Reviews of the Ephemeral

Posts Tagged ‘angela topping’

‘Not on our green belt’ (ed. Lindsey Holland)

In anthology on August 23, 2013 at 9:30 am

-Reviewed by Lettie Mckie

‘A selection of Britain’s best contemporary poets united against green belt development’


Traditionally poetry and political activism are not pursuits that naturally go hand in hand. Poets are, by and large, considered by society to be quiet reflective thinkers, musing on events after they’ve happened, rather than taking an active role in shaping them. Poets are, in fact, much more often known for either glorifying an event (Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’) or damning it (Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’). However in Britain there is also a long history of poets using their work to speak out and embrace the most controversial and life changing of subjects. From Shelley’s reaction to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 (‘The Masque of Anarchy’) to the ground breaking work of Jamaican poet James Berry (who settled in London in the 1940s) poets have shaped the way we see and understand our 21st century world, the work they produce impacting upon our attitudes and informing our political stance.

This well considered and thought-provoking anthology sends a firm, but gentle, message of a peculiarly British type of protest. Subtitled ‘Poets against Green Belt Development’ the book protest against the threat of building onto protected belts of countryside. Contributors to this book are therefore united not by style but by a clear political and ideological viewpoint. The result is a charming plethora of impassioned approaches to a subject which is clearly close to each poet’s heart. The collection reads like a manifesto, an emotive argument which opposes the threat of over development in the countryside.

The diversity of approach to subject matter is certainly the most successful element of this collection. Some poets (such as Brian Wake in ‘Trees’) tell ‘before and after’ stories of the destruction of the countryside, focusing in on the unpleasant characters and economic attitudes they deem responsible, highlighting a widespread and wanton disregard for the future of the countryside. Wake highlights the frustrating inaction and procrastination of ‘the men from the Council’ who are ‘salaried by our concerns’ and warns ‘They are killing trees, we say and you will not see the wood for dead trees’. Similarly Sarah James in ‘Unelemental’ tells the story of a remote country house which slowly gets sucked into an ever growing town. This contrast between the freshness and purity of the countryside and the hot, sweaty putrefaction of the town is an on-going image that crops up in many guises throughout the collection (Cathy Bryant’s ‘Termite Nation’, Sarah Hymes’ ‘Handiwork’). This contrast is perhaps a little too simplistic but the point is clear, the countryside is immeasurably rich, a source of comfort and a life blood for many. Bryant’s poem in particular succinctly extols these benefits but is slightly overstated:

While in red rage and desiring revenge
Became leavened by time and light…
Through the soft hushings of trees?’

Other poets employ more abstract forms to glorify an existing or a remembered countryside. Angela Topping in ‘Duke’s Clough’, Andrew Forster in ‘The Cottage’ and Lindsey Holland in ‘We’ll Give You Walls’ all evoke beautifully detailed childhood recollections to express a sense of loss and decay. Some of the best poems in the collection focus in on natural life disturbed by the human hand (Valerie Laws’ ‘Chainsaw Massacre’) or an exploration of our deep-seated need for a connection to nature (Polly Atkin’s ‘Room’, Alyson Hallett’s ‘Unremote’). Law’s sonnet beautifully evokes both a passion for the countryside and her horror at its destruction;

‘I would hope to see
Green buds on boughs that shake against the cold
I hear the growling chainsaw gnaw each tree’

Elsewhere, Ira Lightman protests much more directly, pitting himself and his cause against a faceless and oppressive establishment (‘Rob the Hoodie’). This poem is less easy to sympathise with because it requires the reader to share his political and societal views.


Another successful aspect of the collection is the cohesive voice of the protestors. Each poet’s love of the countryside has deep roots (often through childhood memories developed into a lifelong need for fresh air and a connection to the earth) and together the poems generally focus not on aggressively asserting their cause, but a calm glorification of the world they are trying to protect. Although this can sometimes spill over into sentimentality, in general the book’s peaceful message of love for what we have (and a deep seated desire to keep it safe) is what makes it compelling.

Although the poetry in this collection is thought provoking and passionate there is an ingrained assumption that Green Belt Development will result in the total disappearance of the countryside (Geraldine Monk’s ‘Lines After William Blake’, Alec Newman’s ‘Constable Country’). So many of the poems focus on total catastrophe and annihilation as the ultimate consequence of any development, but what is the factual evidence to support this essentially emotional argument? The ideology behind these largely fantastic poems is let down because the question of the appropriate level of fear over the countryside’s future is never addressed. If we take these poems at face value the threats they describe are imminent, but this is an assumption on the part of the authors and no proof is given.

An unsettling and challenging read, this impassioned collection celebrates the countryside that exists both in reality and in our minds. The arguments expressed within these poems are fuelled by the love these poets have for their countryside and the resulting value that they place upon its survival.


Saboteur Awards 2013: Published Poetry

In anthology, Pamphlets, Saboteur Awards on June 9, 2013 at 10:39 am

-in which Claire Trévien sums up the categories she presented at the awards-

saboteur awards - pamphlet

Best poetry pamphlet

The Best Poetry Pamphlet category was one of the most closely fought over category, displaying a wonderful range of experimental, sci-fi, and decadent verse. During the entire month, however, there were two clear frontrunners, with runner up Sarah Hymas’ self-published concertina pamphlet Lune described by one anonymous voter as being ‘like a paper flower: small and perfectly formed but expanding in your imagination into something bigger and more mysterious, like the sea itself.’

Other shortlisted pamphlets included Body Voices by Kevin Reid (‘brilliantly conceived and executed – a modern masterpiece!’); Lawrence Gladeview’s Lowlifes, Fast Times & Occasionally Love (‘a fresh voice in a sea of boring books and lost writers. This is by far one of the best chapbook collections I have ever read’); and J.S. Watts Songs of Steelyard Sue (‘Unusual subject for poetry, wryly humorous, surprisingly touching – Steelyard Sue is a very real character despite being built out of scrap metal’).

However, it is Charlotte Newman’s Selected Poems (‘Razor-edged, uncompromising, ferocious artistry’) which finally claimed the crown. Published by the micro-press Annexe Magazine, the pamphlet was described by voters in the following terms:

‘Sensual but with a prickly, almost brutal, verbosity- she shows things as they are: melancholy, complicated, but resistant in their drawing of the mind’s eye. A talent that needs more recognition.’

‘Charlotte has an incredible way with words. She writes in a way that could easily carve out a new trend in poetry. Also, an award might get her to write more…’

‘Annexe is one of the most interesting new ventures around – very modern, very engaging and doing something different from anyone else.’

Best poetry anthology

The short list for Best Poetry anthology ranged from a compendium of new forms (Adventures in Form), to poetry from the north west of England (Sculpted: Poetry of the North West) to the anniversary edition of a five year old magazine (The Centrifugal Eye’s 5th Anniversary Anthology), to an alternative anthology of young poets (Rhyming Thunder – the Alternative Book of Young Poets).

Adventures in Form, the category’s runner up, was described by one voter as ‘One of the best anthologies of the decade’. Fellow nominee Sculpted was praised for giving ‘a voice to the North West’ and for providing ‘a pleasingly diverse range of voices which does the North West proud’. Rhyming Thunder was described as a ‘magnificent collection full of wonderful pieces from some of the best emerging spoken word artists on the scene’. The Centrifual Eye’s 5th Anniversary Anthology, the only non-UK publication on the list, was described as ‘a stunning compilation of superbly-crafted poems from TCE’s first 5 years in publication. I’ve never read so much good poetry in one place before that wasn’t written by a single/favorite author.’

However, the winner was Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, with many voters praising it for the work English PEN and the editors have done to support the detained members of Pussy Riot:

‘This anthology is unique and striking in its focus; it is both a powerful tool for campaigning and a beautiful, passionate – and at times hilarious – collection of poetry. This is poetry with real heart and soul and it deserves to win!’

‘A creative, collaborative and timely collection of poems responding to the ridiculous decision to imprison the Pussy Riot women. Great use of poetry as a means of standing up to attacks on free expression as it is happening.’

‘Searing and beautiful response to the Pussy Riot tragedy – manages to be topical, timely, and purely poetic at the same time.’

Poetry Anthology

Best mixed anthology

This award celebrated anthologies that did not fit a precise mould of pure poetry or pure fiction. The shortlist included exciting work meshing together genres creatively. Runner-up Still (Negative Press) received an overwhelming amount of comments, praising its mixture of photography and prose: ‘Still is a collection of stories that provide powerful insight and emotion into the lives of those that feel they don’t always have a voice’, ‘Fantastic idea, using images from an abandoned public office to inspire a collection of short stories!’

Fellow nominees included Pressed by Unseen Feet  (‘Because York deserves to be on the literary map and Stairwell Books are awesome’), Silver Anthology (‘a wonderful mix of prose and poetry, well-known authors and new names. A delightful read!’) and Second Lives (‘because psychogeography never ceases to be fascinating. Also Terrance Hayes FTW!’).

The winner was Estuary: a Confluence of Art & Poetry, and below are some of the reasons why voters thought it deserved to win:

‘Beautiful book full of art for the eyes and ears.’

‘Combination of aesthetics and ecology, design and content.’

‘The most beautiful book I have seen in years, thoughtfully matched images and poems.’

‘Fantastic mix of poets and artists, the best coffee table book I purchased in 2012’

saboteur awards - mixed anthology

Most innovative publisher

Another fiercely fought competition, matching champions of experimental poetry the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press against creators of hand-crafted wares and unusual anthologies Sidekick Books, and publishers of excellent spoken word artists Burning Eye.

Unthank Books, the only publishers of to exclusively deal with fiction on the shortlist , were the runners up, with voters commenting that ‘They’ve seriously pursued a leftfield agenda, publishing novels and short story anthologies which represent the unpublished flipside of British publishing. If you want alternative, non book club friendly fiction about the UK, start with Unthank.’

Comments for the rest of the shortlist included:

‘Sidekick Books continue to mix great design with an enthusiastic and very enjoyable ethos all the while publishing great books.’

‘Cos they are interesting..and not afraid to take risks. They also bridge the gap between the spoken word poets and print. Vital to get that tradition out there’ (Burning Eye)

‘for daring to publish what other publishers steer away from. Keeping innovative literature alive’ (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press).

However, Penned in the Margins, also the winners of Best Novella, and runner-up in the Best Poetry Anthology category, received the most votes, and the following comments explain why:

‘Because they are I think the leading innovative press at the moment. The interest in form, the range and intelligence of the project.’

‘’Penned in the Margins is the most exciting smallish press around. It’s a one-man show, Tom Chivers is a superhero… and a master of taste. Everything and anything they publish is guaranteed to be great. So many brilliant poetry publications in particular.’

‘Each book that comes out of the PITM stable is perfectly packaged, of a super high quality and guaranteed to make readers think a little differently.’

saboteur awards - publisher

And that concludes part 2 of 3. Next, James Webster will be sharing comments for the spoken word and live events categories!

Sculpted: Poetry of the North West (ed. L. Holland and A. Topping)

In anthology, Saboteur Awards on April 17, 2013 at 8:12 am

-Reviewed by Laura Seymour


As David Morley writes in his introduction, this new anthology explores ‘the possibility of place and language, of reinvention after annihilation’. He may well have added that it explores the challenges of indestructibility, and the ways in which the past can reinvent the present rather than the other way around. Edited by Lindsey Holland and Angela Topping, almost every page of Sculpted has something wonderful on it.

A rich anthology, filled with so many accomplished poems presenting multifarious viewpoints on the North West, Sculpted is impossible to completely capture in a short review. One thing that struck me, though, is the various contributors’ preoccupation with what is at once the stony or the mineral and the bygone. From the nugget of coal in the hand to the teetering built environment dominated by rickety pleasure beaches and piers, the world presses urgently against the bodies of the people in Sculpted. In my favourite image of living flesh melting away to become the thinnest recording layer of the hard world, V.A. Sola Smith writes ‘kids press themselves like graffiti / or blood against the alley walls’.

The image of the fossil crops up with a striking frequency in Sculpted as a symbol of the power of the past to mould the contours of the present, and of the dead and gone to trammel the living body: ‘This fossil alters the shape of my palm / Flesh moulds to its mineral hardness’, writes Sarah James, encapsulating this theme of the anthology. Evolution, fossils, ancient trees and other relics, and ancestors as remote as grandparents and close as the Lindow man are constantly re-envisaged in this volume. They appear to demand a nostalgic response from the various poets, a response which is sometimes given whole heartedly and sometimes uneasily refused.

Given the stony focus of many of the poems in Sculpted, it is wonderful to find some concrete poetry in there too. In ‘Leander Swims the Mersey’, for example, Stephen Waling parts the verse in two to create a visual effect of two separate banks with crossings between. Moreover, far from being a mere object, the rock speaks back in one of Jan Dean’s poems towards the end of the volume: ‘and the hill said, the slab stones said / you made a hole in me…’.

Sculpted is often playful in its subject matter. David Seddon almost provides a microcosm of the volume as a whole when he clutches ‘a museum ticket, a kiss-me-quick hat / a cloth cap/ a silk purse/ coal’ together in his grasp. In one of the first poems in the anthology, Richard Barrett writes a love poem to a post box. The post box, he concludes, will last as a material trace of epistolary culture even in the days of digital hyperconnectivity: ‘But you/ You will live forever’, he assures it.

Sculpted itself is a fossil record, a preservation of an exciting moment in the history of writing in the North West. It is a book to treasure wherever you are from. An offspring of the West Country, I peered northwards in delight.

Saboteur Awards 2013: The Shortlist

In All of the Above, Saboteur Awards on April 1, 2013 at 12:09 am

Your Pick of this Year’s Best Indie Lit!


Once a year, to mark our birthday, we at Sabotage like to give out some awards to the publications we’ve most enjoyed during the year. This year, we want YOU to vote for the winners in twelve different categories.

After over 2000 votes, voting is now closed! Winners will be announced on 29th May at the Book Club, London. It’s going to be a big celebration of indie lit in all its glory and we’d love it if you could attend. There’ll also be performances, a mini-book fair, music from LiTTLe MACHINe and our very own critique booth.

Here’s what happens next:

  1. Voting is now closed!
  2. Buy a ticket to the awards ceremony/birthday bash.

Please find the shortlist below, which consists of the top 5 nominations in each of the 12 categories, with links to their reviews in Sabotage.*

*Reviewing or featuring all of these works (through interviews for instance) is a work-in-progress which we hope to achieve by the time of the event. Obviously, it is quite a monumental task in a short time, so we appreciate any help from past, present and future reviewers in achieving this, as well as the cooperation of nominees!

Many congratulations to all those who made the shortlist!

In no particular order:

Best Novella

Synthetic Saints by Jason Rolfe (Vagabondage Press)
Holophin by Luke Kennard (Penned in the Margins)
Count from Zero to One Hundred by Alan Cunningham (Penned in the Margins)
The Middle by Django Wylie (
Controller by Sally Ashton (Dead Ink)

Best spoken word performer

Raymond Antrobus
Dan Cockrill
Emma Jones
Vanessa Kisuule
Fay Roberts

Most innovative publisher

Burning Eye
Unthank Books
Sidekick Books
Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press
Penned in the Margins

Best short story collection

 The Syllabus of Errors by Ashley Stokes (Unthank Books)
My Mother Was An Upright Piano by Tania Hershman (Tangent Books)
Fog and Other Stories by Laury A. Egan (Stone Garden)
All the Bananas I’ve Never Eaten by Tony Williams (Salt Publishing)
The Flood by Superbard (Tea Fuelled)

Best poetry pamphlet

Selected Poems by Charlotte Newman (Annexe Magazine)
Body Voices by Kevin Reid (Crisis Chronicles Press)
Lune by Sarah Hymas (self-published)
Songs of Steelyard Sue by J.S.Watts (Lapwing Publications)
Lowlifes, Fast Times & Occasionally Love by Lawrence Gladeview (Erbacce Press)

Best ‘one-off’

Penning Perfumes
Shake the Dust
Binders full of Women
Poetry Polaroid (Inky Fingers Collective)
Poetry Parnassus

Best Spoken Word show

‘Whistle’ by Martin Figura
‘Dirty Great Love Story’ by Katie Bonna and Richard Marsh
Wandering Word Stage
Emergency Poet
‘Lullabies to Make your Children Cry’ by Lucy Ayrton

Best magazine

Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts

Best regular Spoken Word night
Bang said the Gun (London)
Hammer and Tongue (Oxford)
Jibba Jabba (Newcastle)
Inky Fingers (Edinburgh)
Come Rhyme with Me (London)

Best poetry anthology

The Centrifugal Eye’s 5th Anniversary Anthology (ed. E.A. Hanninen)
Rhyming Thunder – the Alternative Book of Young Poets (Burning Eye)
Sculpted: Poetry of the North West (ed. L. Holland and A. Topping)
Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (English PEN)
Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins)

Best fiction anthology
Unthology, volume 3 (Unthank Books)
Post-Experimentalism (Bartleby Snopes)
Best European Fiction 2013 (Dalkey Archive)
Front lines (Valley Press)
Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud (Salt Publishing)

Best mixed anthology

Estuary: a Confluence of Art & Poetry (Moon and Mountain)
Pressed by Unseen Feet (Stairwell Books)
Still (Negative Press)
Silver Anthology (Silver Birch Press)
Second Lives (Cargo Press)

Published Poetry 2012: a Top 10

In Seasonal/End of year on December 10, 2012 at 12:14 am

-Listed by Claire Trévien


As the end of the year approaches, it is customary to attempt round-ups of sorts. Last year, I asked for people’s favourite poetry pamphlets on twitter. This year I will be taking inspiration from last year’s fiction top ten and providing links to the top ten most read published poetry reviews (from this year). If you are looking for gift inspirations or wanting to stumble on something new, you could do worse than take a look at this list.

They are:

1. Four 2011 Poetry Business Prizewinners (Smiths/Doorstop 2012). Reviewed by Sophie Mayer.

2. Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot. Reviewed by Harry Giles.

3. Human Shade by Robert Peake (Lost Horse Press). Reviewed by Martha Sprackland.

4. lapping water by Dan Flore III. Reviewed by Ian Chung.

5. ILK #1. Reviewed by John McGhee.

6. Fleck and the Bank by Rob A. Mackenzie (Salt Publishing). Reviewed by Harry Giles.

7. All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head by Tony Williams (Nine Arches Press). Reviewed by Charles Whalley.

8. Antiphon #1. Reviewed by John McGhee.

9. Poland at the Door by Evelyn Posamentier (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press). Reviewed by Ian Chung.

10. Four Rack Press pamphlets. Reviewed by Angela Topping.

Originally published in 2011, Charles Whalley’s review of Megan Fernandes’ Organ Speech (Corrupt Press) would have otherwise appeared third.

There’s a pleasing presence of webzines and self-published work on this list. Group or anthology reviews also appear to have been popular, though I suspect that the popularity of the Smith/Doorstop and Catechism reviews is in part due to their controversial natures – but if so, where is Eireann Lorsung’s thought-provoking meditation on poetic tourism in Colette Sensier’s début pamphlet How Many Camels is too Many?

So far the least viewed review of a poetry publication is Diidxadó by Víctor Terán (Poetry Translation Centre), which seems a shame considering its reviewer, Judi Sutherland, describes it as ‘Pablo Neruda in a bitter mood’, what’s not to love?

If I were to construct my own personal 2012 list free of the constraints of what has been reviewed in Sabotage, and comprising magazines, anthologies, and pamphlets, I should no doubt curse my poor short-term memory. Such a list would undoubtedly include however: Cat Conway’s Static Cling (Dancing Girl Press, being reviewed soon for Sabotage), Agenda vol. 46 no. 4, Azita Ghahreman’s Poems (Poetry Translation Centre), Kayo Chingonyi’s Some Bright Elegance (Salt Publishing), and Adelle Stripe’s Dark Corners of the Land (Blackheath Books). A couple more impose themselves, but would be ineligible since I have poems in them: Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins), Fuselit: Contraption, and Poems in Which. What would be on your list? Please do share in the comments.

Four Rack Press Pamphlets 2012

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

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

-Reviewed by Angela Topping

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Buddha of suburbia
beneath the buddleia.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview with Lindsey Holland

In Conversation on June 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm

-In Conversation with Claire Trévien

As regular readers of Sabotage know, Lindsey Holland has been covering my role as poetry editor for the last six months and is therefore my personal hero. Her tenure ends on 15th June, so here is a spotlight on Lindsey’s many projects and her own creative process. Lindsey finished an MA in Writing at the University of Warwick several years ago. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in various magazines and anthologies and her first collection, Particle Soup, is due out later this year with the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. She’s the chair and founder member of North West Poets and is currently co-editing its anthology of poetry. She is also one of the poets involved in the Penning Perfumes project. To read more about the project, check out this companion interview with Tim Wells.

1.    What made you decide to take part in the Penning Perfumes project? Were you interested in scents prior to the project?

I was keen to be involved as soon as heard about the project. For some time, I’ve been interested in how we choose to convey multisensory experiences through language. ‘Write about all five senses’ is a common poetry prompt. Every time I’ve encountered it I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why not actually evoke and utilise the senses? Could this be done? What’s left to be said when the senses are already speaking for themselves?’.

My interest in perfume prior to working on the project was rather minimal in that I rarely used it. I’d often bought perfume whilst on holiday and I was aware of how my memory of those places was often closely connected to scents: the perfumes that were popular at the time but also the cuisine, flora, even the buildings. I visited Prague in 2003 and bought Sensi by Georgio Armani simply because it felt like bringing the city home in a bottle. The scent had seemed to be everywhere. The girl at the Marionette Theatre box office was wearing it and I got her to write the name down for me. Now, when I smell it, I think of Don Giovani (the puppet version), smiling twenty-somethings with natural tans (including myself), yellow buildings and my first reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, amongst other things. I suppose I’ve been aware of how powerful scent can be for a very long time.

2.    You’ve been writing a poem inspired by an anonymous scent you were given, can you tell me a little bit about your first reaction to the scent?

When it arrived, I left it in the envelope for a day before I opened it. This was partly because I wanted to focus on it with few distractions but also, I think, because I liked the mystery of it. I almost didn’t want to smell it. I was a frightened, I think, that it’d remind me of lace doilies and fake teak furniture. When I did first sniff it, I immediately jotted down every word that came to mind. It initially seemed fruity, sharp and floral. As those notes subsided, I found the perfume much more attractive: rounder, sweeter, still floral but earthier, and a lot more intriguing. There was a moment when it smelt exactly, almost violently, like a medieval hall I used to visit when I was young. It was quite a physical experience.

3.    How was the process of writing this poem for you? I hate the term ‘comfort zone’, but do you feel that it took you away from your usual writing practice, or did you find a way to make it adapt to your style?

It was a combination of these. It definitely took me away from my usual style at first and I had many failed attempts at writing a poem from it. I wanted to be accurate to the scent; there was an element of approaching it like a puzzle and trying to find the ‘right’ answers. I also wanted to move away from that and be true to my experience of the scent. It took me on a journey. I used it in my car, tried it on my daughter, wore it to meetings and sprayed it on my notebook. It never seemed the same twice. After a week, I’d reached a point at which I felt haunted by it. I visited the medieval hall that had suggested itself so strongly and talked to the guides about the smell there. One room in particular, the Great Hall, has a unique scent. In the end, I tried to forget about it for a week or two before writing more failed attempts. The final poem came in a gush of inspiration. Everything I’d been thinking came together and found shape in the way that some of my other poems do. I allowed myself to forget the initial fruity notes in the scent because the other experiences seemed to outweigh them and the body of the perfume was so intriguing.

4.    Did finding out what the perfume was [Ruth Mastenbroek’s Eau de Parfum] change your interpretation of it?

Not really, although I did wonder whether I should have pursued the tropical elements a little more. Some of my aborted attempts had drawn on my experiences in Southeast Asia: palm trees, sand, flip flops and mango (I mistook the perfume’s pineapple for this). I found it hard to compromise these images with the roses, wood, a medieval hall and my feeling of being haunted by the fragrance. Because the tropical notes were more fleeting, I decided not to include them. I suppose this comes down to a desire for narrative. Mangos don’t belong in old English houses. In a way, I prioritised sense and atmosphere over absolute accuracy. The perfume didn’t feel abstract to me — I became quite close to it and almost felt as though it were telling me something — so I ruled out that approach. It made me very aware that there are always going to be compromises when you rely on language to convey a sense.

5.    Tell me about your perfume-partner, Kate Williams at Seven Scent, what was that process like?

Kate was amazing. I was struck by her intuition and by the speed at which she works. Her process is different to mine in that she writes very little down, certainly initially. It’s more of a physical process: pulling bottles from shelves, imagining which scents will be needed and trying them together. Or at least, that’s the impression I came away with. I think we both work with images though, whether visual or olfactory. At their essence, poems and perfumes both emerge from thoughts, senses and experiences so I suppose there’s an overlap in the processes of creating them.

I was delighted to learn that Kate creates what we might think of as unpleasant scents. It’s not all about bouquets; she also works with mosh pits. This definitely appeals to me! She sees a lot of subtleties in both language and scents. We talked about the words ‘crumbled’ and ‘coil’ and how, just as there are layers of meaning to each of them, there are also layers of scent.

6.    You’re just about to launch an online magazine. Can you tell me a little bit about this project?

I’m working on this with Melissa Lee-Houghton. It’ll be called ‘Conspirator Magazine’ and we’ll be asking for submissions fairly soon. The focus is on poetry that’s bold and vibrant, that has something to say and doesn’t hold back. It can be inventive, political, scientific, tender or playful but the common factor is that it has to really speak; there has to be a voice.

7.    You’re editing an anthology of poetry about the North West and you’ve also been editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage. What prompted you to make the leap from writer to editor? Does the ‘other side’ give you a new perspective on your own writing?

In my case, I’m not sure that it’s much of a leap. Like a lot of poets, I find it far harder to edit my own poems than I do to edit other people’s. I’ve always felt comfortable discussing writing, and critiquing keeps me mentally active. Poets are often told that in order to write, they must read. I also think they must edit, and not only their own work. It’s all about practise. I suppose I’m also a little addicted to having projects on the go. I like to see ideas come together and to make things happen. In some circumstances, when I see potential, I find it hard to sit back and just watch. The anthology in particular has been a learning curve though. I have renewed respect for editors who spend months trying to correct formatting issues and removing inconsistencies; and that’s before you’ve even considered distribution and marketing. If there’s any leap between editor and writer, I think it’s here. I enjoy the challenge though and it brings variety to my days. I’m excited about it.

8.    When did you first call yourself a poet and to whom?

Perhaps pathetically, I can’t remember, but it was probably on a form of some sort. In conversation, I sometimes still opt for ‘writer’ rather than ‘poet’. Telling people you’re a poet seems to either a) provoke a similar response to the one you might receive if you said you have the plague (concern mixed with a desire to hastily retreat) or b) it results in a discussion of Wordsworth and/or how poor you are. I should probably approach this head-on but I’m usually too flummoxed by the question.

9.    How has the experience of editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage been for you so far? Is it preparing you adequately for reactions to your first collection do you think (tell us about it!)?

It’s been fantastic. I’ve enjoyed not only reading the reviews but spending time going into them in detail: checking grammar and punctuation, searching for photographs of book covers, reading online magazines who’ve requested reviews, all the extra bits of work that most people probably don’t see. I think it’s prepared me for reactions to my own collection quite well. The reviewers I’ve worked with have all been fair, in my opinion, but I know that’s not always the case. I think even the most hardened of editors must dread a very negative, or worse, ignorant review of their own work. 

10.  What projects are in the pipeline for you?

My main project at the moment is the anthology I’m editing, along with Angela Topping and a board of editors, for North West Poets. It’s provisionally titled Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and we have some amazing poets involved in it, of whom I can’t yet say too much. The poems will look at the North West as a region, from its geological beginnings to our contemporary experiences of it, in both urban and rural areas. We’re hoping to be able to fund a series of readings and events throughout the region and we’re working on a lot of exciting partnerships.

I’m also hoping to begin a Creative Writing PhD in September, for which I’ll ‘translate and contemporise’ dragons, witches, giants and other beasts from folklore. I’ll also look at Czech poets (particularly Miroslav Holub), surrealism, archetypes, contemporary events, existentialism and eclecticism.

I do have a few other ideas for projects. They’re currently set to simmer because they’re not quite ready yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

‘I Sing of Bricks’ by Angela Topping & ‘Erec & Enide’ by Amy De’ath

In Pamphlets on April 27, 2011 at 9:33 pm

 -Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

These two poets inhabit entirely different worlds, not just because they come from different generations, but in their approach to poetry, Topping’s being more traditional and De’Ath’s experimental. The overall word that comes to mind when considering Topping’s chapbook is ‘clarity’. She focuses on objects that have a symbolic value for her and personal experiences, such as ordinary day-to-day moments with loved ones; the loss of a long-time poet friend, Matt Simpson, and also of her parents. The collection opens with two quotations, one by Simpson: ‘the disorder of gulls in a pleasure of words/the glint of the mullet, the pigness of pigs’. This sets up an expectation. In her opening ode, ‘I Sing of Bricks’, she describes ‘Warm cakes of baked clay/exact corners/strictly rectangular/correct and/all the same/yet each one/slightly different.’  So far, ‘the pigness of pigs.’  But in spite of the assertion in one poem that ‘there is no order’, for this reader at least, there is not enough ‘disorder’ here. Thankfully, there is the pleasure in ‘Bricks’ of ‘your masculine charms’ and ‘little loaves/you make up the smallest/pig house’, which redeem the poem for me.

However, not many of the poems allow the reader to ‘let your eyes gaze out of focus’ (‘Snakewatching’). In ‘Kitchen Ghosts’, the suggestion of a presence is beautifully conveyed with the seemingly last lovely lines: ‘Each morning, I hope for/lemon drizzle cake, two/pieces missing,/two empty cups.’ But turn the page and you discover three more lines, which spoil that last image: ‘Fool. They’re both long gone./Ghosts in the kitchen?/If hope could only make it so.’ When clarity becomes over-explanation, there is nothing left for the reader to imagine.

To my mind, the pleasure when reading poetry is in discovery. The poems here are for the most part straightforward, so it’s a delight to find a striking image, such as with ‘The Cook’s Tale’: ‘I select each vegetable and fruit/by the intimacy of touch, weight in the hand’ or with Three Ways of Snowdrops:

‘Their folded hands commit

Small white prayers

In the night’s confessional.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, they say

Nun-like heads bowed,

In the blankness of winter gardens.’

Similarly, ‘Gardening at Sylvia’s’ has some magical images: ‘The lilies are white cups of wine…Yellow crocuses burn in the grass/like eyes. Around the white beehives/the air hums with secrets…Pale moons of honesty/need harvesting for seed, but the heart’s/ gone out of it.’ Her nature poems, in fact, are where Topping’s imagery becomes alive; in ‘Heron’, her apples are ‘wormy windfalls, bruised and tart.’

Andrew Duncan once wrote that in defining why a poem is attractive, ‘we realise that there is an overall feel that emerges from the decisions about phrase and line juncture, that it is like the camera-pen (camera-stylo) which Alexandre Astruc posited as personal style in film.’ In the case of a collection or chapbook, these perhaps unconscious choices frame an overall consciousness and give a poet’s work its individual quality.

The danger of straightforward poetry is that it loses its power to occupy the mind. It arouses very few associations because it is straightforward. In some of these poems, however,  the reader also senses a grief that goes beyond the mourning of a friend. One poem, ‘Johari Whispers,’ hints at secrets: ‘a whisper here would be too loud’. It also stands out as being one of two poems with the layout of a double poem – or one across two columns – so there is an invitation to read it both down the page and across, suggestions of double entendre. The second poem in this form, ‘Each Blade Singly’ also mentions ‘secret life’ and ‘order’: ‘there is no order’. So while Topping’s poems generally offer a plain glass view of the world, these latter poems have a welcome ‘strangeness’ to them.

If ‘clarity’ defines Topping’s work in general, ‘strangeness’ defines De’Ath’s’s debut chapbook.  Her opening series of ‘Poetry for Boys’ opens with an oxymoron:

‘That the Joy will soon come and make you suffer!’ The first poem is an unexpected play on words, conveying atmosphere rather than sense:

‘Lay low in the words of the wood

very subtle, not immune,

lay down in the snow and incline…

…the screwing over, resin delight

delightful residual meaning, still night.’

Exciting syntax pulses through these poems, sustaining our interest and attention. Of course, attention is a voluntary thing; in my opinion, we are interested if the poet seems interested. Here, embedded in the chaos is a bizarre sense, which claims its space.  There is a strong consciousness of the poet’s engagement with this work, as well as wit and a lightness of touch:

The house is full of dehumidifiers. Behind the house

a warm damp world enlarges itself, puffs

leaves and shelled birdsong along in it, and a baby crying

and deeds of courage.

Just as you are beginning to feel that this is a logic that can be followed, De’Ath throws in dadaist-type oddities – to keep us on our toes:

‘If the sea is the swan road you can

Appropriate the lake-lady just by laughing.’

Of course, the natural human tendency is to seek a narrative seam; to hunt for the sense and latch on – and thankfully in these poems there is a central concept holding them together. The title, Erec & Enide, comes from Chrétien De Troyes’ twelfth century Arthurian romance, and many of the poems are love poems – although even tenderness is disguised with ironic anti-romanticism. One such poem – one of the most accessible – is ‘David’:

‘                                                    A

Man obscure and B sharp. Sympathy

Forever for living in a wheelchair, the man

Who on reaching critical mass is shot

Out of a Mossberg 12ga. and into my

Mouth. David leaves my mouth/

Sedated but soon he rocks down

To the Costcutter to buy beans.

David, reign in your keynote speech

At the Costcutter. David made of

Oak. David diamond.

Other poems are sunk further in obscurity – sometimes too much so: ‘I believe a readable face as crickets/swallow gleaming buildings full of/living banking hearts,/ I believe the grand ineloquence of/summer’s glue talking to you as if/pink axes in our reach,/and you, a click-clack landscape now/your thundering hero-organs chime a way into my laundry tub.’ (Sonnet). Where the risk for Topping is to be too overtly explanatory, De’Ath’s is to be too obfuscated. (Also, De’Ath’s line breaks are often risky, many lines ending with conjunctions or prepositions, contributing to the sense of instability.) Such poems appear to give over instead to the pleasure of soundscape, as with ‘Lisa Jarnot’s Rabbit’:

‘How to glide on promise

hunted hunted honed the sky

alone lacking ground a sky

alone on the border of a shadow

of a cloud betrothed and hunted


De’Ath plays music all the way through the side-stepping of logic. Yet in the apparent randomness of many images, repetitions and loops emulate the patterns of activity in the brain.  This is De’Ath’s strength. Her poems are attuned to the body, to language, and most of all, to multiplicity.  Ultimately, she knows what she’s doing:

‘Stranger, it’s a hunger I’m looking for.’ (Part 4 of Five Exits – Imagination.)

Simultaneity is the key to suggestivity, which permeates this collection. This, as well as De’Ath’s qualities of pitch and timbre, the oscillatory swellings up or vanishings to nothing – these give her surreal montages a subjective yet stylized sense of contemporary reality: ‘everyone endeared to the lyrics and here for proof’. Now her challenge is ‘how to glide on promise’.

These poems reflect our ‘folded times’ and introduce an exciting new voice.