“Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” an update

Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge book cover

I recently joked that “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” was taking over my life (in a good way). Since the publication day launch on 1 December 2015, there’s been:

  • A second launch event in Leicester during the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival (7 December 2015)
  • A Nottingham launch at Five Leaves Bookshop in January 2016 where it was confirmed the anthology is on target to raise at least £3000.
  • Radio interview with Dulcie Dixon of BBC Radio Leicester
  • Invitation to Shindig on 18 January where Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press kindly donated three bundles of Nine Arches’ books to raffle on the night. The proceeds of the raffle were donated to “Over Land Over Sea”.
  • Along with raising funds, “Over Land Over Sea” is doing a crucial job in raising awareness, with recent articles in the Morning Star and a feature at the Platforma website.

Future Events:

  • 25 February 2016 8pm Attenborough Arts (Leicester University, Lancaster Road, Leicester) organised by the Leicester Migration Network which will feature readings from the anthology.
  • 12 March 2016 States of Independence, book fair organised by Five Leaves held at De Montfort University. The book fair takes place from 10 am to 4 pm and entry is free.
  • 1 August 2016 Poetry Cafe (22 Betterton Street London WC2H 9BX) from 7.30pm joint event with Exiled Writers Ink.
  • There are also plans for events during the summer in Leicester.

It has been amazing seeing this idea grow from a crowdfunding project to reading through all the submitted poems and having several opportunities to hear some of the contributors read their poems. “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” is available from Five Leaves and proceeds will go to the registered charities Medecins Sans Frontieres, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum.

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“The Gospel According to Bobba” Ambrose Musiyiwa (CivicLeicester) – poetry review

The Gospel According to Bobba by Ambrose Musiyiwa book cover

“The Gospel According to Bobba” is a sequence of twenty-four aphoristic micro-poems. The language seems simple, but leaves plenty of white space for readers’ interpretations. This is number III:

“Bobba says
to its bare bones

Not all the gospels are so straightforward. Others touch on creating art, protest, psychology and being human. Some use minimal vocabulary to build a complex idea. Some nudge the reader into doing some of the work. In Number X

“Bobba says
imagine a shoe box
with an elephant and the number 3
in it”

There’s a conjuring of surrealism, playfulness and opportunity. Things happen in threes and three means there’s an odd one out, a misfit. The elephant is more likely to be figurative, suggestive of the elephant in the room in the sense of the obvious issue no one speaks about. It’s down to the reader to decide whether the box is open or shut and what the number three may represent.

Each gospel can stand alone but can also be read as part of a mini-narrative so the book can be read in one sitting or dipped into with a gospel selected to be meditated upon.

It doesn’t matter who Bobba is, the message is more important than the messenger. The gospels stand alone as words suggesting wisdom and a guide to life. The pamphlet is the right length. A collection would be too many and lose that pared-down intensity these have, like a performer who knows just when to leave the stage and timing it perfectly so the audience are still absorbing the material.

“The Gospel according to Bobba” is available via Abe Books

Poem or Photograph, is there a best response?

A friend commented that he struggled to write a poem in response to an event that he was able to photograph (and here photography is used as a documentary witness, not a deliberately staged photograph such as a model’s photoshoot or promotional photography). It prompted me to think about an occasion where I wanted to take a photograph of a scene but my camera was at the bottom of a rucksack so I committed the scene to memory and wrote “Sunlight: North Dublin” based on the scene instead. I suspect the choice between taking a photograph or writing a poem will be influence by personal preference and whether an individual feels more comfortable/skilled at photography or poetry, but either approach has advantages and disadvantages.


A photograph is contemporary to an event, making it an immediate response. A series of photographs can follow the unfolding of an event. A poet can scribble observational notes, but writing a good poem takes time, so a poem can lack the immediacy offered by a photograph.


A photograph offers a limited view. It is dependent on the stance of the photographer in relation to the event and the limitations of the camera. Does the photograph choose a wide angle to capture a whole crowd, thus losing some of the detail, or zoom in to a specific person or group and lose the sense of scale? A poem can do both. A poem can also move backwards and forwards in time, mentioning what happened before and after a photograph was taken.


A photograph’s colour can be enhanced or subdued, reduced to monochrome, filtered or given a sepia tint, thus influencing how a viewer sees the event. A poet also acts as an editor, guiding a reader towards a specific response to the event. But when a poet says “cobalt” you know exactly which shade of blue to visualise. Getting two viewers to agree on what specific shade of blue the sky in a photograph is will be a harder task.


A photograph is both a creator and trigger of memories. It records a scene and later acts as a reminder. A poem is written from memory (whether notes scribbled at the scene or images remembered afterwards) and in creating the poem, some elements of the scene may be omitted or the centre of focus shifts to the sidelines in order to make the poem.

Here’s my poem (from “Yellow Torchlight and the Blues”):

Sunlight: North Dublin

Squint-inducing sunlight
stops me here momentarily
looking up at a tenement block.
Damp babygros, teenagers’ jeans,
mums’ skirts hang on improvised
washing lines on thin balconies.
Each floor sinks into the one below.
Each wall home to graffiti tags.
Rubbish stirs in the breeze.
The sunlight seems stronger
for being squeezed in the gap
between this block and a stark silhouette
of a city-grime encrusted church
putting these lives in shadow.

Would you have preferred the photograph?

Guest Post: Lawful Magic: Finding reasons for verse in theatre

Because verse is so rarely used in contemporary theatre, it no longer feels – as it must have done in the seventeenth-century heyday of English verse drama – like ‘an art/Lawful as eating’. This quote from The Winter’s Tale springs to mind because, in Shakespeare’s anniversary year, I feel that today’s poets might justifiably wonder how and why the link between poetry and theatre has been so comprehensively severed. Shakespeare’s dramatic verse is highly artificial, but historically he has been greatly praised for his naturalness, especially in fitting speech into the structures of metre: what Milton referred to as his ‘easy numbers’. How could we, as poets, work towards making poetry feel equally ‘natural’ or ‘lawful’ in a modern script for theatre? And conversely, how can we channel the benefits of its unnaturalness? In this post I’m going to give some provisional responses based on my own experience, which I hope might suggest directions of travel for a poet approaching theatre writing for the first time, even if your own practice is very different.

It’s clear that writing, or listening to, poetry for theatre no longer feels natural to most of us in a contemporary context. Tony Harrison, one of the few modern verse dramatists to achieve some measure of success (though not without his fair share of critical panning) describes his anxiety about this issue in the introduction to his play Square Rounds. In the modern world, writes this champion of reclaiming the classics, ‘defensive as even I am about ‘verse drama’, I had to find a reason for the verse of the … play.’ In order to ‘create a new poetic theatre that drew from the past, but which looked straight into the depths and disturbance of our own times’, Harrison had to find, within the internal logic of this play, something that would give him ‘licence’ to write dramatic poetry.

When I started work on my first verse play, Free for All, I also confronted this need for reasons and licences. Why write verse drama today at all? And if I was to go ahead and do it anyway (and I had made some pretty definite promises that I would to the Arts and Humanities Research Council), what would verse mean in a contemporary playscript? If you choose to write a verse play, you might come up with some very different answers, but I decided to focus on a few related areas. I knew that verse was often (though by no means always) associated with higher-status characters, and that the world of my play – a free school open evening that goes horribly wrong – was going to bring conflicts of class and power to the forefront. I started to see verse within this world as something that could connote authority; control; comfort with the dramatic situation. The school’s headmaster, Torben, starts off as a slick, confident showman, and I wanted his command of verse to create a sense of fluency and self-assurance:

See, what I mean is freedom – after years
of desks in lines and one man at the board
and targets, tests, the tedium of chalk,
we’re taking matters into our own hands,
nourishing individuality.

Not all characters are so at ease in this social world, however, and I saw the opportunity for verse to serve as a register of language, a marker of mobility similar to Received Pronunciation. Some characters, like Kerry, a gutsy union activist, could easily code-switch (or defiantly choose not to.) Some, like Angela, a pushy mother from a poorer background, would find this more difficult, and Angela’s awkward, metronomic verse could convey a sense of unease, of hypercorrection:

It’s wonderful to see you, Dr Krill.
What an occasion. Such a special day.

And you, Mrs McEntee, though I must
insist, I don’t yet have a doctorate…

A travesty. Well, neither does my Keith,
as you can tell from that ill-timed remark –
I must apologise reservedly:
a shameful comment. From a governor!

I decided that one character in particular – Starfish, an anxious schoolgirl feeling over-burdened with extra-curricular activities – would speak an especially heightened verse. The pressure being put on her would come through formally in a rigorously pressurised verse-form: a four-beat, trochaic line, organised into rhyming couplets. As such, the verse could help verbally echo the sense of a tightly-wound person constantly on the verge of snapping:

Physics Challenge, Silver Medal,
Semi-finals county netball,
Youth Ambassador to Calais,
ten years tap, eleven ballet …
Teenage Vegan Essay Contest,
Cuckoo drowning in a swan’s nest!

On the other hand, Mademoiselle Tatlow – a disgraced former French teacher with a nefarious agenda – was the sort of character who kept buttonholing people who were trying to get away, so I gave her a six-beat (alexandrine) line, making it sound like she was always going on just slightly too long. These breaks from the iambic norm were formal devices which made these characters stand out in the world of the play: they would be intrinsically hard parts to play naturalistically. In this respect, I was using the verse form as a kind of internal stage direction: Approach with caution, or perhaps Don’t take this too seriously.

This became important to me when thinking, during my PhD research into the development of verse drama, about the relationship between verse, naturalism, and the supernatural. Leontes above, after all, is actually talking about magic. To paraphrase another Shakespeare quote, from the Chorus to Henry V, we’re used to poetry working on ‘our imaginary forces’ to make us see and believe in things that aren’t really there: demons and fairies and ghosts. One common argument is that the decline of verse drama parallels the rise of Enlightenment rationalism: that the bourgeois, post-industrial, everyday world no longer has the kind of dark corners of mystery verse was suited to illuminate, and conversely, that prose is the only appropriate medium for a world of iPhones and spiralizers – anything else would feel overblown, redundant, ridiculous. I decided I didn’t believe in this at all, not least because I wanted my very modern verse play to have a ghost in it.

I started thinking, instead, that verse in theatre could be used to transcend these kinds of contingencies – that it could directly address the society we live in, while moving beyond flat-pack naturalism. That switching the world of a play into verse was a way of signalling that those mimetic rules no longer had to apply – that there was no wall between actor and audience, that ghosts could get into the lighting rig, that reality could become a game. Like Tony Harrison, I felt I needed a licence for my verse, but that once I had made it my own instrument, the verse was able to give me licence.

T.S. Eliot suggested something similar – that verse in theatre can be a way of addressing other modes of experience, even as it captures recognisable ordinary life. Eliot summarised the domain of verse drama as ‘a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action.’ I don’t disagree with his sense of poetry in the theatre as a kind of numinous toothbrush, reaching the parts other plays can’t reach. But I don’t think verse plays in the twenty-first century need to turn their back on ‘action’, either, as Eliot’s often did, and I think the possibilities verse offers to convey shifting social and political structures is a large part of its appeal to me as a poetic dramatist.

If you’d like to see what that means in practice, you’re very welcome to attend Free for All at Hansom Hall, Leicester, on Jan 28th. But I’m hoping you might also like to try it out for yourself, and in this year of celebrating the most famous poet-playwright in world culture, make your own case for why theatre today needs poetry as much as ever.

Free for All tours Midlands venues from the 27th-29th January. More details can be found on the Haunted House Theatre website, and tickets are available for the Leicester show here. The production is funded by AHRC, our Kickstarter donors, and the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

Richard O’Brien is a poet and PhD student researching Shakespeare and the development of verse drama at the University of Birmingham. His most recent pamphlets are A Bloody Mess (Dead Ink/Valley Press) and The Emmores (The Emma Press). His work has also appeared in Oxford Poetry and The Salt Book of Younger Poets, and in 2015 he won the Sonnet category of the inaugural London Book Fair Poetry Prize.

New Year’s Resolutions – tips for writers

Don’t front load the year by starting all your resolutions in January

January is dark, dreary and wet: generally a better time for editing and planning rather than starting new projects. Brand new projects are best started in Spring when the weather’s a (bit) better and plants are beginning to look green again. NaPoWriMo is in April so if you want to kick start writing new poems, that’s a good time to do it.

Check Submission Guidelines and Competition Rules

This shouldn’t need repeating, but editing an anthology in 2015 demonstrated that people don’t read guidelines. Those pieces that didn’t follow the guidelines were automatically rejected.

Keep Resolutions under your control

You don’t get to choose whether an editor selects your work or not. You can increase your chances of publication by doing your research, carefully selecting which poems you send where and following submission guidelines but the ultimate decision lies with the editor. Rather than resolving to get more poems published, focus on producing quality work or creating more time to write.

Try something new

Have a go at a short story or a blog post, try recording a podcast or making a film poem. The results may not be publishable or worth broadcasting but they will be new learning experiences.


Rejection is a big part of a writer’s life so remember to focus on successes. Rejections are best dealt with by polishing the rejected poem and sending it out again. All editors receive more submissions than they can publish so rejections aren’t necessarily a reflection on the quality of work.

Social media is useful, but don’t let it become a time suck.

Any one up for NaPoWriMo (April 2016)?

“Grapes in the Crater” Camilla Lambert (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – poetry review

Camilla Lambert Grapes in the Crater book cover

Camilla Lambert’s poems often start with the familiar, family relationships, falling in love, television journalist, then she injects a small dose of magical realism to lift the poem from simple, acute observation. She draws on fairytales, especially in “Red Rescue” which starts,

“She was new-born, un-looked for.
They wrapped her in the sumptuous cloak
of a cardinal. It re-woke her walnut heart,
banished the blue from her lips.”

The poem keeps its internal logic, drawing imagery from Hans Christian Anderson’s “Red Shoes” and ending on an image of a fading sunset no longer reflecting red onto the sea’s waves so the blue waters pick up the image in “blue from her lips.” Camilla Lambert doesn’t rely on readers’ knowledge of fairytales or surreal images. “Sequoia” begins

“My mother is fading. Long silences
between words.
I give her a tree.

To be exact it is a giant sequoia
and its height
is like a Bach chorale.

She wants to know how old it is
and I tell her
over three thousand years.”

The permanence of nature is a comforting gift. The act of sharing and inclusion is brought to the fore at the end of the poem:

“At the end I show her all the family
balanced in pairs
along the highest branches.

She swings her way up, smart and agile
as a chamoix.
She calls out Wait for me!”

The exuberant “Acting my Age” has each stanza leads into the next and the ages jump around, as memories often do.

“When I was twelve I knew how disease tasted,
cold as a pebble in a mountain stream
and what lay behind the warning ‘Beware
the wash of passing ships. Staggering
up the shifting beach I had reached fifty-six.

When I was fifty-six I took a younger lover,
sex coloured my life crimson, purple, gold.
Peonies and foxgloves were my heralds,
each day another day in paradise, bright
as if I was in love and only sixteen.”

The poem highlights the gap between physical years and spiritual years with its suggest that you’re really only as old as you feel. A fresh experience brings the feeling of being young again. “Blackberry Bush with Hornet”, a sonnet, begins

“See us, fellow gatherers, a fiery hornet and me,
giving each other leave to investigate and taste.”

Camilla Lambert handles nature and people equally well. She understands craft, takes on flights of imagination which she weaves within cycles of life.

Camilla Lambert’s “Grapes in the Crater” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

“Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” launch 7 December 2015

The launch took place on 7 December at the Secular Hall in Leicester from 6.30pm. This event was part of the Human Rights Film Festival. Ambrose Musiyiwa, one of the festival coordinators, started the launch by talking briefly about the festival, one of the highlights of which had been the previous day’s Music Without Borders that had raised funds for MSF.

Rather than give a lengthy introduction to “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge,” I began with a selection of the poems because that’s what everyone had come to hear. Poems read (I read for those who weren’t able to be there on the night):

“Song for Guests” Carol Leeming
“Come In” Lydia Towsey
“My Neighbour” Richard Byrt
“What’s in a name?” Penny Jones
“We Walk Together” Sally Jack
“Children of War” Malka al-Haddad

I wanted to start with these poems because the first two were about welcoming. One of the key themes we found with many of the poems submitted was neighbourliness, reaching out to meet refugees as fellow humans. Malka al-Haddad’s poem is a powerful reminder of why people are leaving their homelands.

After this poem, I read an extract from Sir Martyn Poliakoff’s introduction, “…most of my adult life has been spent living in Beeston and being part of the community. So it is hard to ignore the plight of families who are going through traumas today similar to those experienced by my father and grandparents nearly a hundred years ago. This book is a really impressive collection of poetry and prose put together by a group of East Midlanders who care passionately about the lives of others and who are determined to help those less fortunate than themselves. Everyone who has contributed has done so free of charge and all of the proceeds from the sales are intended to help refugees. It is a great demonstration of the spirit which exists in our region. It also shows that compassion is still alive in the UK and that we are willing to welcome new families into our country so that they too can contribute to our communities as soon as they have overcome their dreadful experiences. Until then, we need to help them.”

It is often the case that small kindesses are more memorable than grand gestures, which introduced the second set of poetry readings:

“Blue Folder” Lily Silverman
“Birthdays, May 2015” Merrill Clarke
“The Whiteness” Mariya Pervez
“The Humans are Coming” Siobhan Logan
“What we know” Kerry Featherstone
“Hayride” Roy Marshall
“Yalla” Trevor Wright
“Stories from the Jungle” Emma Lee
“The Man Who Ran Through The Tunnel” Ambrose Musiyiwa

Some of the poems in “Over Land Over Sea” contrast our relative privilege with the little the refugees had and what they’d left behind. Space was also a recurring theme in submissions. Some used the idea of exploring space and alien lands as a metaphor for refugees arriving in foreign lands and being regarded as different. Siobhan Logan’s poem was based on a story of a teenaged refugee who dreamt of becoming an astronaut. Another theme was the journeys undertaken by refugees, and understanding how it must feel to make that journey and the motivation to keep going.

I paused here to talk about editing the anthology which I’ve already blogged about. The poetry readings continued:

“Waiting” Kathleen Bell
“Through the Lens” Liz Byfield
“The Devil and the Deep” Diane Pinnock
“In a small boat” Louisa Humphreys
“Outside the Photograph” Emma Lee
“but one country” Rod Duncan.

Rod Duncan’s poem is a wonderful unifying poem which uses a verbal mirror image to transform a negative view into a postive one. That’s primarily what we were looking for in “Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge,” a sense of connection, an acknowledgement of tragedy and trauma but without unremitting doom and gloom and a note of hope.

Thanks to all the poets who came along and read their poems and to Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves who helped run a bookstall on the evening.

“Over Land Over Sea poems for those seeking refuge” is available from Five Leaves Bookshop. The proceeds of sales will go to MSF, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Nottingham Refugee Forum, charities working with refugees. Printing and distributions costs have been paid via a crowdfunding project before publication.


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