“The Misplaced House” Josephine Corcoran (tall-lighthouse) – poetry review

The Misplaced House Josephine Corcoran

Josephine Corcoran varies her subject matter from personal memories to political concerns and her poems resemble houses: each poem connects ideas or themes with a linking structure reminding readers that there is a common connection between the personal and general. These 22 poems touch on remembered houses from childhood, drones, and war, the last through cribbed notes in a school exam room. Everyone understands grief even if they have not lost a child. This is best illustrated in the opening poem “Stephen Lawrence isn’t on the National Curriculum” where the poem’s narrator is tucking her child into bed and thinking about two parents whose child was stabbed in a fatal act of racist violence,

 

.                  There’ll be Rosa Parks
and Martin Luther King for homework,
and someone saying it’s good
we teach them that,
but no-one has a map of South-East London,
and today your teacher didn’t say his name.
I teach you this: He spelled it with a ‘PH’
not a ‘V’. In 1993
he was eighteen.
He wanted to be an architect.
He was waiting for a bus.”

The key lesson is that racism isn’t just distanced by geography and history but still contemporary, still happening on the doorstep. The poem’s success lies in its lack of sentiment and control. The tragedy isn’t detailed but is clearly the poem’s main focus. It’s not all doom and gloom though. “The Housebuilders” shows humour:

“We adore the shells and seaweed ribbons
you’ve pressed into our walls.

But why are you buckling your jelly sandals
and cheering at that chiming van?

Climb down off your father’s shoulders!
He’s stashed your tools in a carrier bag!

We need a plasterer! Why is your mother
showering us with breadcrumbs?

Come back! We need a plumber!
Dead crabs are coming in through our windows!”

A new look at sandcastles and a different way of recording childhood memories. The poet and one of her sisters visit their former childhood home on discovering it’s up for sale. The current owner is a widow. On TV is a video of the SAS raid on the Iranian embassy in London thirty years previously and the images become jumbled with the tour of house in “In Town for a Funeral, We Drive Past Our Old House and See it is For Sale”

.                                                You feel a kind of love
for someone if you’ve shared a house. When the
hostages saw them, sat on the ground with their hands

on their heads, their weapons thrown down,
saw them shot anyway, they stood between the SAS
and the remaining terrorist.

Our mother died here, I’d like to say, in our dreams
she’s trapped here still. But I say nothing.
We form a quiet procession down the stairs,

following behind her, mourners in reverse,
gathering the strange logic of dreams,
strewn along the route to our front door.”

These poems are clear-sighted and memorable and weave the wider world into personal recollection which makes them engaging and memorable. “The Misplaced House” is available from tall-lighthouse.

NaPoWriMo 2015 and Poem Titles

Progress so far: 15 draft poems in 15 days:

1 April – Between Dances
2 April – An alleged Gas Bill for the Nettle Emporium
3 April – A Dance in a White Dress
4 April – The Typist on the Thames
5 April – A Day to Breathe
6 April – This funeral won’t be televised
7 April – It’s not just the dead who haunt the living
8 April – An Abandoned Football
9 April – Before our meal
10 April – Sequins and Bubbles
11 April – Karaoke
12 April – Reluctant Perennials
13 April – The Library’s Blue Curtains
14 April – The Unused Prop
15 April – Over a Far City, a Rainbow

Any of these titles grab you?

With poems, the title is of utmost importance. Not only can it make an editor snowed under with submissions stop and read your poem but it can draw a reader in. Most poems are published in an anthology format: either in a magazine or book or listed on a search engine results page if someone is searching for  poems on X. Someone scanning down a list of titles or skimming through a pile of poems isn’t going to stop and read “untitled”. After all if you can’t be bothered to title your poem, why would anyone read it?

 

 

 

Reviewing what gets Reviewed: why it matters

Recently someone asked me why a poet who’d published most of her poetry collections during the 1930s had been largely forgotten. I reflexively gave the answer: despite her poems being widely published and anthologised, despite her collections being published by a reputable publisher, she was not widely reviewed or studied so dropped off the literary radar. I thought this was obvious, but the questioner did not. Getting published is a foot in the door, if writers want to keep that door open, they need to be reviewed.

 

This is why the VIDA count is so important. It reports on the number of reviews by male reviewers and female reviewers and the number of reviews of books by female writers and books by male writers and the most recent count audits reviews by and of books by women of colour. In a world where more women buy and read books than men, statistically it would seem logical that more books by women get reviewed and more women write those reviews. Actually, in most cases, the opposite is true: there are more male reviewers and books written by men get more reviews. This means that the writers who don’t drop off the literary radar are more likely to be male.

 

Progress is being made, generally in newer magazines who don’t have a history of using male reviewers to review books by men to overcome. But there’s still work to be done. I’m not arguing that books for review should be selected by who wrote them rather than the merit of the writing or that reviewers should be selected on who they are rather than how well they review, but that editors should be aware of lingering bias and accept the challenge of finding new reviewers rather than relying on a stable of existing reviewers.

 

Previous counts have shocked editors, who were working on the assumption of gender-neutrality, into realising that there was a bias. Some editors have found that publishers and agents tend to send more books by men for review and have countered this by asking publishers for lists of forthcoming publications and requesting specific books for review rather than relying on unsolicited submissions. Similarly, some editors have found that men tend to volunteer to review and put forward ideas more than women so they’ve relied less on unsolicited submissions and approached reviewers (and potential reviewers) directly. Some editors found that if they return an idea with a note “This idea isn’t quite right, please try us again,” male writers would try again but female writers were less likely to try again. It’s easy to say women should volunteer more but when you see a magazine full of male names, you get the impression it’s not open to you. You decide to try anyway and your first submission comes back with a “not quite right for us”, it tends to reinforce the impression the magazine doesn’t want you so you’re less likely to try again: it becomes a vicious circle. The door looks closed when it’s actually ajar, although doorbell’s broken and the ‘welcome’ mat appears to be missing.

 

Writers can only get so far by making review copies available and contacting reviewers and/or editors to get their book reviewed. Readers can assist by writing and posting their own reviews or suggesting books they’d like to see reviewed. If you want to keep your favourite poet in print, post your recommendations and reviews, nominate and vote in the Saboteur Awards.

 

One commenter on VIDA’s statistics argued that there was no bias towards male writers in the literary establishment because publishers employed more women than men. The commenter thought that VIDA’s count was too narrow and seemed to be looking at the reviews rather than books published. The commenter spectacularly misses the point: VIDA’s remit is purely about reviews because what gets reviewed matters.

The Clean Reader

In response to the backlash over The Clean Reader app, the team behind it issued a statement that changes to the app are planned and an update will be released. This was in response to feedback from authors and users, but is unlikely to address my problem with it.

An Idaho couple, Jared and Kirsten Maughan developed The Clean Reader, which replaces certain words with “less offensive” alternatives. The app replaced any words found in its database with the listed alternatives. It isn’t sensitive enough to look at context so a book on breeding dogs would turn every instance of “bitch” into “witch” even though the former was being used correctly in context and not as a derogatory term.

If you buy a book, you can deface it by writing notes in the margins or taking a black marker to redact words you don’t like, but if you then allow someone else to borrow your book, they can easily see that you’ve altered the text and it is no longer how the author intended it. Similarly when TV programmes broadcast during the day or early evening when children might be watching (or might simply be present in the room when an adult is watching) bleep out the swear words, it’s understood what the bleep means, but the bleep is still there and the speaker’s intention is still clear.

With the Clean Reader app, it’s not clear that a borrower would be aware that the original text has been defaced. When you buy an eBook, you are not actually buying the book but a licence to read a copy of that book. Therefore an app like The Clean Reader, is potentially illegal (in England authors have the right of integrity and of false attribution; in the US there is no legal protection for moral rights) because you do not have the right to alter the text you have bought a licence to read.

This is particularly important in poetry. Whatever you think of the merits of the poem, the words within will have been chosen not just for meaning but also for rhythm and sound. Any alteration could not just alter the sense of the poem but also the rhythm and sound patterns. The alteration could destroy the original poem.

There lies my problem with the Clean Reader app. If an individual reader decides to deface their own purchased copy of a book, they still have to have read the original text in order to decide which words to black out. So the author’s original intention and original text is still present. With Clean Reader a third party is cleaning the text before the reader has actually read it. It’s not clear to the reader who uses Clean Reader before reading the text what the author’s intention was. This is why I object to it.

What do you think?

“The Fifth Gospel” Ian Caldwell (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Fifth Gospel Ian Caldwell book cover

Set in 2004 when the dying wish of Pope John Paul II was to reunite Catholicism and Orthodoxy. An exhibit is under construction at the Vatican Museums but, before it is opened, the curator is discovered dead from a gunshot wound. The curator’s research partner, Father Alex Andreou, a Greek Catholic priest, discovers a break-in at his home that appears to be linked to the curator’s death. To complicate matters, the obvious suspect is his brother, Father Simon Andreou, a Western Catholic priest.

Father Alex had been stuck in a kind of limbo, single-handedly raising his son after his wife Mona left. (Later readers discover that post-natal depression seems to have triggered her departure. This information should have been included sooner because it leaves Mona as a malign mystery hovering over the early chapters.) Father Alex doesn’t believe Father Simon killed the curator and when the gendarmes reach an impasse, Father Simon is put under house arrest at an unknown location and the decision is taken that he will be tried under Canonical Law rather than criminal law. This won’t be a ponderous, lengthy process as the trial has to be completed before the exhibit is due to open, giving the plot an urgency. Father Alex has to turn detective. He knows the curator was researching the four Gospels plus the little-known Diatessaron, also known as the fifth Gospel, to uncover what they revealed about the Turin Shroud so he tries to reconstruct the research in order to try and find out what the curator had discovered and the consequences of that discovery for the world’s two largest Christian churches. In his research, he discovers that Father Simon had been secretly travelling to Eastern European countries to invite Orthodox clergy to the exhibit. When crucial evidence that would exonerate Father Simon is left dumped in a secure car part and excluded from the court, Father Alex realises his brother is caught up in a conspiracy to prevent information from the Diatessaron from coming to light. It trying to clear his brother’s name, Father Alex doesn’t realise that the evidence is pointing towards him as the guilty party.

Despite their separation, can both brothers somehow protect each other and uncover the truth or will they find themselves scapegoated by internal political struggles left by bishops jockeying for position under an ailing Pope? Can they protect Pope John Paul II’s wish against those seeking to keep the schism?

Fathers Simon and Alex are sympathetically drawn: two priests on different paths seeking to enable the Pope’s dying wish. Simon is an active man who prefers to do rather than think but feels a fatherly responsibility towards his younger brother. Alex is a scholar and a teacher trying to do the best for his own son, Peter, and trying to protect him from the gossip that implies his favourite uncle is a murderer. However, in his attempts to protect Peter, Alex prevents him giving a key piece of evidence that Peter was eyewitness to. In a moment of frustration, Peter blurts it out and Alex realises his mistake.

It’s a scholarly thriller as well as a detective one in a world where hierarchy and appeasement matter. As readers follow Father Alex’s research, prior knowledge of the Bible or the texts Father Alex studies is not required. Father Alex is a teacher and in that role explained to the curator what their research was uncovering and put it in context of the teachings of the Church. The reader is given the same clues as Father Alex and the key to the mystery does not lie in some elaborate, obscure research but in a letter from the curator to Father Alex.

Life in the Vatican is a very regimented one where everyone is treated according to rank. It’s also a very male world, which is why the lack of information and explanation around Mona’s disappearance and separation from Father Alex is frustrating: as one of the very few women in the book her words and actions are amplified. Her sole purpose seems to have been to emphasise the isolation Father Alex feels as the hunt for truth is underway. Mona’s role as plot device is further underline by her relatively trouble-free reunite with Father Alex and her son. Meanwhile the court’s attempt to establish the truth is frustrated by witnesses, who have taken an oath to a high-ranking bishop, being unable to break that oath to give evidence. Eventually it takes the intervention of the Pope to uncover the truth and both Father Alex and Father Simon discover the crime at the heart of the matter is worse, in the Church’s eyes, than the murder it seemed to be.

“The Fifth Gospel” is an intelligent thriller that makes the best use of its setting and theme without excluding a general reader looking for a pacey murder mystery.

“A Penance” C J Evans (New Issues Press) – poetry review

A Penance C J Evans book cover

CJ Evans has an assured tone that explores an uneasy world where violence lurks beneath the surface. He observes with tenderness, allowing details to build an impression, usually employing terse, controlled couplets. In “Hands Full of Sun”

“They shut the lights, stay in bed.

A book spine inks her breast
like a sickness. He takes walks

when he can’t avoid his anger
at how so little can bruise her

so badly. Outside, the people
are hooded and gray, but he knows,

no matter what, she is always
the soft yellow of petals.

He goes home and they shut
the blinds against the light, and curl –

first one the hand and one the pear,
and then the other way round.”

The title is taken from Nazim Hikmet’s “Istanbul House of Detention”. The violence here isn’t immediate and brutal but accumulative: the dampening effect of erasure and reduction. The soft endings and short consonants echo the poem’s sense, the edging towards inclusion as the couple lack the impetus to escape their diminishing world. In “Penitentiary” (complete poem) the prison is real rather than imaginary:

I dread sunflowers and the brown colt-legs of summer. Thirst
after hushes and hands held over lips. I dread sun-drenched

beaches; want angry letters, pistols, and two-by-fours. I know
fists clench in pockets. I know there are always people-schemes.

I desire nothing less than to be happy with the simple happiness
provided, because I’m a lover of failure: Icarus would be forgotten

if he hadn’t fallen; nobody would worship sun without
the world’s winter half; and I want to wake without you

from dreams of sick children and their sour water. I want
to be right that it can all be taken, even in daylight. To wake,

without you, for I dread your affection, which crashes in my ears.
But ominous as a cry cut short, its lack would be louder still.

It’s a poem that’s difficult to lift a quote from because the cumulative, complementary effect would be lost. It’s a part-romantic, part-real construction with the narrator wanting to reach out but fearing rebuttal because he understands rejection and anger more than love in his present situation, yet still hopes, understanding that light looks brighter when you’ve been through darkness. Other poems construct inmates’ stories from their nicknames, often based on inanimate objects such as wire or silk so the poems can be read as being about person or object.

Not all the poems use C J Evans’s signature couplets, eg in “The Work of Giants”

“I try to read newspapers to find the rapes
or watch television to wait for the coffins,
because rapes and coffins are the work
of giants and I don’t want to take my eyes
off the giants, but I’m ashamed, because all

I want is your skin against my skin.

I’m too tired for my anger. My fists don’t
clench like they used to. My teeth have stopped
grating, and the rapes and coffins and children
and tanks and car bombs and bullets
are in me, and with all I have left to feel

all I want to feel is your hips against my hips.”

Another title taken from another piece of literature, in this case from “Le Petit Auto” by Guillaume Apollinaire. Rightly these references and allusions are tucked away in the notes at the back of the collection so they don’t intrude on reading the poems and are presented as useful background information to be read as an afterword. “The Work of Giants” captures that feeling of compassion-fatigue when one individual simply can’t stand up to the evil done by many but wants to be lost in the inhibition of love.

What lingers after the book is shut, is C J Evans’s carefully constructed lyricism and controlled tension in the rhythm of each poem.

“A Penance” is available from New Issues Press.

Why do you read Poetry?

What makes you pick up a book or magazine and read?

  • A few moments of escapism?
  • A break from daily routine?
  • Habit?
  • To see something from another’s perspective?
  • For stimulation? To read something thought-provoking?
  • To be challenged by ideas that may be the opposite of yours?
  • To learn something new?
  • The comfort of immersing yourself in a favourite poem?
  • For inspiration?
  • From recommendation – either from a friend or a review?
  • How many of the above reasons look at the poem being read? How many look at the poet who wrote the poem?

If a poem is on a particular topic, you might want to know that the poet has the expertise or experience to write on that topic. But how much do you need to know about the poet to read the poem? Does it matter if you know nothing about the poet at all?

If you read a published poem about a bereavement, is it necessary for the poet to have been bereaved? Does it make any difference when you are reading a poem to know it was heartfelt and drawn from actual experience? If you know the poet has been bereaved, does that allow for a lower poetic standard because of the emotional investment in the poem?

I hope not. Recently I received an email from someone saying I should not have commented on a poem about a bereavement. The poem had been published in a newspaper. The author of the email was unable to separate comments on the poem from comments on the poet (I didn’t comment on the poet). In the email author’s eyes, they were the same thing: negative comment on the poem was also negative comment on the poet. In the email author’s eyes I should not comment on a poem’s standard because the of poet’s emotional investment but just accept it as it was.

Previously I had been sent an anthology for review. The anthology was of pieces written by people in a mental health setting. I absolutely support the use of writing in such settings. In times of emotional upheaval or in the aftermath of trauma, poetry can be useful. The discipline of writing down thoughts and feelings and then organising it into a formal structure can be hugely beneficial and a useful way of communicating with care-givers. However, publishing those pieces and putting them in a public domain needs to be handled with care. Creating an anthology of work in such workshops as a demonstration of what could be achieved or as something for participants to take way is good. However, this anthology had been sent to a poetry magazine for review. Some of the pieces included could not be judged as poetry. This put me, the reviewer, in a difficult position of having to say “this doesn’t work as a poem but was clearly immensely valuable for the author to write. That is doesn’t work as a poem is not a reflection on the writer or of the experience the writer was going through at the time of writing it.”

Why do you read poetry: for the poem or poet? Can the two be separated?

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