“The Fire Station” Sarah Barnsley (Telltale Press) – poetry review

The Fire Station Sarah Barnsley book cover

These poems have a humour and exuberance that resonates after the pamphlet has been finished. A supermarket trip becomes a ride through the rapids on a kayak; what begins as a child trying to enliven a chore becomes a sustained metaphor in seeing the ordinary through luminous images. In “Dad’s Cars” a “green-bean coloured Ford Escort” becomes the description of a marriage,

“Mum once tried to drive it in
a Derbyshire Dales car park.
You laughed at her, and we shrieked,

as the car lolloped towards a steep ditch.
She stuck to polishing the dashboard
after that, drenching its pockmarked

plastic in fast firings of Mr. Sheen
as you played your Commodore ’64.”

A father, who has not learnt to take into account the feelings of others, plays computer games while the mother holds the household together. There’s an undercurrent of aggression, particularly in the ending and the last car: “You kicked it like it was us. Like you, it never worked again.”
In “Red Ink” nothing is said but the tone is clear:

“though you say nothing
my internal seismograph

records the earthquake
of your disapproval,

the molecular squares
of love’s graph paper

registering the preliminary
tremors when you heard our news,

scratching our clean page
with needlepoint politeness.”

That politeness may have been precisely worded but it didn’t provide the necessary succour. The wry humour prevents these observations becoming dismal. They exude a confidence which comes from allowing the poem to find its form and rhythm without trying to straightjacket it into something it doesn’t want to be.

“The Fire Station” is available from Telltale Press

Free Unauthorised Downloads carry risks

How many writers put the title(s) of their book(s) in a search engine and check the results?

Mostly these results are for legitimate book sellers, reviews and publicity notices but occasionally a result is a link to a site offering a free download. Whenever I find such a site, I send a DMCA notice to both the search engine and the site itself. From experience, the sites generally ignore DMCA notices but search engines comply. This means the site still offers a free download but it’s harder to find because it’s been removed from search engine results pages.

I only target sites that are offering an unauthorised download of the whole book, in breach of copyright and breaking the law.

Why bother to try and stop unauthorised free downloads?

  • The site has not bothered to ask permission from my publisher or myself, therefore, how much care has gone into the products it’s offering?
  • I will not have seen the copy being offered as download so don’t know what quality it is – is it a properly formatted file or hastily scanned pages?
  • Is the format in the downloadable file the same as in the published book? How sure are you that you can read the poems in the layout the poet intended for them to be read? Line endings, stanza breaks, where the text is positioned on the page are hugely important in poetry and any deviation from the original text can put a completely different context on a poem.
  • Is it complete or are there pages missing?
  • Has the file corrupted?
  • Is it actually being used as a vehicle for downloading a virus or malware?
  • Is it not a free sample – it’s allegedly the whole book so it not comparable to offering an extract as a free sample to entice readers to buy the book.
  • Reviewers can ask for a free copy so don’t need to risk downloading a dodgy version.
  • Some who have purchased a legitimate copy will loan it to friends who may or may not buy their own copy, however, this is done on a small scale and does not have much effect on overall sales.
  • Those who have downloaded a free copy will not go and buy a legitimate copy – it’s human nature to love a bargain and the consequences of obtaining things for free or reduced prices are not always thought through.
  • If someone can’t afford a copy, joining a local library is free and libraries can make a copy available.
  • I have no objection to someone who has purchased a legitimate copy wanting the book they’ve bought in a different format – on some occasions it’s easier to read a printed copy and on others it’s easier to read via an electronic device but a copy of the book has still been bought.
  • The availability of free downloads undermines the value of the book itself – why pay for something when someone else can provide it for free?
  • Those who argue that eBooks are cheap and easy to produce overlook the fact there can’t be an eBook unless there is a manuscript to create an eBook from. Creating that manuscript will not have been cheap and easy for the poet. If you like the poet’s work, buying a book is a good way of showing support.
  • If you don’t like the poet’s work, why are you wasting time and storage space downloading a file for the sake of it? There are no ‘biggest illegal library’ awards.

If you would like a copy of “Ghosts in the Desert”, it is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

Things learnt while Editing a Poetry Anthology

I’m on the editorial panel for the Poems for People Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees. The submission guidelines are here and the crowdfunding project to raise printing costs is here. The anthology will be printed by Five Leaves Publishing and is looking for poems and micro-fiction that sheds new light on the refugee experience, is specific rather than general and isn’t unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. The closing date is 28 September. Writers can submit up to 3 pieces as a Word attachment and pasted in to the body of an email with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words. Postal entries are also accepted.

Entries started arriving from 2 September, when the project was launched and the following observations have been made:

Submission Guidelines

  • Not everyone reads them. If there’s anything in the guidelines you’re not sure about, by all means query it, but the guidelines are provided for a reason. If you don’t follow them your work may be rejected unread.
  • Fortunately, no one has sent too many pieces (so far).
  • A number of people sent only one piece, which implies the poet has the excellent discipline and sense of discrimination to send the one best poem on the theme that they had. Either that or there are plans to send further submissions nearer the deadline and hope the editors aren’t able to count the total number of pieces submitted over several submissions so won’t notice that someone’s sent a total of six pieces over three submissions. My previous experience in organising and/or judging competitions tells me this does happen.
  • Some writers have included their name on their attached documents, some haven’t. The guidelines didn’t ask for anonymous submissions so individual pieces should have been named. It’s a good idea to do this because individual documents can get separated from the email/covering letter they were sent with and, without a name, it’s difficult to trace the poem back to the poet. However, no one’s entry will be rejected just because they didn’t put their name on it.

Writers’ Biographies

  • Performance poets don’t like writing biographies. Poets who write primarily for magazines are used to writing a short biography which gets published in the magazine along with their poem. It’s a valuable habit for performance poets to acquire so that they have something handy when a compere asks how to introduce them or wants something written down to use for publicity. In this case, poets whose work is accepted and who haven’t sent a biography will get chance to send one, but not all editors will do this.
  • Check the guidelines and, if given a word count, stick to it. It’s fairly easy to cut a handful of words from a piece that’s a couple of words too long and shorter biographies are fine. But if you’ve sent a biography that’s ten times longer than everyone else’s you look a) greedy b) arrogant c) risk the editor ignoring your biography altogether.


So far all submitters have stuck to using black type on a white background in a standard font. This makes it very easy to read the poems and see the poet’s intent on how the poem is laid out.


The editors asked for poems of up to 42 lines or micro-fiction up to 100 words.

  • On a couple of occasions, poets had sent a poem over 42 lines long, apparently unaware that they had done so. With the deadline still over a week away, it was possible to return the submission and ask the poet to edit their poem or send another. With entries close to the deadline, it won’t be possible to do this. This is why it’s a good idea to check the guidelines.
  • A couple of writers were guilty of “this piece is over the length. I can cut it if accepted,” i.e. knowingly breaking the rules. An editor can’t accept a piece of work that’s going to be changed before publication and it’s not fair on the other submitters for the editors to consider work that’s not followed the guidelines. It’s the writer’s job to ensure their work conforms to the guidelines, not the editor’s.


  • In the very early stages, most poems were ones that the poets had already written (and in some cases were already published) that the poets felt fitted the theme.
  • New poems written to the theme are also being submitted. There is a mix here of poems which have been written by poets who’ve been thinking around the theme and found a new angle, taken a specific approach and taken a compassionate view. There are some pieces written from first thoughts on seeing some of the media reports and pictures and as a result some don’t feel as if they are fully-realised poems yet.
  • All pieces submitted have loosely kept to the theme of refugees.

Poets in Solidarity BookThinking of Submitting?

  • This is an opportunity to have your work read by an experienced editorial panel and, if accepted, published by a highly regarded independent press, Five Leaves Publishing and to help raise money for registered charities working in support of refugees.
  • Read the guidelines: up to three poems of 42 lines or under or micro-fictions up to 100 words submitted as a Word (.doc) attachment and pasted into the body of your email along with a writer’s biography of 50-100 words on the theme of solidarity with refugees.
  • Submit by midnight on 28 September to poetsinsolidarity101@gmail.com. Entries after the closing date will be ignored.
  • Postal entries to be sent to arrive by 28 September to Poets in Solidarity, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. An extra day will be allowed for receipt of postal entries.
  • Check length of work and biographies before submitting.
  • If you can, please pledge to the crowdfunding project too.
  • All contributors will get a complimentary copy.
  • All funds raised above printing costs will go to registered charities working in support of refugees.

Why following Submission Guidelines is a Good Idea

Imagine you are an employer. You have a vacancy. You don’t need to advertise to fill your vacancy because you get hundreds of unsolicited applications every day. But how do you decide who to recruit? Some of the applications are obviously unsuitable, but the bulk of them will be from experienced, qualified candidates who are all suitable for shortlisting?

At this stage, employers start looking for reasons to reject candidates, rather than reasons to accept them. That typo will put an application in the reject pile, so will that coffee stain as will that application using capitals, an irregular font and that application where the crucial information’s not in the order the employer expected. The employer hasn’t time to figure out how the skills an applicant has in their current role will transfer to the vacant role so the candidate who hasn’t bothered to spell that out will end up in the reject pile.

An employer looking for reasons to accept a candidate might overlook these factors or take the time to read between the lines and tease out the information they want. An employer looking for reasons to reject an candidate will not.

This is the position most poetry editors find themselves in. They have an overwhelming pile of poems to choose from so they start looking for reasons to reject poems.

An easy way of finding reasons to reject poems is to publish submission guidelines and ensure those guidelines are widely published. Poems sent outside the submission window or after the deadline: reject. Poems rendered almost illegible by an elaborate font or being printed on a patterned background: reject. Poems without contact details: reject. That sequence of traditional sonnets sent to a magazine that’s asked for experimental forms: reject. Poems that are not written to the requested theme: reject. Poems that are longer than the advised line length: reject.

Like the employer, editors are not going to look kindly on a poem that’s almost there if only the poet would drop the cliché from line two. Editors do not have time to help you rewrite your sonnet into a concrete poem. Editors don’t have time to look at your poem that’s six lines too long and tell you which lines should go. Equally they don’t have time to ask you to cut six lines and re-submit only to find that the six lines you cut were the exact same six lines that got them interested in the poem in the first place. They certainly don’t have time to tell you to reinstate the cut six lines and drop the fourth stanza instead. Much easier, and time saving, to automatically reject anything that doesn’t conform to the guidelines without even reading it and turn their attention to those poems which do meet the guidelines. After all, how fair is it for an editor to waste time on poems that don’t meet the guidelines to the detriment of the poems where the poet has taken the trouble to follow the guidelines?

What, then, does a poetry editor do with a submission where the covering letter states “my poem is x lines over the maximum stated in the guidelines. If accepted for publication, I can shorten it to the correct amount.”?

How can an editor accept a poem that will be changed before it’s published? What if the editor doesn’t like the changes the poet makes in taking lines out and decides to reject it after all? When would an editor enter into correspondence with one poet when they’ve an abundant choice of poems that do conform to the guidelines to select from?

Why deliberately make a submission that you know does not conform to the guidelines? The odds of publication are not in your favour so why create your own additional obstacles to getting published? Why would an editor work with a poet who has deliberately flouted the guidelines? Would a poet, who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, be more likely to have a professional attitude towards being edited or more likely to be difficult to work with?

At a time when editors are looking for reasons to reject submissions, make sure you don’t give them a reason to reject your poems. In some blog articles, I feel as if I’m stating the obvious but recent experience shows the obvious needs stating. Deliberately setting up your submission for rejection is a waste of time and could give you a reputation you don’t want.

Poems for People: an Anthology in Solidarity with Refugees

Poets in Solidarity Book

Poems for People: an anthology in solidarity with Refugees

Aim: To publish and promote an anthology of poems to raise awareness of issues faced by refugees and show solidarity. Funds raised over and above the anthology’s costs will go to charities supporting refugees. The anthology will be produced by an experienced editorial committee, typesetter and Five Leaves Publications who will not charge for their time and will be available in print and as an ebook. Proceeds from sales will go to registered charities supporting refugees both in the East Midlands and abroad.

At the suggestion of Ambrose Musiyiwa, we plan an East Midlands anthology of a hundred poems and pieces of micro-fiction in solidarity with the refugees who are currently receiving so little welcome as they take to boats and rafts to cross the Mediterranean, make their way with difficulty through Europe and, in a small number of cases, arrive in Calais with the hope of reaching the U.K. The aim of the anthology is to enable readers to take a view of the situation which is not governed by the fear and hatred whipped up by the language of media and many politicians. The anthology will be produced by an editorial committee, typesetter and publisher who will work free of charge. The anthology will be published by Five Leaves Publications in Nottingham, and will be available both in print and as an ebook.

Submission Guidelines:

Please submit no more than three pieces of work. If you submit work which has previously been published, please give details of where it has appeared. The editors would particularly welcome writing which sheds a new light on the refugee experience in some way, writing which is specific rather than general, and writing which is not unremittingly gloomy, harrowing or preachy. We hope for a variety of work and an anthology which will interest, engage and surprise readers.

Poems should be no more than 42 lines (and much shorter work is welcome). Micro fictions should be no more than 100 words. All work should be single-spaced. Please include a biography of 50 – 100 words.

All submitted work should be in English. In the case of translated work, it is the translator’s responsibility to obtain permission from the copyright-holder of the original work.

Please send your submissions, preferably by email to poetsinsolidarity101@gmail.com by midnight on 28 September 2015. Send all material in a single word attachment AND in the body of the email. If you do not have access to email, you may submit by sending two copies of each piece of work by mail to: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees, 36 Leybury Way, Scraptoft, Leicestershire LE7 9UB. In either case, remember to include your contact details.

About: Poets in Solidarity with Refugees is a group of writers, artists and literature promoters mostly based in the East Midlands who want to share and welcome stories from refugees fleeing war-torn countries. Poems and fiction for the anthology will be selected by an experienced editorial panel and backed by a promotional campaign.

Poems for Occasions

People turn to poetry in times of strong emotions. Sadly this occasion was a funeral. The poem wouldn’t have won any poetry competitions but it was appropriate, completely suitable for the occasion and a celebration of someone’s life, written so the person it was about was completely recognisable to everyone at the service. That was some feat given that the audience included life-long friends, relatives and community members as well as colleagues, some of whom had known her over a couple of decades, some for a few months. On its own terms, it was a wonderful poem.

A poet could have been asked to have written the poem, but the poet wouldn’t have been as familiar with the subject and would have to start from second hand information. If there had been time for the poet to interview family, friends, and colleagues and draw on photographs, needlework and other crafts done by the subject, would the poet still have been able to encapsulate the person so recognisably and accessibly?

This question lies at the heart of a poet writing about news events, trying to capture personal stories into a poem whilst using second hand sources. The internet does make it easier to track information, to read personal blogs or social media comments, to see maps and street views, to get the feeling for being there even whilst sitting in at a familiar desk and only journeying as far as the coffee pot. But can it replace direct personal experience?

Probably not completely. But compassion and empathy can enable a writer to place themselves inside someone else’s story and transform it into a poem. Everyone might have a story in them, but not everyone can write it. Distilling a story into a poem may mean leaving some facts out or emphasising others to make the poem work and tell and overall truth rather than focusing on making every finite detail true, but it still can be an effective way of bringing a story to life. Poets shouldn’t shy away from telling others’ stories or avoid topics because they weren’t there to witness it first hand, but should respect their sources and be truthful rather than sensational.

A poem isn’t a diary or reportage, it has to find a new way of telling a story that millions may have already seen on the news. The ease of finding source material also makes the poet’s job more difficult because those details are available just as easily to the poem’s potential readers. That’s the challenge that separates poets from those who like to think they can write: it’s easy to look at a photograph and describe it, harder to look at the photograph’s context and implications and see beyond the photograph’s borders. The real work lies in reading and re-reading sources, thinking over and understanding the stories being read and transforming that source material into a poem.

But there also are occasions where a poet has to step back and allow people to tell their stories in their own words, even if the result feels clumsy or incorporates clichés. Because on some occasions, the story matters more than the form it takes. That’s why the poem read at the funeral I recently attended was better than anything I could have written for that occasion.

“A Force that Takes” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

A Force that takes Edward Ragg book cover

Edward Ragg’s default style is a spare, three short lines in each stanza with use of enjambment to move the reader onto the next line or idea. It’s not his only approach, but seems to be the one where he’s most comfortable. The advantage of this approach is that it gives him space to advance an idea and then think around it and/or give the reader space to think, while the enjambment moves the poem forward. The title poem thinks around the theme of comprehension:

“Each poem has its drama,
whether minuscule or minute,
wherein one voice

or another, the reader
at its table, the paper-weight
and impressing heel

become a force that takes.
The intellectuals and the merchants,
the currency between them.

Theirs is a larger drama
touching the miniscule,
or forced from there,

not prehensile, but feeding,
multiplying, digesting,
like the autolysis of yeast.

One has felt the force
of the offices and shipyards
and sheet metal,

another scorched words at a
study wall, the fury between
them, as a force that takes.

What I have in mind is
your comprehending touch,
waltz of a woman’s hips,

that if the poem has
comprehended anything
it has told us, in so many

words, this is the force
that runs through it, this is
the minuscule we comprehend.”

The poem explores how a reader brings their own baggage and instincts to a poem, taking the relatively small focus of a poem and expanding it into a bigger idea depending on their interpretation and understanding of the poem’s words. This also places a limitation on the poem as the reader restricts their reading to their own interpretation and understanding, potentially closing discussion to another reader’s interpretation. Or creating an argument in a situation where there is no one correct answer: the poem is open to whichever understanding the reader has. It sets the philosophical tone of many of the poems. It’s also difficult to quote extracts from these poems because they present an intact theory arrived at organically and the thread of understanding can get lost if a reader focuses on only one stanza. Their strength lies in their use of a plain vocabulary: Edward Ragg’s intention is to provoke thought in the reader and engage debate. He doesn’t intend to baffle with jargon or multi-syllabic words, an approach which can send a reader to reference books and search engines and the suspicion that the choice of obscure words was deliberate to shift the burden of work to the reader, a little like a pedagogue patronising a student rather than a poet to a reader.

“The Meaning of Failure” considers the necessity of failure to learning and ends:

“If all argument ends
in death, the argument ends.
Yet its very terms

as from a child’s world,
if they will have one, is
of argument without end.

Success is so inessential
and failure a condition
in which we may begin

to make again a world,
as when you pour the tea,
you kiss my cheek,

you walk from room
to room moving in a kind
of triumph barely seen.”

Edward Ragg grew up in England and moved to Beijing in 2007. Some of the poems mark the transition from being a foreigner, hesitant in a new language and customs to settling in and making Beijing home. “Chongwenmen Market” finishes

“I intone in snail Mandarin the prices of eggs,
pork belly, mutton, counting change in the abacus
of a new speech and would like to say more:
something about the colours of the aubergines,
the less recognised fruits, the tastes of them.”

The last line recognises the irony of the fruits being less recognised to the Englishman not the stall holder and the regret at wanting to try what to the speaker are new experiences but frustrated by an inability to find the words to ask. There’s a beautiful tenderness in “For the Love of,”

“and yet the woman I love,
her Chinese hair now bending
under the cooker hood

has made me forget winter,
the month of May, the willow
trees bending the water’s way.”

Edward Ragg manages to combine the philosophical with personal observations without becoming didactic by a careful choice words aimed at engaging the reader. His is an assured, undramatic voice that allows his poems to speak for themselves. “A Force that Takes” is available from Cinnamon Press.


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