“All the Relevant Gods” Robin Houghton (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

relevant_gods“All the Relevant Gods” ranges from schooldays to office work to abandoned buildings with a sharp eye for telling details. In “The long-haired girls”,

“They examine for split ends daily,
sucking them better, and if they think
you haven’t noticed, they’ll let it down

before you can blink, shake it all free,
make you look at the sly dip and drop
of curtains across one slow eye.”

The deceit implied in sucking the hair to cover split ends sets up the idea that the curtain of hair at the end hides something conniving and sinister as teenaged girls can be.

The title poem takes readers into the world of work,

“I’m as passive as the laptops around us.
But Sagra is tall,
higher than the jungle canopy
up on a Mayan pyramid
high on chocolate with Itzamna and Ixchel.
She breathes rainforest and speaks sky,
more miraculous than the giant hummingbird
drawn in desert grit
.                                          and I know this:
every morning
her sly lump of an English boyfriend
must grope out of Sagra’s fragrant bed,
examine the cold play of mirror
and thank all the relevant gods
for whatever she sees in him.”

The details build up the contrast between the exotic and the plainness surrounding Sagra, although these details are as much about her observers than they are her. An underlying theme is the dehumanisation of office work: the passive laptops, “the cold play of mirror”, the “lump of an English boyfriend”.

There are echoes of history in a concrete bunker in “Searching for the Police Tower, Orford Ness”

“The police left in a hurry. Undercover barn owls
in the eaves of Test Lab 5, wait for the ghosts
of scientists to magic saltpetre into freshwater.
What are we looking for, among the unexploded
ordnance? What is there left to find? Radio tower,
police tower, old business? Spat out onto shingle
with the rest, like every wreck itself to water.”

It’s refreshing to read a pamphlet willing to experiment with voice and style instead of tightly winding poems to a theme or restricting form to give poems a uniform feel. There’s a sense of prayer throughout too: whether to the long-haired girls who seemed to have life sussed, Sagra’s confidence or to the scientists in Test Lab 5 in their testing the evidence. This comes with an acknowledgement of humanity too: the long-haired girls’ endless quest for split ends, that Sagra’s confidence may hide nerves and that Test Lab 5 has fallen into decay.

All the Relevant Gods is available from Cinnamon Press.

Poetry Reading Emma Lee Leicester Writers' Showcase


“A Witness of Waxwings” Alison Lock (Cultured Llama) – short stories review

“A Witness of Waxwings” is a collection of 20 short stories, some under 1000 words, on a range of topics from the natural world, selkies, clocks, a girl with Olympic ambitions and King Knut who knows it is folly to attempt to govern the sea but is distracted by worry about his queen, returning from a sea journey. In one of the longer stories, “Blue”, an elderly Edith has failed in her search to find the baby she was forced to give up for adoption. Through the fog of dementia, she remembers through fragments and pieces together how her baby was conceived in rape.

In the title story, a woman watching a documentary on waxwings on an small isolated island, she recognises the birdwatcher captured on camera and remembers the abuse he doled out to her. Not having bruises for proof, she found it impossible to tell her side of the story.

“Creels” sees a mother and daughter fleeing domestic violence. The daughter had kept her father’s phone number in her battered soft toy. Her father made her promise she would phone and tell him where they were. A helpful receptionist repairs the toy and the daughter discovers the piece of paper with her father’s phone number is no longer in the toy. It’s not until she frees a lobster from a creel she understands when she and her mother left.

In “Dissonance”, a badly-maintained clock that has a line of mannequins appear on the hour, appears to hold the town’s fate in its hands. Tradition states if the clock stops, the town will burn as it did once before. During the annual carnival celebrating the town’s burning after the great fire, the clock’s hourly parade judders, causing panic for one witness whilst others have forgotten its significance.

“A Shift of Light” follows Glenn as he returns to clear out his late parents’ house. A act that triggers memories of his sister, the girl who wanted to be an Olympic swimmer, who sneaked out of the house at night to practice in the local lake, determined to be the first to swim from one side to the other. He returns to the lake for the first time since childhood. Memories surface, he calls out.

Each story offers a transformation, sometimes literally, where a main character has to accept and understand their past and its effect on their future. Alison Lock brings a poet’s eye for details, offering sparingly, which enable a reader to imagine the scene whilst leaving the reader enough space to engage with the story. Each bears re-reading too. “A Witness of Waxwings” is a skillfully crafted collection of engaging short stories.

“A Witness of Waxwings” is available from Cultured Llama

Verbs that Move Mountains book coverVerbs that move mountains is a glimpse at the way poets, promoters and storytellers engage with spoken word around the world. The anthology includes histories of specific scenes, hard looks at how to make spoken word a more accessible and open space in terms of sexuality, mental health, indigenous languages and more…. Academic analysis co-exists with personal reflections. Current topics, such as the ethics of honesty in slam poetry, or the very real dangers faced by many poets around the world, are also discussed. These essays give you snapshots of scenes from Singapore to New Zealand, via Leicester and Palestine.

Verbs that Move Mountains is Available here

“The White Crucifixion” Michael Dean (Holland Park Press) – novel review

“The White Crucifixion” is subtitled “a novel on Marc Chagall” and is split into parts that explore Marc Chagall’s beginnings as a painter, his first stay in Paris, his return to Vitebsk, his promotion to Director of the Vitebsk School of Art and then his return to Paris. The structure is linear as it follows Moyshe Shagal (not yet Marc Chagall) from childhood in Vitebsk where he first learns to paint, to discovery in Paris, a muted return and fatherhood in Vitebsk, where he is trapped as war breaks out and finally Chagall’s return to Paris as his rival wins dominance.

Michael Dean’s novel blurs the line between fiction and creative non-fiction in that the events are based on Marc Chagall’s life but the conversations and reactions are fictional. I imagine, too, that the cast of characters has been limited because the named characters have an impact on Chagall’s life and some resurface as the painter moves from Vitebsk to Paris and vice versa. This approach means that the tension and drama in the novel is not based on events in Chagall’s life, since a biographical overview is widely known or available after a quick online search, but relies on the interactions and Chagall’s reactions to them.

Moyshe Shagal is born to a herring-schlepper and a grocer and carries a guilt about a younger sister’s death, believing her to have choked on a piece of charcoal he’d given her. His mother, the grocer, is actually the main breadwinner and she allows him to go to art school. It’s through art school that he finds himself mixing with teenaged children from the richer areas and how he meets his future wife, Bella. Bella’s parents, who own a jewellery shop, are not initially impressed with the idea of their daughter marrying a painter but don’t prevent nuptials. Moyshe is invited to Paris where he joins an artists’ community and is discovered by a dealer. Bella joins him. She vacillates between becoming a writer or an actress and fails to pursue either. Readers only see Bella through Chagall’s eyes and he fails to appreciate the limitations she faces and, at times, she becomes merely someone to share a bed with rather than a fully-formed character. There is a good sense of the rivalries, camaraderie and petty jealousies that dog an artists’ community. There’s also a good sense of what it means to be an artist, “I cannot lose the totality of myself in Bella because something of me must always remain outside and aloof from anything which is not my art.”

It is back in Vitebsk that Bella gets her break as an actress but is thwarted by a sprained ankle. The sprained ankle seems to trigger labour, which feels surreal because Chagall failed to notice his wife’s changing body during her pregnancy. Nonetheless, Ida in welcomed into the Chagall household. Chagall gets what he thinks is a break when invited to be director at the new Vitebsk People’s Art School. However, he soon discovers his title doesn’t confer any actual power. He tries to resign but Bella urges him to hang on. Her panic attacks have made her agoraphobic and, some days, bedridden. This isn’t explored or explained and Chagall doesn’t seem bothered that his wife, happy to explore Paris and nurture ambitions, is reduced to one room in their apartment at the school. At this time, against the back-drop of the First World War and Russian Revolution, Chagall describes his paintings as “documents”, recording a Jewish world which is being destroyed. As soon as travel restrictions are lifted, the Chagalls return to Paris and the story can re-focus on art, building towards the painting “The White Crucifixion”.

On occasion the drama is undermined. After an attempted suicide by Indenbaum in the Paris artists’ colony, readers are told “During the course of his long and by and large contented life, Indenbaum never did anything remotely like this again.” On another, when Chagall is facing starvation, he is rescued in the next paragraph, the sense of danger passes too quickly.

The novel is at its strongest when depicting La Ruche artists’ colony in Paris and exploring Chagall’s inspirations and motivations to paint. It succeeds as an evocative, layered story of one man’s drive to describe his world through art. Its subject isn’t just about the painter and his work but an insight into Jewish history through the lens of Chagall’s subjects – often based on Jewish tales and proverbs – and how the Russian Revolution, initially seen as a positive, anti-oppressive move, became another means of oppression.

“The White Crucifixion” by Michael Dean is available from Holland Park Press

Please Hear What I’m Not Saying

Please hear what I'm not saying poetry anthology to raise funds for MINDThe “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” poetry anthology will be released on 8 February 2018 and includes 116 poets from around the world exploring a range of mental health issues. Editor Isabelle Kenyon said “I knew I wanted to work collaboratively with other poets and it was actually the theme of mental health for a collection, which came to me before the idea of donating the profits to charity MIND. This was because I knew how strongly people felt about the subject and that it is often through writing that the most difficult of feelings can be expressed. I think that is why the project received the sheer number of submissions that it did.”

She discussed how she selected the poems, “In some cases of course personal taste came into my selection, but I tried to be as objective as I could and consider the collection as whole. I wanted the book to have as many different personal experiences and perspectives as I could find. Because of this, I have not been afraid to shy away from the ugly or the abstract, but I hope that the end of the book reflects the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for mental health and that the outcome of these last sections express positivity and hope.”

Every poetry acceptance is a delight, but, on occasion, some strike a deeper chord than others. Editor Isabelle Kenyon’s acceptance of my poem, “The Gift of Sadness”, was one such occasion. I had a friend who edited a music magazine that also took short stories (and very occasionally poems because my friend wasn’t a fan of poetry). Our tastes overlapped and we shared news and gossip about bands, commiserated each other on rejections, I wrote reviews for her magazine and occasionally she’d take a poem. Her story stories were published by magazines and she’d been working on a novel. We were geographically 100 miles apart so contact was online, by letter or by phone. It seems ironic she is commemorated in a poem, but I have also written a published short story inspired by her. Even now, I have to catch myself as I reach for a phone to tell her about some new song that I know she’d have loved if she were still here to hear it.

An extract from my poem appears below:

Your parents’ words were a hollow
you’d retreat into until I could tug you out
with a ribbon of cassette tape,
wrap it into a vinyl spiral,
a stylus needle to stitch words
with music, wishing I could
get you to spiral out instead of in.

More information on MIND here. More on “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying” here.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” Eleni Cay (Eyewear) – poetry review

A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese WordsEleni Cay is a Slovakian-born poet living in the UK. Her first collection, “A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age,” was written in Slovak and translated into English. Her subsequent two collections were written in English and this is her third English collection.

Having worked on the Journeys in Translation project, the challenge of translating is something I’m interested in. In prose, there’s space for an explanatory translation. Poems don’t offer that luxury.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” takes 23 Japanese words considered untranslatable, although there is a line of English explanation for each word presented as an epigram to each poem which explores the concept behind each word. It begins with “Aiki (合気)” defined as ‘blending/harmonising opposing forces within oneself”. The narrator commands time to

“numb the deeply entrenched,
and yet, elusive, memory of you.

I would make love colourless, remove
all signs and symbols that denote the
pulsing space between two people.

But, alas, until the glory of Time departs,
we will set, we will rise,
like a phoenix from the ashes
of its counterparts.”

It captures the competing desires to forget a former love and move on whilst remembering how good it made you feel and whatever it was that attracted you in the first place (even if you can no longer see it). The long vowels in the opening part of the quote keep the rhythm slow underlining the poem’s sense of pondering around its subject until the final stanza where the rush of “s” sounds, “a” assonance and rhyme of “departs/counterparts” rightly feels like an intrusion as attempts to bury a memory fail and it refuses to become dormant.

“Ikigai 生き甲斐” is defined as ‘a reason for being; the sense that it is worthwhile to continue living.’

“Every night I present my body in soft Egyptian cotton,
together with the wild tangos I no longer dance.

Assuming a defenceless posture, I lay open my soul,
let the Moon, for a whimsical while, take me to the stars.

In the morning, when all the magic is returned to the sky,
I put on a clean shirt to protect me from having to relive

the sacrifice. With no time to grieve,
I accept that dreams promise more than life can give.”

The poem feels more like a resigned acceptance than a sense that shifting from the nightly world of dreams into daily living is a worthwhile thing. I confess I was distracted by the “wild tangos I no longer dance” because the poem leaves me having to speculate as to why and the question isn’t answered. I do like the echos in “relive/grieve/give” but it doesn’t really convey a sense of importance. More successful is “Seijaku 静寂” defined as ‘Literally quiet (sei) tranquility (jaku), silence, calm, serenity (especially in the midst of activity or chaos)’.

“The dawn surrenders to the sun,
personifying what we become
when we fuse into me.

A Maltese cat
folded in the windowsill
breathes heavily
like a new-born child.”

A cat is perfect here: when not asleep, they are watchers, a patch of stillness amidst movement. Their natural independence and self-sufficiency creates a sense of aloofness and separation from what’s happening around them.

Over a book-length collection, the concept would grow weary, each poem becoming less of a surprise. But, constrained by being a pamphlet, the length is right. There are still surprises. It can also be read by dipping in and out at random. While the odd poem, e.g. “Ikigai” feels a little underdeveloped, there are far more successes.

“A Small Love Dictionary of Untranslatable Japanese Words” is available from Eyewear.

“A Butterfly’s Trembling in the Digital Age” Eleni Cay (Parthian) – poetry review

A Butterfly's Trembling in the Digital AgeEleni Cay’s first collection translated from the Slovak by John Minahane. A butterfly is a contradiction: both a beautiful distraction and capable of starting a tsunami. As a symbol to explore the transition from a pre-social media era to one dominated by selfies and shares. “Black-and-white QR Codes” looks at quick responses, “an icon may suffice for what you feel” where an image stands in for the effort required in selecting the right words and typing them. The poem ends,

“The path to the church is crumbling.
We’re praying in new codes.

A noisy drier substitutes
for colourful washing out the back.
Currently what we produce
is sort of white-and-black.

The poem’s lost in the dictate of new modes
with no colour, no life –
like those QR codes.”

There’s a note of regret in that speeding up our lives – using a drier instead of hanging clothes to dry – interactions also get speeded up and an off-the-peg symbol replaces a gift of words. In “Caribbean Blue” the narrator prepares to take a photograph,

“‘Quick or I’ll be on someone’s Facebook page.’

What do we still have that’s original,
unpublished, in ourselves?
Azure sea,
I dreamed a dream of you.

I know I’ll never capture in poems
what I saw with closed eyes.”

The artifice of the photo reflects the artifice of social media where photos can be edited and filtered to reflect a dream rather than reality, where we compare our mundanity to other’s false, ideal and carefully editors lives. Later “Photographers” sets up the idea “The paparazzo paralyses moments/ kills them right before your eyes.”

“Thus the photographer forces moments
and makes the lens, already little, smaller.
He’s like a question mark
with that heavy gear on his shoulder.

Strip and exhausted moment naked?
The paparazzo can.

By the angle of vision you know the wisdom of the man.”

Deliberately catching someone off guard or provoking them for a reaction and presenting that picture to the media can create a distorted image of the subject, make or break a reputation. In some cases, seeing the real person behind a manufactured image can be justified, but, how many ordinary people caught up in circumstances they had no control over have found themselves given a false narrative and pushed into being a stereotype because they didn’t have a PR agency to amplify their voice?

“The Essense of Life is Movement” notes that change is inevitable,

“In the big city,
confusion, noise, movement,
the lost aroma of bread
that’s never warm.
You seek your own self
at so many addresses mislaid.”

It ends

“One slip and you’ll fall in the sea.
Those same drops will drown you,
the splendid summer rain.
On the move.
From above.”

It’s conclusion is open. Collectively, the poems invite readers to consider the moments of beauty, to pause and notice the butterflies, to remember that technology is a tool.

“A Butterfly’s Trembling in a Digital Age” is available from Parthian.

Who are you invisible to?

Who are you invisible to? This was a question asked at a meeting of Leicester and Leicestershire writers’ groups that took place towards the end of last year. Here’s some answers:

The Leicester city councillor who failed to make it to the meeting but recorded a video of what she would have said had she attended where she mentioned one author. Another city councillor, when the question of whether Leicester should consider applying for UNESCO city of literature status, wrote on social media, “Nottingham’s got it, why should Leicester bother?” When they have a question on literature, they go to Curve. Curve is a great theatre that does support local playwrights and performers. But most writing happens off stage.

The local paper does print some book reviews. Occasionally it interviews an author. The last Leicester author interviewed (in my memory) was Nina Stibbe who lives in London. In a recent list of Leicester writers, all six of them, one may have still been alive. BBC Radio Leicester joined in the BBC’s book club initiative. It decided to follow the national book club recommendations rather than include local writers. Someone told me no one bothers reading/listening to local media anyway. A Leicester author said it was easier to get reviewed in the Washington Post than it was locally.

I find myself sitting near a new face at a spoken word/poetry event. They ask me for my name and if I write. After I answer, they say they’ve never heard of me. I ask if they’ve read any poetry magazines, been to other local live literature events. When they answer no, I say that’s why they’ve never heard of me.

Someone told me they’d never seen any listings for literature events I’d been involved in promoting. I asked if they’d been to any local venues recently. No, they hadn’t so they hadn’t seen the leaflets distributed there. I asked if they read local media. No, they didn’t and it hadn’t occurred to them that a local event wasn’t going to be publicised in a national newspaper. Did they listen to local radio? No. How did they expect to hear about local events? They couldn’t answer.

The late Graham Joyce once had a manuscript returned with a (London) publisher’s reader’s note still attached. The note asked if anyone would want to read a novel set outside London. The reader felt no one would be interested in a novel set in Leicester. Graham Joyce’s 5 British Fantasy Awards and World Fantasy Award would suggest differently.

Leicester’s always been a great place for creativity. A place where you can have a go, try out a new piece in front of an audience, find a workshop, a writers’ group and discover new literature. However, it’s also a place of outsiders, where writers seem to have to find their audience elsewhere and import back to their city of creation. Leicester lacks a central network/listings point where people can find out what’s going on and be pointed in the right direction. I’ve been told Leicester’s “Not Nottingham” and “A City Full of Surprises”. So Leicester’s identity is shaped around a negative and a lack of knowledge. Its writers lurk in shadows and find audiences elsewhere. Surely it can do better.

Rod Duncan launches Queen of All Crows at Leicester Writers' Showcase