“Hex” Jennie Farley (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – poetry review

Hex Jennie Farley“Hex” mixes up figures from myth and legend with ordinary people. This isn’t done to bring legends down to size but to elevate the every-day and ask readers to look again at the familiar, focusing on significant, relatable moments. In “Salome”, who was King Herold’s step-daughter, she is eyeing the men in the room, “Look at that fat one/ sprawling on his throne, bloated like a pig”, whilst dancing for them,

“Anything is yours if you will dance for me.
My bare feet slap on marble, my breasts bounce,
my skirts become a frenzied whirl of fire

as the musicians madden to crescendo.
What power I have Anything you want.
Your bleeding head is brought me on a plate.

My eyes feast upon the gore at your gaping mouth.”

Dancing whilst all eyes are on her may make her feel powerful, but when she tests that power by asking for the head of John the Baptist, her focus turns to the blood and gore. It’s left to readers to work out if this is a pyrrhic victory or success. What happens when the music stops?

In “Pearls”, a widowed mother, who’d met her late husband at a tea dance is on a walk with her daughter to find the tree planted in his memory,

“she turns to me, smiles, holds out her hand.
She is a girl again. And to some ballroom music
only she can hear, we are dancing together,
waltzing, in and out of the willows.”

The power of dance to trigger memories is transformative. An ordinary walk becomes magical. Grief can become a celebration of the life loss, not just sadness. There’s a note of regret in “Stone Child, Bone Child” which looks at the life of fossil expert, Mary Anning,

“I have no book-learning, but I’ve
argued with clever men and been
proved right. I’ve had no time
for friends or family. There was
a man once, but nothing came of it.

At the foot of the road to the sea
is a small museum named in my honour.
These labelled specimens will last for ever”

Uneducated because she was girl, she nevertheless built an expert knowledge of Britain’s Jurassic coast and the fossils she discovered. “I’ve had no time/ for friends or family” isn’t just a statement of the choosing a career over family or an obsession for work but a pointer to how unusual that made her for her time and how that was a deterrent for potential suitors. Use of the word “small” to describe the museum suggests it’s not quite the honour it should be.

In “Tea Candles” a shop-lifter, an otherwise invisible, elderly woman, collects things for a tea party she’ll never have and guests who will never be invited so

“no one would ever see inside
the airing cupboard on the landing,
each shelf heaped with bootees,
knitted baby bonnets, plastic
rattles of pink and blue.”

Where unfulfilled dreams become an obsession akin to Miss Haversham’s, who also makes an appearance in “Hex”, wedding dress. The poem questions how well we know people we regularly see and how much attention we pay.

“Hex” takes familiar figures from myth and legend and re-examines them alongside poems focusing on ordinary people who are often overlooked. The poems have a conversational rhythm, making them easy to read because of the skill deployed in choice of words. They are as compelling as a gossiped confession but show compassion rather than malice. Readers are asked to empathise and laugh with their subject, not at it. “Hex” is a collection to return to and dip in.

“Hex” by Jennie Farley is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Writing characters who aren’t good

Guest Post by Amanda Steel

I’m not sure whether it’s a new trend, or something I failed to notice before. In the past year, I’ve read numerous books where the characters (both main and supporting) are not typically good people; either bad or just extremely flawed in some way.

I co-host a book review podcast, and I struggled to review some of these. The Creative Writing MA I am halfway through made me realise this doesn’t automatically make them bad books. However. In one (I won’t name the specific books I didn’t like) the character whinged the whole way through. To be fair, he was in the middle of a zombie outbreak, and I would whinge a bit too. Do people want to read a book where the character complains and feels sorry for himself though?

Another book I read was about a character who lost his memory. The person who he discovered he was, turned out to be a cheat and a creep. He was a much better person without his memory. The other characters were no better. This left me with nobody to root for. I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to any of them. I knew then, something was missing from the main character. Even as a bad guy, he needed something to make the reader want to carry on reading.

After that, I read a book where the main character was someone I was able to feel for (in part) as she continued to make a series of bad choices – digging herself deeper and deeper into trouble. She was more than a little self-absorbed, which was off putting, but she suffered for the things she had done before getting her happy-for-now ending.

These books all helped me to learn what doesn’t work in a bad or not typically good character. Self-obsession is off putting, unless the character has somehow transformed by the end of the book. She/he doesn’t have to become a saint and can still be a little selfish, but character growth is important.

Using a range of characters with little or no redeeming qualities can be hard to get away with too. I’m not saying it can’t be done in a successful way, but the authors of the books mentioned above haven’t achieved it. Having someone good, or much further down the scale of bad is likely to be helpful in keeping readers, otherwise adding charm or an endearing trait to the character could also help.

The most recent book I read where the character wasn’t good, or at least she didn’t do good things, showed me how this can work. Jane Doe is written by Victoria Helen Stone. The book is about a sociopath who wants revenge, even if that revenge might be murder. She’s prepared to kill if she has to. The character is more complex than just being a potential killer though. She wants revenge for a friend, which at least shows she is capable of caring for another person, even if that leads to actions which many people wouldn’t consider. She’s loyal, determined and funny, even though she doesn’t mean to be humorous. There is a raw charm in her personality. The other characters are not sociopaths, but the author has portrayed them as more twisted and deserving of punishment than Jane. So, Jane was the one I was rooting for and I genuinely wanted to keep reading, as I hoped things would work out for her no matter what she chose to do in the end.

Reading these books has shown me as a writer how to (or how not to) write flawed characters who can hook the reader. This is why writers should also be readers. We can learn from so much from books, even bad ones. That’s why Stephen King says that if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.

Amanda Steel is a multi-genre author, sometimes writing under the pen name Aleesha Black. She is the co-host of “Reading in Bed” with her partner, Andy. For more information about Amanda, visit her website. www.amandasteelwriter.com

“The Submerged Sea” J S Watts (Dempsey and Windle) – poetry review

J S Watts The Submerged SeaA pamphlet of 15 poems centred on images of the seas that explore both the natural, physical nature of sea and use sea as a metaphor. “Night Notes on Sea (British Coast)” is physical, contrasting its daytime appearance where it reflects the colours of sky and seaweed with its appearance at night,

“It’s blue, it’s green, it’s brown,
grey, slate, pewter and all the shades in between.

But at night the lights go out,
unless the coast provides them
and then it’s unsubtle fairy lights
reflecting on the black sleekness
that prowls beneath.

The British sea at night is
black – nocturnal.
It does not crave attention.”

The poem suggests during the day, the sea is eager to please as if knowing it has an audience. At night it comes something more menacing, “black sleekness/ that prowls beneath” but the real menace falls in the last line where the sea, still active, has lost its empathy.

“The Flotilla of Lost Words” explores sea as metaphor,

“The surge of waters
Dragged in her wake broke
The words I had prepared
From their safe moorings.
Now we are all over the shop
With the never ending slip slop slop
Of water still trying
To suck on my toes
And my words floating away
On little paper boats
Each a small white flame
Sailing off to find the moon
Where she floats in the moist dark
Sky above the sea.”

A writer is merely a vessel for their words. I like the image of “broke/ The words I had prepared/ From their safe moorings” and the “small white flames” that the paper boats become. I would have liked a more apt image in “Now we are all over the shop”. It’s an occasional weakness that occurs in other poems too, where the initial image has been captured (such as “twinkling like diamonds”) instead of the poet stretching for something more arresting, such as some of the images from “More Songs from the Submerged Sea,”

“It is the under-tow, though,
that should worry you,
clawing back memories
like a sinking man claws for the sky.
A sudden tug below the knees
and you are the sea’s drowned darling,
pulled backwards beyond your birth.

Like the waves rolling forward
to tomorrow
and back
to the waters of their making.”

“The Submerged Sea” may be slender but the poems explore multi-facets of the sea with a strong sense of rhythm and sound patterns. The collection asks readers to look again at the familiar in a different light and question assumptions without repeating an idea. Its slenderness becomes a strength and a selling point.

“The Submerged Sea” is available from Dempsey and Windle

“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

party-in-the-diaryhouse-final“Party in the Diaryhouse” Chris Hemingway (Picaroon Poetry) – poetry review

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is split into four unnamed sections introduced with a couplet. The first, “There’s a party in the diaryhouse tonight./ Full of drunken words, and uninvited memories.” The poems that follow aren’t just personal recollections or an autobiographical journey because Chris Hemingway seems far too interested in other people, especially musicians, to focus solely on himself. In “Freezeframe” Manny is asked to describe three of his favourite movie scenes,

“’Interesting’ said Dr Richards,
‘All three feature characters
who have passed through,
or are about to pass through
violent thresholds.
Is that important to you?’

‘Maybe’ said Manny
‘But I see film as a series of still,
not moving, images.
It’s why I don’t like animation,
the maths scare me.’”

It’s a reflection on how we all see memories as snapshots of significant incidents rather than a continuous rolling scroll. It enables us to lift a scene out of context and become aware of what formed us and what matters to us. It’s also about control. When things move independently of us, we’re not in control of them. The language might be casual, but the ideas it expresses are thought-provoking.

The second section, “If I had my time again tonight,/ I’d still be wasting moments, as if there still were centuries,” picks up on the theme of whether we would change our lives even with the benefit of hindsight. “You Cry Out in Your Sleep” is addressed to Ian Curtis, the late lead singer/songwriter of Joy Division whose affair with a music journalist broke his marriage to Deborah, the mother of his daughter,

“Annik murmurs by your side.
You’re glad she’s here but,
even when there’s no trust left
something still feels like betrayal.

Glimpsed, speeding
as if in the rear view mirror.
Responsibilities beyond your wildest dreams
however far you stretch.”

The poem captures the dilemma Ian Curtis felt he couldn’t face: he couldn’t move forward but couldn’t go back either. His epilepsy medication contributed to his sense of stasis. The contradiction in the penultimate line is very apt: wildest dreams don’t usually encompass responsibilities.

The third section, “There was a universe alone tonight./ Free of fallen stars, and other people’s galaxies” turns its focus to musicians, notably Bowie and The Beatles, in “Looking for Echoes”

“The music came from America.
In a steamer port it lands.
Amplified in pawnshop electric.
Smoothed by variety hands.
Jesus limelight bullets.
Postcards from Paris or Spain.
Alone on the roof of the city,
a blind man sits painting the rain.

Echoes in the dockwind,
as it blows down Matthew Street.
Echoes in the reverb
rumbling round our feet.”

The fourth section, “If you hadn’t telephoned tonight/ I’d still be finding fear, in temporary families,” explores the meeting of past and potential future, a pause to take stock. In “After the Blues”

“The tokens of our journey
sit behind glass,
or as if behind glass.
The hallway littered with tambourines
and xylophones.
Now we’ve stepped on
from every blues song we sung.
We woke up one morning
not quite believing
we could be getting it right.”

“Party in the Diaryhouse” contains compassionate poems that use conversational language to communicate poignant, nuanced ideas without being didactic. It doesn’t matter if the readers aren’t familiar with the musicians, the poems still convey the character and ideas with precision and rhythm.

“Party in the Diaryhouse” is available from Picaroon Poetry

“Unable Mother” Helen Calcutt (V Press) – poetry review

Unable Mother Helen CalcuttThe poems in “Unable Mother” focus on the not-so-rosy notions of motherhood: the doubts, fears, questioning and sense of failures. The language is precise and allows the poems to build layers of insight. The second poem, “God”, starts with the image of planting a tulip bulb and watching it grow (much of the growing happening underground and out of sight),

“as the suckle of sleep, as a child warms
to the yolk of a breast,
it warmed to the air it repeated.

It comes back, year on year.”

The poem ends,

“Even when I sit in the shadows
of the house
and the trees are looping through

with not a single path that’s lit to see you –
it’s the promise of what you are,
what you will become.”

The shadows suggest uncertainty and the sense that no mother knows what her baby will become. Much of motherhood is about nudging and steering a child in the right direction. A moral compass can be passed on but no one knows in advance where a child’s strengths and talents lie. The metaphor of a gardener planting a bulb with the faith that it will flower but also the doubt and uncertainty that it will is very apt.

“Melon Picker” starts “Death touched your feet/ with its wing.” and continues

“Could I ever
understand the pain
of broken feet? Where you knelt

under the night’s drunken expanse,
bleeding the lines

you walked, you wept…
sheer tiredness
was the thing that killed us

as it killed you then.
Seeing the same sun

bloat gold,
over black boulder seeds,
knocking like enormous breasts.

To greet the toll
that carried the dawn,

lifting your song-lines
and you
back, to the barren harvest.”

It explores the physicality of grief and loss, and the exhaustion that goes beyond a broken night’s sleep. The images carry a weight of tragedy and aloneness, ending on the emptiness of a “barren harvest”.

The title poem explores longing and disappointment,

“I’m unable to feel
I’m creating a daughter.
In my head,
this thing is a boy,

it sits on a throne,
and like a thrush sings
about the spittle of its bones.
It’s like squeezing
flesh and fruit from the bone,
this terrible love.”

Like planting a bulb, a pregnant woman is never sure that the baby will be as she imagines as she prepares for its arrival. For fathers, the baby is still a fairly abstract notion before the birth, but a mother can feel the baby moving, stretching and hiccupping. If image and reality clash, there’s a sense of bereavement. The language is spare and unflinching but not judgmental.

“Anvil” touches on the ultimate unable mother, who suffers a miscarriage,

“into the blow of the smite
that buried you like winter.

In my bed,
skin-clots furred.
Blood

climbed
throat, and lip. My mother’s shadow
danced on the wall. “

The poems are intimate in their offerings of insights and draw from considered experience using precise, spare language to explore vulnerability and to seek clarity. It’s good to see the less-explored side of motherhood expressed with compassion and intelligence.

“Unable Mother” is available from V Press.

Poet Voice

Poet voice is loosely defined as when a poet adopts a lilting cadence, mostly end lines on down-notes and introduce pauses within sentences where they aren’t necessary. The affect is that, to listeners, the poet’s voice is flattened so listeners can’t use the poet’s rhythm and tone to identify the more dramatic parts of the poem and the poem loses its musicality. Frequently it turns audiences off because it makes the poems harder to hear.

How can poets avoid using poet voice?

  • Don’t copy other poets. Do go to readings for inspiration and to listen to how other poets deliver their poems, but think about what made a good reading, what made a boring reading and what elements are worth adapting for you.
  • Focus on each individual poem and what story it tells or what emotions it evokes or which images you particularly want to draw attention to. How will you convey this for each poem you read?
  • Select your poems carefully: if you use a humorous poem after a few serious ones, you will change the tone and rhythm of your reading. Intersperse some newer poems amongst a group of themed poems.
  • Don’t put up barriers between you and your audience. You may be up on stage, but your audience want to feel engaged rather than patronised. They want you to succeed by using your voice to invite them on stage with you (not literally, but by treating them as friends rather than patronising them).
  • Does it help you to think you are performing your poems or reading them? For some, adopting a persona and performing each poem helps when giving a poetry reading. For others, focusing on reading the poems and not trying to perform eases that self-conscious feeling when reading to a group. Know which works for you and make it work for your audience.
  • Avoid comparing yourself to or trying to sound like other poets. Your comparison should be the last reading you did and making improvements for the next. There’s little point in putting all that effort into creating a unique voice for your poem and then flattening it with poet voice.
  • Always rehearse before a reading, even if speaking aloud is part of your writing process. Rehearsals force you to think about the pace of the reading both for individual poems and as a whole, you have to think about where you’re going to pause to breathe and for effect and the order of the poems you’re reading. How are you going to hold your interest? If you can’t, your audience will get bored too.

Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire.

Call for submissions in a book about Leicestershire

Editor: Jon Wilkins
Publishers: Dahlia
Deadline for abstracts: 31 January 2019

It’s so strange how words affect us. I was reading my favourite Francophile crime writer, Cara Black’s latest paperback, “Murder in Saint Germain”. Her hero Aimee Leduc scoots around Paris solving crimes. Paris is the key, the second most important character in her books, but I digress. As background in the story, Aimee’s partner Rene, mentioned Georges Perec and his writing. Apparently, Perec spent three days in St Sulphice, Paris, watching and recording. From that came “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris” which is an amazing piece of work. Which is where you come in I would like to invite Leicester related topics to appear in “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” They can be pieces on:

* The City
* The County
* The People
* Places
* Ideas
* Past
* Future
* Fantasy
* Social history
* Sport
* Food

Or anything else you can think of. It can be a ghost story set in the city, a short story about your love of Leicester City FC, a poem about one of the green spaces, there are no hard and fast rules, but it must be PASSIONATE about Leicester or Leicestershire. It should show your LOVE of the city, so I invite submissions from writers in any of the following forms:

* Fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Poetry 50 lines maximum
* Short Story 2,000-4,000 words
* Flash fiction 100-500 words
* Creative non-fiction 2,000-4,000 words
* Essay 2,000-4,000 words

Contributions in your native tongue are welcome alongside a translation.

* There is NO publication fee. Each contributor will be provided two complimentary copies of “Our City or An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Leicestershire” in 2019.
* You retain the copyright in your Contribution.
Please send completed submissions, along with a short bio-sketch to leicesterstories@btinternet.com You will be given the opportunity to read your work at the launch event in October 2019.

Deadline for abstracts: 31 January, 2019.

#ShareYourRejections

I’m not going to share mine. Rejections are boring. I don’t think it’s helpful to hear that a published poet got so many rejections for her first book but kept going because:

  • Success isn’t just about persistence and tenacity
  • The try again and keep going message can give false hope
  • It implies rejections stop when you reach a certain level of success

Persistence and Tenacity

  • Some editors simply don’t like your poems. It’s possible to appreciate the craft and technical skills in a poem but not actually like it. Don’t give up at the first rejection, but if a magazine invariably rejects your work, move on and find an editor that likes your work.
  • Sometimes poets send out their poems too early which is why it’s worth finding a beta reader, workshop or writers’ group so you can get feedback on your work before you send it out to editors.
  • Editors don’t have time to give feedback on poems. It’s frustrating not knowing why you’ve been rejected but it’s more likely to be that your poems weren’t the right fit or too similar to work already accepted or the editor gets more poems in a week than she can publish in a year.
  • Do your research: find magazines that you like reading and that publish poems by poets you like and try them first. Check you’re not sending your traditional sonnets to a magazine that prefers prose poems. Continually sending prose poems to a magazine that only publishes villanelles wastes your time and irritates the magazine editor.
  • Don’t compare your failures with others’ successes. You don’t know how many times that poem was rejected before it was accepted. You don’t know how many rejections they got that week they posted about an acceptance on social media.
  • There are more poets than places to get published.

The False Hope of Try Again and Keep Going

  • It’s worth trying again if you’ve only had one rejection from a magazine and if you’ve done your research and think your poems are a good fit for the magazine.
  • It’s not worth trying again if there’s a mismatch between your poetry style and the magazine’s poetry style. Don’t get trapped into thinking you’re not a poet if you’ve not been published by The New Yorker or Poetry Review.
  • When you get a rejection, always re-read the poems that have been rejected. A fresh look might help you notice the awkward phrase in the second stanza or that the last line isn’t necessary. Edit and submit to another magazine.
  • If an editor doesn’t like your poems, they aren’t going to change their mind on the twentieth submission. Try another magazine.
  • If you’re getting good feedback when you perform your work but get rejected by magazines, chances are your performance is bringing something to your poems that’s absent on the page. Consider how to represent the missing element or consider recording your performances instead.
  • One rejection of a poem doesn’t imply there’s anything wrong with the poem. Multiple rejections of the same poem imply that it might be unfinished. Consider an edit or seek feedback before trying again.
  • Are you really a prose writer who wants to be a poet? Someone with amusia will never be a successful singer no matter how much they want to be, how many times they try, how frequently they change vocal style in the hope that their failure at opera will turn to success in pop, their failure at pop will turn to success in punk, how many hours of practice they do, how adept they get at using auto tune on their vocals or if they stalk the record label owner. However, there’s nothing to stop them becoming a successful drummer. You don’t have to stop writing poems just because your stories are more successful, but, when it comes to getting published, focus on where your talent actually lies.

Rejections Don’t Stop

Most of the magazines that accepted my poems in my first years of trying to get published no longer exist. The publishing landscape is forever changing: existing magazines change editors or fold and new magazines start. Being a published writer means being alert and open to new opportunities and that means potential rejection. Rejection can be minimised by doing your research, only submitting to markets where you know your work’s a good fit and knowing that you’re sending off the best versions of your poems, but it can’t be entirely eliminated.