Happy National Poetry Day!

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.

Last week I cleared out boxes

loft-bound for the longest time.

cards and letters

from the days when e-mail felt transient

international phone calls expensive.

Too few of yours: even then

you favoured silence as a method.

Sheet after sheet of colourful stationery

with my giggly, high-pitched scrawl,

careful to place no demands at all

while reasonable placed a noose around my neck.

Frog in water, you settle to boil

concession by shrug

you end up with a life adjacent

paths choked by weeds.

I never saw a destination without

wondering at the journey towards it.

Genuflection along the road to Calvary.

Nothing Easier

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 weekend I spent some time going through my notebooks and collating all the random fragments from workshops, slivers of early morning inspiration or 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.

Nothing Easier

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.

#ReadIndies: Poetry Presses

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.

The cover to the bilingual edition of the epic poem by Adnan Al-Sayegh.

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.

An example of a beautiful Peepal Tree Press cover.

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).

#YoungWriterAward: Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt

There are two ways in which I judge poetry.

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.

Author photo copyright: Brid O’Donovan

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…

#YoungWriterAward: Surge by Jay Bernard

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

Author portrait copyright: Joshua Virasami

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:

Will anybody speak of this

the way the flowers do,

the way the common speaks

of the fearless dying leaves?

Will anybody speak of this

the coming of the cold,

the queit it will bring

the fire we beheld?

Will anybody speak of this

the fire we beheld

the garlands at the gate,

the way the flowers do?

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 8 and 9 – Poetry

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 –
keep quiet
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:

update
me
you have access
to my
old version

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.

 

Poetry at last!

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 your mantle

poked and shushed over                                tut-tut rejected.

Bernini’s Medusa

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.

Medusa

You could not bear my questioning gaze

so you called me Medusa

and coiled nasty creatures

above my head

powerless to stun

yet mocked at by all.

Is there ever a time –

perhaps in your deep slumber at night –

that you startle and run

to escape the unflinching eyes?

Friday Fun: 5 Things to Sing About

It took some deep digging these past two exhausting weeks, but I finally found five things to rejoice about.

On a Poetry Roll

I’ve been working hard at editing and in some cases rewriting my poems. Maybe I’m regaining my groove!

Unexpected Fleabag Treat

A friend of mine couldn’t make it to the NTLive screening of Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag theatre performance, so I was the lucky recipient of her ticket. I loved the TV series, but I thought the stage show demonstrated the range of her acting talent, as well as her writing talent. She is far more moving, able to switch (you as an audience) from laughter to tears in a few seconds.

A Painting I Thought About for a Year

I visited local artist (and friend of a friend) Inge du Plessis last year at the local art trail and open house. I bought a small portrait of one of my heroines Sophie Scholl, but I couldn’t forget another picture that grabbed my attention that time. It was entitled The Suburbs and reminded me of the books of Richard Yates – the everyday blandness but also darkness and loneliness of life there. This year, I visited again and there were plenty of new paintings, but no sign of The Suburbs. So I asked about it – and it turns out it hadn’t been sold and Inge was thinking of painting over it! Luckily, I rescued it from its ignoble fate and am now the proud owner of it. Taking pictures of painting is very tricky – but I hope you can catch a glimpse of why I fell in love with it.

Discovering Norwich and UEA

I was utterly charmed by the town and the university, despite the grey concrete of the latter. I’m trying not to influence my son, but wouldn’t mind if he went there to study. And, if I do stay in the UK after they leave home, I’m seriously considering moving there!

Iconic architecture, the Ziggurat accommodation seems to be the party hub of the campus.
The Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts is not just a gallery but also Avengers HQ (especially in the earlier films).
Norwich Cathedral is just so beautiful and full of friendly people… and a cathedral cat.
Less Gothic, more Norman – a very interesting interior
Strangers Court, so-called because Norwich provided shelter for refugees from the Low Countries in the 16th century. By the late 1570s, one person in four in Norwich was a refugee who had come into the city within the previous ten years.

Going to the Gym with My Son

My older son and I have signed up with the local gym and are egging each other on. A much-needed break from hunching over books and computers!

Perfect Poem at the Right Time

From Denise Levertov’s A Woman Alone

When half her bed is covered with books

and no one is kept awake by the reading light

and she disconnects the phone to sleep till noon

Then

self-pity dries up, a joy

untainted by guilt lifts her.

She has fear, but not about loneliness;

fears about how to deal with the aging

of her body – how to deal

with photographs and the mirror. She feels

so much younger and more beautiful

than she likes.

…she is past the time of mourning

now she can say without shame or deceit

O blessed solitude.

#EU27Project: Greece

Although there have been moments over the past 3-4 years when I thought I would never want to hear about or see Greece again, it is in fact a place that is very special to me and my family. My children are half-Greek, I’ve spent lots of holidays in Greece, I learnt to speak (and read a little) Greek and of course when I fell in love with a Greek back at university, I went through a period of intense study of Greek history and literature.

Constantine Cavafy soon became one of my favourite poets: his sensual descriptions of night-time encounters in the fascinating melting-pot of cultures that is the city of Alexandria are soooo me (which is probably why I loved The Alexandria Quartet so much in my teens). I have about 4-5 different translations of Cavafy’s poems in English, so you can imagine that when I heard about this novel that reimagines a key moment in Cavafy’s life, I had to get it.

Ersi Sotiropoulos is a very prolific, award-winning writer in Greece, but not much of her work has been translated into English as far as I can tell. What’s Left of the Night may be about to change her reputation abroad: it was translated into French and won the 2017 Prix Méditerranée Étranger, and in 2018 the English translation by Karen Emmerich (published by New Vessel Press) was talked about and reviewed quite a bit.

It is 1897 and Cavafy is in Paris, the last stop on the European tour he has embarked upon with his brother. He is a clerk in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, the city that he considers home, although the family has also lived for a while in Constantinople and (surprisingly and far less romantically) in Liverpool. He has published some poems by that point, but largely for close friends – but his best known poems are still to come, and in fact most of his reputation was posthumous, as he was not following the current ‘fashion’ in poetry.

So the novel traces his possible sources of inspiration: Ancient Greek history, erotic desires for men (about which he feels somewhat conflicted still), feeling suffocated by his family and by society. We see Cavafy’s obsession with finding the perfect line or the right word – he was a skilled craftsman and a perfectionist, and had a rather unique use of the Greek language that perhaps only someone brought up abroad could have. This makes him fiendishly difficult to translate, but in this novel Sotiropoulos tries to capture some of the feel, the rhythm, the sensibilities of the poet… and succeeds most of the time.

I’m not quite sure if it is historically accurate to say that this trip to Paris marked a turning point in Cavafy’s writing, but that turning point undeniably did occur at some time:

The great need for rupture in his poetry he had felt so strongly in recent months, the reckless urge to break the rules… to share free of lyricism and elegance, to banish all influences from other poets and movements, to become a movement of his own, may in the end have reflected a need for rupture in his life… How could someone who lived a conventional, conservative, medocre life write important peotry? How could he speak of great passions, heroic ages?

Photo of Cavafy, from the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

In Alexandria he felt mediocre, a failure. He may have admired Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, but he did not want to write like them. In Paris, he hoped that he would feel closer to the artistic pulse of the ‘fin de siecle’, but everywhere he goes, he carries the the curse of the city, that lazy, dirty, inadequate city with him, as he says in one of his most famous poems. He cannot leave behind his prejudices, his impatience, his dark and selfish impulses. This is no hero-worship of Cavafy we find in this book, but an acknowledgment that, while the poetic process remains mysterious and unfathomable, it is all about transformation. Taking sorrow, shame, anger, fear of mediocrity and turning it into… complexity. And complexity is beautiful.