“Stage Invasion” Pete Bearder (Outspoken Press) – book review

Stage Invasion Pete Bearder book cover“Stage Invasion” manages to be a readable, academic survey of performance and spoken word poetry in the UK. Opening chapters explore the origins and history of oral poetry, noticing crossovers between musicians and comedians bringing different disciplines to spoken word, the democratic intents of slams and how spoken word and performance poetry events have been a gateway to an audience for traditionally marginalised poets who have gone on to become published poets, citing Jay Bernard, Kate Fox and Raymond Antrobus among others.

Pete Bearder works towards a definition of spoken word poetry as possessing “a name that betrays and re-presents a history of verbal arts that has existed under many names and many forms throughout history” that has “an emphasis on the spoken (or occasionally sung) performance of written texts” and includes “a heightened recognition of the audience’s role in the reception, ritual and community of performance… and emphasis on reading the poet’s own work, with value placed on identity and authenticity” with “a predominance of accessible language and vernacular speech” and “an innovative engagement with new technologies in the production, publication and dissemination of poetry”. It’s also a “multidisciplinary artistic heritage that incorporates ‘stand up comedy’, ‘dramatic monologue’, ‘storytelling’ and ‘rap’ alongside ‘literature’.” Spoken word poetry also has a “rhizomatic, grass-roots organisational structure, based on the do-it-yourself ethos that consciously seeks to widen access to the verbal arts.” Rhizomes are root stalks that enable new plants anywhere along its structure and is used to describe a leaderless organisation so spoken word has no hierarchy. Anyone can create a spoken word event with as much or as little budget as available and social media enables organisers and performers to reach a wide audience quickly.

Bearder notes that most spoken word poets reject the idea of performance, seeing it as a label that causes division between stage and page poets, a means of exclusion. This is chiefly explored through the lens of Rebecca Watts’ article in PN Review where she set out to explain why she wouldn’t review Hollie McNeish’s book. The article broadened to take a swipe at InstaPoets too but that’s beyond the remit of “Stage Invasion”. Bearder points out that Oxbridge educated Watts, who is not on social media, has access to social capital (i.e. connections and networking opportunities) that BAME or working class women poets don’t. He also notes that most spoken word artists also have other jobs, primarily in education e.g. tutoring workshops. However, school funding has decreased and so has income for artists. A 2018 Create London report shows the proportion of young cultural workers from upper middle class backgrounds at 33% but those of working class origins at 13%. Older poets, particularly those with caring responsibilities, have less opportunity to earn through gigging. This creates an additional barrier for those entering spoken word later in life, who are generally from already marginalised groups. Spoken word needs to find ways of overcoming these barriers so it’s not dominated by younger, middle class, white males. In an earlier chapter, Bearder points out that some who launched their publishing careers through slams no longer participate, which may reflect the additional responsibilities that can come with age and the lack of direct income from spoken word.

A chapter explores approaches to performance, the dichotomy of upper middle classes who tend to be rigid and read from the page (the page creates a barrier between reader and audience, whereas performers working from memory reduce the barrier) and lower classes who tend to gesticulate and move whilst performing. Curiously he cites T S Eliot as an example of the former. Virginia Woolf described Eliot’s idea of dressing down as a three, rather than four, piece suit, but Eliot was also an American trying to pass as an Englishman, therefore, his rigid performances were more likely to stem from self-consciousness, rather than class. He was still a poet with a day job. Better is the in-depth discussion of Hannah Silva’s performance of her poem “Prosthetics”, informed by Bearder’s background as a musician. This is followed by a chapter on audience and performer interaction looking at how spoken word artists can use rhythm, cadence and motor mimicry to enhance the audience’s emotional participation. It works the other way too: good artists can read clues from the audience and respond accordingly.

The chapter on politics explores poets who turn up on picket lines, at anti-fracking, environmental and/or social protests. The rhythms of chants promote solidarity, lighten the mood of kettled protesters and remind people why they were protesting in the first place. The poets deny these actions “preach to the converted”; they affirm, validate and provide a sense of community and support. There’s an in-depth look at Kat François’ “Does My Anger Scare You”. Each chapter has notes and there’s an extensive bibliography in the appendix which also cites online sources including interviews at https://vimeo.com/showcase/5871870.

“Stage Invasion” concludes that “Spoken Word… is a mature and complex cultural asset with its own canon and fields of expertise.” Bearder’s broad survey of the scene backs this up. He notes that while the scene is currently healthy, there are issues around income and diversity that need to be addressed if the scene is to maintain its maturity. Spoken Word merits further academic study and Bearder provides an excellent state of the art survey and groundwork.

“Stage Invasion” is available from Outspoken Press.

This is the 92nd book review I’ve written this year. If I say I will write a review by a date, it will be written to that deadline, unless the book fails to turn up. It shouldn’t take my years of experience to point out that insinuating my deadlines are ‘ambitious’ or that I don’t know what I’m doing (even as a ‘joke’) reflects on you, not me.


“Who Lied about the Mermaid’s Ghost” Chris Hemingway – poetry review

A pamphlet of 14 poems to raise funds for two charities tackling politics with a wry humour. “The Silent Majority” argues that it’s not the fact that there are people who don’t speak out or show no interest in politics, but

“it’s those who claim to speak for them.
It’s not the whispers in the shadows that scare me
it’s those who seek to amplify them.
Its not the faceless bureaucrats I resent
it’s the cash-rich smiles of their critics.
It’s not the border footfall that worries me
it’s the footholds found from it’s exaggeration.”

It pokes at the way politicians claim to speak for a ‘silent majority’ without bothering to find out they think, those who publically declare private (unsavoury) thoughts, those who have money presuming to speak for those who don’t, particularly when what’s being spoken helps disseminate fake news and propaganda when those spreading fake news aren’t honest about their agenda.

“Fictionary” has alternative spellings and definitions for almost-familiar words,

when even the buildings
seem to point and laugh at you.

mindful and armoured.

six pints of lager
then a midday sleep
on the beach.

keeping fit by running from problems,
not sticking around to fix them.”

Near the end, “While U Wait” appears to be targeted at the things you could be doing whilst waiting for a quick service but expands into looking at what happens when you take a wait-and-see approach to life in general,

“As alt-right hipsters post pictures
of croissants baked in the shape of a swastika,
as if it was cool and ironic,
and no-one stops them,
in case it is.

As newspapers battle falling circulation numbers
and common denominators,
by building paywalls.
So that the verifiable fact costs an average
of £2 a week more to access than the freely available alternatives.

for further instructions.
for a sign.
for ever stronger signals.”

Slender, but fun and accessible. Available directly from the writer: www.chrishemingwaytmepoetry.com. Proceeds go to charities Hope not Hate and Cheltenham for Europe


“Light Perception” Beth O’Brien (Wild Pressed Books) – poetry review

Light Perception Beth O'Brien cover imageA poetry pamphlet that looks at disabilities, nystagmus, photophobia a lack of peripheral vision, which leaves the narrator struggling to see in low light and bright lights plus a missing thumb and an arm that can’t turn. In the title poem, “The world is so bright – too bright -/ which isn’t as pleasant as it sounds”. It continues,

“Haziness becomes the only absolute
and I think my eyes just want me to feel
like I don’t have a reason
to hold my head up high.”

Disability doesn’t just make life harder, it can be isolating facing others’ misconceptions or struggle to start a conversation. In “Is that from birth?”, a man watching the narrator starts talking about his cousin,

“‘Well anyway,’ he continues, ‘his limbs are whatever
but he’s still actually such a lovely guy,’
as if being nice is unexpected.”

It shows the level of intrusion the disabled are expected to put up with: the titular question is irrelevant and the narrator has the right to medical privacy. The questioner doesn’t describe his cousin’s disability because he’s realised that the only words to hand are negatives so covers it with “whatever” and fishes for something positive to say. But even that sounds bland and inspecific so lacks credibility. In contrast, in “A silent act of kindness”

“She looked me square in both eyes,
reached for the hand I was trying to hide,
and slipped her hand into mine like it was nothing
and everything at the same time.”

Eye contact provides a connection, yet many shy away from giving disabled people that connection.

The pamphlet is bookended by “Light Perception – part two”

“but learning that everyone has their limits
and these limits aren’t always the same,
even in one person.

I walk, trusting the pavement is out there,
knowing that each road has a safe crossing – somewhere –
and that I’ll find it in time. So will you.”

It’s a positive note. The first poem looked inward, suggesting the narrator didn’t have a “reason/ to hold my head up high”. This one acknowledges that others struggle and starts to trust.

“Light Perception” is an introduction to negotiating the world with a disability and the reactions from people encountered, both negative and positive.The extra burdens the disabled face are laid out and explored. I felt that some of the poems could have been laid out as prose and not lost anything in so doing. However, the authenticity makes this worth a read.

“Light Perception” is available from Wild Pressed Books.


“Cuckoo” Nichola Deane (V. Press) – poetry review

Nichola Deane Cuckoo book co“Cuckoo” implies an outsider, someone who observes and mimics the behaviour of others to appear to fit in despite being aware of their difference. It’s an apt title for a collection of poems which explores and records behaviour through the lens of someone who feels like misfit. In the title poem,

“plight of the new

to haunt us
to the sleeping

(like that? how so?)
with a – wake for a voice,

my loopy echo,
a bit of locus pocus.”

In “First Leave” set 1916, a soldier returns on home leave,

“they saw his clothes, his hair

moving, regiments
still on the march”

An outdoor shower is rigged up while the women of the household are left to boilwash his uniform,

“double-rinsed, mangled
from his sorry kit
with Lifebuoy Soap
all they could
from tunic and britches

of the shit-sweat,
the lice-blood,
piss and jism,
spit and polish,
the petrified sweat,

not singing as they worked,
those girls,
not singing.”

Singing whilst working has two purposes, it gives a sense of rhythm to the work and relieves monotony, plus it gives a sense of community to the workers. The girls “not singing” is significant: each wrapped in their own thoughts dealing with the shock of what the soldier has gone through, the conditions he found himself in and the normalisation of it. If they were washing off lice, sweat and detritus from his uniform, which he hadn’t done before his return, then these conditions were shared by others and had become routine. The assonance of “i” throughout carries a sense of urgency and anxiety.

In “My Body as Accidental Cassandra” a myth gets a modern twist,

“There is always inflammation somewhere in my body.
So how do I know it today? Well, my right arm prickles
at the elbow like a witchy message being tapped
from the ectoplasm, and an epidermal
splutter occurs, a lava, not out of anything I’d call me,
but from some cellular below
that objects even to glancing contact
with spook substances not visible to my eye,
so much so that histamine in white lumps,
cupolas of agitation, pores of Achilles,
are raised against – what?
What foe? Me vs me?

My friend says Nic, you’re allergic to the 21st century.”

The hurried list of reactions is in contrast to the friend’s interjection, but the list is far too interesting to be written off as plain.

The poems in “Cuckoo” take a familiar scenario and give it a refresh, taking one small detail, such as washer women not singing whilst working, and expands and explores it. Nichola Deane’s work is sensory, vividly bringing alive her subjects. The idiosyncrasy is complementary and not whimsical. The poems wear their craft lightly and give the reader space to engage with and interpret them.

“Cuckoo” is available from V. Press.


“at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerassimenko (Rhythm ‘n’ Bones Press) – poetry review

At the Waters Edge Nadia Gerassimenko book cover“at the water’s edge” explores trauma, often in the aftermath of sexual violence, and life with a chronic illness. The collection is not as gloomy as its premise sounds; there are moments of playfulness. Initially the use of lower case throughout looks on trend, but it’s not just a fashion or gimmick. It reflects the sense of uncertainty that victims face: did that really happen, is this abuse? And the worry of being disbelieved along with the fear of being retraumatised by recounting what happened. In “age of confusions” a girl still under the age of sexual consent asks,

“you asked if i like dancing
& wondered if i knew how to drive,
i can touch you, you would say,
& we can go dancing together.
did you even care about my age?”

Later in the poem, the girl continues,

“you asked me for my number
before i would leave at the next stop.
i told you give me yours instead.
you recited numbers i did not even listen
as i leapt out in panicked haste.

what is the age of innocence?
what is the age of harsh reality?
should one be coddled like flowers in a garden
or trained ruthlessly like spartan children?
i cried confusions so much that day.”

Girls often carry the extra burden of policing their boundaries and warding off predatory behaviour. For someone still growing up and discovering themselves, being able to identify a question or action as innocent or grooming (offering compliments or gifts with the aim of opening up someone to eventual abuse) is not straightforward. How can the child’s need to be safe and protected be balanced against their need to grow and becoming independent adults?

“my body is not my body” is ambiguous,

“year forward, i’m in a cold whitewashed room, waiting, you probe & prod part of my body like i’m some dead meat. you show me off to others for kicks. it’s hard to be open, to relax. this reflex never passes.

i’m at the age of my own responsibilities, body & otherwise. i’ve learned all I can about my body parts, my body whole. i know what to do. i can’t – you govern my body.

you tell me it’s all my part of body & there’s nothing you can do. but here, take these pills. they’ll control some parts, for now, as they kill the whole.”

It could be interpreted as about illness and medical examinations. It could be treatment for trauma. It is about the sense of being invaded, physical sensations being separated from psychological reactions. The examiner needs the patient to relax, the patient can’t relax whilst being examined. The ability to trust is lost because the ability to control is lost.

“above below” starts with a play on the name Dolores, which was Lolita’s original name in Nabokov’s novel.

“i am not douleur douloureuse dolores
i am joie de vivre joyeuse joy(ous)”

Before a horizontal line, Dolores refuses to be defined by her abuse. Below the horizontal line, the poem continues,

“my world is six senses guiding heart on fire wet kisses wanted
childlike wonder limbs in pirouettes on body wild & free adventures
everywhere & everywhen twin flames soul mates past in past
present in presence future a gift soul unbound soul infinite soul
souled by soul.

above below
i un/tether
glue my soul
& my body whole”

This girl is a fierce survivor. Throughout the collection there are a series of “dolores” poems, inspired by Nabokov’s novel, Adrian Lyne’s film and Dylan Farrow’s testimony of her abuse. “dolores wishes” starts, “i wanted desperately/ that you believe me” and ends imagining that the people she speaks to will say, “i am sorry. i believe you!/ i stand with you.” “dolores doubted” also looks at the aftermath of speaking out,

“people say, ah, his art!
but look unflinchingly,

see it truly.
a genius is a predator.

our blind spots deliberately
refused to see.”

If the accused is famous or adorned with accolades, some find it more difficult to believe that such a person is also capable of abuse. It is devastating to watch someone win more accolades when a victim has seen a very different side to the genius. Some will dismiss the victim’s testimony because their experience is that the predator has only treated them kindly so they don’t relate to what the victim is saying. However, predators are perfectly capable of displaying the right behaviour to influence others’ opinion of them. They play just as much on bystanders’ doubts as their victim’s confusion over boundaries.

The image of the water’s edge with its blurred, changing boundary and fluid expanse encompasses the collection. From the title poem, “beneath the earth, our roots entwined reaching deeper for/ the core & beyond—to love, to nurture, to protect” and the motif of roots occurs throughout the collection; suggestive of the work done privately, internally towards healing. In “at the water’s edge” Nadia Gerrasimenko a coherent collection exploring trauma and its aftermath as a journey towards restoration and healing. Its quiet tones belie its subjects but, like a small stone sends ripples over a lake’s surface as it plunges into the water’s depths, the poems linger after the collection is finished.

“at the water’s edge” is available from Rhythm ‘n’ Bones.


“Planet in Peril” edited by Isabelle Kenyon (Fly on the Wall) – book review

Planet in Peril book coverAn anthology of poetry and photography on climate change featured poets include Helen Mort, Myra Schneider, Katrina Porteous, Jane Burn, Christopher Hopkins, Anne Casey, Sujana Upadhyay and a selection of young writers aged from 8 to 17. It’s an ambitious project and sectioned into Earth’s Ecosystems, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Human Impact, A not so dystopian future and Our Future – the young writers. Interspersed among the poems are facts, such as “a square kilometre of forest may be home to more than 1000 species. Yet forests are disappearing at an alarming rate – 18.7 million acres of forests are lost annually”, and wildlife photographs and illustrations.

From the first section, Myra Schneider’s “Returning” ends,

“I breathe in the sweet extravagance,
dream I’ll come back as grass or blossom
until a voice in my head mocks with lists
of droughts, names of extinct species. I think
of vanished sparrows and how often the stream
in the park is dry-lipped, the earth pocked
with cracks. And it yawns before me: the possibility
of fescue, flowers, leaves not returning.”

The idea of grief is picked up in Sue Proffitt’s “Kittiwakes” which ends “leaves me bereft -// so few of you left.” Phil Coleman’s abecedary “Red List” is merely a list, “Eastern Hare Wallaby. Eutrophication. Erosion. Extinct. Eleven years./ Falkland Islands wolf. Flooding. Fragmentation. Finning”. Technically has no faults but doesn’t really say anything.

In the section section, The Arctic/Our Oceans, Katrina Porteous’ “Invisible Mending” carries a much needed hint of hope,

“Here is the place where ocean and glacier meet.
Bedrock and grounding line. Sediment, Grit.
The green glaze mineral sheen of life, small tools to fix

Troubles so immense, they can’t be seen or spoken,
Bit by invisible bit.”

The earth may repair itself, but human life may not survive. Dr Craig Santos Perez in “Echolocation” draws a parallel between an orca and human parent,

“We drive our daughter to pre-school,
to the hospitals for vaccinations.
You carry your decomposing girl
a thousand nautical miles
until every wave is an elegy,
until our planet is an open casket.

What is mourning
but our shared echolocation?”

The idea that both humans and nature are sharing in the climate emergency, albeit nature seems to have the worse end of the deal, is a reminder of what’s at stake and also a demonstration that we’re not so different. We mourn, we care for our young, but we’re still living in parallel rather than sharing.

From the third section, Anne Casey’s “where once she danced” is set on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

“she is drowning in a sea awash with cobalt
deadly metals fill the channels where she breathes

her lovely limbs are shackled down with plastics
her lungs are laced with deadly manganese
a crown of thorns to pierce her pretty head
a bed of sludge to lull her in her dreams”

Despite the devastation, the coral is still trying to survive. Like Katrina Porteous’ poem, there’s a hint of hope that it might just survive.

The fourth section, “Do I tell her?” by Leslie Thomas is a sequence on rising CO₂ levels (the publication uses CO2) from the 1800s to the future,

“2019: 415 ppm CO2

“A level unknown to Homo sapiens. Following my family’s
greasy tread, I grown organic potatoes and sell charter time
on private jets, to pay for natural gas.

In 2070, between 500 to 900 ppm carbon dioxide is predicted.

My great-great-granddaughter finds this poem, fading
inside a 100-year-old book telling of global warming.
Do I tell her? Stay on the grid and in the grind. What I know.”

It points to how humans carry out contradictory actions: the organic potato grower also sells flights to survive and put food on the table. Individual actions don’t seem to carry much weight, especially when compared with the actions of corporations and employers, but each action does make a small contribution.

The young writers take a bleaker view. “Animals reversed” by Niamh Hughes (aged 14) considers animals taking revenge, locks are locks of hair in this context.

“My locks are being used to make the kangaroo’s socks.

Mother, mother why have they done so?
Because not long ago
We took their homes, families and fur
And that’s not fair.”

Freya Wilson (aged 10) ends “Don’t Forget” with “Don’t forget that we are the first generation to know that our world is under threat and the last who can stop it” and Amélie Nixon (aged 16) observes in “sleepwalking” that “sleep is the crack between breath and burial,/ the barren gap where mumbles of our insignificance lull us into plastic-coated disbelief.” Ethan Antony (aged 12) has “The Tale of Two Lime Trees”, “The trees were felled, a new pavement arose”. They remind us is it their generation who feel they are carrying the brunt of this.

Overall there are some wonderful poems in “Planet in Peril”, showing the effects of climate change and man made devastation. The poems from experienced and young poets don’t shy away from the effects and the need for humans to change their ways, to halt the damage done and start to repair and adapt before it is too late. What’s missing is how. Yes, poets and other writers need to keep telling these stories, keep reminding humans what’s at stake. However, eloquent hectoring doesn’t always bring about change. There is no easy solution: Leslie Thomas’ potato grower can’t feed his family if he stops selling flights and if he stops, someone else takes on the job. It will take a cultural and behavioural shift. “Planet in Peril” isn’t quite ready to suggest how that could happen, although some of the poems do contain hopeful hints that nature will repair itself even if humans don’t survive.

“Plant in Peril” is available from Fly On the Wall Press.


“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” Christopher Hopkins (Clare Songbirds Publishing) – poetry review

The Shape of a Tulip Bird Christopher Hopkins book cover“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a poetry collection that explores bereavement stemming from a miscarriage which led to a relationship breaking down and how grief gets carried with us. However, it’s not a gloomy, self-pitying collection. From the opening poem, “There’s a Fist Where the Heart Should be”

“The grain in the shape of a bay
I remember.
Searching for a flicker
in the static flesh.”

This is suggestive of an image on an ultrasound and the poem ends,

“I have an ocean of love for you
but there is no shelter on the ocean,

there’ll be no shelter from this.
You’ll say,
your body haunts you.
It haunts us both.
The tiniest muscle gave out
and broke us.”

Few relationships survive the loss of a child. The clarity and frankness of the last two lines is indicative of news that hasn’t yet sunk in or been processed. The emotional impact is a wave in the far reaches of the bay on its way to the shore. Ending the poem at that point gives space for a reader to imagine the coming devastation.

The collection’s title is an odd one: there is no tulip bird, but there are varieties of tulips named after birds which are generally lack the neat, elegant pleats of petals and have ruffled edges like the ragged mess of a wind-ruffled wing, making the flower look like a failed nest. In the title poem,

“I tasted that happy madness of love,
the flame-fretted ache,
that gentle perfection of worry
a mother can make.
I felt the electric join
of womb to soul,
head to heal.”

This nest too failed, but the baby was much-desired. The bounce in the rhythm of the opening two quoted lines, achieved through double consonants, gives way to the slower rhythm of the longer vowels after the pivotal “only”. This reflects the mood change from the initial joy of pregnancy to worries and what ifs. The loss is further described in “My Heart is a Failed City”, “This den of heaven’s gravity/ is a physical hole of absence.” In seeking solace from the baby’s potential grandmother, in “Inside the Tear”, a mother’s “wing was too stretched and hollow/ and the light passed right through it” when she offers one of those stock phrases suggesting an early loss is better than a later one. The mood moves to acceptance in “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones”, “I have asked myself if I gave love too easy,/ then pinched myself heard. To think how much/ I love this speck, this wonderful nothing.”

A note of hope surfaces in “Love / West / Atlantic”,

“The sun break is still faint.
A star un-effecting.
No rays of worth
have yet reached out
to rub a little heat
into the lavender rocks,
stir the flower heads awake,
less the light of cornsilk,
which carries these
delicate birds.”

It’s still cold, but the narrator is beginning to see beauty and birds take flight. The image of the speck from “My Language Has Run Out of Broken Bones,” is picked up again in the last poem “White Feather” “and each star speck/ is a father’s peck/ on a daughter’s head.”

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is a gentle, textured exploration of bereavement. It leaves self-pity out as the poems move from acceptance through heartbreak and emerge on notes of hope. Christopher Hopkins uses pared down language that gives readers chance to absorb and engage with the poems. The bird motif suggests the journey is ongoing and, although loss maybe the flipside to love, it is possible to let the buoyancy of the thermals direct the bereft back to life.

“The Shape of the Tulip Bird” is available from Clare Songbirds.