18 January 2017 from 6.30pm at Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester.
Review of Jessica Mookherjee’s “The Swell” will appear on 18 January 2017.
Review of Jessica Mookherjee’s “The Swell” will appear on 18 January 2017.
Caroline Smith has drawn on her experience as an asylum caseworker for an MP for her second collection of poems, exploring migration through the lens of bureaucracy. It’s a timely reminder of the barriers and labyrinthine hurdles those seeking asylum have to bend through and also of the inhumane delays the system has built in. The opening poem “On Hold” has the epigram, ‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application.’ It concerns Arjan Mehta who was aged 23 at the start of his application,
“He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.”
The two lines just before the quoted section, “Seventeen years have passed/ with no answer” I didn’t feel were necessary. The gap between the ages of 23 and 40 is more telling: it’s the gap when careers are established and families started. It’s the bureaucratic denial of humanity, leaving a man in limbo: without an answer, he can’t work (legally), if he starts a family, he does so with the risk of separation. Picking up this theme again, “Delay” is a Home Office letter (any identifying details redacted) with the line “I apologise for the delay in processing your clients application.” – the apostrophe is missing in the original. The letter is dated 2015 and refers to an application made in 2006. It goes on to inform the recipient that due to the delay, her client will have to resubmit the form which is now out of date. The correct form is not sent with the letter but the client is directed to the website (without a direct link to the required form) where she will have to find the form, download, i.e. print it, complete it (again) and send it in a provided envelope at her own expense even though she was not responsible for the delay. The provided envelope doesn’t even have prepaid postage.
The inflexibility of forms and their inability to give space to describe lives is explored in “Fault Lines” which asks how two parents would know
“That there would be nowhere on the form to explain
why they had to move to Swaziland
and register his birth at the Portuguese Consulate
in his father’s name and when the work permit
ran out, no choice but to go back,
a mixed race couple to South Africa
where his mother would give him her name
and an Identity card where ‘Father’
was left blank.”
Forms are only part of the process. There’s also the “Asylum Interview” where “she says only what will help her case.” The interviewer notes she says she has a cold.
“He fires questions at her in bursts.
His pen scores the paper
drawing back her cover
like a soft flap of mango skin
exposing her shame
beating yolk orange like a fontanel.
He has realised the truth
but doesn’t correct his notes –
raped by soldiers of the Lord’s Resistance Army:
her immune system has been shot through,
her CD4 count a mere six cells.”
The need to establish the entitlement to asylum is done so without regard for the affect on the asylum seeker of describing their experiences and traumas or the stigma and shame felt. The interviewers can only record what the interviewee says, not what is implied or evident from observation. So the interviewer cannot record she has a badly compromised immune system or that she has been raped, unless she actually puts those things into words. When a language barrier is reinforced with the barriers of shame and stigma, a genuine asylum-seeker may be refused simply because of lack of humane support through the claim process.
Caroline Smith’s strength is in presenting facts, not guiding the reader to think in a certain way. She reveals the processes and leaves readers to decide whether they are fair or not. She doesn’t shy away from difficult cases either. It isn’t widely known that child refugees whose applications are accepted have to re-apply as adults when they turn 18, and can find their applications declined even though they were accepted as children. In “Teenager” a boy was imprisoned after committing a burglary and is now facing release.
“They told him he was now
nineteen and no longer a child
and would be deported with £46.
They asked him which airport
he wanted to go back to
but he didn’t know
what ones there were.
He’d left when he was seven.”
This arbitrary separation of adult and child identities and bureaucratic rules dictating that the adult is regarded as a separate being from the former child, creates injustice.
Caroline Smith doesn’t just look at recently arrived refugees, “Dr Gopal” goes to empty a kitchen bin and discovers “a sudden frost – like the awe of/ seeing her first snowfall in England./ An aubergine had turned old overnight/ a shock of white hair standing straight up/ on a wizened purple-brown head.” It reminds her of dolls she played with at her first English school which leads her into remembering her grandmother making a secret family of paper dolls,
“But Mama had found the box and burnt them.
She didn’t blame her mother.
Now a senior consultant
She lived the model immigrant life –
with a beautiful house in a quiet street:
but she couldn’t stop
the tide of night terrors racing in,
prevent the silhouettes from
curling and peeling in the fires of Entebbe.”
Entebbe is in Uganda and Gopal’s Asian name reveals her as a Ugandan Asian who had to flee after Idi Amin’s declaration in 1972. Even after working her way up to a senior position at work, she cannot leave her children terrors behind. In my review I have ordered the quoted poems into a narrative. In the collection, “Teenager” is much earlier, and the time lines don’t fall into a natural, narrative order. This is a successful approach because it mirrors the difficulties for refugees in telling their stories, the sloughing back and forth as they are twisted and bend through the claims process and the way that, for some, being able to shut away a memory until they are strong enough to deal with it, is an important part of recovery.
The final poem, “Stamps”, is about ignoring the pristine collectors’ sets in favour of the ones postmarked and steamed off their envelopes,
“We wanted the ones
that had made the journey,
that bore the marks of their struggle.”
“The Immigration Handbook” records the marks of refugees’ struggle filtered through the lens of bureaucracy. It shows the stories behind the numbers and reminds us that behind the statistics are humans.
On the rare occasions I’ve had to turn down a review request, it’s generally been because I’ve already reviewed the book or poetry collection offered for review. However, news that Milo Yiannopoulos has signed a book deal with Threshold, made me seriously pause for thought. Milo Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News, led a harrassment campaign against the actor Leslie Jones, which led to him being suspended from twitter, and plagarised Tori Amos’s song lyrics in a book of ‘poems’ published under a pen name, Milo Andreas Wagner. He claimed the quoted lyrics was an intentional artistic statement. I can see why Threshold are willing to take a chance on him delivering a book: he will generate a lot of buzz if not actual book sales.
Why would this be a problem? Why not simply boycott the book?
Threshold are an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Regular readers will have noticed I review Simon & Schuster novels because I’m on their list of book reviewers, i.e. if they publish a book they think will interest me, they send me an ARC. The Chicago Review of Books have stated they will not review any Simon & Schuster books this year. I can sympathise with this.
But it makes me uneasy. I am generally in favour of people having the right to say what they think. However, that right does not extend to the right to abuse and bully others. It does not extend to using a platform to attempt to silence others either. I don’t think it helps other Simon & Schuster authors to refuse to review their books, particularly when they’d already signed contracts (books take a long time to publish) and had no say in the signing of Yiannopoulos or chance to renege on their own contracts if they had known about it.
So I will not boycott Simon & Schuster books, providing I think that the ARC is interesting enough to justify a review. Do you think this is the right decision?
All writers get rejections, even Pulitzer Prize winners. The reasons for rejection vary, but they should be worn as a badge of honour. You don’t get rejections unless you’ve taken yourself seriously enough as a writer to submit your work.
Unless the editor has specifically said so, rejections aren’t about the quality of your work. Often they’re because the editor already had 10 cat poems that week and yours was the 11th, or the editor receives more poems in a week than they can publish in a year or because the editor liked your subject but not the way you wrote about it or liked your style but not the subject.
If an editor’s taken the trouble to handwrite a rejection slip, no matter how illegibly, take note. Give it a few days and then try and decipher the writing. Editors only bother giving a handwritten note for writing that nearly made it into the acceptance pile. It is worth editing your poem and trying again (but give it a couple of months at the very least).
Don’t be tempted to write back and ask the editor why they rejected you or for clarification and definitely do not reduce yourself to the level of insulting the editor. Stay professional.
There are valid reasons for considering self-publishing. A very good one is when editors or agents are rejecting your work because it’s good “but not quite right for them” or they “can’t see a market for it” (and you can). But before you self-publish, take time out to draw up your marketing plan otherwise your self-published work will sink without trace.
Read the submission guidelines, follow the submission guidelines, double check your submission conforms to the submissions guidelines before sending. If you don’t follow the submission guidelines, rejection will automatically follow and it will be your fault.
If you only send out one submission at time, then one rejection is 100%. Send out 12 submissions and one rejection is 8%. Don’t increase your rejection rate by shooting out submissions randomly to editors, but do have several submissions out at any one time. That way one rejection is tempered by 11 potential acceptances.
When you send a batch of poems to magazine A, have in mind a back-up that you can submit them to if they are rejected. If you don’t need Plan B, write more poems that you can send to magazine B anyway.
Don’t wait around for rejections, always be working on another project. Writers write and you don’t need the validation of publication to keep writing. If you can’t face writing another poem yet, write reviews, blog articles, attend open mic evenings and develop an audience for your work.
You don’t get to chose whether an editor selects your poems or not.
Focus on the parts of the process you can control: write, read, improve your writing, read submission guidelines, present your poems professionally, keep submitting.
When we put a call out for submissions for “Welcome to Leicester”, we expected poems about King Richard III, Leicester City Football Club and areas with personal significance for the poet. While the poems started coming in, I began to write a list of topics I wanted the anthology to include in some way. Topics such as the Shoemakers’ Walk, Suffragette Alice Hawkins, adverts taken out to deter refugees in the 1970s and the contrast with events during Refugee Week and Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys’ discovery of DNA fingerprinting. My list became a series of poems, however, if someone submitted a poem on a topic I’d written about, I put mine to one side and did not put it forward for the anthology.
I was pleased to learn that Leicester City Council, Leicester University and the King Richard III Centre have teamed up to study the feasibility of creating a new tourist attraction to tell the story of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys’ discovery of DNA and its significance in the clearing the name of an innocent man and providing evidence to identify the murderer, as reported in the Leicester Mercury.
You don’t really get Eureka Moments
“Complicated” became “Eureka”
at 9.05am on 10 September 1984:
I saw genetic fingerprinting.
It started with a chemist’s set
and sulphuric acid burns
leading to me wearing a beard.
After studies, an invite to Leicester
University gave me a lab,
a part-time technician and freedom.
to study human genetic fingerprinting,
disease diagnosis, inheritance
and evolution of genetic variations.
I proved two fifteen-year-old girls
were murdered by the same killer
but not the chief suspect.
I’d cleared a man’s name.
But the killer was still out there.
We continued testing
and looking over our shoulders.
Potentially the murderer knew
where we worked, where our families lived.
The price of my insecurity was £200:
the payment made for a man
to give a blood sample for a colleague
and mask a serial murderer/rapist.
Two hundred pounds.
Until a drink loosened his tongue.
Then the trial of a man,
of forensic DNA.
If it had failed, my work…
The remainder of my poem can be read in “Welcome to Leicester“.
Journeys in Translation is intended to build on the success of the Journeys Poem Pop-up Library which took place during Leicester’s Everybody’s Reading last October. We took 8 poems from “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”, printed them on postcards and gave them out at Leicester’s Railway Station. We had allocated an hour each day but ran out of postcards on the fourth day. Doubtless some would have taken a postcard thinking it another promotional leaflet and less hassle to accept and move on rather than try and refuse, some of those postcards may have been read before being recycled. The library was about sharing poems. One of the drivers of the original anthology was to reach out and share stories, hopefully enabling others to share theirs.
The practicalities of a quick publication turnaround – the call for submissions went out on 3 September and the anthology was launched on 1 December – meant that we had to request poems in a language common to all three co-editors so the poems could be selected, typeset and proofed in a timely manner for the printers to deliver by the launch date. Raising funds towards practical help was given priority. I feel that was the right decision.
Journeys in Translation gives an opportunity to overcome some of the disadvantages of the monolingual “Over Land Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge.” The 8 poems have been expanded to 13 and the idea is to encourage people to have a go at translating one (or more) of those poems into another language. There is a Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/316952552020172/ and a couple of Journeys in Translation workshops have been held in Leicester where participants were encouraged to have a go at translating one or part of one of the poems and discuss any obstacles to translations or the nature of translation itself. We’ve asked for literal translations so there is no pressure to make a poetic translation (i.e. to try and shape the translation so it reflects the original rhythms and/or sound patterns/rhymes in the English poems). We are also exploring how to translate the poems into British Sign Language – this will probably be done as a video with someone reading the original poem alongside another signing it.
We plan to have an event on 30 September 2017 (International Translation Day) in Leicester where the original poems are read along with some of the translations. There will also be posters on display showing original poems and translations. Most of the original poets are based in or near Leicester. However, it is open for translators not local to Leicester to hold similar events or workshops in their own locality. Our focus currently is on our Journeys in Translation event but we are thinking about how to make the poems and translations visible after the event.
This blog is included in Matthew Stewart’s Rogue Strands’ Best Blogs of 2016. Do have a read of his article and explore the listed blogs – all worth a read. With thanks to Matthew for listing this blog.
Lisa Rizzo’s poems take in on travel, art and family relationships focusing on secrets, things not spoken about, unspoken rules and the impact these have on the people involved. In the poem “Blue Angel” (after the painting by Marc Chagall), which gives the collection its title:
“In a dream-swim under three crescent moons
a house is floating or sinking or settling
into sediment on the sea floor.
It is a blue house; it is always a blue house.
She is my angel and no one else’s.
I can keep her my secret or let her free
into the world. I don’t care whether
she has flown in the window or out.”
The angel isn’t important, but the knowledge the angel exists is. It’s the knowledge or secret that gives the narrator a sense of power, which enables her to let go of the smaller details – whether the house is floating or sinking, whether the angel is entering or leaving – because she can control whether or not she chooses to tell others about the angel. Control in the domestic sphere is picked up as a theme in “Washing Dishes” and the aftermath of an argument,
“A bird trapped in her cage,
approval was the worm
she craved. Not his halfhidden
glance as he turned away,
derision written in the curve of his lips.
But as she wiped that plate dry,
warm from its bath, porcelain
smooth, this time her hand
made the reply
she had never dared speak.”
Readers aren’t given any information as to what the argument was about, because it is irrelevant. What matters is the failure of communication. The husband’s contempt and the wife’s inability to speak her mind have set up a pattern that constricts the couple to dancing around the same argument again and again until one decides to break free. Constriction and boundaries is a theme picked up in “Interlopers” on a visit to the Serengeti (which the poem reminds readers is a Maasai word that translates into English as ‘endless plain’) where the narrator is watching wildebeest and zebra migrate,
“I think in borders,
within such boundaries.
Thankful that, as yet,
no human fence guards
this animal migration.
I turn back.
They thunder on.”
Uncovering secrets can be problematic too. In “The Collector” the poet recalls finding a small newspaper article about a train hitting a car on railroad tracks and the miraculous survival of the car driver, who was the poet’s mother’s friend to whom she’d sold the wrecked car.
“An ambulance had already
taken her away,
but I always imagined her
inside the car
And my mother,
she kept this warning
tissue-stuffed baby shoes,
an envelope cradling
my first cut curl.”
No one knows why the driver stopped on the railroad tracks, whether it was a deliberate act or some failure, such as running out of fuel, with the car. Whatever the current relationship between the poet’s mother and the car driver, it was significant enough for the mother to keep the newspaper clipping with other keepsakes, but hidden away and kept secret. It’s significant too that the poet images the driver parcelled inside the car and unable to speak. It’s a secret that exercises her imagination but she feels restrained from talking about it to her mother. More family secrets are revealed in “My Father’s Hands”,
“left behind by his mother when he was three
pressed against orphanage walls
curled around emptiness
never played with his own children
never stroked or cradled them
only knew how to work”
In “Star Coral” Lisa Rizzo explores the job of the poet,
“until this human
wishing she were innocent
but greedy really
to take this treasure
far from where it belongs
turned it into flotsam
lying lightly in her palm.”
There’s a price to pay whether you keep things hidden and unspoken or uncover and reveal them. Lisa Rizzo’s poems are thought-provoking and compassionate. Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions from carefully drawn scenarios that probe at spaces we don’t always want to explore: secrets and things left unsaid.
“Always a Blue House” is available from https://www.amazon.com/Always-Blue-House-Lisa-Rizzo/dp/0996907440/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1481167402&sr=8-1&keywords=always+a+blue+house from 10 December 2016.