“The Escapologist” Jinny Fisher (V.Press) – poetry review

The Escapologist Jinny Fisher“The Escapologist” is a mix of poems and prose poems, often looking at family relationships and ties but not confined to this. The title poem is about a boy learning to tie knots despite his parents’ skepticism and discovers one not in his handbook and has to decide whether to make his first mark of independence by not telling his parents. The theme of children growing independent occurs in the opening poems too, including “Old Flowers for a New Room”, for the poet’s daughter, Miranda, and has the poet bringing artificial flowers for her daughter’s “grey room”,

“coloured lights glowed above your four-poster.
I will drape them over and round your neck –
dripping garlands of daisies and roses.
I’ll haul my baggage up the steps.

As I loop these rainbows around your neck,
rain fills your gutters and overflows.
You laugh, swing my baggage up the steps –
I have delivered your plastic flowers.”

Daisies are a symbol for innocence and cheerfulness and act as a counterpoint to the more mature roses (the poem doesn’t specify colour so a lost opportunity). The overflow of rain reflects the relationship between mother and daughter. Initially the mother carries her bags – the word “haul” suggests a heaviness – then the daughter takes over – “swings” suggests ease and a light touch. The pantoum form gives the poem structure. Another family poem, “A Brother in Six Scenes”, has a very different tone and lets readers picture the scenes from an accumulation of details,

“Brother with rainbow umbrella–
here to give me his news, which is not news.
He will leave everything to me, he says.

Brother standing in his hall–
up to his ankles in unopened mail.
Turning from me with a shrug.

Brother on the floor of his flat–
phone hanging from the wall.
His shirt has been slashed to expose his chest.”

That’s not where the poem ends. Its three line stanza structure, passive voice and flat tone convey the emotion behind the poem.

“Coda for a Violin” starts “She knows the case’s weight, unzips the canvas cover,” as an old, familiar violin has been sold and is being packaged for its new owner,

“She must loosen the bow hair for the journey,
but first she holds her thumb against the strings, plucks
G-D-A-E, four spare notes.”

Those long vowels echo a sense of longing. It’s noticeable that she doesn’t play a tune but “four spare notes”, a farewell and an acknowledgement the violin is no longer hers.

“The Escapologist” contains poems that are warm, conversational in tone and welcoming to read. They wear their craft and musicality lightly, which makes them an engaging read and gives them a depth exploring and exposing family psychologies.

“The Escapologist” is available from V. Press

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Small Acts of Kindness and a new bookclub

The lack of an address is all too often barrier to accessing public services, which further disadvantages the homeless. However, Leicester City Council’s Westcotes Library were willing to allow a homeless man, Lee, to borrow books from the library despite his lack of address, even helping him discover new science fiction books and extend his reading.

Lee has now created a book club based at Westcotes Library where others, homeless or housed, can drop in, discover and discuss books in a friendly atmosphere and get a hot drink.

Fuller story available on the BBC website: Books send homeless man into a different world.

“These nights at home” Alex Reed with images by Keren Banning (V. Press) – book review

these nights at home alex reed“These nights at home” is a series of seventeen poems interspersed with images by Keren Banning. The photographic images are abstract, lit, white textures on black with blurred, uncertain outlines. Since many of the poems are anchored in bereavement, the images are complementary. It starts with a prose poem, “Bindwood”,

“But as quickly as he stripped it away, the climber would return. Soon it had spread until it covered her lower body, so she could no longer walk. The man now spent all his days picking ivy from her, and soon the nights too. But, despite his efforts, it soon clothed the woman entirely. Only her face remained uncovered. He saw that the woman’s eyes were wet, but he couldn’t tell whether this was from sadness or through some strange joy. When he asked, she’d reply as if to a different question.

“The man continued to remove any fresh shoots from her face but he knew that his efforts were hopeless and that he could only fail her. He told her he was sorry, but she gazed at him as if from some far- away place and smiled. After a long silence, she spoke, telling him that in all their many years together, he had not, for the most part, let her down.”

The weed becomes a metaphor for a terminal illness choking the woman’s vitality. It also captures the sense of futility and hopeless her carer and partner feels for her and its impact on their relationship as the illness takes over. Both have deep, long-reaching roots and a reputation for choking or restricting growth of neighbouring plants but they are of different plant families.

“deep river “ looks at the after effects, the left-behind partner left to adapt a shared living space into a solo space and friends saying variants on it takes time,

it takes two years
folded clothes still on the shelves

it takes four years
faint trace of you from the wool

there is a river that runs within –
vast, uncharted, rising”

It takes as long as it needs to take and there’s no right or wrong timing. It’s never completed either. Even when the clothes are removed, the memory of their being there lingers. The river metaphor is apt: it’s not just tears but the sense of those memories being overwhelming and uncontrollable. Another poem, “imprint”, reflects on removing a wedding ring,

“later waking
stretching towards
the bedside lamp
it dawns again

red imprint
absent halo

A long-worn ring leaves a mark, even months after its removal. Like memories, mostly it’s unnoticeable but there are odd moments where it becomes noticeable. “Red” is more than the mark’s colour, it’s suggestive of love. The last word “halo” could be associated with ‘angel’, suggesting a lingering spirit.

A later poem, “Travelodge,” has the widower book into a hotel,

“I try out the shower, sprawl on the bed,
damp towel wrapped round me,

surf channels on the tiny screen
bolted to the wall and wonder

who I might call to tell I’m here:
a wanderer, sick of distraction,

can’t find my way home again.”

A damp towel isn’t for a shared bed and the sense of having no one to phone, or the person you want to phone not being available, is grief. Throughout “These nights at home” recurring images of a doors, shelves and empty rooms are reminders of bereavement. The collection is sensitively written and Keren Banning’s images reflect Alex Reed’s themes.

“These nights at home” poems by Alex Reed, images by Keren Banning is available from V. Press

“empire of dirt” Thomas Stewart (Red Squirrel Press) – poetry review

empire of dirt thomas stewart front coverThomas Stewart takes a pared down, minimalist approach to take a slant-wise look at what superficially appear to be common observations, often suggesting a twist to encourage readers to think again. In “Poetic License”, the narrator watches a son buy a motorbike of the same model and colour as his late father’s bike,

“I thought I’d write
a poem about it
and thought
it wasn’t my poem
to write.
I did not have the right
to tell this story,
I was not
this son,
it was not my red
motorbike
not my dead father.
I thought
I had no license
to this story,”

The observation becomes a springboard to the narrator thinking about his own father and continues,

“I thought
I had no motorbike
to buy,
no lost identity
of a man
I did not know
to find,
I had it all right
in front of me
I just kept looking
for a motorbike.”

There are two strands here: firstly what right do poets have to write about the experiences of others, especially on sensitive experiences such as grief, and secondly how we have to guard against taking those closest to us for granted. In the grind of daily life, it becomes easier to be distracted by novelty and harder to pay attention to those who always seem to be by our sides. Writers should explore their motives and approach when writing about others’ experiences and avoid appropriation. It’s the hesitation and questioning that ensures sensitive handling. The repetition of “motorbike” and “license” acts both as a refrain reminding readers of the poem’s purpose and emphasises the narrator’s thinking around the topic and spiralled line of probing his desire to write the poem.

“There Are Bees In My Beard” uses a similar pattern of repetition as refrain but urges readers to consider each repetition differently. Initially the bees do not sting the narrator, but

“The bees drop honey in my eyes
and their milky eggs in my ears
so I can’t hear their conspiracy.

I am filled with the bee’s nectar.
I am their home,
their front doors, their windows.

I wake one day to no eggs in my ears
or honey in my eyes
or bees in my beard –
with no bee stings to remember them by.”

This time the loss goes beyond grief. Loss of bees, essential to the ecosystem, would have significant consequences. There’s also a shifting of blame. Rather than looking inward at his own actions, the narrator blames the bees for their abandonment of him.

“Sunflowers” considers a growing competition,

“and the morbid fashion show
ended with the tallest
winner but it was the seed
planter that won the award,
the earth digger, the world’s butcher,
for that sullen sunflower
arched its shoulders
giantly gazing down
tied by thin string
to the wall.

The ugly ones were discarded
snapped down
tossed in black bags,
you could’ve seen it as
a mercy killing
but most of the seed planters
just didn’t want to buy
a watering can.”

It is again a poem with two strands and two endings. The first is the gardener taking the award on behalf of the real winner, the flower. The second is murderous waste created by those who wanted the glory of winning the competition but couldn’t be bothered to nurture their flowers to enable them to win. It could become a metaphor for those to lay their creative talents to waste.

“empire of dirt” is an assured, considered pamphlet with a minimalist approach that nonetheless has depths. Its brevity should not detract from its heft.

“empire of dirt” is available from Red Squirrel Press

“Noisesome Ghosts” Clay Thistleton (Blart Books) – poetry review

Clay Thistleton uses fragmentary text incorporating music extracts, transcripts of messages, historical and contemporary reports and references to create a hybrid mosaic loosely based on T S Eliot’s “The Wasteland”. The introduction asserts that it’s a book of “scholarship and of poetry” and swiftly followed by a tongue-in-cheek guide to using the book. These ghosts have a very dry sense of humour.

“The Ghost of Mr Wineholt (1937)” subtitled “in memory of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)” starts

2019 01 16 extract 01

[text reads: “I felt something heavy/On my chest/ while in bed/ in the new house” all letters “e” and “o” plus the “g” in “something, “ea” in “heavy”, “bed” and the “ou” in house” are in a larger size]

Mr Wineholt, a neighbour suggests, is the former house owner who “gassed himself”. The poem’s narrator tells the ghost she “has rented” the house and tells Mr Wineholt (due to the typesetting, I’ve used an image to reproduce the text),

2019 01 16 extract 1

[text reads “but I am not/ dead girl// & I had to/ – hesitantly -/ point out/ that as he had/ committed suicide/ in the kitchen/ it was fairly likely/ that he was”]

It’s rather eloquent for a five-year-old Sylvia Plath, if the poem’s narrator is intended to be her, and the references to “gassed himself” and “kitchen” feels like a clever attempt to load a piece with more significance that it deserves. It also reduces the poet to her death. Her work deserves better.

Some ghosts are more contemporary, here travellers in Florida (again, due to the typesetting, I’ve used an image to reproduce the text),

2019 01 16 extract 2

The poem starts with the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder which includes the noise of impact and then takes the shape of a small plane as it explores what a flight attendant’s ghost sees,

2019 01 16 extract 2a

The attendant seems to remember the warning given by the flight engineer whose remains he has just recognised. Readers aren’t given the emotional journeys of these ghosts, the poems act as recordings of what the ghosts do or say, effectively inviting readers to fill the blank spaces to create those journeys for themselves.

In “The Apparition of C S Lewis (1963)”

2019 01 16 extract 3

The writer’s ghost appears, appearing to be in good health, but the words spoken are redacted. However, there’s not enough context to guess what the ghost might have said. The words direct the focus on the irony of a ghost appearing healthier than in life.

The poems are not presented chronologically so a poem from the 18th century might appear alongside one that’s more contemporary. “Sendai Possessions: One of Twenty-Five Tsunami Spirits Exorcised from Rumiko Takahashi (Alias) by Reverend Kaneda of Kurihara, Japan” is set after the 2011 Tsunami and earthquake and ends

2019 01 16 extract 4

The observation, “it is very cold// & there are bodies// all around me” is hardly original but its matter of fact tone is a reflection of shock and someone trying to make sense of something completely beyond their comprehension.

In “The Bristol Poltergeist (1761-1762)” one ghost has met their end via bite marks,

2019 01 16 extract 5

2019 01 16 extract 5a

The shape of the text, a sentence presented as an oval, is relevant but also a visual way of distracting from the ordinariness of the observations (“we examined these bites & found on them”, “the impression of eighteen or twenty teeth”, “with saliva or spittle all over them” “in the shape of a mouth very wet”), although it could be argued that the visual provide a pointer to the extraordinary phenomena being presented in passive, scientific record.

“Noisesome Ghosts” is cerebral, rather than compassionate, and its compilation feels like an interesting experiment in danger of taking over its creator. At over 400 pages it does feel too long and is a book to dip in and out of rather than read coherently from start to finish even over several sittings. The time jumps and lack of chronological order give the book the feel that its “Noisesome Ghosts” have interrupted its compilation and disturbed its order. The shaping of text is sometimes logical, for example taking the shape of a plane or using the layout of social media posts, and sometimes appearing to have no logic, for example in “The Ghost of Mr Wineholt” where random larger letters appear, again consistent with the disruption of ghostly figures. It’s a marmite book: it will either appeal to readers or not. If a cerebral exercise in found poems laced with dry wit appeals, “Noisesome Ghosts” is for you.

“Noisesome Ghosts” by Clay Thistleton is available from Bart Books

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” Charley Barnes (V. Press) – poetry review

BARNES_CHARLEY_A Z-HEARTED GUIDE TO HEARTACHE_V Press“A pocket-sized guide to hurting yourself” sets the tone,

“Step One: Fall in love with someone
who doesn’t know how to love you back.
Tell yourself that they don’t actually lack
the ability to love you, so much as the desire to.
Learn that you are unlovable.

Step Two: Stay with that person.”

It continues to Step Six with suggestions to return to Step Two. It feels like a good friend offering advice over a warming coffee with tissues to hand. That may seem cosy but, like all good friends, it doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the part “you” played in things going wrong. “On trying to not conjure an ex-lover” is a ‘don’t go back to your ex poem,

“and two glasses of wine, by then I’m not saying his name,
I’m chanting it in front of my television,
in the hope that he might manifest post-watershed.
Not that I’d care even if he did,
Every three times, I look over my shoulder”

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” isn’t just a gentle wallow in post-heartbreak territory, “#AmIPrettyYet” looks at trying to get back on your feet and move out of the house again and starts

“When I upload a selfie, captioned: ‘feeling a little vain’,
what I’m really trying to do is ascertain how many strangers
find me fuckable enough for me to leave the house today.’

One poem, although making an important point, feels out of synch with the theme and subject of most of the poems. “An apology for not looking disabled,”

“Elders forgive my disability for wrapping itself around
my central nervous system; forgive it for being broken
down into an acronym that isn’t well-known enough
to be considered a mainstream health condition.
I’m of the hipster generation; I need my malfunction
to be something that most doctors don’t recognise.”

It makes a vital point and is a good poem but doesn’t sit as well as, “Food is an important part of any relationship – Part Three”

“You take my medical history in your stride,
but when my knee buckles again for the fourth dip that day,
I wobble, and the garlic bread I’m carrying
wavers on the paper plate,
heroically, you reach out – to catch the garlic bread.

You’re brave enough to battle a broken nervous system,
but the thought of food wastage has you rushing scared.
Thank you for being there to save my side order.”

The situations appear specific to a certain relationship (even if not real or an amalgam of more than one relationship) yet illustrate scenarios that are universally recognisable. The poems lack self-pity and display a wry humour. They show compassion and capture a contemporary twenty-something navigating her start in life.

“A Z-hearted Guide to Heartache” is available from V. Press.

How Not to Submit Poems

Actual examples of submissions:

  • Omit the cover letter and just attach poems to a blank email.
  • Include lengthy descriptions of the inspiration for the poems.
  • Using illegible fonts or coloured type on a coloured background where there isn’t enough contrast so the poems are difficult/impossible to read.
  • Printing poems on images
  • Sending images with poems when the magazine does not include artwork
  • Sending images with no clarification as to whether they accompany the poetry submission or are separate, especially if it’s unclear as to image copyright ownership.
  • Send poems as an image file.
  • Send attachments when asked to send poems in the body of an email.
  • Send poems that are too long.
  • Attachments in the wrong format or in a format the editor can’t open.
  • Send a manuscript worth of poems and suggest the editor selects the ones they like.
  • Use the wrong email address or use FB messenger.
  • Addressing an editor who also happens to be a woman as ‘Dear Sir…’
  • Chasing for a response within hours of sending. Some magazines do respond within 24 hours, but they are the exception.
  • Sending simultaneous submissions when requested not to and often enough to suggest this isn’t an occasional mistake.
  • If asked for a writer’s biography either sending a complete CV/resume or one that’s over the requested length.
  • Responding to a rejection to ask why a poem was rejected.
  • Responding to a rejection to say the rejected poem accepted elsewhere.

Why these approaches are wrong:

  • It may seem obvious to the submitter that the poems attached to a blank email are a poetry submission, but to an editor it’s discourteous and potentially spam. Your email only need say “Please find attached my poems [a list of titles is helpful] for consideration for publication in [magazine name]”.
  • Editors don’t have time to read about what inspired your poems. Instead of wasting their time, save this for a future blog article or response to an interview.
  • Editors need to be able to read your poems so a standard black font on white background is fine. Coloured type or paper or a distinctive font is just distraction and if they render your poems illegible, they’ll be rejected unread. Don’t stand out for the wrong reasons.
  • Similarly using an image as a background makes the poem difficult to read and easy to reject.
  • If a magazine doesn’t include artwork, why are you sending images? If you’re unsure, read the magazine or assume poems only.
  • If you send images, include a note to explain who owns the copyright. Artists and photographers own the copyright on their images just as you own copyright of your poems so if you don’t clarify copyright ownership, an editor will assume the images are not for use.
  • Avoid insisting your image accompanies your poem. Your poem should be able to stand alone and an editor may not be able to find enough space to publish both.
  • Don’t send text (a poem) as an image file only. If you have a concrete poem, send both a text copy and an image copy so the editor can see your intention and can decide whether to treat your poem as text or image. If you’re following normal poem layout conventions, send text so the editor can copy and paste and doesn’t have to retype your poem to use it.
  • If an editor asks for poems to be in the body of an email, any attachments are likely to be deleted unread.
  • Likewise attachments in the wrong format may be deleted because the editor can’t open them.
  • Conventional print magazines like poems of 40 lines because generally they fit on one side of a page, which is how the standard 40 line limit came about. Online magazines may not be tied to the 40 line limit but may still impose a line limit so that 180 line epics don’t appear alongside a haiku. If an editor’s set a limit, they are not going to make an exception no matter how exceptional you believe your poem to be.
  • An editor gets more poems in a week then they can publish in a year so sending a manuscript worth of poems and asking an editor to select one or two is arrogance. Read the guidelines, read the magazine and do the selection for the editor.
  • Editors request submitters use a specific email address so they can be certain that emails to that address are for the magazine only. This may be because they allocate specific times to work on the magazine or so they can separate personal from business emails. Using an editor’s personal address instead of the magazine’s address causes administrative headaches, makes you look like a queue-jumper and invites rejection. Using FB messenger, twitter or similar channels to try and get an editor’s attention won’t get a positive reaction.
  • Most magazines have a website/facebook page/twitter account/publish their editor’s name in the magazine. It’s not difficult to find an editor’s name. If you’re not sure ‘Dear Editor’ is better than ‘Dear Sir’.
  • No matter how tempting it is to chase a response, don’t because the easiest response is a rejection and time taken to respond to queries takes time that is better spend reading submissions. Give it six months and query if you must.
  • Avoid simultaneous submissions: generally editors don’t like them and it makes your admin and record keeping easier.
  • Check the guidelines on whether magazines want a writer’s biography or not and note the word limit. Editors don’t have time to whittle down your CV/resumé and it’s easier to exclude it.
  • Most of the time rejections aren’t about the quality of a poem, but about pressures of space and the fact your cat poem was the 15th one to land on the editor’s desk this month and, much as editor loves cat poems, 15 is too many. The editor may have rejected your cat poem because she accepted them on a first come first served basis and yours was the last, because she loves tortoiseshells and yours was about a tabby, because in this particular issue she decided not to include any cat poems, because she thought the poem was OK but the last stanza needed a final edit or because she hated your poem. She doesn’t have time to tell you and may be wary of telling you in case you start a lengthy correspondence about her rejection of your cat poem. Accept an editor has the right to say no as well as yes and send your cat poem elsewhere.
  • Don’t tell the editor when your cat poem is accepted elsewhere: that the editor of elsewhere accepted it is not a reflection on the original editor’s competence. Sometimes editors do reject poems they like. Sometimes elsewhere is just a better fit.