“Cyber Smut Short Stories and Poetry” edited Julianne Ingles (Guts Publishing) – book review

Cyber Smut front cover

“Cyber Smut” is an anthology of fiction, non-fiction and poetry looking at social media and technology’s influences on relationship between people and machines. Sex is mentioned but the focus in on the desire to connect, loneliness, addictions and search for a soulmate, even a platonic one. The “smut” part of the title is more about the willingness of writers to look at the dark side of relationships and what pushes people and/or machines together when intimacy is desired but in short supply. Julian Bishop’s poem “Tracker” opens the collection, where an unnamed ‘you’ is watching a tracking app on a partner’s phone, leading to questions such as

who were you talking to outside Boots?
why did you zig-zag and not go straight?
Oh spy who loves but doesn’t trust me

you programmed my phone into a drone
that circles me 24/7 – you may have reason:
peace of mind for the family circle

reassures the blurb on Ispyoo, as the loops
bubble-wrap your screen, a pattern of ties
that tighten around me like a noose.”

Knowing where your partner is at any and every point of the day might appear to provide reassurance, but it also destroys the intimacy as the person being traced has lost their freedom. Similar issues are explored in Kristian X’s “Metrics” looks at a relationship with one of the couple more preoccupied with her twitter following and the reactions of the twitter followers who have never met the couple in real life. How far do we care about someone we’ve never met but discard the person next to us?

Liam Hogan’s “Plastic People” explores whether cyber relationships are better than real life encounters as the narrator struggles with identifying whether the image in front of him is real or virtual. In Ross Baxter’s “Self Service” a till gets friendly with a student doing night shifts, offering connection through conversation and emojis. The student knows the till isn’t a person but ‘she’ listens to him and responds whereas his student friendships feel fleeting and temporary. This human need to be listened to is picked up in Rab Ferguson’s “The Call” where a helpline operator doesn’t know if she’s real or AI and hatches a plan to find out.

Tamara MacLeod’s non-fiction “Cyberwhores_Sex_Robots_and_Aliens” looks at attitudes towards sex workers, “He [a sex worker’s client] brings society into my bedroom and I resent it. His questions are so stigmatising… nothing you would ask a real woman.” Her conclusion is that generally clients don’t see the woman they are paying as completely human so robots aren’t the problem for sex workers, the problem is the clients, “John Doe fucks women like they are robots because he wants a human connection; he just doesn’t know how to get it.” Ellie Stewart’s “Send Nudes” picks up this theme as she ponders on how women lay themselves out on screen for passive consumption and do similar in real life, “eyes somewhere else/ screen glowing”. Yet her male partners fail to notice her disconnect, that she’s not fully present.

A broader exploration of presence and presentation is explored in Julianne Ingles “Dante’s Dream”. An artist is connected to a virtual gallery to be on hand to talk about her paintings as a client is shown around. He is seen as an avatar, but shows an interest in a painting that’s now ten years old. The artist dredges up some memory of reading poetry when she painted it and feels fake. It’s an old picture she’s moved on from. However, the buyer in the virtual gallery is still interested and she’s not sure how to react.

The ease at which the online world allows edited versions of ourselves is further explored in Asad Raja’s “Home / Screen” where a partial lie on a tweet still gains excessive likes and the person who exposes the lie only gains 36 likes. The person exposing the lie also questions the true part of the tweet, since if the truth is tainted by a lie, can it be trusted?

Aidan Martin’s “Groomed”, an opening chapter to a memoir about addiction, abuse and recovery, sees a fifteen-year-old schoolboy lie to his parents about meeting friends but goes to meet ‘Derek’, whom he’s been having an online conversation with, in real life. The experience is as traumatising as it suggests, a middle-aged man exploits a naïve schoolboy. Here echoes of Tamara MacLeod’s essay resonate as readers wonder what makes Derek able to view this boy as less than human, what motivates him to exploit rather than protect?

At its heart “Cyber Smut” is an exploration of the human need for connection and how it makes us vulnerable to exploitation and forging connections where there perhaps aren’t any. The pieces ask questions about sex and intimacy, what drives people to create AI connections where human ones aren’t available and asks whether that’s problematic or a viable substitute. “Cyber Smut” doesn’t offer answers or moralise, but it’s a thought-provoking journey through desire and communication.

“Cyber Smut” is available from Guts Publishing

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“Gold Friend” Chris Murray (Turas Press) – book review

“Gold Friend” explores the healing power of the natural world, returning to a common theme to poetry. In “it held—” a bird bell hanging from a thread nonetheless “took their weights,/ and they gave you their low/ flying wingbright song”. The birds’ solid bodies become something light enough to fly and raise spirits, perhaps even carrying the observer’s sadness with them.

Similarly, in “Heart” a common flower surprises the observer who,

“Holding it a moment
in its cup of earth/ feeling its newness –

.                   Odd how
it produces itself/ for my eye –
.                          We are embodied
.                           I,
.                           the tremulous flower”

The power of a dash of colour in catching the observer’s eye is sufficient to alter the observer’s attitude towards herself. That jolt is just enough to make the observer reframe herself as being part of the world rather than separate from it. This theme is picked up in “blue stars” where flowers become

“upturned stars
.                      stare
in their dance-caught-stasis
their beauty is more than”

The open ending invites the reader to image what the flowers’ beauty might be “more than”. It’s a soft echo of Wordsworth’s daffodils, where the poet marvels and feels repaired by the daffodils. Leaving the last phrase in “blue stars” as “more than” takes a risk that the reader is of a similar frame of mind and just as appreciative as the poet.

On occasion the link feels stretched and introducing humans to this celebration of nature feels awkward. In “Delicate” the observer finds,

“We find small rib bones scattered there.
I pick up the cap of a skull. Small, its
sponge ossified to a mineralized honeycomb.
I cup its yellow cream in my hand. Delicate,

a sea snail, most precious egg, as if
it had touched the ruby feather of a
bluebird. Most precious thing,
bird-egg-shattered, dust in my pores..”

Suddenly it jumps from a small creature to “Are they human bones, those of an infant?” and concludes “We lay them under the wing of a sheltering grave,/ a small bone heap. We move through the labyrinth.” The implication in the description in the bones is of a small animal, possibility a bird, so why introduce the idea that these are human bones, which wouldn’t normally be left for anyone to find? If we are to believe these are human bones, there’s no idea to introduce the idea of an infant since it’s already been established that the bones are small. It seems contrary to the mood of the poem, full of details about the bones themselves, for the narrator to leave them in a heap rather than where they were or arranged in the form of what they once were. Why does the graveyard suddenly become a labyrinth? A graveyard seemed sufficient.

“Five buttercups in a glass dish” starts with “Ophelia never made so pretty a picture./ Look how sweetly they sleep,// those five princesses in their crystal bed.” The poet seems to have in mind Millais’ painting of Ophelia, not the Shakespearean character who was in love with Hamlet, maddened with grief and took her life by drowning. But even behind the painting is the sad story that the model, Lizzie Siddal, became ill with pneumonia as the water she was lying in became cold when the lamps that were supposed to keep it warm when out, and she didn’t feel she could disturb Millais’ to point this out. The comparison is not as clear-cut as the poet seems to portray. The poem concludes, “They are so beautifully accomplished,/ dreaming their lotus dreams by my bed.” There’s an echo of Sylvia Plath’s “Edge”. Inserting “lotus” before “dreams” implies vividness, the buttercups are not the pale pastel of a primrose but vibrant and bold.

Nature cannot heal everything though. In “Lament for a lost child”, a refrain is built around the phrase “miserable am I”. The speaker,

“I awaken dreaming of your forgotten face
I cannot feel where you lay

.                           small child wrapped into my side
.                            love alone lonely”

It concludes,

“Love alone lonely,
miserable, miserable
children small ones
I cannot feel where you lay.”

The lament is clear. But the language generic. Perhaps it’s trying to be a poem which would be suitable for any loss of a child.

The final poem, “Eve Labouring for 37 hours; the Yes poem”, starts with an unusual word play,

“Eve in pain.

will bring
forth a Cain
.                  Abel

It carries the reminder, “(‘in sorrow you shall bring forth children’)” and ends (the c-word is spelled out in the original but I have to be mindful of spam filters),

“                                        There are piles of skulls
.                                        pushing through my grimacing c**t

all the pretty things.
stones/ bones / buttons
a knee-piece / skulls

the threads—

.                                                        sous justice.”

“Sous justice” means “under judicial supervision”, a reminder of Eve’s fall from grace.

Poetry and the natural world have long been bedfellows and through “Gold Friends” Chris Murray seeks to reinforce poetry’s link with the natural world and its healing properties. She aims for a gentle touch, focusing on the beauty in a flimsy petal or the vibrancy of a buttercup’s gold. The poems feel weighed down by the traditional they seek to carry and their messages feel familiar.

“Gold Friend” is available from Turas Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Dressing for the Afterlife” Maria Taylor (Nine Arches Press) – book review

Maria Taylor Dressing for the Afterlife cover

“Dressing for the Afterlife” explores motherhood, heritage and inheritance and a sense that the female narrator(s) meet life’s challenges with verve and a wry humour. “But there’s armour in glamour” announces the narrator in “And there she was in the shrunken apartment like Joan Crawford, toy dog on her lap”. In the opening poem “She Ran”

“I ran through every town in which I’d ever lived.
I ran past all my exes, even a few crushes
who sipped mochas and wore dark glasses.
I ran in a wedding dress through scattered confetti
and was cheered by the cast of Star Wars”

The run through a past-life, the markers that made the narrator who she is today continue,

“Seasons changed; summer turned into autumn,
I couldn’t get as far as I wanted.
The lights changed. My ribs, my flaming heart
and my tired, tired body burned.”

The tiredness isn’t just the physical tiredness of running but also the psychological and emotional exhaustion of trying to be the best version of yourself at all times and trying to move on and attain improvement. A marathon of life where the finish line isn’t yet in sight. Other woman’s voices are explored too. One poem is for Laura Stephenson, Virginia Woolf’s half-sister. Another “Ophelia” is cat-fished even though “she’s blocked him three times”,

“He imagines kissing her open mouth,
Ophelia motionless in her beaded dress.

He paints grasses of yellow and Prussian blue
beyond her lifeless grasp. A floral noose

of withered violets, his artistic tributes
of poppies, forget-me-nots; her rigid hands.

He will tell her she was to blame,
the stagnant water so cold around her neck.”

Woman as a silent muse, not willingly either. The poppies are opiates, the forgot-me-nots sentimental. Is it her fault for not wishing to disrupt his artistic flow to tell him the water had gone cold or his fault for not periodically checking she was OK? The unnamed ‘he’ is not going to take any responsibility for his own actions and shifts the blame onto her. It starts with him kissing her, but he doesn’t include her response in his imagination; obviously saying ‘no’ is not an option. His painting is more important than her comfort or health.

“Poem in Which I Lick Motherhood” starts surreally,

“I have several children, all perfect, with tongues made
of soap and PVA glue running through their veins. My
boys and girls benefit from eating the rainbow. I iron
children twice daily. Creases are the devil’s hoof print.
I am constructed from sticky-back tape, pipe cleaners
and clothes pegs. There are instructions for making me.”

It’s an energetic, satirical romp through the contradictory and impossible demands placed on mothers who are often already juggling their children’s needs alongside their own and trying to lose sense of who they are.

In “Hypothetical” a woman struggles to get her voice heard as others make assumptions and construct a narrative for her. Instructions for “How to Survive a Disaster Movie”, a rejection of suggested women for a “Role Model” until “I’d like to be the woman next door/ with a walk that says I know where I’m going.” A play on the advice to “get back on the horse” after a set-back in “The Horse”, “I have prepared complex equations/ for getting back on horses”, the horse however has other ideas, “She pours strong coffee, rests her hooves on the table,” so it becomes a battle of wills.

In a neat symmetry, the final poem is also a running poem, “Woman Running Alone”

“where the wolf-whistle becomes the wolf
and love’s worn like musk aftershave,
where she forgets who she is: Ms. Keep On,
Ms. Never-going-home, neither running away
nor running toward anyone, wind-sifted,
letting the weather sing through her,”

The additional sexual harassment women face when running can be dodged and she can finally be herself – she is not heading away from or towards anyone – just moving to her own rhythm and demands. A rare time where she doesn’t have to comply with anyone else’s demands.

“Dressing for the Afterlife” is a vivid tour through women’s lives, their diversions, preoccupations, what happens in the gaps between image and reality and pressures. Maria Taylor uses humour and satire to bring her characters hidden depths to the foreground, creating a poignant, vibrant collection of thought-provoking, crafted poems.

“Dressing for the Afterlife” is available from Nine Arches Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

What became of the girl who counted

Uncharted Constellations from Space Cat Press

Some submission call outs on a theme can leave you cold, bereft of ideas. However, an experienced writer once told me that you should always reject your first idea, because it’s the one everyone has thought of, and think again.

When Space Cat Press put out a call out for their “Uncharted Constellations” anthology focusing on the space race, I felt bereft of ideas. It’s rare I’ll write a poem about place and in the poems where I mention the moon, it’s about its appearance, not men landing on it. I write about people. Space, beyond earth, is mostly people-less. When I wrote about one of Uranus’ moons, Miranda (all 27 of them are named after Shakespearean characters), she was personified, but I didn’t think I could pull off that trick again. The landings on earth’s moon took place before I was born so there were no memories to draw on, no stories of the TV being dragged out at school or the gathering of the family round a small screen in an attempt to feel a part of history. Space felt distant and cold.

Yes, there are women astronauts, but it’s the men who make the headlines. Tim Peake made the headlines as the ‘First British Astronaut to go into space’ in 2008, which was news to Helen Sharman who’d managed it in 1991. Valentina Tereshkova made 48 orbits in space before the moon landing. However, as recently as March 2019, an all-woman space walk had to be cancelled because there weren’t enough spacesuits in the right size. It’s easy to see why the space of rockets and landings hasn’t fired women’s imaginations to the same extent.

But, while men have grabbed the headlines, women have been buried backstage. When Charles Babbage asked Ada Lovelace to write a paper to demonstrate how his analytical engine worked because he was too busy working on his difference engine, Ada Lovelace figured the best way of doing this was by writing a program to show its workings. Even in 1969, programming was still seen as a women’s job, regarded as little more than typing. It was only as a significant anniversary of the moon landing loomed, that film decided to look at these programmers and include them in the story.

Marginalised people are definitely on my radar. Melissa Todd in her review of my “The Significance of a Dress” in The Blue Nib says, “Emma Lee creates poetry with the voice of an avenging angel, seeking out inequalities from all across the globe and down the centuries to fuel her work.” The idea of a poem about one of those mathematicians who enabled the moon landings became a natural response to Space Cat press’s call out.

One thing that did catch my imagination was Katherine Johnson’s explanation that she worked backwards. Her starting point was where Apollo 13 should land and then she worked back to work out where it need to take off, what angle, speed, etc, etc. It’s like taking a first draft of a story and working back from the ending to the beginning to ensure the logic of the story arc holds and identifying extraneous subplots or diversions that may be elegant pieces of writing but don’t move the plot on so don’t belong. Similarly, we count down to a rocket launch, from ten to one, not forwards.

The specular, or verbal mirror image, suggested itself as the form for the poem to take: a poem that works in reverse, counting down from ten to one, but can also be read from the last line to the first, from one to ten. Readers will need to get a copy of the anthology to test if that holds true for the poem.

“Uncharted Constellations” will be available from Space Cat Press from 13 September.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“One Hundred Views of NW3” Pat Jourdan – book review

Meet Stella, the reader’s guide to NW3, the Hampstead area of London, in Pat Jourdan’s novel set in the early 1960s. She’s an art student in Liverpool who has a giddy weekend in London. Back in art college in Liverpool, Stella still yearns for the heady freedom of Hampstead. After a summer job as a chambermaid ends, Stella travels down to London instead of returning to Liverpool. Once in London, she decides she can’t go to her friend because that’s where her parents would look for her. She finds a job in a grocer’s shop and a rental in Clapham Common where she slides into a new rhythm of life, finding that what she learnt at art college is replaced by accurately weighing cheese by sight, wielding the meat slicer, manually adding up customers’ purchases and giving the right change.

Art may be on the back burner, but it’s not forgotten. There are frequent trips to the Tate Gallery. It’s just that frequent changes of job, mostly as a shop assistant or cleaner and occasional babysitter, and residence in her hand to mouth existence get priority. In one babysitting job, she meets a fellow artist Chester. He seems to have made it: a generously-sized flat, trophy third wife and baby. However, one afternoon, Stella finds the wife lying on a bed in her coat to keep warm and learns the rooms are rented and furniture and utensils strictly inventoried. The wife doesn’t want to work and is trapped into keep up the appearance of success. Chester holds a private viewing and manages to sell three paintings – what they are paintings of or look like isn’t revealed – and Stella gets thrown out after failing to recognise an actress, who is between roles and isn’t famous.

Relegated to sofa-surfing, Stella goes to the Labour Exchange in search of a job. The clerk admits Stella’s diploma in art is valid. She’s a “classified artist.” Spirits lifted she finds another bedsit and begins on a project inspired by Hokusai’s 36 pictures of Mount Fuji. It seems a manageable number and she seeks out some art supplies. Her first picture is “A Song for Nellie Bligh” in discordant reds. She has ideas for paintings for “snow on roofs like sky biting into tops of houses. Heathurst Road: coal man, black velvet coming towards her down the road, blacker than trees.”

The painting project progresses in fits and starts while she does a couple of cleaning jobs. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis passes, Stella’s painting “September Lawn” was accepted for an exhibition and given a £10 price tag, a relatively low price but a foot in the door. It fails to sell, however, and Stella doesn’t bother collecting it after the exhibition. She starts several relationships, mostly on/off or she sleeps with someone and discovers he’s married. She learns the hard way that she’s on the wrong side of a double standard when a family planning clinic refuse her access to contraception on the grounds they don’t serve “that sort of girl” because she’s not married or engaged. Stella starts feeling left behind and used. She does manage to sell some paintings including “Night, Grass, Ponds”, described as “glamour and mystery, a melancholy beauty” for £15.

On her 25th birthday she takes a day off. “could see no way out of the repeating pattern of work, rent, love, let-down, see-sawing constantly between desire and despair”. She cleans and thinks about methods of suicide, concluding that her best option might be drowning. She promises herself she’d go to the park which inspired her painting “Night, Grass, Ponds” after dark. Waiting for nightfall, she ends up in a pub where no one knows her, but a friend of a friend, Toby walks in and she ends up taking him home. She doesn’t see him as “saving her life, more that he had muddled it up even further than ever.” Toby isn’t a permanent fixture, however. She takes up with Andy but discovers he has a wife and baby son.

She discusses the nature of cleaning with another friend who’d asked her to clean a church after he’d painted it. Stella says cleaning’s like painting in reverse. He responds that, “I’ve heard the same from other woman artists I’ve found they make the best cleaners” and makes a joke about male Hampstead creators getting angry about woman who are artists “they get really upset, even hostile about it, they say a woman can’t possibly do anything creative” Stella agrees.

Taking stock, she realises that she’s become the girl men hook-up with rather than marry, she’s the one that tags along to poetry readings and exhibitions but is only offered a slot as a favour, not as an artist in her own right. That she will continue to play roulette with her fertility unless she does as some of her friends have and lie to the family planning clinic. She muses on her paintings, which “were mostly aimed at harmony – blue to green to turquoise, yellow to orange to red. Always only half the rainbow, not the full paintbox fighting it out, each colour against another. Each painting held its own world inside its edges.”

Stella realises it’s time to stop seeing the world as a series of frozen moments. Her friends, especially her male friends, won’t help her get established. Her hand to mouth existence will continue unless she does something. At least she has her set of paintings now: all 36 of them an achievement. Stella remembers something for an art shop leaflet, “clouds need clean brushes.” Her cloud is a new flat big enough to display her 36 paintings. Time to create her own sky.

Stella is engaging, naïve but resourceful, which makes her a perfect narrator to tell how life really was for a young woman with big dreams struggling to find space in the capital city which doesn’t much care. She buts up against prejudice, the working classes’ lack of privilege and sexism as she tries to find work in a world where women were seen as earning pin money and still encouraged to stop working once marriage and were out of the workforce if they became pregnant. Her struggles for recognition: Chester would be mentoring her and encouraging her to exhibit if she were male, and her initial belief she has to give way to male desire is credible and recognisable. As are the bit players: the woman forced to support male careers, men who know they can get away with sleeping around with no consequence, the landlords who are fine when the rent’s coming in but quick to evict at the first sign of trouble.

Through “One Hundred Views of NW3”, Pat Jourdan has created a series of vignette that bring Stella’s life into focus and chronicle her quest for recognition and validation.

“One Hundred Views of NW3” available from Pat Jourdan

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch

“Still Lives With Apocalypse” Jennifer A McGowan (Prole Books) – book review

“Still Lives With Apocalypse” is the winner of the Prole pamphlet competition 2020 and is split between a thirteen part sequence which gives the pamphlet its title and nine other poems. The opening sequence images Jesus hanging out in various scenarios. He isn’t too good at magic according to “Penn and Teller Try to Teach Jesus Stage Magic”,

“Jesus goes through the rigmarole
one more time. Drops a ball,
not used to fashioning things
when not looking.

After another hour, they call
it quits. Jesus reaches into Teller’s
coat pocket and pulls out a dove,
sets it free. I’m sorry,
he says, offering
its olive branch.”

Jesus, it seems, isn’t very good at misdirection where he has to divert the audience’s attention while he makes the trick work. Once the pressure’s off, he produces miracles easily. The difference is that the olive branch is produced from a genuine need to apologise whereas the tricks, while entertaining, deliberately deceive people and can’t be turned into a parable. Elsewhere, he smokes drop behind a supermarket, serves miners pints, fails to teach premier league footballers they don’t need their excessive salaries, hangs out with Buddha and tries his hand at love poetry in “Jesus Wanders Obliquely Through Chinese Poetry”

“My long hair shines for no one.
You are the candle I keep burning
in the bedroom we used to warm together.
Our silk bed cover is wasted on just one skin.
Come back soon, Xiao Wen. The mountains are adamant.
They do not need another blood-red footprint
Pressed into their hard, graveled paths.”

I’m not sure if Xiao Wen is being used as a general woman’s name or a reference to Xiao Wen Ju, the first model to front a show by fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Either way, it seems Jesus has learnt there’s more poetry in unrequited or lost love than writing about the throes of passion or delight that a one night stand wants to stick around. Although I think the opening quoted line would be better as “My long hair shines only for one,” since “no one” implies that it doesn’t shine for Xiao Wen either. This Jesus is clearly one to mingle and try and understand the world through experience.

The remaining nine poems, “Mud Angels” are similarly themed around everyday miracles, Mary’s hair dye staining her shift, a “raggedy-ass crow” in In “How It Is” asks the speaker to retrieve a shopping trolley from the canal because it has burgers in it and teases,

“you wouldn’t recognise
Christ Hisself
from a shopping trolley.

And I got so pissed,
I said, I’ll show you
Jesus Christ
and I hoicked
that trolley out
muck an’ all.
And that raggedy-ass crow
he got his lunch
and I’d like to say
I got saved

but I didn’t.”

Not all good deeds are rewarded or perhaps the lack of reward was because the speaker enabled a crow’s lazy diet of burgers instead of carrion. The final sequence focuses on three historical episodes of flooding in an Italian town. In the third episode, people form a human chain to pass out books, artworks, anything that can be saved while the prisoners in La Murate are left to huddle on the roof,

Angeli del fango, we are called
by those bringing us food, coffee.
Angels of mud. Cross yourself if you like,
but God has blinked and forgotten us.
Our only kept faith this chain of worn hands.”

Although it appears the finger is being pointed at the Christian god, those quick to blame him for abandonment show skewed priorities. I’d be the last person to argue that books aren’t important, but is human life not a priority?

Ultimately, this dilemma lies at the heart of “Still Lives with Apocalypse”, the sense of skewed priorities. The footballers failing to ask why they are paid excessively, the magicians’ sleights of hands, Jesus writing about the absence of love rather than addressing the cause of that absence, the demand Mary stands in a saintly pose for hours on end without easing her discomfort or caring about her aches and pains, the crow demanding junk food and the muddy angels saving books instead of people. In brief vignettes, Jennifer A McGowan doesn’t produce judgmental parables but presents scenarios, often with a wry humour, for readers to draw their own conclusions. This is fun with a serious intent.

“Still Lives With Apocalypse” is available from Prole Books.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

“Big Sexy Lunch” Roxy Dunn (Verve Press) – book review

“Big Sexy Lunch” manages to combine sassiness and seriousness, a brightly-coloured dress covering the depths at its core. It sets out its stall as a millennial take on Frank O’Hara. The title and first poem in the pamphlet details a six course lunch where the wine is nearly finished at the end of the third and talk turns philosophical,

“You congratulate your conversation
On both its content and delivery
Unashamedly concluding
That a big sexy lunch
Is not solely for pleasure
But the development of humanity
And the growth of our species”

The sort of lunch that leaves you bloated and able only to lie in bed feeling sensuality replete and concluding,

“The big sexy lunch
For the simple reason
Whilst you haven’t achieved
All the things you intended
You are in this moment
Undeniably living
Your best life”

The poem’s addressee has been seduced into believing that enjoying good food and talking about plans and intentions and desires is somehow a substitute for action. The implication is that once the meal is digested and energy levels restored, the low of realising that in fact nothing has been achieved will hit hard. It’s left to the reader to figure out whether the addressee will take action or arrange another indulgence.

This action/intention dichotomy is further explored in “List” where making a list delays the need for action. The list-maker is responding to her lover’s delay in replying to a text, “I’ve compiled a list of your problems/ to ween myself off you:”

“1. I think you might be provincial
. you try too hard to be cultivated
. which makes me suspicious

2. You could be more succinct in speech
. what you think sounds intelligent
. is actually verbose”

The list itself sounds fairly fixable until the last item:

“7. You’ve now just text but the list now exists
. which is currently the new problem”

It’s a call to action or at least highlights that action is needed. Does the list-maker undo her list or start a conversation about her lover’s flaws? While she’s thinking about that, does she respond to her lover’s text? Could he be making a similar list about her?

She’s still pondering in “Sweet Casanova” which includes the observation, “Does working for an NGO make you good in part?/ You’re as incongruous as Trump figure-skating”. That’s an unforgettable image. In “Weeds” the speaker starts questioning her likeability,

“It alarms me when people say my characters aren’t likeable
They’re based primarily on versions of me

When I smiled at that woman in the queue out of loneliness
It made me feel ashamed like being bloated on the pull”

A character doesn’t have to be likeable to hook a reader into a story, but it helps if readers can engage with and desire the character’s success. The conflation of a fictional story and autobiography is annoying to most writers because they wish their work to stand alone from them and be examined on its merits, not for what it reveals about the writer. However, the speaker worries about the likeability of her characters because she’s reading comments on her characters as comments on her. However, those commenting on her characters may not see them as versions of her but as independent fictional creations so don’t realise the speaker thinks they are conflating the speaker and character as she is. This unease spills into smiling at a stranger in the hope of a conversation without knowing if the stranger would welcome conversation or understand the intention behind the smile. It’s not a minor signal of friendliness that stops at the smile but a potential imposition of a desire for conversation. The shame comes from the fear of not being completely open with intent. This unease is continued into the line “being bloated on the pull”, the intention is to find a lover but the bloat means the speaker is not presenting herself as she really is. The poem concludes, “The weeds in the garden must absolutely stay/ They are so yellow and sure of who they are”. The weeds are taking space they have not been permitted but their colour is so dazzling, they are being given permission. The colour, though, is ambiguous yellow can be cowardly and diseased as well as vibrant and cheerful.

The “Glosa on Frank O’Hara’s Mayakovsky” starts with a quote from Frank O’Hara, “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting and modern” and laments, “that idolising owning a study/ culminates in this: a generic green lamp/ and my un-needed manuscript” which triggers a short list of imperfections and concludes,

“there are things I ought to learn
like driving a car and stoicism;
my grandmother’s watch is a daily
reminder: I want life to feel earned
and interesting, and modern.”

It’s a want for validation and sense of belonging, a want to have something to give others.

“Big Sexy Lunch” is fun, the poems’ light surfaces draw readers in and gives them the choice of staying with their lightheartedness or being drawn in further to notice the questions raised in the depths and folds.

“Big Sexy Lunch” is available from Verve Poetry Press.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

“Reflections Cultural Voices of Black British Irrepressible Resilience” (Serendipity) – book review

“Reflections” is an anthology of essays that Pawlet Brookes’ introduction summarises, “Ultimately Reflections is an analysis of the need to recognise the Black British experience through the lens of its artistic voices… they reposition British cultural heritage, not from a Western construct, instead as one that is rich in forgotten and hidden geographies and history.” My interest is in literature so that section gets the larger part of this review. This is not a comment on the quality of the book as a whole or the other sections, which look at carnival, dance, music, theatre and visual art. The focus here is on the experiences of people from an African-Caribbean heritage whether born in Britain or elsewhere and where Black is a reference to race, an initial capital is used throughout.

Stephen Small, Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Berkley, gives an overview of “Black Expressive Culture in England and Europe”. He grew up in Liverpool, UK, and observes, “Everywhere I went there was a constant, enduring message of white superiority and Black inferiority. Intuitively, instinctively I knew something was wrong, despite British educational efforts to fully colonise my mind.” Music became a salve and education, change to learn about Liverpool’s role in the Atlantic slave trade and resistance to colonisation in Africa. The essay discusses efforts to provide counternarratives in museums and archives to racist exhibits and the colonist’s viewpoint. Stephen Small posits that Black groups throughout Europe face the same four dynamics in experience. Firstly “ambiguous hypervisibility” where stock images generally show Blacks at the bottom of the economic, political and social hierarch alongside successful singers, dancers and sports champions so someone outside these portrayals, e.g. a Black CEO is shocking. Secondly an “entrenched vulnerability”, i.e. there is no one important social or economic area where Blacks are better off than whites. Thirdly “institutional racism” which shouldn’t need any explanation. Fourthly, and a point that contributes to the book’s subtitle, “irrepressible resistance and resilience” in challenging racism and establishing Black support networks. He concludes, “Black expressive culture remains paramount in initiating fundamental advancements in education, in public discussions and in political discussions and will continue to do so indefinitely.”

Kadija (George) Sesay’s “What is Black British Literature? Where Does it Start?” focuses on the East Midlands (Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire) and writers of African descent. The chief barrier is that publishing decisions were made by white gatekeepers, the imposition of prejudice and intersection of racism and sexism creating an extra barrier for women. Naseem Khan’s 1975 publication, “The Arts that Britain Ignores” led to the creation of The Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) who set up two publications, “Black Arts in Britain” and “Artrage” but was liquidated in the mid-1990s. National arts organisations were not created to specifically support Black voices so access to support, funding and networking opportunities was patchy. Spread the Word, Centerprise and Inscribe created posts specifically for Black literature workers and enabled voices to flourish, even if still on the margins. This section goes on to list current East Midlands based writers some of whom comment on their writing practice. Carol Leeming states, “A recurring feature of my work is magic realism narratives, with compelling, culturally diverse characters with distinctive voices from marginalised communities”. Momodou Sallah, “my themes cover Post-coloniality, decoloniality and critical Southern perspectives, Globalisation and Global Youth Work; Race, difference and cultural competence.” Kadja Sesay concludes, “At a regional level, the work is rich and full with contemporary voices and tackles local issues, punctuating history so it tells a more complete story. I am proud to be part of this rich and diverse landscape where we are leaving legacy.” While her essay is a thorough overview of writers and support networks, there wasn’t space to cover criticism and reviewing. The under-representation of Black authors in reviews is as much an issue as the gatekeepers who are barrier to getting published.

Tara Lopez discusses “Bringing the Carnival to Britain”, looking at Caribbean carnivals in the East Midlands and the creation of the East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network (EMCCAN) in 2011. She concludes with a plea for more cross-generational shared learning to keep the carnival alive.

Maureen Salmon’s “Coming Home: Adzido Pan African Dance Ensemble 1984 to 2005” starts with a quote from Germoine Acogny, “African dance comes from the villages – but there is now the Africa of cities, of skyscrapers. We cannot preserve dance purely as museum culture, IT MUST GROW.” This point echoes Stephen Small’s contribution where he talks of museum displays presenting African figures in tribal dress showing an Africa of savannahs and mud huts rather than a parallel culture of cities and urbanites. Maureen Salmon discusses the need for training and development of dance companies, “there was no ecosystem to support African people’s dance, particularly the professional training of artists and choreographic development” and the responsibility of funding organisations to take development seriously, concluding that there is a collective responsibility to “cultivate visionary collaborative and transformative leadership… to innovate so that we remain relevant in an international arena.”

Eddie Chambers, Professor of African Diaspora Arti History at the University of Texas, who splits his time between the US and UK looks at “Black British Art”. Although Black artists do get recognised in the Queen’s Honours Lists, getting exhibition space remains a challenge. An exhibition of Frank Bowling’s work in the mid-1990s secured a national tour but failed to get a London venue or press review. This is significant because, “with the capital being the ultimate site of artistic validation, the failure to secure a London venue was telling”. Archiving is also important. Currently there are archives at The African-Caribbean, Asian and African Art in Britain Archive and Stuart Hall library, both in London, and the Centre for Contemporary Art at the University of Central Lancashire. At attempt to set one up in the South West (Bristol) had initial success but then suffered poor leadership – a similar point made by Maureen Salmon that professional development and leadership is key. Eddie Chambers ends on a note of hope detailing scholarship projects archiving Black Arts.

Carol Leeming MBE FRSA identifies two major problems in “Black British Theatre – A Case Study”, white gatekeepers and the concentration of Black British theatre organisations in London or Birmingham so how does Black talent based in the regions get on their radars? Moreover, how do new Black actors, producers and writers get into theatres if they don’t see work by people like them? Austerity encourages theatres to focus on plays and shows that draw greater audiences rather than supporting new voices. Decibel was set up as a national BAME/Culturally Diverse Arts Showcase with two full-time white producers, one based in Birmingham and the other in Manchester, neither of whom could begin to support Black theatre in the regions. Another initiative, Sustained Theatre East Midlands, didn’t fulfil its promise and withered away. This creates a further problem that any new initiatives are viewed with scepticism and suspicion. The case study concludes that a map of Black British Theatre is needed and access to fundraising needs to be urgently opened up and simplified so artists can focus on creative work. It is “time to recognise over six decades of Black British Theatre that showcases emerging artists alongside mid-career and high-profile artists.”

Philip Herbert, composer, contributes “Mapping Musical Exchanges of the African Diaspora. What Does the Future Hold for Black Artists Following On From These Exchanges?”. He discusses the influence and fusion of music from classical to popular, “there needs to be a greater sense of urgency in eliminating the barriers to access to music-making amongst Black aspiring musicians. There is a need to open up the criteria for funding, so that it makes it a fairer process, to enable Black artists to access funding to broker their creative and aspirational output.” Without this, “a fundamental building block is missing.”

Normally I would not mention the production values of a book, however, “Reflections” uses either a dark grey type on white paper or a white type on grey paper. The contrast on the latter combination – white on grey – isn’t strong enough for the type to be easy to read.

Overall “Reflections” underlines the significant contribution Black artists have made and continue to make to Britain’s cultural heritage despite the barriers. The obvious barrier is racism, but there are also problems with Britain’s arts being London-centric and so expensive and difficult to access for regional artists, and also the problem of white, middle class gatekeepers. Access to funding is discussed: it needs to be simplified and support is needed for marginalised groups. While Black support networks have been created, their creation and development has largely been down to the artists themselves rather than organisations created to develop arts. The book does not cover wages but it’s clear that precarious, short term contracts and development through internship programmes tend to exclude working class artists and hence indirectly exclude Black artists.

“Reflections” satisfies two aims: firstly, highlighting the barriers faced by Black cultural voices and secondly celebrating the achievements of Black cultural voices of the East Midlands. Its reach, however, is wider than the East Midlands and I would recommend anyone invested in Black voices either directly or from a desire to learn more start with “Reflections.”

“Reflections” is available from Serendipity.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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“How to Make Curry Goat” Louise McStravick (Fly On The Wall Poetry) – book review

Louise McStravick’s “How to Make Curry Goat” explores a Jamaican heritage and growing up in Birmingham (UK). Poems are presented double spaced. “Tanned Feet” starts with “This tan from Jamaica never washed off” and continues

“These tanned feet have grown golden next to

the ghost of a mango tree

where children would meet,

bodies speak the language of freedom

run to catch shrimp in a river that

only runs now in black and white memories.

Stanza break

But my feet see them in colour

in the soft, brown warmth of a tan

nourished with coconut jelly

so it does not fade

that will be topped up again

Stanza Break!!!!

one day.”

The poems are grounded in Birmingham but infused with memories of Jamaica. The title poem has a parent teaching a child where seemingly straightforward instructions are commented on,

“Take around 7 quid’s worth of goat

Or mutton dem di same ting

A spring of thyme, two large onions, three if you’re that way inclined

Not di Spanish h’onion di British h’onion.

A bulb of garlic. All-purpose seasoning and Caribbean Curry Powder

It nah matter which curry powder you fi use.

Using eyes to measure, one-part All Purpose to two-part curry powder

Be careful with the All Purpose. You nah want too much salt.

Precision is not the recipe’s point and exact measurements have been lost to decades of experience and improvisation. A person who cooks frequently adapts to the availability of ingredients and family tastes – not much point in loading the curry with peppers if family members aren’t fond of peppers. This intuition isn’t easy to teach and frustrates both child and parent, “You ask too many question!” becomes a refrain as the poem continues and the parent justifies saying goat or mutton can be used initially by saying they are the same and then they taste the same. Eventually, the curry is left to simmer and the child has to learn patience,

“And wait.

Tell your tongue to stop dribbling spit

that good things come to those that wait, imagine the plate, the tempting

fate that would be you trying to steal meat again.

It nah ready yet!

Stanza Break

And wait.

You are 6 again, 8 again, 10, again, 14, again,

waiting, waiting, salivating sitting on hands that do not know how to


The wait is worth it,

“He calls you to taste, it tastes better than great

it tastes like from the plate of his mom I never knew,

his gran, my namesake, it tastes like it has travelled on vibrations, on

waves, a land foreign to new territory.

Indentured slavery mixed with imported trade makes its way to my plate:

new learned memories.

Now these hands follow those that for centuries have taught their

daughters, their sons, me to make this curry.”

The poem ends,

“Until. Our story rises with steam from the plate.”

Learning how to make curry is more than learning a recipe. It’s learning about tradition, nurturing families and heritage. It’s not the curry that’s important, but the knowledge and experience passed down in learning how to make it, how family tastes have improvised and informed the ingredients and that good food worth sharing takes time.

“Fatherland, Motherland” asks if it’s cultural appropriation to speak patios with a Birmingham accent and concludes,

“I am British, English, a bit Irish and Jamaican

wha gwaan blud

curry goat and plaintain,

garage, yorkshire puddings and grime

this is all part of my culture,

but which culture is mine?”

“Postcards from England” a Jamaican sees terraced houses with lines of chimneys and thinks they are factories, until he discovers how cold it is and why houses need heat. In “My sister was born a sunset”, the mother is told “When children come out healthy, they are pink.” And “Children are not yellow like a fully-backed sun.” The mother knows better though when the midwives and nurses say “she must have jaundice”

“My mother tells them her father’s

skin holds the burnt ochres of a Caribbean sunset.

Stanza Break

They do not say sorry when they hand her over.”

The failure to apologise is telling: the nursing staff aren’t prepared to admit their prejudice and failure to take racial differences into account and to do this to a new mother exhausted from labour and worried about her baby is wrong.

Not all the poems focus directly on heritage. Some look to dating and relationships ending. “Move on” is four powerful lines,

“Ghosts don’t exist

except in the lump in the throat

the place between the end

and a new beginning.”

“Coconut” does return to childhood memories and ends with a child having her hair combed,

“he did not know how hair breaks she said my brothers and sisters were in Africa

did what he was taught I thought she had an affair. I wanted to know

hard labour, roots and culture, were my brothers and sisters like off the T.V

I’ll give you something to cry for, in between Coronation Street.

Take of mi belt and beat you, they would ask me why,

If you can’t hear you must feel, I drew Katie and not me.”

The theme of hair is revisited in “Gaudí would not have approved” where the narrator feels pushed into straightening her hair,

“Each strand brushed becomes brittle, broken into shards, she sheds, exposed. ‘Isn’t that better’? Then she remembers Gaudí. Curves undulating, pieces of broken rainbow toast the naked Catalonian sun. Surrounded by buildings standing straight, in line, trying to bend themselves away from the earth, against their better judgement, doing what they are told over and over again. Until they do not remember they are held together with cement. The Casa Bastillo turns the horizon part kaleidoscope, bent balconies, unfurl against transparent sky to remind her that she is the crest of the ocean, just before it breaks, the deepening curve of a tree’s roots, nature’s anchor, a freshly-fallen leaf, the fullness of pregnancy, the moon eclipsing the sun and so she tells them of Gaudí. That there are no straight      lines      in               nature.”

It’s not stated directly, but I very much doubt the narrator will give in and straighten her hair again. The prose poem is not double-spaced.

“How to Make Curry Goat” explores the poet’s Jamaican roots and growing up in the UK. The poems are conversational in tone and aim to share their messages without telling the reader how to think. They are easy to read aloud, the rhythms follow natural speech patterns, which demonstrates the subtlety of the craft that they are founded on. Louise McStravick has created a collection that is engaging and makes serious points with humour.

“How to Curry Goat” is available from Fly On The Wall Poetry.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover image

When to Ignore Advice

Photo credit: Pam Thompson

The more absolute a piece of advice, the less confidence the advice-giver has. Rules are comforting: they provide a framework, like a safety harness or a pair of stablisers, particularly in creative work where it is harder to measure the outcome objectively. Rules help writers avoid common mistakes and act as a way of passing on experience learnt the hard way. But they don’t give much room for creativity and some rules, e.g. write x number of words per day, are ableist and fail to allow for different writing routines and patterns. Rules also tend to focus on the mechanics of writing, e.g. getting words on a page, because these are measurable. They don’t focus on how a writer finds and selects those words: the daydreaming, research, thinking, the actual creative work, because that can’t be measured.

Mostly advice is given with good intentions or to a specific group of people. “Write every day” is useful for beginners who need to get into the writing routine and out of the habit of waiting for inspiration. It’s not so useful for writers whose creativity ebbs and flows, who can go for weeks without writing and then find themselves in a month where they can do nothing but write. It’s also unhelpful for writers with disabilities or chronic conditions who literally cannot write everyday.

The problem occurs when a piece of advice is put on social media without regard for its audience. It’s presented as an absolute rule with no thought as to how it got that status or its impact on an audience it wasn’t intended for.

Recently this appeared on twitter,

“People reading ten lines of performance poetry out of their notebooks need to up their game. If you don’t know it then it’s not ready. At any one time the average rapper has about 4000 words ready to go from memory.”

  • Poems work in two media: the page and the stage. Rap generally only works on stage (yes, lyrics can be published, but the primary focus is performance). The comparison is not balanced: it’s not comparing like with like.
  • Rap relies on rhyme and ad-libbing. It’s much more focused on the instant, a call and response to a topic or idea. The rhymes act as a mnemonic, so long as they are in place, getting each word before the rhyme is less critical. Rap also uses repetition. Poetry less so. Poems can rhyme but are not obliged to. Each word counts and must justify its position in the poem. There’s no room for error since precision is key. Substituting ‘harbour’ for ‘quayside’ can completely change perspective in a poem. Poems can’t be ad-libbed.
  • A poem is ready when it’s ready. Not when the poet can remember it off by heart. A poem is not dependent on its poet performing it. A poem is capable of standing alone and being read off the page without the poet being present.
  • Poets also have large stores of words ‘ready to go’ but poems aren’t just working in the medium of performance. So having a large stores of words memorised doesn’t help learn and retain an individual poem.
  • Rap tends to be a rapid flow of words where silence is frowned on. Poems aren’t just the words, but also the spaces, the line endings and stanza breaks. Silence is part of the poem. If a poet’s not careful, silence can inadvertently signal to the audience the poem has finished when a pause is intended. Reading from a page/screen is a visual clue that the poem hasn’t finished.
  • In memorising a poem so it can be performed despite distractions – audiences don’t always sit nicely for the poet – there’s a risk the poem is performed by rote and merely recited rather than expressed. A reading where a poet looks over the audience’s heads or even closes their eyes to recite a poem is one where the audience feels disengaged.
  • Conversely there’s also the risk that poets desperate not to just recite a poem end up over-emoting or trying to act out the scene the poem describes, resulting in an over-the-top reading which can be unintentionally comical or so distracting the audience forgets they’re listening to a poem.
  • Audiences can find the sight of a book or screen reassuring. Poets aren’t actors and a poet having to pause a reading to re-start a poem or give up on a poem because they’ve forgotten the third stanza is uncomfortable not just for the poet but the audience too.

There are many reasons why some poets don’t perform from memory and not all of them are due to memory impairments/disabilities. Reading from a notebook or screen is a visual prompt that the focus is on the poem, not the poet, a reminder that poems have the alternative medium of the page.

Slams can invent their own rules and if a slam rules that poems should be performed from memory, you don’t have to enter. But poetry readings, whether in a live venue or on video stream (live or pre-recorded), you are in control and you do not have to memorise your work. I don’t. That’s my personal choice and I stand by it.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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