“Beginning with Your Last Breath” Roy McFarlane (Nine Arches Press) – poetry review

Roy McFarlane Beginning with your last breath book coverRoy McFarlane explores growing up in the West Midlands (he is British born with Jamaican origins), discovering that he was adopted and the mix of emotions that triggered even though his adoptive parents were supportive and loving. This is particularly effective through the repetition in the villanelle “The weight of knowing” when he looks at a photograph of his birth mother,

“The woman in the photograph

sent me letters to leave me in a spell
but I was conjured by memories that
this was the woman who gave me away.

And those eyes telling their tales
and untold stories couldn’t change the fact of
the woman in the photograph;
this was the woman who gave me away.”

The title poem explores his compulsion to write,

“If poetry could take the pain away
I’d swap places and it would be me
struggling to breathe
that five-year-old child you held close
to your bosom like a small bagpipe
limped limbs, lungs bulging,
inflating and deflating;
to capture,
to write,

to verse my life
to begin with the first breath
with you watching over me
until the break of dawn.”

The death of his (adoptive) mother acted as a trigger for McFarlane to write about his life, loves, sorrows, racism and coming to terms with his adoption. He does meet his birth mother later and a compassionate poem explores her reasons for giving him up which allows him to accept her motives and appreciate that family isn’t always linked by blood. His growing up is complicated by racial prejudice at a time when politician Norman Tebbit suggested testing the patriotism of ethnic minorities living in England by establishing which cricket team they supported at international level. McFarlane’s poem, “The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)” responds by pointing out that for a black man, supporting the English team isn’t straightforward. John Barnes played for Liverpool and England and suffered taunting and so-called fans throwing bananas on the pitch when he played. McFarlane lives,

“the engulfing experience of John Barnes,
the genius, the wizard that scored against Brazil,
cutting through their defence with pure beauty.
Only to be reminded a few days later on a plane
returning home, filled with the England team and supporters,
that goal don’t count, the one scored by the nigger.”

The aim here is to record the poet’s life journey, to document the prejudice, but also to widen his subject matter beyond racism. It doesn’t avoid the topic but it isn’t purely about racial prejudice. McFarlane also writes with tenderness, here about his wife putting on a pair of tights

“caressing and smoothing out
folds or ripples that you find
as I did the night before
when we had reached our pinnacle
I held you tenderly and lovingly
eased out the swell and tide
that still lingered in the bodies
of two lovers overwhelmed in love.”

“Beginning with your last breath” allow lost love, friendships, boxing love of family, music, race, acceptance of adoption to interweave with personal narratives. McFarlane tells his story with compassion and a desire to share, needing to tell not just the story but about the transformative ability of love. These are poems that anyone can relate to, written with a respect of craft and attention to detail.

“Beginning with your last breath” is available from Nine Arches Press

“Refractions” Kevin Morris ebook – poetry review

Refractions by [MORRIS, K.]Kevin Morris writes from familiar, everyday situations in rhyme-led, usually short verses, e.g. in “Dog and Ball” which ends,

“My introspection.
How can I suffer dejection
When I recollect your playful snort
And the ball you caught?”

He poses questions about his readers, in “Composed More or Less in Real-time While Sitting in a Liverpool Garden”

“The wind has dropped now,
And I wonder how
My poem will be understood
By those who would
Try
To find meaning in words that erratically fly
From one who sits listening to a barking dog, who cares not
A jot
For what
I have to say
On this sunny, wind swept day.”

Does Kevin Morris have something to say? There is a small group of poems which touch on the subject of prostitution provoked by a newspaper article that argues that sex workers should not be criminalised but those who pay for the services offered should be. “Waltz” offers a metaphor and less direct approach,

“It takes a couple to waltz.
With beauty charming
And character disarming,
She does dance
And romance
Until the sun’s rays lance
The comforting dark
And a new day starts.

Both parties are willing;
But does the payment of a shilling
To the girl
Who does so seductively twirl
Render their interaction
An exploitative transaction
And the waltz false?”

Ignoring that schillings are no longer legal tender in the UK, the poet’s approach takes the simplistic view that if someone freely chooses to go into sex work, then it shouldn’t be criminalised. At face value, this is a position that can’t be argued against. However, it does not take into account that not all sex workers freely choose their line of work. It conveniently ignores the problems of trafficking, the influence of drugs, including alcohol, and desperation that means that sex work isn’t a choice made without influence from other factors. Kevin Morris lends what he sees as a business transaction – a man buys a service from a woman – a romantic view that is misplaced.

Elsewhere, he acknowledges all lives come to an end eventually. In “Corridor”

“A door must open
And a word be spoken
To the figure from the gloom
Who vanishes soon.

Things remain
The same.
The empty corridor
And sadness reigning evermore.”

To lighten the load, there are a set of limericks. I confess to not being a fan of limericks so I will quote one as a taster, “There Was a Young Lady Called Suzie”

“There was a young lady called Suzie
Who said, ‘I am extremely choosy
About the men I date,
But it is getting late
And I am very boozy!’

“Refractions” is an ebook available from Amazon.

My review of K Morris’ Lost in the Labyrinth of My Mind is here.

Posted in Book review. Tags: . 2 Comments »

Writers and Email Marketing

You have an email address book full of friends, family and contacts. It’s tempting to send them all an email to tell them about your latest book or forthcoming event. But you shouldn’t. Unsolicited marketing emails are against the law and, under English law, ignorance is no defence.

What is an unsolicited marketing email?

An unsolicited marketing email is one that is sent to people who have not subscribed to an email list and/or have not given permission to be sent marketing emails.

An unsolicited marketing email is not when you reply to a friend or family member and let them know about your book or event as part of the conversation. It is not when you list your publications in your email signature. It is not an email sent in response to someone giving your their business card and inviting you to get in touch.

As a general rule, if you are sending one email to one person which you’ve personalised or tailored to the recipent, it’s not a marketing email. If you are sending one email to a group of people in response to a group chat and mention your book or event because it’s relevant to the discussion, it’s not a marketing email. If you send the same email all about your book or event to a group of people, it’s marketing.

So how can writers use email marketing without falling foul of the law or gaining a reputation for being a spammer?

Collecting Email Addresses

Essentially any personal email addresses collected for the purposes of marketing should be collected on the basis of opt-in consent, e.g.

  • through a website contact form or web subscriber service where users send an email address on the understanding they are subscribing to an email marketing list or newsletter;
  • through a competition where entrants give consent to further mailings;
  • where an email contact is an existing customer (although it’s better from a customer relations viewpoint to check the customer is happy to receive newsletters and/or marketing material first).

If a reader sends you a query or tells you they enjoyed your last book or event, they are not giving consent to be marketed. Reply to their email thanking them and ask permission to add their details to your mailing list.

Corporate or commercial email address holders do not need to give consent, but that doesn’t mean you can spam them or fail to unsubscribe them if asked to do so.

Sending Emails

  • Check you have news to send – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you need to send an email newsletter according to a fixed timescale or that you will lose subscribers if you don’t keep in touch;
  • Ensure your news is useful – a writer writing is book is no more news than a plumber fixing a leak: your subscribers need to know when and how to order the book;
  • Don’t send embargoed news – your subscribers are your ambassadors, they will naturally want to recommend your new book or tell others about your event, so don’t prevent them;
  • Don’t tease – don’t send an email saying details of your new book will be in the next email or tell subscribers you have a new event but details will follow. Frustrating subscribers means they will stop reading and may unsubscribe;
  • Check your email has unsubscribe information on (each email needs this information, not just emails to new subscribers);
  • Check your email has a bricks-and-mortar address on – this can be a publisher’s or business address – if sending from within the European Union (not necessary if you use a web service based outside Europe). The UK has not left the EU yet and if (some of) your subscribers live in EU countries, you still need to comply;
    Don’t include unnecessary links – ‘click here to order’ is fine, summarising an article and including a link to the full article is fine if you’re including more than one, linking to your website or blog in the main body of your email because you’ve been told it’s “beneficial for search engine optimisation” is not (it’s not beneficial for search engine optimisation and although it may drive some extra traffic to your website or blog, it will increase your bounce rate if readers clicking through can’t find anything of interest, which will have a detrimental effect on your search engine optimisation.)

Maintenance of your Email Address List

  • If someone on your address list unsubscribes, actually unsubscribe them. A confirmation is polite, but not necessary;
  • If someone changes their email address and notifies you, change their details as soon as possible;
  • Don’t take email addresses from websites of people whom you think might be interested in your news;
  • Don’t automatically add email addresses from people who contact you – check they are happy to subscribe first;
  • Don’t allow a publisher access to your email address list – take the information the publisher would like to send and include it in your own emails by all means, but the marketing mail must come from you, not your publisher as subscribers have signed up to your list;
  • Don’t allow others to access your email address list – you might think your subscribers will be interested in another writer or a writing course or writers’ group, but don’t let that writer, course organiser or group have your list. Include details about the writer/course/group in your next email with relevant contact details and let your subscribers decide;
  • Don’t sell your list on – you may make a quick buck, but it will be at the expense of your longer term marketing strategy as people will unsubscribe and tell others not to subscribe.

A Brief Guide to Email Marketing for Writers Summarised:

  • Have a strict opt-in only policy on collecting email addresses;
  • Ensure your emails are useful and contain information subscribers need to know;
  • Action updates and changes to email addresses or contact details as soon as possible;
  • Ensure you include unsubscribe and clear identification on every email.

It’s not just about keeping within the law, but also showing your subscribers the courtesy you’d like from email lists to which you subscribe.

Leicester Poetry News

I’ve been caught up in typesetting “Welcome to Leicester” so I’m listing poetry related events taking place in Leicester during September and the beginning of October.

9 September 6 – 8pm Sanctuary Radio

Co-editor Ambrose Musiyiwa and I were interviewed by Marilyn Ricci for Sanctuary Radio’s book club programme and this will be broadcast on Friday 9 September between 6 – 8pm at www.sanctuaryradio.co.uk. We talk about “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” (Five Leaves, 2015) and “Welcome to Leicester” (Dahlia Publishing, October 2016).

17 September 2pm South Leicestershire Poetry Stanza

Meet at Leicester Language Academy on New Walk. Friendly workshop.

19 September 7.30pm Shindig

Western Pub, Western Road, Leicester. Featuring readings from Alison Brakenbury, Shruti Chauhan and Lydia Towsey.

25 September 2.30pm Enchanter

Film poem with live music accompliment at Phoenix Arts. Seating is limited.

1 October Journeys Poems Pop-up Library at Leicester Railway Station

October sees the Everybody’s Reading Festival in Leicester which runs from 1 – 9 October. During the Festival there will be a pop-up library at Leicester Railway Station featuring poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” available as postcards for communters to take away.

3 October 7pm You Are Here Poetry Workshop led by Maria Taylor

Friends Meeting House, Queens Road, Leicester. Booking essential – see brochure. Workshop will look at generating new poems based on memory, places and how abstract emotions can be turned into raw material for poetry along with opportunities to read and learn from poets who write on these themes. Maria has a new pamphlet forthcoming from Happenstance and is Under the Radar’s Reviews Editor.

4 October 2pm Central Library Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Bishop Street, Leicester. Deborah Tyler-Bennett reads from her recent collection, “Napoleon Solo Biscuits,” a volume full of icons from popular culture, from the “Man from UNCLE” to Private Walker in “Dad’s Army” … The reading will be followed by Q and A about writing using popular figures.

4 October 8pm Word! with Malika Booker

Y Theatre, East Street, Leicester £7/£4. Open mic sessions available (arrive at 7pm to book).

5 October 7.30pm Gobsmacked

Upstairs at The Western, Western Road, Leicester £8/£6 booking recommended. Brand new show from performance poet and psychiatric nurse Rob Gee. From the bus driver who gets kidnapped by his own alter ego to the hazards of goalkeeping on tranquillisers, Gobsmacked explores the world of chaos and adventure that lurks behind the veneer of everyday life.

6 October 7pm Leicester Writers’ Club presents Writers breaking out of the Box

At Phoenix Arts, Midland Street, Leicester. £5 for non-members. Finding the words to tell our own stories is always a feat. It can be a game we enjoy playing. Authors from Leicester Writers’ Club discuss how they work creatively with various challenges such as dyslexia, English as a second language or visual impairment. Hear how their stories turn out and join in a Q & A. Guests are most welcome. Light refreshments will be available.

7 October 10am Poetry for Beginners with Karen Powell

Hamilton Library, Maidenwell Avenue, Hamilton, Leicester. Free but booking required – see brochure. No experience necessary, this workshop will show beginners short writing exercises to turn ideas into poems-in-progress and will explore poetic techniques and forms.

7 October 7pm Launch of “Welcome to Leicester”

At the African Caribbean Centre, Maidstone Road, Leicester. Event for the Welcome to
Leicester anthology to be published by Dahlia Publishing featuring readings from the anthology. Poems have been submitted by writers who want to share stories about Leicester to tie in with National Poetry Day’s theme of messages. We will be encouraging you to read the poems alongside the performances so sharing stories about a familiar area and encouraging you to discover more about your neighbourhood.

8 October New Walk Museum

Day of writing-related events at New Walk Museum, including ‘Walls’ and poetry and rap.

8 October 7.30pm Burning Eye Books

Upstairs at the Western, Western Road, Leicester. £8/£6. Burning Eye Books Presents: Ash Dickinson, Lydia Towsey and Andrew ‘Mulletproof’ Graves join us for a scintillating evening of high quality spoken word, comedy and entertainment.

8 October 7.30pm Under Milk Wood

The Guildhall, Guildhall Lane, Leicester. Free, booking essential – see brochure. Performed by Stage Left Theatre Workshop.

9 October John Hegley

at the Guildhall for two events, one child-friendly starting at 4pm and one evening event starting at 7pm.

Throughout the Festival, the Exchange Bar is offering a free cup of tea for a handwritten poem.

The full Everybody’s Reading Festival brochure is available at: http://www.everybodysreading.co.uk/

Posted in culture. Tags: , . 1 Comment »

“Being with me will help you learn” Tom McColl (Listen Softly London Press) – poetry review

Being with me will help you learn Thomas McColl book coverCheerfully takes a wry look at life: most poets would nod in recognition at “Open Mic”

“I went to an open mic poetry night,
read my poems to rapturous applause,
promoted my booklet,
did not sell a single one.

The following week,
I was back on the open mic,
filled my five minute slot
simply by repeating
16 AA batteries for a pound,
16 for a pound,
and by the end had sold
one hundred packs.”

Most poetry books are sold at readings and live events but occasionally you get an audience that’s only interested in their own poems and not in listening to or buying anyone else’s. “Green Graffiti” ends after flowers spell out a crude message,

“Police psychologists conclude
that this spate of horticultural graffiti
has been committed by a lone teenage individual
whose background is an explosive mix
of broken home and well-kept garden.”

The poem isn’t just about the juxtaposition of elegance (flowers) and crude messages but also the contrast between the “well-kept garden” and “broken home”. A reminder that some families hide private heartbreak behind a public image of competence and being from a “good” home is no guarantee of a undamaged child. It’s poems like these, with a serious message behind a humorous gloss, that work best.

Occasionally use of language feels sloppy. I got distracted by the irregular rhymes in “Muslim Girl at the Bus Stop”

“Muslim girl at the bus stop,
wearing hijab and headphones,

full length skirt and colourful top,
respecting Allah and listening to hip-hop,

the fingers of her left hand
click to the beat of the tune,

the fingers of her right hand
adjust the veil, keep in in place,

covering her hair
and perfectly framing her beautiful face.”

The poem’s subject seemed perfectly normal to me so I wasn’t sure what was being communicated. I guess it’s about the normality behind an exotic appearance, that someone can wear a hijab and be a regular teenager, but my reaction was ‘so what?’. In “Sweat Shop” the language is judgmental,

“From Isan, through Phuket, to London,
at a sweat-stitch label’s flag-ship store,
a girth-maddened girl –
belt-brained and vacuous –
stiletto-stabs the floor,
as a plumed assistant
breaks the news:
I’m sorry, but there’s no more
of the 10 (that fits your 12) size.
Over the speakers, a muzak pop group
sings the wrong-belt-buckle blues,
while a stale-eyed boyfriend –
raked of all patience,
bulged with bags,
sighing a stream of lies –
pretends he loves still
his swell-shocked girlfriend’s
ever-expanding thighs.

On the bus, she gawps at photographs,
which illustrate a token serious article –
on sweat shops and their workers –
in her glossy fashion magazine.

The women, look how slim they are‘ she cries.”

Why do readers need to be told the customer is “belt-brained and vacuous” instead of being trusted to work it out? I like the sound of “swell-shocked” but it’s too far away from the shop assistant’s news and so loses impact. I very much doubt the “(that fits your 12)” is voiced by the shop assistant so it shouldn’t be in the speech. The final “cries” is ambiguous, is she shouting or in despair? What’s not ambiguous is that she has not figured out the link between sweat shop wages and thin workers.

Tim McColl is better when his poems feature a dose of surrealism as in “Chalk Fairy” where the narrator draws chalk outlines of rough sleepers,

“I’ve found
that, even in the early hours
of Christmas Day,
there’s no shortage of bodies
to draw my outlines round:
London’s one big crime scene
every single day of the year.”

Or in “Smile”

“Today the street hawker’s selling knocked off smiles from an old battered suitcase in front of Camden station.

Hey darling! Why the long face? Come over here and get a smile from my suitcase. What do you mean the smile I sold you last week has begun to fade? My smiles ain’t fake. Didn’t you read the packet? “Happiness not supplied.” You gotta keep recharging your batteries, love. But don’t worry. I’ve got just the thing for you – happy pills, three for the price of two…‘”

At its best, “Being with me will help you learn” strikes the right balance between reassuring and unsettling its audience by presenting a familiar scene – London’s homeless, a street hawker, graffiti – and providing a twist, nudging readers to look at the scene from a fresh perspective. The better poems also have multi-layers – they can be read at face value during a performance but also offer a deeper message when read from the page.

“Being with me will help you learn” by Thomas McColl is available from Listen Softly London Press.

“Dissolve to LA” James Trevelyan (The Emma Press) – poetry review

Dissolve to LA by James Trevelyan book coverGiving voices to minor characters or those who didn’t get to say anything in the original story is not a new idea, but, when done well, it can enhance a reader’s understanding of the original or offer an in-depth exploration into an issue or episode that got skipped over in the original. “Dissolve to LA” gives voice to minor characters in action films, offering not only a commentary on the films but also an exploration of cinematic tropes. In “Lloyd”

“They gave me a name
and does that not give me life?
More at least then UNIFORMED COP,
NIGHT NURSE or FIRST JOCK,

who may have had more to say
but can’t claim to an existence
beyond their scene. I suppose
they forgot me, but I’ll not

forget the night…”

The character, in this case the owner of the truck stop diner from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, looks at the hierarchy of characters: his name boosts his sense of importance over and above an unnamed speaking part. Another minor character plays with a stereotype, “Admiral Chuck Farrell” speaks:

“You had me at your name and innuendo, your made-up cod-Russian sweet nothings, your fatal frame and martini twist: might have known a Ferrari-toting Soviet pilot might come with added spice,”

His speech picks up on the irony of an admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy, from “Goldeneye”, being seduced and killed by an assassin, and suggests he has the self-awareness to know that he will, against all common sense, allow this to happen because it’s a necessary plot device. Similarly “Girl” explores cliches,

“Why always making a grab for fame;
the good girl fallen;
the prominent dad downtown.

Why always naked, wasted;
testing the strength of a balcony fence;
always weightless and hilarious.

Why a car bonnet that breaks the fall;
the shirt always open, not a hair out of place,
like Ophelia or a centrefold.”

This girl’s death sparks a police investigation into a drugs ring in “Lethal Weapon” where it’s discovered her name is Amanda Hunsaker. It buys into Edgar Allan Poe’s assertion that the most tragic scene is the too-soon death of a beautiful young woman. Death leaves her as voiceless as she was in life, with other characters all too ready to project their theories onto her. Tragedy is also found in unrequited love, particularly when the would-be lover only gets to tell them on their death-bed. “Helen” muses,

.                                      who cradled your chest
when that bullet ripped in; who heard you’d die
in your whisper and who followed you, pressed

into the road? I’m Helen. I hope they’ll write about us,
Sam, and our too-short time on this too-fast bus.”

The film is “Speed”, Sam is the fatally shot driver and Helen’s hope that they will be remembered as forlorn as her hankering after the man she was too shy to tell she was in love with.

“Dissolve to LA” avoids two potential problems. Firstly it’s a judicial selection of poems so it doesn’t feel like a one trick pony. The selection of characters isn’t predictable. They all share that they are minor characters from action movies with tragic endings but the characters themselves are different. Secondly the voices are all distinct. It’s not known whether the poet has picked his favourite films or whether the films weren’t gripping enough to stop him doodling on his notepad whilst watching, but the poems lack the arch tone of superiority or a vocabulary that sounds odd in the character’s mouth. Each poem has been allowed to find its own form. Each character has been given chance to speak.

“Dissolve to LA” is available from The Emma Press.

“Rivers within Us” Sandy Coomer (Unsolicited Press) – poetry review

These poems are mostly set in Tennessee and the rivers are literal and metaphorical; sometimes connecting people to the landscape, sometimes the connections between people or roads that take us somewhere else. Some rivers are passive, taken for granted until we notice them. Others are dangerous, like the first one in “River Man” which starts

“We swam the Tennessee River
with your dead eyes open to us, silent within
willow fronds on the surface, green tendrils
reaching down.
.                    Your body hung there, suspended
for days. No one knew you, or counted you missing,
or turned the shore end over end to discover
your ending.

It was an accident – finding you.”

The poem ends:

“You were a sentence in the newspaper.

.                     Unloaded from your house
of sticks after the last swimmer passed – no name,
no hometown – your cells swollen, sloughing into the vast
throat of river,
.                     you were the voice
imagined in our watery dreams, trapped beneath glass,
the liquid breath over the words we finally found for you
on the shore.”

The poem flows through its details and the isolation of the two solo lines, “It was an accident – finding you” and “You were a sentence in the newspaper” echo the sense of isolation of this corpse, found by accident since it was hidden by the willow fronds, and left unidentified. The poem doesn’t reveal the cause of death – whether accident or deliberate – leaving the reader to speculate and think around the clues left in the poem. “If Only” has a metaphorical river, “I’m down to these words./ If only the river cut straight/ across the land like roads, pitched/ north to south, simple, expected.” This poem’s river islands and separates:

“If only my heart would beat slower.

If only someone had warned me how this
would feel.

If only I could hear beneath your silence,
read the words behind your eyes.

We leave each other to our privacies.

If only we weren’t so good at that.”

Not all the poems are dark, there is some humour. In “The Black Ant”, an ant crawls on a white suit worn by a late uncle laid out in a casket,

“Your eyes widen with a strange mix
of horror and amusement, as if you
can’t decide whether to laugh or cry.

It’s always hard at times like these,
when emotion hovers between extremes.
That’s why the family put out all those pictures

on either side of the casket, ludicrous poses,
funny faces, sideways hats and tongues
sticking out. They want us to laugh,

but to have enough sense to cry”

The final poem, “Rivers Within Us” reprises the notion of river as connector,

“You see what you look for, someone said, and I think that’s mostly true.

Still, I hope I’m surprised by turquoise skies roaming
the back of the storm, the sacred heart of trillium daring

to rise from the deeply-patched underneath. Even something as simple
as a blade of grass braving the crack in a driveway is enough reason

to believe in miracles. What I’m saying is, there are rivers within us –

whole galloping herds of horses, hummingbirds that beat
their tiny hearts millions of times between the bee balm and the sage.

Any moment now, we may open a door and enter a green field
and the knot of fear will be untied. The roots of a tree

may curve beneath us and unearth our heart. This is how much the world
needs us. The river may swing its wide current and catch us in its arms,

a small blue spear of joy welcoming us home, while all around us,
the whole world whispers, What took you so long.”

It ends the collection on a philosophical, hopeful note. Sandy Coomer’s voice is rooted in the natural world but with respect rather than sentiment. It’s also a world of human interaction and compassion. Her river is warm, clear and nurturing and its invite extends to all.

“Rivers within Us” is forthcoming from Unsolicited Press. The review was written from an advanced review copy.