension, // where the past and the present / reveals itself’. The cloaking of darkness is juxtaposed with the moment of clarifying epiphany: ‘I see as if for the first time’. The poem has rendered absence into a form of potentiality.

The last poem in To the Lost might well serve as an extended metaphor for the act of artistic creation. ‘On Letting Go’ is ostensibly about precisely that, how ‘Like from the hand of a carefree child, / we are let go’, and thus ‘When I am let go, do not cry’. This is not resignation so much as it is an acknowledgement that life and death form an inevitable cycle. (A similar sentiment regarding ageing is expressed in opening poem ‘Orioles on the Windowsill’, where the image of ‘my great-grandfather’ and his ‘boney finger’ becomes ‘the great-grandsons / Of the long-gone birds / … / Seek[ing] a boney perch’.) At the same time, the red balloon of ‘On Letting Go’ could be seen as representing the poet’s work, which attains a life of its own once it has been written, ‘hoping not to burst under the pressure / of an unfamiliar sense of freedom’. So just as there is comfort in ‘knowing that I won’t pop until I’m far from sight’, the poet may rest easy in relinquishing his poems to the reader. Foster’s chapbook indicates he is off to a good start in this regard.