“Light Perception” Beth O’Brien (Wild Pressed Books) – poetry review

Light Perception Beth O'Brien cover imageA poetry pamphlet that looks at disabilities, nystagmus, photophobia a lack of peripheral vision, which leaves the narrator struggling to see in low light and bright lights plus a missing thumb and an arm that can’t turn. In the title poem, “The world is so bright – too bright -/ which isn’t as pleasant as it sounds”. It continues,

“Haziness becomes the only absolute
and I think my eyes just want me to feel
like I don’t have a reason
to hold my head up high.”

Disability doesn’t just make life harder, it can be isolating facing others’ misconceptions or struggle to start a conversation. In “Is that from birth?”, a man watching the narrator starts talking about his cousin,

“‘Well anyway,’ he continues, ‘his limbs are whatever
but he’s still actually such a lovely guy,’
as if being nice is unexpected.”

It shows the level of intrusion the disabled are expected to put up with: the titular question is irrelevant and the narrator has the right to medical privacy. The questioner doesn’t describe his cousin’s disability because he’s realised that the only words to hand are negatives so covers it with “whatever” and fishes for something positive to say. But even that sounds bland and inspecific so lacks credibility. In contrast, in “A silent act of kindness”

“She looked me square in both eyes,
reached for the hand I was trying to hide,
and slipped her hand into mine like it was nothing
and everything at the same time.”

Eye contact provides a connection, yet many shy away from giving disabled people that connection.

The pamphlet is bookended by “Light Perception – part two”

“but learning that everyone has their limits
and these limits aren’t always the same,
even in one person.

I walk, trusting the pavement is out there,
knowing that each road has a safe crossing – somewhere –
and that I’ll find it in time. So will you.”

It’s a positive note. The first poem looked inward, suggesting the narrator didn’t have a “reason/ to hold my head up high”. This one acknowledges that others struggle and starts to trust.

“Light Perception” is an introduction to negotiating the world with a disability and the reactions from people encountered, both negative and positive.The extra burdens the disabled face are laid out and explored. I felt that some of the poems could have been laid out as prose and not lost anything in so doing. However, the authenticity makes this worth a read.

“Light Perception” is available from Wild Pressed Books.


 

“Cuckoo” Nichola Deane (V. Press) – poetry review

Nichola Deane Cuckoo book co“Cuckoo” implies an outsider, someone who observes and mimics the behaviour of others to appear to fit in despite being aware of their difference. It’s an apt title for a collection of poems which explores and records behaviour through the lens of someone who feels like misfit. In the title poem,

“plight of the new
(Cuckoo,
Cuccu)

to haunt us
back,
to the sleeping

greenwood
(like that? how so?)
with a – wake for a voice,

my loopy echo,
a bit of locus pocus.”

In “First Leave” set 1916, a soldier returns on home leave,

“they saw his clothes, his hair

moving, regiments
still on the march”

An outdoor shower is rigged up while the women of the household are left to boilwash his uniform,

“double-rinsed, mangled
from his sorry kit
with Lifebuoy Soap
all they could
from tunic and britches

of the shit-sweat,
the lice-blood,
eczema-sebum.
piss and jism,
spit and polish,
the petrified sweat,

not singing as they worked,
those girls,
not singing.”

Singing whilst working has two purposes, it gives a sense of rhythm to the work and relieves monotony, plus it gives a sense of community to the workers. The girls “not singing” is significant: each wrapped in their own thoughts dealing with the shock of what the soldier has gone through, the conditions he found himself in and the normalisation of it. If they were washing off lice, sweat and detritus from his uniform, which he hadn’t done before his return, then these conditions were shared by others and had become routine. The assonance of “i” throughout carries a sense of urgency and anxiety.

In “My Body as Accidental Cassandra” a myth gets a modern twist,

“There is always inflammation somewhere in my body.
So how do I know it today? Well, my right arm prickles
at the elbow like a witchy message being tapped
from the ectoplasm, and an epidermal
splutter occurs, a lava, not out of anything I’d call me,
but from some cellular below
that objects even to glancing contact
with spook substances not visible to my eye,
so much so that histamine in white lumps,
cupolas of agitation, pores of Achilles,
are raised against – what?
What foe? Me vs me?

My friend says Nic, you’re allergic to the 21st century.”

The hurried list of reactions is in contrast to the friend’s interjection, but the list is far too interesting to be written off as plain.

The poems in “Cuckoo” take a familiar scenario and give it a refresh, taking one small detail, such as washer women not singing whilst working, and expands and explores it. Nichola Deane’s work is sensory, vividly bringing alive her subjects. The idiosyncrasy is complementary and not whimsical. The poems wear their craft lightly and give the reader space to engage with and interpret them.

“Cuckoo” is available from V. Press.


 

Don’t Give Up, find your Writing Tribe

A recent twitter post suggested a writer was giving up entering competitions and trying to get published because they hadn’t made a short list. I hope the tweet was fired off in the aftermath of disappointment and not an actual plan.

Writers have very little control over who wins competitions or gets published. That control lies with editors, publishers, competition judges, literary agents and other gatekeepers. Setting your worth as a writer in terms of getting your work published or placed in competitions is wrong. A literary agent can love your novel but be unable to find a publisher, an editor can like a poem but not be able to make it fit with emerging themes when putting together a magazine or anthology, one judge on a judging panel may have loved your poem but be outnumbered by others who loved other poems. Rejection slips aren’t necessarily a judgment on your work. “Not this time” really does just mean “not this time”; next time might be a win.

What writers do have control over is what they write and the craft that goes into it. You can read, write, edit and polish your work. You can develop your craft. You can do your research and match your work to suitable markets or competitions. You can measure whether you feel your writing is stagnating or improving. Make your measurements achievable and realistic: failure to meet your own goals will lead to disillusionment. This is why writers should never measure their achievements in terms of publications and competition places but in terms of am I sending out more pieces for publication this year, do I feel my work is improving, am I still enjoying writing?

What helps is joining a writers’ group or finding fellow writers to follow on social media. You’ll open up a world of tips, advice and helpful solutions. You’ll learn that publication or getting placed in competitions is a bonus, not validation. Getting constructive feedback on your work will help you develop and improve as a writer. Knowing others get overlooked and collect rejection slips gives a sense of not being alone. Much better to vent to a fellow writer over a drink than vent on social media where others might misinterpret what you’re saying.

Apologies Matter

Recently I attended an event where several poets were due to read. I’m not going to name and shame anyone because individuals no doubt had good reasons, however, a significant number of those who were due to read did not turn up. Some of those no shows did send apologies, but most had not apologised in advance of the event. Fortunately the organised made contigency arrangements and some of us were able to read more than we had planned to. Those who didn’t show up lost out.
Naturally emergencies occur or transport breaks down and, individually, some no-shows have good reasons for not being there and an after-the-event apology isn’t just a courtesy, it’s an acknowledgement someone was inconvenienced. No-shows don’t include those who signed up for an event or agreed to a meeting but warned the organiser that due to disabilities/health issues/transport/caring responsibilities, they may not be able to be there.

When one or two individuals become a group of no-shows who can’t be bothered to send apologies either, they need to bear in mind:

  • They are now labelled as time-wasters and will be treated accordingly
  • If someone has prepared work in advance of a meeting, they won’t be inclined to do such a good job or dedicate as much time to preparation if another meeting is arranged
  • If an event organiser has to deal with performers who are no-shows, those won’t be asked to perform again
  • If a workshop organiser is left hurriedly finding stand ins, you can bet the people who didn’t show up won’t be asked again
  • If the no-shows are members of a club or group and other club/group members managed to turn up, the no-shows are embarrassments and may harm the reputation of the club/group concerned
  • If someone regularly organises opportunities for other writers to perform or showcase their work, the no-shows are limiting their chances of taking up those opportunities
  • If someone organises opportunities for other writers puts on their own performance but then finds that people who promised to show up don’t, the organiser is less likely to bother with further events
  • Most local live literature events are organised by a volunteer or team of volunteers who will be less willing to give their time if their events are unsupported.

The event was not one I organised. But I know the names of those who didn’t show without explanation.
I regularly attend several writers’ groups and spoken word nights and also organise events both for myself and on behalf of other groups. Readings, launches and other live literature events are great opportunities for networking, meeting other poets and writers and cementing individual reputations. Not showing up means missed opportunities to get invites and hear about other events. Yes, there will always be an occasion where you can’t get to an event you promised to be at, but make sure you send an apology and consider the impact not only the event’s organiser but the other participants and audience.

Tips for getting a Review

Most magazines and bloggers who also carry reviews get more review requests than they can take on. Giving the reviews editor/blogger the information they need and mention why your book is a good fit for their magazine/blog will make you stand out in a positive way.

  • Check with your publisher so you don’t duplicate requests
  • Create a list of magazines and bloggers that review
  • Check the magazine/blog review guidelines. Most ask for a request first rather than the full manuscript so that the editor/blogger can decide whether they are interested and if they can fit a review in before committing. Some editors make the decisions themselves, others match a book to a reviewer first.
  • Keep a list of who you’ve approached. Asking a reviewer more than once creates unnecessary admin and tempts the reviewer to withdraw an offer to review.
  • Don’t follow up a request within 48 hours or less. Most review editors/bloggers are working voluntarily around other commitments. Chasing them for a response will encourage a rejection.
  • Give the editor/blogger the information they ask for or at least your book’s title, publisher, ISBN and publication plus a paragraph about the book and a brief author biography. Don’t send a link and expect an editor/blogger to look up the information on a website, especially when you’ve not given them the title so it’s not clear which book is being offered. Demanding more from someone who’s already busy makes you look entitled.
  • Remember your request is unsolicited and the editor/blogger is under no obligation to respond positively.
  • Be professional and courteous. You need a review but a good reviewer has plenty of options and doesn’t need to review your book.
  • Don’t demand your book is reviewed on or by a specific date. Magazines and blogs have their own publication schedule and might not be able to accommodate your request, although most will try. You don’t know what else the editor/blogger has committed to review.
  • Bear in mind a magazine published in March probably had a deadline of mid-February and possibly earlier so your review request that arrived on 20 February won’t get a review written for the March issue. If you needed a review in the March issue, your request should have been sent in January or sooner.
  • A review further down the line is better than no review.
  • Remember it takes time to read a book and write a good review. A demand for a fast turnaround time is likely to be met with rejection. A fast turnaround might result in a review that looks more like copy and paste job from your author information sheet or the blurbs on the book with a couple of sample poems. That’s not a review.
  • Reviews a few months after your publication/launch date can revive interest after the initial flow of launch publicity
  • Once a reviewer has agreed to review your book, think twice before emailing to ask when the review will appear. Check the magazine/blog schedule and correspondence to see if the reviewer mentioned when the review would appear.
  • Time taken away from reviewing to respond to emails, particularly when the question has already been answered, creates delays and you might find future requests are turned down because the reviews editor/blogger has written you off as a nuisance.
  • When a review appears, thanking the editor/reviewer is a courtesy, but a social media share is better. When you share on social media do reference the reviewer’s name, don’t just quote without attribution/credit.
  • Don’t ask a reviewer to change a review unless a factual error has crept in. A reviewer isn’t going to change their opinion and you may lose a future review outlet.
  • Remember social media posts are not private. Your post-review rant might be shared with the reviewer, even if your original post was set to private.
  • Don’t be the author who starts a social media pile-on because you didn’t like a review. You might be angry or feel the review was undeserved, but you look like a jerk to other reviewers who might have given a more sympathetic review and have now decided not to review any of your work because you’re happy to throw shade at reviewers.

 

“at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerassimenko (Rhythm ‘n’ Bones Press) – poetry review

At the Waters Edge Nadia Gerassimenko book cover“at the water’s edge” explores trauma, often in the aftermath of sexual violence, and life with a chronic illness. The collection is not as gloomy as its premise sounds; there are moments of playfulness. Initially the use of lower case throughout looks on trend, but it’s not just a fashion or gimmick. It reflects the sense of uncertainty that victims face: did that really happen, is this abuse? And the worry of being disbelieved along with the fear of being retraumatised by recounting what happened. In “age of confusions” a girl still under the age of sexual consent asks,

“you asked if i like dancing
& wondered if i knew how to drive,
i can touch you, you would say,
& we can go dancing together.
did you even care about my age?”

Later in the poem, the girl continues,

“you asked me for my number
before i would leave at the next stop.
i told you give me yours instead.
you recited numbers i did not even listen
as i leapt out in panicked haste.

what is the age of innocence?
what is the age of harsh reality?
should one be coddled like flowers in a garden
or trained ruthlessly like spartan children?
i cried confusions so much that day.”

Girls often carry the extra burden of policing their boundaries and warding off predatory behaviour. For someone still growing up and discovering themselves, being able to identify a question or action as innocent or grooming (offering compliments or gifts with the aim of opening up someone to eventual abuse) is not straightforward. How can the child’s need to be safe and protected be balanced against their need to grow and becoming independent adults?

“my body is not my body” is ambiguous,

“year forward, i’m in a cold whitewashed room, waiting, you probe & prod part of my body like i’m some dead meat. you show me off to others for kicks. it’s hard to be open, to relax. this reflex never passes.

i’m at the age of my own responsibilities, body & otherwise. i’ve learned all I can about my body parts, my body whole. i know what to do. i can’t – you govern my body.

you tell me it’s all my part of body & there’s nothing you can do. but here, take these pills. they’ll control some parts, for now, as they kill the whole.”

It could be interpreted as about illness and medical examinations. It could be treatment for trauma. It is about the sense of being invaded, physical sensations being separated from psychological reactions. The examiner needs the patient to relax, the patient can’t relax whilst being examined. The ability to trust is lost because the ability to control is lost.

“above below” starts with a play on the name Dolores, which was Lolita’s original name in Nabokov’s novel.

“i am not douleur douloureuse dolores
i am joie de vivre joyeuse joy(ous)”

Before a horizontal line, Dolores refuses to be defined by her abuse. Below the horizontal line, the poem continues,

“my world is six senses guiding heart on fire wet kisses wanted
childlike wonder limbs in pirouettes on body wild & free adventures
everywhere & everywhen twin flames soul mates past in past
present in presence future a gift soul unbound soul infinite soul
souled by soul.

above below
i un/tether
glue my soul
& my body whole”

This girl is a fierce survivor. Throughout the collection there are a series of “dolores” poems, inspired by Nabokov’s novel, Adrian Lyne’s film and Dylan Farrow’s testimony of her abuse. “dolores wishes” starts, “i wanted desperately/ that you believe me” and ends imagining that the people she speaks to will say, “i am sorry. i believe you!/ i stand with you.” “dolores doubted” also looks at the aftermath of speaking out,

“people say, ah, his art!
but look unflinchingly,

see it truly.
a genius is a predator.

our blind spots deliberately
refused to see.”

If the accused is famous or adorned with accolades, some find it more difficult to believe that such a person is also capable of abuse. It is devastating to watch someone win more accolades when a victim has seen a very different side to the genius. Some will dismiss the victim’s testimony because their experience is that the predator has only treated them kindly so they don’t relate to what the victim is saying. However, predators are perfectly capable of displaying the right behaviour to influence others’ opinion of them. They play just as much on bystanders’ doubts as their victim’s confusion over boundaries.

The image of the water’s edge with its blurred, changing boundary and fluid expanse encompasses the collection. From the title poem, “beneath the earth, our roots entwined reaching deeper for/ the core & beyond—to love, to nurture, to protect” and the motif of roots occurs throughout the collection; suggestive of the work done privately, internally towards healing. In “at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerrasimenko a coherent collection exploring trauma and its aftermath as a journey towards restoration and healing. Its quiet tones belie its subjects but, like a small stone sends ripples over a lake’s surface as it plunges into the water’s depths, the poems linger after the collection is finished.

“at the water’s edge” is available from Rhythm ‘n’ Bones.


 

“Planet in Peril” edited by Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Planet in Peril book coverAn anthology of poetry and photography on climate change featured poets include Helen Mort, Myra Schneider, Katrina Porteous, Jane Burn, Christopher Hopkins, Anne Casey, Sujana Upadhyay and a selection of young writers aged from 8 to 17. It’s an ambitious project and sectioned into Earth’s Ecosystems, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Human Impact, A not so dystopian future and Our Future – the young writers. Interspersed among the poems are facts, such as “a square kilometre of forest may be home to more than 1000 species. Yet forests are disappearing at an alarming rate – 18.7 million acres of forests are lost annually”, and wildlife photographs and illustrations.

From the first section, Myra Schneider’s “Returning” ends,

“I breathe in the sweet extravagance,
dream I’ll come back as grass or blossom
until a voice in my head mocks with lists
of droughts, names of extinct species. I think
of vanished sparrows and how often the stream
in the park is dry-lipped, the earth pocked
with cracks. And it yawns before me: the possibility
of fescue, flowers, leaves not returning.”

The idea of grief is picked up in Sue Proffitt’s “Kittiwakes” which ends “leaves me bereft -// so few of you left.” Phil Coleman’s abecedary “Red List” is merely a list, “Eastern Hare Wallaby. Eutrophication. Erosion. Extinct. Eleven years./ Falkland Islands wolf. Flooding. Fragmentation. Finning”. Technically has no faults but doesn’t really say anything.

In the section section, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Katrina Porteous’ “Invisible Mending” carries a much needed hint of hope,

“Here is the place where ocean and glacier meet.
Bedrock and grounding line. Sediment, Grit.
The green glaze mineral sheen of life, small tools to fix

Troubles so immense, they can’t be seen or spoken,
Bit by invisible bit.”

The earth may repair itself, but human life may not survive. Dr Craig Santos Perez in “Echolocation” draws a parallel between an orca and human parent,

“We drive our daughter to pre-school,
to the hospitals for vaccinations.
You carry your decomposing girl
a thousand nautical miles
until every wave is an elegy,
until our planet is an open casket.

What is mourning
but our shared echolocation?”

The idea that both humans and nature are sharing in the climate emergency, albeit nature seems to have the worse end of the deal, is a reminder of what’s at stake and also a demonstration that we’re not so different. We mourn, we care for our young, but we’re still living in parallel rather than sharing.

From the third section, Anne Casey’s “where once she danced” is set on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

“she is drowning in a sea awash with cobalt
deadly metals fill the channels where she breathes

her lovely limbs are shackled down with plastics
her lungs are laced with deadly manganese
a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head
a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams”

Despite the devastation, the coral is still trying to survive. Like Katrina Porteous’ poem, there’s a hint of hope that it might just survive.

The fourth section, “Do I tell her?” by Leslie Thomas is a sequence on rising CO₂ levels (the publication uses CO2) from the 1800s to the future,

“2019: 415 ppm CO2

“A level unknown to Homo sapiens. Following my family’s
greasy tread, I grown organic potatoes and sell charter time
on private jets, to pay for natural gas.

In 2070, between 500 to 900 ppm carbon dioxide is predicted.

My great-great-granddaughter finds this poem, fading
inside a 100-year-old book telling of global warming.
Do I tell her? Stay on the grid and in the grind. What I know.”

It points to how humans carry out contradictory actions: the organic potato grower also sells flights to survive and put food on the table. Individual actions don’t seem to carry much weight, especially when compared with the actions of corporations and employers, but each action does make a small contribution.

The young writers take a bleaker view. “Animals reversed” by Niamh Hughes (aged 14) considers animals taking revenge, locks are locks of hair in this context.

“My locks are being used to make the kangaroo’s socks.

Mother, mother why have they done so?
Because not long ago
We took their homes, families and fur
And that’s not fair.”

Freya Wilson (aged 10) ends “Don’t Forget” with “Don’t forget that we are the first generation to know that our world is under threat and the last who can stop it” and Amélie Nixon (aged 16) observes in “sleepwalking” that “sleep is the crack between breath and burial,/ the barren gap where mumbles of our insignificance lull us into plastic-coated disbelief.” Ethan Antony (aged 12) has “The Tale of Two Lime Trees”, “The trees were felled, a new pavement arose”. They remind us is it their generation who feel they are carrying the brunt of this.

Overall there are some wonderful poems in “Planet in Peril”, showing the effects of climate change and man made devastation. The poems from experienced and young poets don’t shy away from the effects and the need for humans to change their ways, to halt the damage done and start to repair and adapt before it is too late. What’s missing is how. Yes, poets and other writers need to keep telling these stories, keep reminding humans what’s at stake. However, eloquent hectoring doesn’t always bring about change. There is no easy solution: Leslie Thomas’ potato grower can’t feed his family if he stops selling flights and if he stops, someone else takes on the job. It will take a cultural and behavioural shift. “Planet in Peril” isn’t quite ready to suggest how that could happen, although some of the poems do contain hopeful hints that nature will repair itself even if humans don’t survive.

“Plant in Peril” is available from Fly On the Wall Press.