There is no such thing as a relaxing holiday with the extended family back in the home country… but there were many pleasant moments, and a complete break from the treadmill, so I can’t complain! I’ve been boring everyone with endless holiday pictures on Twitter, but here are a few of my favourites, to give you a flavour of the landscapes and ‘vibes’. I will share more in my next few Friday Fun posts. [None tomorrow, though, as I have a lot of catching up to do still]
Although I had no time to browse in bookshops (unbelievable, I know!), I brought back a whole pile of books with me, some were old favourites languishing on my parents’ bookshelves, others that I had ordered online a few months ago and got delivered to their address. Meanwhile, a few books made their way into my letterbox here in the UK while I was away.
Here’s the result!
As part of my search for contemporary Romanian authors to read and possibly translate, particularly women authors, I’ll be reading Raluca Nagy, Nora Iuga, Magda Cârneci (this one has been translated by Sean Cotter) and Diana Bădică. All recommendations via Romanian newsletters to which I subscribe.
A mix of contemporary and more classic male authors as well: Gellu Naum is better known for his avantgarde poetry and prose in the 1930s and 40s, or his wonderful children’s book about the wandering penguin Apolodor in the 1950s, and this is his only novel as far as I am aware (this too has been translated into English, see some reviews here); Max Blecher’s Scarred Hearts, which I previously read and reviewed in English, but wanted to own in Romanian; one of my favourite modern poets, Nicolae Labiș, who died tragically young; an English translation by Gabi Reigh of my favourite play by one of my favourite writers, Mihail Sebastian; finally, two young writers that I want to explore further, Tudor Ganea and Bogdan Coșa.
Last but not least, a dictionary of Romanian proverbs translated into English – just to remind myself of some of the old folk sayings.
Another expat in Berlin story, imaginatively entitled Berlin by Bea Sutton. I read Susan’s review on her blog A Life in Books and couldn’t resist.
Two Japanese crime novels: Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight by Onda Riku (I was bowled over by The Aosawa Murders by the same author) and an older crime classic by Matsumoto Seicho entitled Tokyo Express.
Two volumes of poetry, Reckless Paper Birds and Panic Response by the English poet John McCullough. I recently attended a workshop with him and found him very inspiring indeed.
Last but by no means list: a whole flurry of chapbooks of Swiss literature, translated from all four official languages of Switzerland, published by the wonderful Strangers Press at the UEA. I am hoping to convince them to do a series on Romanian literature too someday, fingers crossed!
Yosano Akiko: River of Stars (Selected Poems), trans. Sam Hamill and Keiko Matsui Gibson, Shambhala, 1996.
For my last #JanuaryinJapan or Japanese Literature Challenge 15 contribution, I picked one of my favourite Japanese poets, who wrote both in freestyle ‘Western-type’ verse but also in the traditional Japanese tanka. The last time I wrote about a tanka poet was back in 2012, soon after starting this blog, and it remains one of the perennial favourites of my blog posts. It was about Tawara Machi, who exploded onto the literary scene in the 1980s and modernised the traditional tanka format. However, long before Tawara became the symbol of her generation of women, there was another woman writer who provoked scandal, ire, but also great admiration. That poet is Yosano Akiko and she is a true giant of Japanese literature, who deserves to be better known outside her own country.
She was also quite a contradictory person both in her personal life and in her writing. Born in a very traditional and reasonably well-off Osaka merchant/shopkeeping family in 1878, she demonstrated a precocious talent for poetry and, thanks to a family tradition of scholarship, was allowed to continue her education until she graduated from high school. At the same time, she was barely allowed to go out even in daylight without an escort.
Nevertheless, once she started participating in the literary circles of Osaka and Tokyo, she became involved with Yosano Tekkan, a still-married poet and editor. She soon joined him in Tokyo, they married and had no less than thirteen children, but he continued his affairs with other women, including his former wife. Akiko seems to have been devoted to him, but was also willing to engage in love triangles with her husband’s female admirers, with whom she even wrote poetry. Although eleven of her children survived to adulthood, she repeatedly protested against motherhood being the primary source of identity for a woman.
Above all, she continued her literary endeavours, co-editing the literary journal, publishing 20 volumes of poetry and many volumes of prose and essays, translating the epic novel Genji Monogatari and the Manyōshū (earliest collection of Japanese poetry) into modern Japanese, founded the first co-educational cultural college in Japan, and also became renowned for her feminist and pacifist activism. She dared to be openly critical of the Japanese Emperor during the Russo-Japanese War at a time when no one else raised their voice, saying that militarism was a form of ‘barbarian thinking which is the responsibility of us women to eradicate from our midst’… yet appears to have supported the rise of Japanese militarism in the Second World War (maybe it was what she had to write under censorship: she died in 1942).
For me, however, she is above all the poet who completely revitalised the traditional tanka form. By the late 19th century, writing a tanka had become a party trick more than anything else, following rules very closely, cliche-ridden, unimaginative. Akiko blasted through all the fussiness and cobwebs with her highly individual and erotically charged poetry in her debut collection Midaregami (Tangled Hair – or Bedhead in contemporary parlance). There hadn’t been that kind of frankness and sensuality, that uninhibited description of women’s passion for centuries. I think we do find some of it in the Heian period with Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, and it’s not surprising that Yosano Akiko revered and translated these women writers, but she also added Western Romanticism and Modernism to the mix.
Was it a thousand years ago or only yesterday we parted?
Even now, on my shoulder I feel your friendly hand.
Fresh from my hot bath I dressed slowly before the tall mirror,
a smile for my own body, innocence so long ago.
My shiny black hair fallen into disarray, a thousand tangles
like a thousand tangled thoughts about my love for you.
What was even more scandalous was the way she provokes (and somewhat mocks) the Buddhist priest who has renounced love and fleshly delights.
You’ve never explored this tender flesh or known such stormy blood.
Do you not grow lonely, friend, forever preaching the Way?
Throughout her love poetry, we find this contradiction between absolute confidence in her womanly power and the sadness or despair at never quite achieving the love she seeks. Some of it is no doubt stylised (see Genji Monogatari for similar examples), but some of it feels very personal, reflecting her own life. Compare:
In return for all the sins and crimes of men, the gods created me
with glistening long black hair and pale, inviting skin.
Yesterday you spoke of your love life’s history. Alone and sleepless,
twisting, my jealousy burns through the merciless night.
The gods wish it so: a life ends with a shatter – with my great broadax
I demolish my koto, oh, listen to that sound!
Finding Yosano Akiko’s work in English is not easy, so I suppose I should be grateful that this translation is available (out of print though, quite expensive second-hand), but I have some issues with this book. This has to do both with the selection of the poems (which do not necessarily give quite as comprehensive a view of her poetry, which is really versatile), and with the translation. Japanese poetry (especially tanka and haiku) is so full of allusions, ellipsis, references to classical poetry that the same poem can be translated in wildly different ways, for example:
“Spring doesn’t last,” I said to him… “You don’t believe in permanence, do you?” And I took his hands in mine Leading them To my young full breasts. (Roger Pulvers)
This autumn will end. Nothing can last forever. Fate controls our lives. Fondle my breasts With your strong hands. (Kenneth Rexroth)
Gently I open the door to eternal mystery, the flowers of my breasts cupped, offered with both my hands.
The final translation is the one contained in this volume, and it feels quite far removed from the original, as if the translator has already done all the thinking and feeling for the reader. As a translator, however, I am often tempted to do the same. What do you think? Do you like to have a puzzle to figure out when you read a translation, or do you prefer to have the work done for you?
P.S. For manga/anime fans amongst you, I should point out that Yosano Akiko is a popular character in Bungo Stray Dogs, the doctor of the Armed Detective Agency (an advocate of rather hardcore treatments, but also a feminist and pacifist).
You can see that December included holidays, a mood of hibernation and about 10 days without the children, because I read an inordinate amount of books and saw many films as well. I also managed to do some translating (about 28000 words, which brings me to just over a third of the way through the novel I’m working on). It was all rather cosy, but I hope to get more physically active in the New Year, as well as work on my own writing (no submissions at all this month).
18 books (although one was a DNF), of which:
8 were for the Russians in the Snow theme of the month. I particularly enjoyed a return to the classics, such as Gogol and Turgenev, but I also enjoyed discovering new authors such as Victor Pelevin and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. I’ve failed to review the Bulgakov short stories or the memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva by her daughter. And who would have thought I’d also find a retro-detective crime series set in St Petersburg and written by a Russian?
Two books were for the Virtual Crime Fiction Book Club: Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, which I found rather harsh on the emotions, and John Banville’s Snow, which was not as cosy as I expected and just a tad overwritten.
There were several other books with a rather grim subject matter: In the Dream House(about an abusive lesbian relationship), Godspeed (about losing your youthful dreams and wasting your life chasing the impossible), mothers and sons and coping with lockdown in The Fell, and A Man (trying to disappear from your old life and forge a new identity). With the exception of the last of these, which felt rather stiff and pedestrian in its prose (not sure if that is the author himself or the translation), they were all very well written, which made the dark subject matter worth reading about
I tried to counterbalance this with lighter, escapist reading, such as Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis, The Pact by Sharon Bolton and The Battle of the Villa Fiorita by Rumer Godden.
Overall, I read 170 books this year, which is perhaps understandable since I had nowhere much to go and a couple of weeks without the children. However, it’s not even in the Top 3 of my years of reading (since I started keeping track of the books on Goodreads in 2013). Top place goes to 2014 (189 books), followed by 2015 (179) and 2016 (175). Unsurprising, perhaps, since those were the three years of marriage breakdown and lots of anxiety about the future, so I was looking for escape in books. This year also had its fair share of escapist reading, but felt much more grounded in good literature, in books that I truly enjoyed or authors I wanted to explore.
Nevertheless, I managed an astounding 180 blog posts this year, writing nearly 150,000 words in the process. As a friend of mine says: ‘Why do you waste so much time crafting blog posts instead of working on your novel?’ I suppose it’s the instant gratification of receiving likes and comments. That is partly the reason why I submitted various shorter pieces (poetry and flash fiction) – you win a few, you lose a lot, but at least you get feedback a bit more quickly than when you work on a novel in isolation for years and years. In February 2022 I will be coming up to ten years of blogging and maybe it’s time I thought more carefully about what I want to achieve with it and if it’s worth continuing (at this pace).
I submitted about 40-45 times this year, got 24 rejections and 8 acceptances, but I got very discouraged when my novel didn’t get long or shortlisted at any of the various competitions I entered, so stopped working on it for several months. I hope to come back to it in 2022 – and make it a crunch year. Either I complete the novel to my satisfaction and start submitting it to agents, or else I ditch it and get started on something else.
I’m also working on another translation from Romanian and find that it helps my own writing, because I keep trying to figure out sentence structures and how to make them sound more natural in English. Plus I keep wanting to edit other people’s work, as if I could do any better! 😉
I can’t even begin to review all the films I watched this month – no less than 19 (and there might be 1-2 more before New Year). Some of them were rewatches, typical of the Christmas holidays, like My Fair Lady, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, L’Avventura and Desperately Seeking Susan. Others were family films to watch with the boys – a very few Christmassy themed, like Tokyo Godfathers or Klaus, but mostly just films that have become classics, such as Fargo or The Usual Suspects. I also had fun watching Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse or Vivo or Inside Out or Tick Tick… Boom! (I was not a huge fan of the music of Rent, but I liked what Rent set out to show, and the film itself about the constantly thwarted creative artist or whether art serves any purpose nowadays rang a lot of bells, of course!)
The two that surprised me most were:
1) West Side Story, the new version, which I had initially dismissed as an unnecessary remake and probably doomed to failure. However, I really liked the way it stuck to some of the most loved aspects of the original yet also brought in some new elements quite successfully.
2) Winter Nomads – a documentary about shepherds who practice transhumance over the winter months, when the fields lie fallow, in the Valais and Vaud region of Switzerland.
I will continue my eclectic mix of approximate planning, yet leaving plenty of room for serendipity. I also plan to focus a lot more on what I currently have on my bookshelves, as I prepare to move abroad (and have a thorough clearout of my books) in a couple of years.
January will be dedicated largely to Japanese literature, as usual. I have already started reading in preparation for that (A Man by Keiichiro Hirano) and it will be a mix of old and new, perhaps a reread or two: Tanizaki Junichiro, Endo Shusaku, Nakagami Kenji, Yosano Akiko, Miura Shion, Murakami Haruki and Natsume Soseki.
February I am thinking of going to the southern hemisphere and reading mostly Australian literature (or NZ or Indonesia if I have anything from there). The list of authors is still to be determined, but at first glance I see I have one unread Shirley Hazzard there, plus Elizabeth Harrower, Romy Ash, Miles Franklin and Frank Moorhouse. It’s a part of the world about which I know very little, so it’s bound to be a surprise.
In March I will explore Italian literature – although I am learning Italian and love the country, language and culture very much indeed, I haven’t read all that much Italian literature. I have built up a small collection of modern classics and contemporary literature that I can’t wait to try: Massimo Cuomo, Claudia Durastanti, Andrea Bajani and Alberto Prunetti, as well as better-known ones such as Italo Svevo, Natalia Ginzburg, Cesare Pavese and Curzio Malaparte.
Finally, I want to read more poetry and weave it throughout everything else I do. Random opening of volumes of poetry, using favourite poets to ‘fortune-tell’ what my day or week might be like, close reading of an unfamiliar poem and discovering new poets: I want it all.
In the UK we celebrate National Poetry Day on the 7th of October and the theme this year is choice. I feel I have to celebrate somehow, because poetry – because it has done so much for my mental health in the past few years, both the reading and the writing of it (however infrequently the latter might have shown up). Here is a very rough first draft written in a spurt of creativity (32 poems in 5 days) during an unforgettable journey to Provence. OK, admittedly it’s not a very celebratory poem, but it’s been so long since I last posted one, I’ve forgotten how to do it properly!
Cialdini’s Science of Persuasion: The Principle of Consistency
Ask for small commitments first, then, when the large requests come, they will find it impossible to say no.
It’s been a long time since I last posted any poetry, probably because I still harbour the hope that some of the poems will get published in magazines and hardly any of them accept poems that have been published on your blog anymore. But this weekendI spent some time going through my notebooks and collating all the random fragments from workshops, slivers of early morning inspirationor even just fun notes to self, so I thought I could share some of these oddities in the weeks to follow, in among the book reviews and Friday glimpses of houses to yearn over.
than writing a poem. Just follow the instructions.
Bring righteous indignation and slam it hard on the table. Remember to temper your anger By using capital letter At the start Of every line. Use a list format. Keep adding to the list. Use lots of pages – there are trees to spare on this planet. Besides, repetition is the mother of all good writing. Be forever mournful, waiting and watchfully wanting. Vary your line lengths. And sentences. Include animals from all over the world, with Latin names, but not ones we might have heard of like equus. Don’t forget to describe in detail their plumage, anatomy, habitat and make connections in unlikeliest of places to prove your erudition. Finally, end with geographical incantations, fade out to that most melodious of exotic place names Zanzibar.
One area where the independent publishers really excel is poetry. Probably because there is little money to be made from it on the whole (presidential inauguration ceremony effect excepted – hurrah for Amanda Gorman!), and so most big publishing conglomerates won’t touch it with a bargepole.
Many of these poetry publishers are tiny, often one-person outfits, operating on a shoestring, often run by other poets. And all of us who love (or write) poetry are all the richer for having them: they are worth every penny of arts funding that they can get (although many don’t get any). I have written about discovering and splurging on poetry books back in 2018, so I won’t mention Ignition, Sad Press, V Press, Tapsalteerie, Bad Betty Press, Midsummer Night’s Press, Stranger Press or Burning Eye Books again here, other than to encourage you to seek out their beautifully produced volumes of poetry (occasionally flash fiction) and explore the boundaries of both English language and translated poetry written today.
In this post, I will wax lyrical about the slightly better-known poetry publishers that appear most frequently on my bookshelves and show some of their most beautiful covers.
Seren Books is the book imprint of Poetry Wales, but does not publish poetry exclusively. It does, however, focus on English language writing from Wales, although its range has expanded more recently, for example this fine dual language (English-Arabic) edition of the epic poem Uruk’s Anthem or recent poetry from Latin America. I also admire their beautiful anthologies about Women’s Work or Motherhood, and the way many of their ‘classic’ books reflect the enormous changes in Wales over the past hundred years.
Out-Spoken Press arose from the Out-Spoken monthly poetry and music events which were started in London in 2012 by Anthony Anaxagorou and other poet friends. The press was established in 2015 to give voice to writers that had been under-represented by mainstream poetry magazines and publishers, and it has demonstrated a real knack for finding talent. I’ve been following them since their creation and have had the opportunity to read poets such as Raymond Antrobus, Sabrina Mahfouz, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Hannah Lowe before they became prize-winning household names.
Peepal Tree Press is the Leeds-based home of Caribbean and Black British writing and literary or social studies. They always punch well above their weight and, most recently, have won the Costa Book of the Year Award with Monique Roffey’s The Mermaid of Black Conch. However, I encountered them through poetry, and one particular favourite is Tiphanie Yanique’s moving, by turns tender and broken, combative and submissive, Wife.
The Emma Press is the brainchild and labour of love of Emma Dai’an Wright and publishes lovely poetry chapbooks, anthologies and children’s books, including some in translation. I’ve attended a couple of their launch events and they are brilliant at creating a wonderful sense of community. I would recommend their anthologies on love, aunts and the sea (to just name a few), as well as Poems the Wind Blew In – an anthology of children’s poems translated from Spanish by Lawrence Schimel, with amusing illustrations by Riya Chowdhury. It’s never too soon to expose children to poetry from all over the world!
Carcanet Press barely needs any introduction – it is one of the leading publishers of both classical and modern poetry (and literary criticism). Most recently, I’ve been smitten with Caroline Bird’s The Air Year and Eavan Boland’s The Historian, both shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards for Poetry (Boland’s posthumous work went on to win the prize). One of my favourite poetry collections, that I keep returning to again and again, is Her Birth by Rebecca Goss, which might explain why I was so delighted that Rebecca agreed to work with me as a mentor back in 2019.
Last and possibly the best-known of these poetry publishers is Bloodaxe Books, which, in its 40 years of existence, has really redefined poetry for the English-speaking world, always one step ahead in terms of discovering new voices, both in English and in translation. Best known perhaps for their thick, diverse anthologies such as Being Alive, Staying Alive, Being Human, I love them especially for their translations of Romanian poets (naturally!). They have introduced me to far too many poets to mention here, but let me just call out a few on my shelves: Pascale Petit’s Mama Amazonica, Gillian Allnutt’s Wake, Denise Levertov and Anna Akhmatova (translated by Richard McKane).
First, if it it feels like the top of my head were taken off at first reading (to quote Emily Dickinson). In other words, does it produce a moment of epiphany, of feeling ‘that is what I’ve always thought but never quite found the words to express’ or ‘wow, I didn’t even realise that?’. There are quite a few timely, urgent, angry poems being written now which fulfil that first criteria.
Secondly, are these poems that I will return to again and again, reread, bathe in the sounds and colours, images and smells evoked, and find new meanings every time? Those poetry collections tend to be rarer – there may be one or two poems that I treasure in a collection, but not necessarily all of them.
Seán Hewitt’s debut collection meets both of my criteria. It is not a showy piece of work, but it’s not self-effacing either. Each poem releases little hooks at first reading, which then sink into you and never quite let you go, merely bury themselves deeper and deeper. Because of the beauty of the images, the closeness to nature and the musicality of the language, it is a pleasurable experience… and yet you realise there is a lot of grief, a lot of pain in this poetry as well.
The book is composed of three different parts: the first part is closer to what one might call ‘pure’ nature poetry, although the poet is always mindful how the natural cycle mimics the human life cycle. The natural landscape is also the landscape of the mind. The darkness and stillness of nature and then its rebirth in spring has strong parallels to sinking into disease and depression, and then finding hope and recovery.
I turn home, and all across the floor
the spiked white flowers
light the way. The world is dark
but the wood is full of stars.
Throughout, we also have parallels between the beauty of the natural world and the beauty of the human body, an exploration and celebration of sexuality, particularly queer sexuality, which has been considered ‘unnatural’ for so long.
The second part of the book is a retelling of the story of Suibhne (or Sweeney), a legendary Irish king, who was cursed, became a mad poet and was doomed to wander forevermore, never quite finding rest. This was a myth I was less familiar with, but the tension between transience and permanence, between loneliness and finding a place to call home with loved ones resonated with me, particularly in a year when we have all struggled with not seeing loved ones. Also, the recognition that to love is to open yourself up to the possibility of loss and of being hurt.
There was a time when I thought
the sound of a dove cooing and flitting
over a pond was sweeter than the voices
of friends. There was a time when
I preferred the blackbird and the boom
of a stag belling in a storm. I used to think
that the chanting of the mountain grouse
at dawn had more music than your voice,
but things are different now. Still,
it would be hard to say I wouldn’t rather
live above the bright lake, and eat watercress
in the wood, and be away from sorrow.
The poems in the final part of the book were written mainly in the last few months in the life of the poet’s father, who was suddenly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and died before the volume was published. There is so much tenderness here, as well as the feeling of being lost without a much loved person.
But hush. No one is coming.
We are handed our lives
by a fierce work. Onto which
blank space will I lock my gaze
when my father
is gone? How am I to wear
his love’s burning mantle?
The language feels very simple, unadorned, but always uncannily ‘right’ in context. There is a lot of restraint here, plenty of breathing space, which makes the impact all the more powerful. This might be called confessional poetry, and certainly there seems to be plenty of autobiographical detail in these poems, but it’s a delicate, elliptical emotion, recollected in tranquillity. The poet himself recognises that this quieter, more personal type of poetry may feel too much like a retreat to an ivory tower at this particular moment. In an interview with the Irish Times, he says:
The lyric poem – its patterning, its rhyme, its insistent “I” – has for me a beauty that is perhaps unfashionable, and might seem to make it isolated from the political imperative. But it is my wager that in speaking of ourselves, we will find readers who share something of that emotion, that experience, that flash of strange perspective. In other words, it is my contention that no poem is ever isolated, if it is done right.
I certainly agree with that. The cover of the book features a rust fungus (also called Tongues of Fire): it is basically a cancer eating at the heart of the juniper bush. Despite its yellow beauty, it is lethal. And that is precisely the effect this volume of poetry has had on me. At a time when so many people have died of a disease we barely see or understand, it feels like an elegy, a way of coping with the unspeakable.
I think you can tell that this was my favourite of the shortlisted titles for the Young Writer of the Year Award. But was it the favourite title overall of the Shadow Panel and did we pick it as our winner? Ah, well, you will have to wait and see…
I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.
Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.
Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.
Going in when the firefighters left
was like standing on a black beach
with the sea suspended in the walls,
soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]
The black is coming in from the cold,
rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.
It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.
don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –
to the sea-black rain –
and never tell my grandmother why I never called –
never called to say that I thought of her daily –
that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given
But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.
Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:
Poetry books are slim and mislead you into thinking that they are quick reads. Of course, in actual fact, you spend a lot longer on them, as you read and reread and mull over certain poems. As for reviewing… well, I feel poetry in my bones, and at university I learnt how to analyse it to within an inch of its life… but I still find it hard to write something coherent about a volume of poetry without simply quoting extensively from it and letting the poems speak for themselves.
The two books were interesting in terms of similarity and differences. Both of them speak of everyday lives, predominantly the lives of women trying to make their way in a world that is not always friendly towards them, women who are more outspoken and observant than most, yet decidedly women navigating difficult circumstances and tricky relationships. The world they describe is both made joyous and damaged by technology. Both volumes feel very ‘of the moment’, with mobile phones, drones, Google and Twitter making fleeting appearances. Travel is involved – but seldom glamorous. This is the economy travel of those who might feel trapped by their environment or by poverty, yet still wish to see as much of the world as possible.
Inga Pizane: Having Never Met, transl. Jayde Will (Midsummer Night’s Press).
Inga is a popular milennial Latvian poet (born 1986 so I don’t know if she is strictly speaking milennial, but her poems certainly feel like that). She is also a spoken word performer and the poems in this tiny volume feel very ‘Instagrammable’, brief little glow in the dark moments as they are. Some of them feel as sketchy as if hastily scribbled down on a paper napkin:
The night gazes at people in love –
under these stars
Others feel like they are trying a little too hard to be modern – but the results are amusing and sometimes quite touching:
you have access
search in the settings
and update manually
use me more
update me regularly
make sure that I don’t freeze up
please don’t accidentally delete me.
There are echoes of the simplicity and everyday language of Tawara Machi’s by now classic Salad Anniversary – and the same preoccupation with love and disappointment – a young woman’s concerns. Of course I am no longer the age I was when I first read Tawara Machi, so perhaps I am less captivated by these quite narrow concerns. Above all, I felt that the language at times veered into the cliché or sounded quite flat.
Josephine Corcoran: What Are You After? (Nine Arches Press)
Corcoran is (I suspect) a poet of my generation, so her subject matter is wider. Love, yes, but also marriage and pregnancy, miscarriage, grieving, growing up in poverty, growing old together, going back to one’s roots, living with one’s neighbours, looking at the wider world. The voice is always warm, immediate, but also remarkably restrained when necessary. Her poems are multi-layered – nothing is ever ‘just a love poem’. The past is never too far below the surface, ready to break through at any moment.
Some of us understand
why our past plays out
in films and books;
need to look behind curtains
before we go to sleep;
keep quiet about our dreams…
News stories are woven in to create a state of heightened anxiety, but also compassion. There are so many cultural references I sometimes wonder how well these poems will date: Tamir Rice, Stephen Lawrence, Harry Potter and Privet Drive, but also Gavrilo Princip, Red Rum and Jack Nicholson. While the Stephen Lawrence poem plays on the fears of mothers everywhere and is incredibly poignant, there were many other references which I probably didn’t quite get. The poems that touched me most, however, were the ones about leaving behind your home town, your social class, the people who know you. A damning indictment of the restrictive class boundaries and preconceptions.
Forgive me for the sin of making up my own identity; for not sitting easily inside a category; for leaving school with nothing; for learning languages from cassette tapes I borrowed from a public library; for liking literature and art and orchestras; for stuffing my face with a free university education before it ran out.
I’m far away from my council house. If I turned up there, they wouldn’t know me.
And I’m not always kind to earnest people campaigning about class injustice.
Although the language is equally simple and unadorned, Corocoran’s poems never feel flat-footed, they are three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional:
… we shine signals of friendship
over the rough see of the playground…
You ask for my number – People see this hijab and look the other way.
We rummage for our phones
as if our bags are full of answers.
We spell out our names
and promise to meet again
but never do.
It’s been months if not years since I last posted a poem. Partly because I haven’t written any new ones, and partly because I was still hoping to get some of the older ones published (and most journals won’t take previously published poems etc. etc.)
However, I am cautiously optimistic that my love of writing has returned and that more poems (as well as prose) will get written. So here is an older poem, which has been edited and freshened up, and will hopefully lead to newer and better things. The idea is that you can read it horizontally from left to right or in columns. Just a little bit of playing with appearance on the page!
After the Appeal
You have been sifted cleaned
out and weighed
each grain examined you
were found wanting
your feet too shuffling your
teeth too evolved
slow rip and hide under
poked and shushed over tut-tut rejected.
And, because I am feeling super generous and energetic (at least until further notice or rejection), here is another, more personal one. In which it becomes clear that my poetic subconscious is a better judge of character than my rational everyday self.