“How to Carry Fire” Christina Thatcher (Parthian Books) – book review

How to Carry Fire Christina Thatcher book cover“How to Carry Fire” begins with the aftermath of what appears to have been a real house fire, in “Insurance Report”, where forms have to be completed,

”               How many items in the fridge?

Unable to remember every object,
we were only certain of what was lost:

.                 the stained glass unicorn
.                 that Sioux tribe necklace
.                 our grandfather’s final brick

We cried out for these totems:”

The poem raises questions about the value we place on things and how we place a higher value on objects with sentiments attached even though they may not be materially valuable. The fire doesn’t just destroy, it also reveals in “Making Fire”, a father picks up a poker than he,

“slid across

my mother’s neck,
pinning her to the wall
until her breath became so shallow
you cooled, and when you slept
she gathered up her things
and just enough courage
to brave the cold
and leave you”

The mother takes the children with her. There’s a bitter-sweetness in “Worth Telling”, dedicated to a nephew,

“No one will tell you, but your dad will try:
that he loved you even before you were born,
long before. He loved even the smallest idea of you.

But I can tell you this, because back when your dad
and me were young, I asked him:
What do you want to be when you grow up?

And quick as a greyhound he answered:
a dad. I want to be a dad”

It takes courage to break a cycle of abuse, and for an abused child to become a loving parent. The title poem suggests the fire never left the children, with the instruction to stoke

“with the poker your father pressed into

your mother’s neck. Take what those flames
can give you. Feel heat enter your stomach.

Stay wary now. You must never let the light
go out. Keep it lit until you learn to glow.”

Some poems explore aspects of addiction. In “Bad Things”, the you addressed is the narrator’s brother,

“You are going to lose your phone,
therapist, house, women, and all the while
you will write to me to say I’m okay,
I’m okay, tell me you still have somewhere

warm to stay, but I’ll know you are driving
to the city in a car that will run out of gas
and then—into the addicts who all the bad
things happen to—you will disappear.”

However, there are lighter moments when the poet turns to her marriage, in “Most Days,”

“Most days I bump into you—
don’t notice how my feet move
or where my arms swing, the girth
of my belly, because I’m too busy
listening to the sound of your voice,
watching you point at magpies, touching—
briefly—the small of your back.”

It contains a tenderness, a sense of how love can occupy and distract from our faults because someone’s noticing our strengthens.

The original fire has become a metaphor for internalised anxiety and trauma. The run away from an abusive father leaves a legacy that prompts a brother to succumb to addiction. The poems, however, take that trauma and transform it into measured, considered poems that seek to explore without judgement. They show compassion and humanity, admitting faults and celebrating successes. Christina Thatcher’s fire doesn’t just destroy, it paves the way for regrowth.

How to Carry Fire is available from Parthian Books

How To Carry Fire Blog Tour

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover imageEmma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection.


“Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree” Simi K Rao (Written Dreams) – book review

Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree Simi K Rao front coverSimi K Rao has published short stories, novels and poetry and this book collects some of her poems and short stories. Writing seems to be a cathartic process, in “Delirium”,

“My words
assorted images
evanescent squiggly lines,
stumbling out of my head
in fractured sentences
Traveling in a split second
from sunny blue skies
to a cold dark room”

All poems are centred, unlike the stories which follow standard presentation. Most use free verse structures with accessible vocabulary, designed to be read and understood with the reader guided to think over the poem’s message. Some of the messages are timeless, e.g. in “Woman”,

“She bore him sons,
despite incredible pain
her daughters he rejected
because they brought him shame

He covered her up from head to toe
treated her like a possession
shackled her up in his house
scourged her for his own indiscretions

Would you find people more of a hypocrite
in any other part of the world
who deify innumerable goddesses
yet smother a baby girl?”

It’s hard to disagree with the poem’s sentiment, but it’s not saying anything new or finding a new way to say something that needs to be said again.

There’s a baffling short fiction, “Crush” where a school girl taking part in a quiz finds herself unable to answer any questions but dismisses the reaction she has to the quiz master (about whom she knows nothing) as a crush. She leaves the quiz venue only to be pulled into a dark alley, kissed and groped and asked if she’ll leave with him. Realising the quiz master stands before her, she agrees. It’s an uncomfortable story. The quiz master is described as young but clearly adult and he knows she’s a school girl. But the story is gentle, selling this as romance. I’m not buying. It’s a dangerous message. Love is not something that gropes and helps itself no matter how much the recipient lusts after the groper.

It’s in complete contrast to a later story “The Ritual” where a newly-wed dreads her first night as a married women after previous sexual harassment. It’s an arranged marriage but one the newly-wed agreed to. Her new husband however backs off and lets her sleep. In the morning she explains and he is suitably respectful, agreeing to go slowly and give themselves time to get to know each other. I feel more comfortable with these two as companion pieces rather than stand alone pieces where the first gives a disturbing message.

Some poems come with notes (presented as they are in the text), e.g. “Crossfire”,

“Like a random bird in the sky
I fall
I meld with the dust
of another land
I remain nameless
Who am I?
But another random bird in the sky

About the poem: This poem is about the Malaysian passenger flight 17 that was shot down on July 17, 2014 when it flew over a war zone. It is about innocents getting
caught in the crossfire.”

It helps in this case because there’s nothing in the poem that hints at its subject or that the “bird” might be a metaphor.

The collection ends with “A Cup of Tea”

“It is a moment
booked just for me
to waste as I please
to brood
sit by the window
look at nothing
or hitchhike on a plume of steam
to neverland.”

Is this Peter Pan’s Neverland or Michael Jackson’s or a different one altogether? I assume a different one altogether, but writers need to know that words carry baggage and are open to interpretation.

“Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree” is a place to people-watch and observe. Stay long enough and all life passes by: school children finding their way, women from newly-weds to the elderly, men who are divided into those who are kind and those who are a threat and the addicts: the smoker who only gave up when dying of cancer, the drinker who gave up long enough to gain a liver transplant but returned to drink when her mother took her life. The poems strive for upbeat aphorisms, searching for those treasured moments when you can take a breather from life before getting back on its treadmill.

Under the Shade of the Banyan Tree is available from Written Dreams Press


A tale of two book launches

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launchThe launch at The Stephen Lawrence Gallery was an excellent example of how to do a launch: easy to find venue (especially helpful when the headline poet’s not from London), welcoming relaxed atmosphere, a host to keep things running on time and let people know what to expect and opportunities to buy books and mingle. Cake and gingerbread women (it was International Woman’s Day) an appreciated bonus. Although there was no microphone, the venue’s acoustics and quiet audience made it easy to hear readers. Poetry, book sales and conversation made it a great event. Could Leicester live up to London?

Sadly, due to staff illness, the library had to withdraw the venue. The timing was unfortunate: less than 24 hours before the launch was due to take place. But I’ve organised plenty of events at the library and know they wouldn’t pull out without very good reason. I had to make the decision to cancel or find an alternative venue. The obvious city centre alternatives weren’t available on Wednesday. My local Community Hub wasn’t available during the week but was available on Saturday evening. Within half an hour of knowing the library was unavailable, I had a new venue and date. Then it was a matter of getting the new venue and date publicised. A huge thanks go to all those who shared social media posts, Arachne for updating their website and Scraptoft’s parish clerk for putting up posters.

book table at 14 March launch

Fortunately people were prepared to venture out. The chairs were placed with gaps between and I’d wiped all hard surfaces before anyone turned up. I talked about the genesis of The Significance of a Dress and read some poems.

After the interval was a question and answer session with a discussion on book covers, where inspiration comes from, whether writing short stories is different from writing poems and whether I have a preference and whether my collections were gathered round a theme.

There was an interesting discussion on book covers. Authors don’t usually get much say in the choice of cover and there’s the worry that the publisher might withdraw if an agreement can’t be reached. One attendee mentioned she knew someone who’d had a manuscript accepted, gone through the editing process when funding fell through and the publisher couldn’t go ahead. That’s devastating and it’s hard to see anything positive, but the take-away is that a publisher was interested and the writer has chance to try again knowing the manuscript has a vote of confidence. Sometimes you have to look for the silver linings.

The great thing about both readings was the sense of being among friends, the welcome and feeling of community.

The Significance of a Dress is available for online order from Arachne Press.

A reading of “Outside the Photograph” from The Significance of a Dress at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery, Greenwich, London.

The Story of The Significance of a Dress’s cover

The title poem, “The Significance of a Dress”, was inspired by a published interview with a woman who runs a wedding dress hire shop in a refugee camp in Northern Iraq, which also offers hairdressing and make-up services. The make-up and hair styles have to withstand desert heat and remain in place well into the night.

What’s often forgotten or overlooked is how long refugees can find themselves in limbo, stuck in a camp. What work they can do is restricted or even not permitted yet refugees still have to pay for food and utilities. Some have already paid most or all of their savings to traffickers. Some might be able to source funds from distant family members. Many take on unskilled labour. A former seamstress might take in repair work. The wedding dress hire shop owner already had contacts in the fashion industry.

In camps, there’s usually no shortage of young, single men. Many of whom have fled after witnessing the death of family members. Almost all are at risk of being conscripted into the military or forced to fight for rebel militias. Returning isn’t an option so they wait for their paperwork to be processed with the additional stress of an uncertain future.

Many families in these camps worry about protecting their daughters. Harassment and assaults are common and police are rarely involved; those in the camps are wary of authorities and local police forces don’t necessarily have the resources to police the camps as well. Marriage seems to be attractive way of protecting an daughter in her late teens or older. There was a mural in this particular camp, placed there by an international children’s charity. It shows a picture of a girl in a white dress and hijab holding a teddy bear as a warning against child brides. Not marriages, however, will be for protection or transactional.

The images used in the interview were subject to copyright and it is appropriate and impractical for me to travel to the camp just to get a photo for a cover image. The challenge was to find an appropriate image where copyright wouldn’t be a issue.

An image from a bridal shop in the UK would not have worked. The dresses would be pristine and not designed for desert heat. There may have been copyright issues with dress images and designer permissions to negotiate. A bride-to-be taking a photo to show family is fine, but for a cover image permission would have to be sought. It would have to be a public photo, not one take in a private space.

I got lucky. Wandering round Leicester’s city centre, a pre-loved dress hung in a charity shop window and, using some clever angling, reflections weren’t a problem. My photo is my copyright. Photo taken, it was then converted to an embroidery chart and cross-stitched. Fortunately Arachne agreed the the cover should feature sewing. The stitched title was provided by Arachne – it was originally done to feature in the book trailer.

Original embroidery for The Significance of a DressPhoto of embroidery for The Significance of a Dress

It’s also the first time my embroidery which is strictly a hobby, features on a book cover. In the original embroidery, the dress is white. When I took a photo in daylight, it retained its whiteness. But white is a cold colour. Taking a photo of the embroidery under artificial light gave it a sepia effect and a warmer tone so was the image used in designing the cover.

Please note new date and venue for the launch: 7-9pm Saturday 14 March 2020, Scraptoft Community Hub, Malsbury Avenue, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9FQ.

2020 03 14 New launch



Change of Date and Venue for The Significance of a Dress Launch

Please note the change of date and venue for the launch of The Significance of a Dress.

7-9pm Saturday 14 March 2020

Scraptoft Community Hub, Malsbury Avenue, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9FQ.

Google Maps link.

Unfortunately, due to staff illness, the library is no longer available on the evening of 11 March so an alternative had to be found.

Scraptoft is just off the A47 (eastbound) outside the city border and served by Arriva’s 55 service. If driving along the A47, pass through Evington. At Thurnby turn right at the traffic lights by James Coles Nurseries onto Station Road, stay on Station Road which becomes Station Lane as  you pass over the brook. At the mini-roundabout at the end of Station Lane, take the third exit onto Covert Lane. On Covert Lane, take the third left onto Malsbury Avenue. The Hub is towards the end of Malsbury Avenue.

2020 03 14 New launch



The Significance of a Dress Launch

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AAThe launch for “The Significance of a Dress” is at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020. Free entry. Refreshments provided.

The Significance of a Dress is collection of “poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

A book trailer for the collection with a recording of the title poem is here.

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where next year is not the future but a question. Each refugee, suffragette or shushed voice and narrative encompassed by the poems is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. In ‘Dismantling The Jungle’, flames form “an echo of a former life”. This vivid collection is full of such flames and echoes. Whether it’s “Each dress hangs from a noose” (‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’) or “Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses” (Stories from The Jungle), Emma Lee’s focus is precise, poised and packs emotional punch. Her evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful, powerful and haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

“From the title page of ‘The Significance of a Dress’, Emma Lee cleverly fashions a feminist metaphor for #MeToo into uncompromising forms. These include the terrible symbol of bridal dresses hung from nooses in Beirut, signifying rapists absolved of their crimes through marrying their victims, a figure walking home in the UK uncertain whether she is safe from rape after a recent attack in the area, and further victims of rape and domestic abuse. The reader is never let go, with head dunked into the murky waters of domestic life until forced to accept Lee’s compelling argument of a grossly unequal world. The poet does this with immense skill in versification, giving her audience no option but to pay attention.

“This is daring, well-imagined poetry with global scope, giving voice to women from myriad backgrounds and cultures. It goes far beyond the boundaries of #MeToo, arguing the world has become one of disturbing realm of sexual inequality, in an atmosphere of constant threat. Lee’s collection addresses unfairness, advocating for those who have been denied the ability to speak for themselves.” Dr James Fountain.

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press.

The Significance of a Dress

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover imageThe title poem is set in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, loosely based on a media interview with the owner of a wedding dress hire shop. I think it’s frequently forgotten how long people end up living in these camps, which were only designed to be temporary. Women often take in sewing to earn some money to buy food and electricity to support children. Those living similar camps are expected to pay for food and energy but not permitted to take on permanent jobs. Why would a wedding dress hire shop be successful?

Some matches will be love matches and I’ve no wish to suggest otherwise. Some, though, are arranged. Parents wish to protect their daughters in a camp where young men outnumber other residents (generally because they can travel alone unencumbered by children or older relatives), and see marriage as a way of achieving this in places that are not policed and where sexual assaults are common. In a camp of people who had fled war are still suffering trauma and feel they are still living in limbo: not accepted in the place they have sought refuge but unable to return to their original country, marriage is an act of hope.

There is a danger of child brides. The particular wedding dress hire shop I wrote about has a mural outside showing a young girl in a white dress clutching a teddy bear. However, no one asks how old the brides-to-be are, and it’s not always easy to tell the age of a heavily made-up teenager. For young people who have seen their homelands bombed or escaped conscription, either into the military or guerrilla groups, romance and marriage feels like a future, albeit one lit by cheap diamante.

In 2015, I joined Kathleen Bell and Siobhan Logan in editing “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”. One of the criteria for choosing poems for inclusion was that poems shouldn’t focus solely on doom and gloom. The book would be a difficult, but not a harrowing read. I carried that criterion into “The Significance of a Dress”; there are notes of hope, rescue and small but significance acts of kindness.

“Poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where each poem’s narrative is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. Emma Lee’s evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details that pack emotional punch. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press on 27 February 2020. There will be a launch at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020.

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AA