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Aoife Lyall

A Cowardly Act

When I announced that I was going to use this blog to review 12 female poets this year I was given plenty of support and encouragement from writers, publishers, journals, and various groups on Facebook and Twitter.

Last night Clochoderick Press tweeted (Read clockwise from bottom left):

 

This is the DM (Direct Message) they sent to me on Twitter, after I requested data from them. They blocked me before I could reply. I have underlined and annotated in brackets the parts I take particular issue with.


Sorry to private message you, (Then why do it?)

I come in peace by the way. (That immediately dictates how I am expected to react to what you are going to say, and gives you a platform to retreat to should I ‘misinterpret’ what you say next. It is the equivalent of ‘With all due respect…’ or ‘No offence but…’

I can’t write enough on twitter. (So be more succinct)

You want data in regards to defining an under-represented writer (Yes, DATA- the ‘conclusive’ facts, figures and statistics you asked me for)?

It is those who have been shunned by mainstream industries. It is those who have to depend on small presses to get their work out there and read. Those who have the same literary talent as those in the mainstream industry but because they have not slept with the directors of such industries or shook someone’s hand in secret, will never have their work see the light of day from these arenas. You want data for a definition, that definition, I am afraid, which I can admit, can be argued until the end of days (Still waiting on that data…).

You were talking about statistics (A word I did not use) with your argument, about how women are under-represented regarding reviews. I wanted to know in which sector (which I should have explained). In the mainstream sector, with bigger publishing houses, this is the case. (Okay, now we are getting to a place where I could have engaged, clarified, perhaps opened up an interesting dialogue…just wait)

I do not see it though in the smaller presses, which run the majority of literature magazines (A statement devoid of any…you guessed it…statistics).

And in the UK the smaller presses, especially within poetry, are growing quite fast (Yes, I agree with this wholeheartedly).

Most of them all for equality, (as though it is some cute new fad) a good number of them run by women (What number? What % in 2017? What % 2000-2017? What % 1900-2017? And what is a good number?).

There are two females on my board, me being the only guy. (So not ‘males and females’ or ‘men and women’- ‘females’ and ‘guys’. Not two women on our board. I cannot find any information about this board online, and do not know if these two ‘females’ have seen this message, sent from the official Clochoderik Press Twitter account, by a ‘Robert’ who didn’t feel it important to include his last name.)

And, just take a look at who were publishing. (My focus is on the reviews, not the initial publishing.)

Women outnumber men. (And?)

So, If you are talking about the mainstream, well, why bother with them? (I never said that my focus was on the mainstream publishing- it is on reviews- yet the rest of his reply turns on this.)

It has been clear for decades they talk non sense, put authors on platforms they do not deserve (not all of them, but a damn good number of them) and most of them being male. Yes, I agree, the mainstream is male driven, but why bother with them? (REALLY?! So he both agrees with, and completely dismisses, the premise of my reviews while simultaneously mistaking the focus of my efforts.)

They are narcissistic anyway, as are most of the mainstream artistic industries, they are full of junk, for the most part. (How do such sentiments support or promote the arts at any level?)

What you are saying though undermines the efforts of small presses who are trying to balance everything out, who lookout for the best poetry and not the best gender (Because ‘best’ is an objective term, that is in no way influenced by time, place, circumstance, or gender politics?)

I am sorry, (No you are not; worse, you are trying to break it me gently) but by excluding men from reviews, do you not think you are just playing the same game as those who you condemn? (No. My goal is to help balance the ratios of reviews, the way small presses are, according to yourself, balancing the ratios of their publications. How can one support one thing without being seen to ‘exclude’ another? If my focus was BAME writers, would I be accused of ‘excluding’ white writers?)

Is Mslexia, a magazine for women only, one of the biggest circulating in the UK, not enough? (I do not feel that the discerning reader needs my commentary here…)

What if there was a male magazine, only for male poetry – there would be an outcry! (I feel it incumbent upon me to point out the historical accuracy of this statement most magazines published work by men for men until relatively recently. Also- I’m not talking about magazines or publishers. I’m STILL just talking about reviews.)

They would be sued into the middle of next century. (I am very much beginning to feel that this is no longer about my 12 reviews, and has not been for some time.)

I am on your side in regards to equality (It’s not a side because it is not an option), and it does you zero good to become pedantic with me, as in where does it get us? (So now this essay has descended into full rebuke mode with ‘zero good’… bearing in mind that this ‘pedantic’ comment derives from my request to see the Press’ data while I COMPILED my own, which was requested from me as above. Data which they clearly have no actual interest in seeing as I was blocked from contacting them via Twitter before I could reply- so clearly this conversation has gotten ‘us’ nowhere as I was given no right to redress.)

I was civil enough, (so not polite) in that you made a bold claim (What was bold about it?) which was statistically driven (I never mentioned statistics), and I wanted to see that data (but provide none of your own), that’s all! (The accusations and insults in this essay clearly state otherwise- particularly in this next section…)

I just disagree with a lot of how females go about trying to sort out this whole equality thing out, which, to be fair, really only rears its ugly head at the top of society where EVERYONE at that level is psychotic anywaytherefore why should we even care about them, any of them, men and women alike

(This just baffles me- the opposition and collusion, the us v. them, the ultimate why bother of it all- baffling)

Please don’t get mad at me, (see opening comment about coming in peace)

I am not the one who disagrees with equality – your choice though, (What is my choice? I actually have no idea what is meant by this. Equality? Asking for the same type of information that was asked of me?) but getting into silly tic tac argument should not be the way here. (Bearing in mind I asked for clarification re: the data being asked for, and asked for data that supported their MO as a press)

If you are serious about equality between all people (as opposed to equality between some people?), then understand when you exclude men (not support women), especially within the arts (why especially?), you are becoming the monster you are trying to fight, (At no point did I say anything about monsters, fighting etc.) that is all I am saying (No it is not…clearly). Happy new year, and for the love of all that is good, peace! (Which I could maybe understand if we had had an actual dialogue about any of this…)


As I have said, I do not know if this essay was sent with the consensus of all the editors but, as it was written to me in a private message by someone untraceable who then blocked me so I could not reply, it is a cowardly act the Press need to distance themselves from. A small independent press that claims to promote the under-represented writer, I simply can not see where this vitriol has come from and how it can possibly have a place in Scotland’s contemporary literary scene.

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All my Mad Mothers: A Review

 

Jacqueline Saphra’s debut collection, All my Mad Mothers, is one of observation and experience, resistance and discovery, inhibition and abandon. The poems within are vivacious explorations of daughterhood, adulthood, and motherhood, a spinning wheel of rebellion, conformity, protest and revelation.

Analogous to reading the old family encyclopaedias, these poems contain the secret thrill of self-discovery, an exhilarating exegesis of the female body as it responds to age and expectation.

The collection begins with ‘In the winter of 1962 my mother’, a poem that navigates the silence and isolation of a woman who fails to subscribe to contemporary social norms:

travelling round and round in shrinking circles
not sure how to execute the move outwards
into another lane never having been
properly taught how to make an exit

Given the deluge of fairy tales ready to instruct generations of young girls on how to acquire a husband (a passive mixture of charm and frailty), and the plethora of instruction manuals and magazine articles designed to create the perfect wife and mother, there were scant, if any, resources a woman could turn to in times of marital problems and breakdowns in 1962.  It was the woman’s role to keep the family together, whatever the cost, physically or emotionally.  This collection then, is about precisely this: the roundabouts and wrong turns, red lights and give-ways we go through as we figure out where we want to go, how to get there, and who we want to be when we arrive.

The rest of this section explores the significant and potentially lethal difference between the examination of biological sexuality and the expectation of political sexuality. ‘Sicily’ presents childhood curiosity, “The boys show me their penises… so in return, I present my vagina…” The aftermath involves going to the balcony “to practice spitting, wave at Vespas,/ local kids and tourists before we amble/ down to lunch”. ‘The Sound of Music’, however, reveals the devastation of clinging to received ideas, realising too late “that you can squander a lifetime/ trying to stay small and pretty.”

Cataloguing the implements of her mother’s beauty routine in ‘My Mother’s Bathroom Armoury’, Saphra acknowledges and rejects the double-edged sword of prescribed beauty. The structure and rhythm of the poem echoes the cadence of the three witches in Macbeth, determined to ensnare and manipulate him:

Cutting edge of lady-razor
Glint of sin and lure of danger
Woman’s flesh a fading treasure
Braced for pain but honed for pleasure

The historical suspicion surrounding make-up is well-documented as the last recourse of the lustful and wicked, suggesting that make-up denotes a magic, a power of sorts, something to be feared and avoided. In this vein, it becomes the armour in the title: war-paint that is empowering and invigorating. But armour is donned to protect areas of the body that are weak, prone to attack. As such, the:

Smudged remains of caked mascara
Iron clamp of eyelash curler
Usual instruments of torture

are invoked to protect the wearer from unwelcome and critical eyes, and, as such, become a form of submission: in succumbing to the physical pain involved, the woman is protected from the social stigma of being ‘unwomanly’.

The section finishes with ‘All my Mad Mothers’, a well-marinated, sun-chaser, puddle-swimmer, arsonist and confectioner of a mother. Saphra presents seven images of her mother across seven stanzas, a rainbow of identities that the inverted prism of ‘mother’ is expected to turn to white, wholesome, light.

The second section develops this idea of multiplicity through the ring-fencing of burgeoning sexual awareness. The female body is man-handled through the free-for-all indulgence of supposed bodily pleasures in ‘Crete, 1980’, “naked, mouth grazed with the taste/ of smoke and strangers’ kisses” and the political landmine of ‘Getting into Trouble’, where “Mr Giles…made me take the pro-abortion poster down”. This poem also touches on the social construct of female virginity, exonerated by “My boyfriend, who was stupid but useful”, and dismissed by her mother as “burdensome”, something to be “sorted in that lull/ between O Levels and results”.

‘The Day My Cousin Took me to the Museé Rodin’ embodies the stark and opportunistic threats women face when they engage with sexual words, ideas, and behaviours. The poem opens with a list of excuses that justify the presumptuous and aggressive behaviour of her cousin: the weather, the erotic artwork, and then, inevitably, herself:

Perhaps it was … my blatant boasts
of l’armour libre of which I knew, in fact, rien
that galvanised my cousin to try his luck with me.

It as a universal assumption that a woman in possession of a body must be in want of sexual attention. The use of French reflects both the speaker’s inability to articulate the nuances of these unwanted sexual advances, but also the shame and silence expected of, and experienced by, its victims.

In ‘Hampstead, 1979’, Saphra shows us the values that women are meant to appreciate in a man, regardless of their own feelings and desires, while the exciting wildness of men who disregard these rules in ‘My Friend Juliet’s Icelandic Lover’ is muted by the pathetic nature of those who can’t follow them:

                          More like
that dull Sunday in your hard-to-let flat
in Mile End while Martha was feeding
the baby in the other room and you
murmured sorry sorry sorry, one hand
on my cheek, one hand on my hand.

The penultimate section moves on to focus on motherhood through a mixture of introspection, expectation and caution.

In ‘Chicken,’ we witness the youthful intensity of a daughter who lives by high-cast principles (“If you choose to eat an animal,/ you must first learn to kill it”), balanced by the pragmatic wisdom of a mother who “snipped the plastic film,/ plucked some stray feathers/ and rubbed salt into the skin.” This maternal self-restraint is seen again in ‘What time is it in Nova Scotia?’ a poem full of questions that wait to be asked, advice that aches to be given:

I won’t ask about your cough, whether you’re eating
oranges and learning French or if you like the vest I
sent. I wish I could brush your hair. Remind me to send

Its depiction of “sailors who’d trap a calf/ and torture it” to capture an adult walrus addresses the knowledge, and guilt, of a parent that cannot protect its child from everything. The poem acknowledges the importance of this enforced silence, recognising that you cannot protect someone by attacking them, or heal them by exposing their weaknesses. You can only wait, respect this new-found need for space, and be ready to provide love and support at a moment’s notice, an understanding beautifully articulated in ‘The Doors to my Daughter’s House’.

she’s made it plain that I must never lean against
those doors she’s carved, the ones that swing
hjg
open and shut on oiled hinges at intervals
I can’t predict…

Fittingly, the collection’s final section opens with the line ‘If I could do it over, I think’. The poems that follow speak of heirlooms, old habits, old friends and old fashions in a voice that recognises love as beautiful, complex, painful and, more often than we would like to admit, anticlimactic. The closing poems are more affirmation than resignation, spoken with the wisdom and self-confidence so lacking on that opening roundabout.

***

Saphra does not seek to create art separate from its artist; timeless, weightless, open to vague assumptions and misappropriations. She is writing as daughter, woman, mother, a female poet with a female body, here and now.

Shortlisted for the T S Eliot Poetry Prize,  All my Mad Mothers is a sensual, intimate, honest, virile, expansive, and explosive debut.


All my Mad Mothers by Jacqueline Saphra
Nine Arches Press. 72pp; £9.99. ISBN: 9781911027201


If you are a publisher in the UK or Ireland with a collection, chapbook, or pamphlet written by a woman in 2017/18 that you wish to be considered for review please contact me via the form below in the first instance.

Please also note:

  1. Due to time restraints and the nature of this project, I cannot guarantee a review.
  2. I will only write reviews of collections I think are exceptional.
  3. Review copies will not be returned, whether a review is published or not.

 

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks: A Review

 

(This review was oringally published in The Poet’s Republic, Issue 5)

Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks, Magi Gibson. ISBN9781910745861: Luath Press;

£7.99

Magi Gibson embodies and emboldens real women here, the ‘untouchables’ who live outside the strict codes of expected femininity.  Many of the poems in Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks speak to authority over the self, and the gall that accompanies such flagrant, unbecoming autonomy in a woman. Providing a refreshing and revitalising deluge of perspectives from which to appreciate both the complexity and simplicity of the female position, each poem nevertheless comes down to the same fundamental principle: that a woman’s right to represent and speak for her own body is, and should be recognised as, inalienable.

‘Woman Sunbathing in Bridgeton’ is thus fittingly and deliciously self-absorbed, its protagonist triumphantly refusing to even acknowledge the masculine tropes women have been taught to fear since childhood: the white van man, the angry dog, the drunk, the youths, even Death itself as it rolls by.  Instead, ‘Serenely she applies/ more lotion.’

We often forget the incredible significance and emblematic nature of the ordinary things in our lives. In Gibson’s hands, lipstick is elevated from spurious indulgence to social marker. In “Barflower”, ‘Her lipstick…/signals more warning than welcome’; in “Gift” it is as quintessential as the ‘toothpaste, tampons,/ shampoo, soap’ slipped into the Refugee Appeal bag.  “Lipstick” brings Gibson’s guilty conscience to the fore.  Seeing her own make-up ritual as ‘a daily act, a sacrament, a quiet solemnity’, she chides herself for the importance she ascribes to it:

But how can I think of shopping for lipstick

while food banks sprout like bindweed in our towns,

while refugees flee burnt-out homes, while bombs drop

on bathrooms just like this…

only to be reminded of its importance by a refugee on the news:

I’ve lost my home, my family,

She tells the camera.

I will not let them take my femininity.

 

Then she smiles. a lip-sticked smile.

A smile of scarlet defiance.

This sentiment is hauntingly echoed in ‘Liberation of Belsen’, where the freed women have been gifted lipstick and are seen ‘wandering/ like wraiths…/their lips, smiling, scarlet.’ No longer a frivolous expenditure, lipstick becomes the marker of friendship and danger, pride and despair, survival and political defiance. And above all else? Autonomy and control.

The collection’s eponymous poem is its penultimate one. ‘Washing Hugh MacDiarmid’s Socks’ is a message: do not judge what you do not understand. Struggling to survive:

Her mother and her aunts complain she’s saddled

With a man who’s not a man, who fails his wife and son;

The boy sobs hard so sad he is his  father does not come.

The speaker is bewildered by the ‘Flame-haired fireball’ who ‘deign(s)/ to wash her absent husband’s socks’.  We, as contemporary readers, are called to arms, called to scorn and pity the broken-spirit of this once-fierce ‘virago’.  And yet we must be cautious; the actions of others are so often, and so easily prescribed convenient, negative, motivations.  Gibson delves deeper into the sentiment behind Valda Grieve’s ‘Send me your dirty linen’, using the poem to explore, not superficial wifely duty, but the intimate physicality and sexuality of a woman separated from her lover, a woman who perhaps:

…stripped

off her clothes, snipped the tangled twine, ripped off

the wrap, breathed in the distant, lonely smell of him…

Somehow this woman is all the women in this collection; suffering, yet suffering for a higher purpose.  She does not wash his socks because she is told to, because it is expected of her, as a woman, as a wife. No, ‘She washed his socks for love.’

Underpinning this narrative, several of Gibson’s personal poems reflect the sadness, if not regret, that comes with recognising a disconnect from one’s past. The divide is represented through the shift from the physical labour of her father, and his generation, to the intellectual pursuits of her ‘arty-farty glitterati’, who appear to have lost their grip on reality, ‘Nibbling crumb-sized canapés, not/ From silver trays or porcelain plates,/ But old roof slates’. These poems acknowledge with irreverent finesse a distinct sense of otherness and, through Gibson’s recognition of the ironic construction of her world, the reader gains a fresh, sharp perspective on the flimsy realities in which we are often so desperate to enshroud ourselves.

Magi Gibson’s latest collection is an effusive and vibrant celebration of womanhood.  Presented without apology or qualification, its poems are at times joyful, dignified, sorrowful, proud, and ridiculous. Some poems read more as interludes between riveting sequences, but this is a minor point in an otherwise enthralling collection.  To be read in the bath, or at the gym, or up a mountain; wherever it is that you are most yourself.

 

The Growing Season: A Review

 

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The Growing Season, Helen Sedgwick’s second novel, does not set out to radically alter the reader’s world view. Its goal is neither to posit advances in medical science as something to be feared and abhorred; nor to euphorically postulate these advances as the inevitable, triumphant epitome of a species that has transcended itself.

The pouch has long been accepted as the best way to have children, as it allows adults to circumnavigate the plethora of biological, socio-economical, political, and religious issues that dictate natural birth.

In a world that recognises pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood as society’s cornerstone (not its inconvenient truth), the pouch is the perfect, perfectly safe, perfectly equal way to have a family. Its parent company, FullLife, appears open, honest, and genuinely passionate about its work, offering care plans and payment options to suit every circumstance.

By the time the novel begins, the wonder and marvel of the pouch’s technology has been relegated, much like a smartphone, to its novelty features. Pouches are no longer just life-givers (and life-savers), they are fashion accessories: celebrity endorsements, sensory inputs, and seasonal covers have become the way to guarantee your unborn child is up-to-date with the latest trends on their Birth Day.

Indeed, it is the advent of smartphones, and Sedgwick’s light, meticulous touch that makes the pouch so palatable. Twenty years ago, this novel would have seemed fantastical, futuristic, and fundamentally untenable. Now, with a generation rising behind us who have never known a world without the internet, we can easily, if uneasily, appreciate how such paradigm-shifting technology has been so seamlessly integrated into everyday life. Who, now, would go to the library before reaching for their phone? Who, then, could possibly choose a natural birth, with its inherent and varied risks, over the pouch?

This is the challenge faced by Avigail and her daughter Eva. Working against the common belief that the pouch is without fault (even when they themselves have benefitted from its invention), Eva is forced to shut down her mother’s campaign for answers and accountability because people simply do not want to know. That is, until an unusual media silence and a chance connection stir Eva’s suspicions, and compel her to finish what her mother started.

Sedgwick successfully navigates the complex and multifaceted intricacies of The Growing Season by refusing to sensationalize the characters and events of her story. There are no social avengers, determined to destroy life as we know it; no evil corporation hell-bent on treachery and malicious deceit; no star-crossed lovers who can only live and die in absolutes.  That is not to say the novel is without loss, heartache, and pain. But the circumstances are human, and so, it follows, are their consequences. Replete with human efforts and error, The Growing Season beautifully captures a paradoxical but fundamental truth: the knowledge that perfection is unattainable does not diminish the worthiness of its pursuit.

(Harvill Secker, 320 p. ISBN-13: 978-1911215950, £12.99: Published 7th September 2017)

 

 

5 things I’ve learned since…

…I started submitting my work for publication.

1. Simultaneous submissions are a mixed bag

Simultaneous submissions feel good in the beginning when you don’t have a lot to submit and want to get your foot in the door. That said, they really only work when the rejections come first.  Last year, I had a particular poem submitted to three different journals. The first response was a shortlisting for publication, so I did the right thing and withdrew it from the other two.  In the end the shortlisting journal didn’t accept my poem, which meant I lost out on, not one, but three, potential opportunities to see it in print.

2. Always have more submission opportunities and deadlines lined up than you can keep track of…*

Starting out I could tell you every deadline and every turnaround time for every competition, grant and journal I submitted to.  It drove me (and my nearest and dearest) around the bend. I would wake up almost frantic every morning, check my phone, mope around all day, check, check and re-check my email.  When something eventually pinged up, I was instantly euphoric if it was an acceptance; devastated if it was a rejection. Either way, N&D were subjected to the extensive ‘I’m on my way’ or ‘The end is nigh’ monologue. It was just too intense and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Now I aim to have at between 5-7 submissions on the go at any one time, with turnaround times varying from 6 weeks to 6 months. It means I always know something is being considered somewhere, making it hard to fixate on one particular submission.

*…in your head.  Always, always, always keep track of submissions on paper or electronically.

3. Make it fun 

Submitting is a labour of love and at times the labour can outweigh the love, especially if you’ve had a string of rejections. So do something to take the edge off.

I recently created Submission/ Publication bingo cards for 2017 and stuck them to my fridge.  There is a different publication, competition, or award in each square. When I submit, I draw a blue circle around that publication.  Every time I’m succesful, it’s a red heart on the Publication card.  A line of blues and I’ll treat myself to a cd or new book; a line of reds, an extra subscription or a workshop.

A simple enough idea but it keeps my momentum going, and keeps it light.

4. Don’t be afraid to submit to the big names

Or to keep submitting to them if you’re not successful.  Three of my publications this year have come from journals I have been submitting to for several years now.  In each case I waited six months to a year between submissions, to give my writing a chance to get better.

5. A literary calendar can be a very useful thing

Something with nice pictures and lots of writing space for each date.  I use it to record deadlines, submissions, acceptances, publications, and launches, as well as workshops, readings, writing days, and other literary things I do.  It lets me plan my submissions, celebrate my successes, and appreciate just how far I have come.

The Write Relationship: Part 1

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Writing is not so much a job as it is a relationship.  Regardless of what you write, it is all romance in the beginning: a hedonistic blur of special pens and fancy notebooks, expertly poised to communicate your literary prowess to the world; each letter embossed with the weight of your literary expectation.

Perhaps you have informed your nearest and dearest, in grandiose fashion, that you have begun this relationship in earnest, that this is The One.  Or, perhaps you are the more cautious type; dropping hints into casual conversations, but quick to back away from anything approaching a declarative statement. “Not yet,” you say. “It’s too early, we’re not that serious.”  Or perhaps you say nothing to anyone, and the entire relationship simply flares and fades in your own imagination.

Many would-be writers don’t get beyond the first flush of romance: the first obstacle, fight, difference of opinion, or sense of doubt arrives and they break off the relationship, only to forget about it, lament it irrevocably, or lambaste it to anyone within earshot by saying “I spent all this time and money on this and this is what I get?!”

So how can you develop a healthy and long-lasting relationship with your writing? Here are four things I have learned over the past five years.

1. Do not turn your writing into the centre of your universe

Just as friends will stop calling after a dozen ‘No thanks- Not tonight!’ replies, ideas will stop coming if you do nothing but obsess over the blank page or screen. The brain needs often needs to step back from a problem in order to find a solution; after all, how often have you stopped looking for car keys only to remember exactly where they are as you finish getting dressed? This piece of advice works on two levels. The first: keep your other hobbies, routines, and exercises; they function both as sources of inspiration and conversation. The second: get involved in the literary world; go to workshops, book launches, and readings; volunteer for committees and festivals; support others through social media. Just as couples seek out other couples, so they can do coupley things, do not be afraid to befriend other literary types.

2. Do not keep all your literary eggs in one basket

Everyone knows that the first three weeks (or months) of a relationship are pretty intense: everything revolves around that one person, that first draft. And that’s understandable.  But if neglect yourself in order to fulfil their every need, you risk becoming a shadow of your former self; likewise, if you only read what you write, your writing will become insipid and stale. So diversify. So see family and friends. Read and write genres that aren’t necessarily ‘your thing’, join forums or writing groups.  Or, if you really are a stickler for your field, be it fiction, poetry, travel writing etc., write articles and reviews about things you have read or enjoyed in your sphere. Both will keep you interested and invested in your relationship; both will help you get through the rough patches.

3. Work at it

All too often we identify the problems but don’t explore the solutions. At a time when almost everything is made to be disposable, getting rid of something for being ‘broken’, be it an opening chapter or a relationship, is seen as the quick, sensible thing to do. But a relationship that works isn’t perfect; it’s a relationship that works. And in the instance of writing, you’re the one who has to do the work. That story just not coming together?  That poem’s last line haunting you in your sleep? Endings unsatisfying, rejections accumulating? Figure out what you need to do to fix it, be that running it by a friend, talking through your frustrations, taking a break from their source. It may well be, after all is said and done, that you walk away from a particular project, but there is a huge difference between walking away with a clear conscience, knowing you tried everything, and quitting enveloped in self-doubt, loathing, and regret: the first will make ultimately make you a better writer; the second will significantly diminish your motivation and, most likely, the quality of your work

4. Let the relationship grow

Those dozens of poems you wrote in the heady early days of first-draft literary perfections? Ditch them, and move on: saying you have written over a hundred poems, when not one has received so much as a second glance gives nothing more than a false sense of accomplishment; like the dusty teddies, flowers, wacky photos and general tat mandated by young love, they run the risk of stirring up dissension when things begin to ‘calm’ down. Let your writing change and be prepared to change with it.


 

So there it is.  It’s not a magic cure, or a fits-all solution; just a new way at looking at something familiar.  Which is, surely, one of the best things about being a writer?

The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping: A Review

With a title that speaks to alternative and unconsidered perspectives, it is fitting that many of the poems in Russell Jones’ first collection, The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping, challenge us to re-examine what are best described as everyday truths.

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In  ‘God Has Still Not Appeared to the Birds’, the speaker contrasts the nonchalance of breaking eggs with the urgency of tending a young bird injured by flying into his window, leaving the reader to consider at which point on the scale of life morality  influences our actions.  Meanwhile, ‘Sendai-shi’ is both a gentle and blunt reminder of how, as humans, we must learn to forget in order to progress, but that, in forgetting, we are often doomed to repeat past mistakes. The final line of the poem very much embodies this paradox.  In the wake of tragedy we are told ‘the city regrows, recovers, and learns to live on’; a celebration of human tenacity.  But it also shows us how unable or unwilling we are as a species to change in the face of adversity, that our strength is also our weakness.  Fittingly, ‘Gaze’ observes that, though we can witness light from a dead star millions of miles away, we are incapable of witnessing our own past.  By doing so, it demonstrates a recognisable feature of our daily lives; that is, our ability to recognise and solve any problem that is not our own.

Jones’ influences are varied and apparent throughout the collection.  ‘House plant’, in its fruitful bounty and neglect, invokes Seamus Heaney’s seminal ‘Blackberry-Picking’, while ‘Last Stop’ speaks in its way to Edwin Morgan’s ‘In the Snack-bar’.  Norman MacCaig’s influence is particularly felt in Jones’ poems ‘Nan, come from the water’ and ‘Hanging Out the Washing at Night’.  This intertextuality reads as a promise: I know where I am coming from; I know what I am doing.

This is apt as Jones is a poet who is not afraid to experiment with persona and structure, introducing the reader to a multiplicity of narrative voices and poetic forms. In this collection we are given blank verse, sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, ghazals, found poems, list poems and even a table poem, from the mouths of cats, dogs, drunks, men, women, ghosts, and paintings, all clambering for their space between the pages, surrounded, as in life, by the complex matrix of global, local, and personal events that continuously harass and overwhelm us. T.S Eliot believed that ‘novelty is better than repetition’ and, for the most part, that is the case here.  Not all of Jones’ experiments with form are successful; ‘26 ONE WORD POEMS’ and ‘Star’, for instance, lack a strong relationship between form and content. The structure of ‘Tower’, in contrast, creates levels of depth and meaning that would otherwise be lost.  Written across two pages, the reader is instantly confronted with the two towers of 9/11.  While some sense may be gleaned from either ‘tower’, both are needed to fulfil the duty of communicating the poem.  Furthermore, the effort to cast your eyes back and forth across the pages without missing a line recreates the sense of bewilderment felt as millions looked to one tower and then the other, from first hit to final dust cloud.  This is a poem that could not be written in any other way.

Diverse, innovative, and brave, Jones has produced a collection that is introspective, observational, philosophical and conversational.  And just as ‘no slim telescope will show it all’, no single collection will fully encompass what Jones can offer as a poet.

 

The Emma Press Anthology of the Sea: A Review

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

-e.e cummings

 

The Emma Press Anthology of the sea is a captivating, diverse and perceptive collection that expertly plumbs the complex depths of our relationships with the sea.

 

The anthology has been divided into four, roughly equal, sections (Ashore, Adrift, Awash, and Avast), the multi-layered titles of which cleverly function as subtle buoys outlining, without enclosing, thematic links between the gathered poems.

Books that cross our path without warning or recommendation bring with them a sense of mystery: like objects washed up on the beach, they may prove to be treasure-troves of delight; a fright of worthless wreckage; or simple flotsam and jetsam that gather worth over time.  Beginning the anthology with our feet firmly on solid ground, it behoves us to consider both the intrinsic and relative values of each poem, and to decide for ourselves which poems we leave behind and which we slip into our pockets.

Ashore

To get a fuller sense of a poem’s worth, it is important to consider not just how it has been written but when; while we may consider some poems timeless, they are never written out of time.  ‘Distance’, by Yvonne Baker, is one such poem.  Narrative in style, it articulates an inexplicable but tangible fear of the sea through the eyes of a child, for whom ‘the water stretches to a distance so far it makes you cry.’ The poet skilfully entwines the child’s initial despair with the parent’s later sadness when the sea, once declared to be ‘too big’, stands between them at the close of the poem.  Given the significant and desperate migrations we have witnessed in the past decade, and particularly in the last eighteen months, the poem’s poignancy goes beyond its own story, speaking to our increasing awareness of the sea’s mass and menace.

‘To My Little Sister at the Shore’, by Jacqueline Saphra, is the singularly most powerful poem in the collection.  Raw, intense, urgent, and overwhelming, it is a post-apocalyptic Corinthians; portraying love, not as sweet or innocent but primal, instinctual, and sublime.  It also indirectly evokes the heart-rending images of innocent people desperately escaping, or succumbing to, the sea.  The final poem in this section, the pause that follows is as welcome as it necessary to fully absorb the impact of Saphra’s words.

Adrift

‘Adrift’ is a word for which context is particularly significant: at sea, being adrift is a matter of life and death; on land, it is often associated with freedom and opportunity.  Diana Whitney explores the interplay of these concepts in her engaging ‘Outer Heron’ diptych.  The first of these poems highlights the, ultimately absurd, notions of ownership and control we declare over nature; the second reveals just how little nature has to do to reassert its dominance, to remind the seasick traveller that everything changes, that nothing is ever truly in our control.

And yet, for the human spirit to endure, we must believe ourselves powerful when faced with the insurmountable.  ‘Missing’ by Rebecca Goss is testimony to the strength of human conviction, to our belief in our ability to move mountains and part seas; to command and cajole nature with the force of our will.  The poem adeptly captures the surreal nature of potential tragedy, the liminality of not knowing; who of us has not heard the midnight phone call or envisioned police officers at the door when a worried text goes unanswered, or the headlights refuse to light up the drive?

Awash

The sensations of being overwhelmed, overturned and overwrought are prevalent in Awash, and nowhere more light-heartedly than in ‘Play’ by Susan Richardson.  The lines of the poem seem to fall over and under each other, creating the melodic swash and backwash of a sea that is never at rest, with the rhythm and harmony of waves perpetually changing places.

When writing poetry the contemporary wisdom is that you should not use the poem to simply explain something to a reader.  [As Robert Frost said ‘No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.’]  At the same time, the reader must be able to understand what you are saying; so the poem must balance somewhere between the obvious and the obscure.   ‘52 hertz’ by Ellie Danak is a poem that gets this balance spot-on; the subject of the poem is gradually, and satisfyingly, understood through apt metaphors and well-placed, well-known facts.

‘Whalesong’ by Sophie S. Wright reads as a delightful combination of Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) riddle and epic.  A strict pattern of I + verb is repeated twice in every line, and the poem’s vibrancy and energy surge to an ecstatic, stilling crescendo.  If this poem were a type of music it would be house music; a film it would be Fantasia.

Avast

In our technologically-driven world, Avast is most commonly associated with cyber security; its primary function is to stop bad things happening. In nautical terms, ‘avast’ is an instruction to stop what you are doing.

The final section of this anthology, Avast is both a warning, and a command.  There is a deeper sense of struggle and unease here, a greater sense of potential harm and damage, both being inflicted on, and by, the sea.

‘Halfway Home’, by Sara Nesbitt Gibbons, is a chilling reminder that the terrors of our past never leave us; that there is no such thing as a truly new beginning or fresh start.  The sea, we are being told, is not a place to forget things; the sea does not forget.

Brian Grant’s poem ‘Now all of us are closer to the sea’ is the perfect conclusion to this collection.  Its combination of rhythm and form, the ambiguity of the title, and the precise metaphors he employs come together to remind us that the sea has a life of its own, beyond our mere imaginings, and that it is a force to be reckoned with.  The sea will neither be controlled nor contained; rather it is we who must learn to control ourselves, to reign in the assumed power we foolishly believe we have over the majesty of the sea.  It bows to no one and no thing, and it will repay our abuses of nature tenfold.  It is a clear message that this anthology sends; if we do not take care of the sea, it will take care of us.  So read these poems, find yourself, and take care.

Book Week Scotland: A wee bunch of DAFTies, Banff Castle

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The great thing about Book Week Scotland is that is gives authors the confidence to host events all over the country, and audiences the confidence to attend them.

Hosted by Carmilla Vioez, the DAFT Writers’ event at Banff Castle, on 25th November 2016, was a well-attended, diverse, and engaging evening for all involved.  Vioez skilfully brought together a unique range of authors, from a variety of genres and disciplines; genre fiction, biography, poetry and the short story all came together, giving the audience a real flavour of contemporary Scottish writing.

With just a couple of spare seats, the Huntly Writers started us off with two of their members reading from the group’s anthology Open with Care.  The first story was cut short at a particularly tantalising moment, while the second steadily unnerved all present as we struggled to hang onto our sense of reality in a surreal world of hot dogs, chickens, and sweaters.

Up next was Carmilla herself who read an extract from, The Ballerina and Revolutionary, a sinister horror novel that grapples with the taboos that unknowingly blight the lives of so many innocent people. Interestingly, Carmilla’s works are also being turned into graphic novels.

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Kevin Steiner then took centre stage, speaking about his book Alexander Gardner: Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War, a candid exploration of the Scot’s photographic endeavours to document the conflict as it happened.  I particularly enjoyed Kevin’s use of modern-day photographs beside some of Gardner’s seminal works, emphasising just how easy it is to for areas of historical significance to be overlooked in our time.

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Following Kevin, I read a mixture of published and unpublished poems that explore moving, migration, and motherhood.  What struck me as I sat at the front of the room was just how friendly and receptive the audience were: a real sense of comradery and human warmth pervaded the room; each of us feeling privy to this great secret gathering while outside the castle walls unknowing people went about their ordinary lives.  Events don’t always feel that way, so it’s simply delicious when they do.

[The photograph I forgot to ask anyone to take…]

Elizabeth Ball read next, from her novel Dodgy Dates and a Dinosaur, and had us all laughing at the absurd realities of dress codes and office etiquette that we so often accept without question.  I can only say that hope I never work anywhere with a ‘Skirt Day’ policy.

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At this point we had a short interval, during which time we were free to browse authors’ collections and the second-hand book sale put on in aid of Scottish Book Trust.  The evening resumed with Martin Malone making jazz with his poetry, tearing up his set list and instead reading poems that responded to what other authors had contributed to the evening.  World War One poems from his upcoming collections complemented Kevin’s talk of civil war, while poems about his experiences as a new father played to my talk of motherhood.

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Finishing the evening off was headline poet Brian Johnstone, who applauded Martin’s poetic dexterity while unashamedly sticking to his prepared list of poems, a diverse and diverting range of published and unpublished works.

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What I appreciated most about the event was the opportunity to watch Martin and Brian interacting with the audience between poems.  The curse of the new and emerging writer is the compulsion to self-deprecate, apologise, justify, over-explain, and rush.  I am still guilty of this at times, and have to regularly remind myself that the audience have chosen to sit and listen, that they actively want to hear what the readers and performers have to say, that I am not standing up in front of the class reading my essay because the teacher wants me to.  Brian and Martin don’t separate their poetry from themselves, or put on a poetic persona to read their works.  They look as comfortable performing as they would be making small talk on the train.  Because of this, the audience are also able to relax and properly enjoy the images and stories being conjured up for them as if by magic; they too can become part of the story.

What I love most about Book Week Scotland is that it also lets authors experience each other, learn from each other, and come together to create something new and unique.  These events exist only in the moment, and in a world that can increasingly be recorded, delayed and put on hold, it makes them all the more precious.  I can only hope that Book Week Scotland continues to stretch up into northern Scotland and next year sees more opportunities for authors and audiences to come together and celebrate a mutual love of language and stories, whatever form they take.  Who knows, with the dates for 2017 already in place, perhaps I’ll even host one myself!

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