“Who is Mary Sue?” Sophie Collins (Faber and Faber) – poetry review

I’ve written about fanfiction (see “Fanfare” in “Ghosts in the Desert”), I am a writer who happens to be a woman and I write reviews so am very aware of how women’s literature is portrayed and often undermined by being written off as “domestic” or “autobiographical”. Therefore a poetry collection where a central section explores a fanfiction trope should have appealed.

The main concern of “Who is Mary Sue?” is how women’s writing is read and received, how critics undermine a woman’s ability to create fiction by assuming she is writing from autobiography and how women’s writing is categorised when writing by default is “writing by white men”. Diverting readers’ attention from the writing to the writer can leave writers questioning whether they have the ability to write, whether they deserve to take up space on a page and share thoughts with readers. But women’s lives are entwined with men’s and women’s writing shares space with men’s writing. “Scaffold” provides a useful metaphor where the scaffolding is given a female persona,

“We are rarely independent structures she said
before she dropped a bolt pin
which released a long section of tube
which released another bolt pin
which released several wooden boards
which scraped another tube
and made an unbearable sound.”

How many mothers are the linchpin of the family? In heterosexual relationships, how often does the woman end up as the household manager ensuring the fridge has food, the laundry is done and chores are undertaken? How often is this only noticed when a task is not completed and the household rhythm is disrupted?

“The Engine” is a long sequence broken into two sections, this is from the second,

“The dinner is ultimately disappointing. I had nothing to say, barely knowing any of the names the curator mentioned, and, on the few occasions I purported to recognise one, further discussion revealed me to be inept. I feel terribly guilty after the drink wears off.

“I remember at one point noticing in my behaviour that I was more or less pretending to be the curator’s daughter.”

The female narrator, who is knowledgeable, finds herself in the role of listener. The curator’s dialogue is a monologue and he has not noticed he is not addressing his dinner date as an equal partner but as inferior. She casts herself as a daughter rather than a colleague, dismissing herself, which allows the curator to continue his monologue. The frustration at his inability to recognise their imbalance and her conditioning to keep the peace rather than confront him leads to disappointment.

Another sequence, “whistle in the gloom”, focuses on the story of Dominique Aury, the pseudonymous author of “Story of O”,

“I recently read, in another poet’s poem, a passage that claimed apparently impersonal poems as the by-products of trauma.

“I witnessed, noiselessly, a thought forming; I watched it take shape as one watches a small movement in the distance: with a fleeting sense of calm.

“I read the passage again, and I understood it. I understood it, and I felt the shame rise; I knew the poet was right; I knew the poet was absolutely wrong.

“Creating isn’t imagination, it’s taking the great risk of grasping reality.”

[horizontal line is part of the poem]

The final quoted sentence is from Idra Novey’s translation of “The Passion According to G.H.” by Clarice Lispector. The “understood” is important enough to be repeated, but not explained. In quantum physics, a particle may be simultaneously ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but outside of the quantum state, it has to be one or the other. The reader is left to decide. Sophie Collins is inviting readers to think but offering no guidelines.

“Who is Mary Sue?” is fragmented prose, often a gathering of quotes. The definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. The phrase is attributed to a woman, Paula Smith in a 1973 parody of “Star Trek”, and chiefly used in fanfiction to describe an invented character who is too accomplished, flawless, who usually ends up rescuing the hero and is often thought to be a thinly-disguised version of the author.

“‘I don’t know if I should be sending this to you,’ wrote one young author in her cover letter to a magazine. ‘I’m afraid it’s a Mary Sue. Only I don’t know what that is.'”

There are two blank pages after this: space to consider the implications of a new writer offering an apologetic cover letter, using a term like Mary Sue without knowing its meaning and to consider if writers might be censoring themselves due to the fear of having their main or narrating characters dismissed as Mary Sues.

Joanna Russ wrote “How to suppress women’s writing” and Sophie Collins quotes an anecdote where Russ was on a panel with two (male) professors considering applications to a university’s creative writing course,

“…Russ recalls disagreeing with her two male colleagues on the believability of a short story by a woman which ends with the female protagonist lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, wishing she had the courage to mutilate him with a piece of cooking equipment.

“In part two, Russ remembers being impressed by a woman’s poem in which a girl returning home from a date with a boy she does not like (throughout the evening the girl has to ‘work at it’) opens the white refrigerator in her mother’s kitchen to find that its interior is ‘entirely covered with red cabbage roses’.

“The male professors find the anger of the story’s protagonist over-stated and the poem’s essential image unrecognisable, disengaged.

Neither woman is admitted to the creative writing course.”

Clearly neither of the male professors are familiar with Sylvia Plath’s “Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper” and are unable to appreciate the social conditioning that encourages girls to “be nice” or that fighting back against someone bigger and heavier than you tends not to end well. Readers don’t find out whether the two applicants were accepted elsewhere or gave up writing so it’s not possible to assume that the two male professors’ actions led to two writers no longer using their talents, which is where the anecdote seems to be heading. It doesn’t consider the argument that the two writers might be better off at another university which doesn’t dismiss their writing.

One quote on a page:

“She wrote it, but the protagonist’s all her. (A Mary Sue!)”

Another quote on one page

“Thus Mary Sue becomes, in my eyes, an unwitting embodiment of the double standard of content.”

A quote from Lucy Ives in response to a question about an unnamed narrator:

“The narrator’s name could be Lucy, but her name is certainly not ‘Lucy Ives’ or at any rate she isn’t me… the narrator doesn’t have a life in the same way that you or I do, which is of course obvious, but all the same I want to say that I don’t intend for this narrator to have a life; I intend for her to tell this story.”

The first irritation is the definition of a Mary Sue is taken at face value and accepted. A Mary Sue is not gender specific (male versions are sometimes referred to as Marty Stu but often just called Mary Sue), but was given a woman’s name because most fanfiction writers are women. Sophie Collins’ definition overlooks this and assumes sexism is at work. There’s no exploration of why fanfiction, often written off as derivative and lacking value because original fiction is thought to be superior, is so appealing to women writers.

At no point it is queried why a term arising from a specific genre of fiction is being taken to apply to any fiction by a writer who happens to be a woman. This weakens the central premise of “Who is Mary Sue?” because Mary Sue is taken out of context and held as a lens to distort writing that isn’t fanfiction and it doesn’t appear to be the commentators who are doing this.

Sophie Collins in “Who is Mary Sue?” is setting out to explore the standards women’s writing are held to and the conflation of women’s fiction with autobiography by using fragments to suggest women’s voices are only heard in between gaps or when readers are forced to read them. It does so from a cerebral viewpoint, leaving blanks for the readers to figure out the emotional resonance and impact of ideas explored in the text. I appreciated its intelligence, but failed to warm to it.


“Border Monkeys” Tharun Chelley (The Book Guild) – book review

What the publisher was expecting when they sent a copy of this book to Scraptoft Parish Council, I’m not sure. Of course the author’s welcome to hire Scraptoft’s Community Hub and hold a book launch, but, at the moment, there’s no book/reading group in the village. The local library is a book bus from Birstall that visits when children are in school and those with jobs are working. The views below are my own and not that of the parish council.

Border-Monkeys-510x798“Border Monkeys” is set in a post-apocalyptic Leicester. A recession has wiped out Europe’s economic power and a mysterious infection, transmitted through broken skin, has left much of the population zombified. Layton, who is probably 24 years old, is trying to find his place in a world that offers nothing except violence, tinned food and ratburgers. Initially he teams up with Amrit and Rhea as they search for shelter at night and food in a ruined city.

Characters are Tharun Chelley’s strong point. The group of three become a larger ensemble as the story moves forward. Each character is rounded and dialogue is deftly handled so it’s easy to follow who is talking, even in group conversations. Layton is likable, honest and a bit stupid at times so easy to engage with. Rhea is recognisable and independent without being stereotypically ‘feisty’. She clearly cares for her friends but is still a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood. Amrit’s naive with hidden strengths.

The three friends stumble towards a collective, known as The Union, run by a brutalised individual called General Singh. Initially staying in former university halls of residence and receiving free board and lodgings, shared with another group, in exchange for work – separating materials for recycling – seems like a reasonable deal. However, once their group sees the harsh punishments metered out for transgressions and experiments carried out in secret, General Singh is clearly not the benign dictator Layton initially thought him. Layton, Rhea and Amrit plus the friends they’ve made decide it’s time to leave. Rhea had been separated from the group and punished for responding to a bully after severe provocation. Conveniently she’s returned to the group just before the day they put their plan into action. Equally conveniently, despite being captured at the final gate, they are allowed to leave anyway. Either the author had General Singh inexplicably turn generous or he’s more Machiavellian than suggested up to this point. I expected this to turn into a cat and mouse game where they are allowed to run but captured again later, although this didn’t happen.

Malls are a favourite base: small retail units are easy to defend at night and there’s plenty of opportunity to stock up on tinned food, supplies of which seem everlasting although the tins have to be looked for. Conveniently whenever the group start running out of food, a supply is found. There are run-ins with groups of ‘infected’, who are also simply looking for food and trying to survive. The infected tend to fight and uninfected humans have to be careful not to get scratched or bitten during a fight otherwise they too become infected. Before they get too settled, another collective turn up and, at gunpoint, take the group of friends to a farm.

The titular border monkeys are virtually absent for most of the book. To be fair, the blurb does frame it as Layton’s story but it seems odd to give the border monkeys such a key billing. The border monkeys are human, anarchic bikers dressed like punks and fond of finding food by bullying others into giving up theirs. Best avoided if survival’s your aim. Around two-thirds of the way in, they appear having apparently been spying on Layton and his friends. Their purpose is to give Layton his final challenge and discover his purpose in life.

The plot, however, is episodic: they did this, then they did that, then they told campfire stories, then they fought a group of infected/other humans, then they moved on and did this, then they did that… There doesn’t seem to be an overriding story arc. Apart from daily survival, there’s no sense of what’s at stake for the main characters. I know survival sounds like a big deal, but all the characters, even the outlaws and infected, are trying to survive too. The characters didn’t get many chances to solve their own problems, each time they came up against an obstacle, something or someone else solved it for them, such as General Singh letting them go. If this were a film, it would be a good half hour too long. Engaging as the characters were, their situations became repetitive and similar.

“Border Monkeys” is available from The Book Guild.

Leicester/shire City and County of Literature II

This was the follow up event after the first event in December 2017. Co-host CivicLeicester stated, “The series brings together people from many different backgrounds for an evening of ideas, great literature and conversation. The series also invites people to look at literary work that is being done in Leicester and Leicestershire and see what can be done to raise the profile of the scene.” Co-host Everybody’s Reading stated, “Increasingly Leicester and Leicestershire are a hub of creativity in the arts. Our literary scene is enormously vibrant as shown by the breadth of talent that we have and by the range and scale of literary festivals we host in the city and county.”

The panel for this event was advertised as

  • Hugo Worthy – art curator The Gallery De Montfort University
  • Rod Duncan – writer
  • Corinne Fowler – Director for the Centre of New Writing Leicester University
  • Monodou Sallah – Global Hands Publishing
  • Lydia Towsey – poet, performer and literary activist
  • Debbie James – The Bookshop, Kibworth, Leicestershire
  • Katherine Oughton – Heritage Lottery Fund Development Officer for East Midlands

Corinne Fowler and Debbie James sent apologies. Lydia Towsey’s absence was not explained. On the night, Matthew Pegg of Mantle Lane Arts and Press joined the somewhat depleted panel.

Corinne Fowler did send an article in advance. She had been involved in a project called Moving Manchester which catalogued the city’s literary output since 1970. On moving to work in Leicester, she initiated a similar project for Leicester’s literary output since 1980, catalogued at Leicester University’s Grassroutes site. She found more titles in one year than she did for 3 years in Manchester. Leicester has an abundant literary community that should be celebrated.

Debbie James also sent an advance article. The Bookshop at Kibworth celebrates its 10th anniversary next year, has worked with over 20 schools, set up 8 local bookclubs and founded a book festival. The shop works closed with Kibworth Community Library to host author talks and has provided pop-up bookstalls at Curve, Y-Theatre, the Sue Townsend Theatre, Leicester University, De Montfort University, Phoenix Square, the LCB Depot, Loogabrooga Children’s Book festival, Leicester Writes, Cotesbach Educational Trust and Leicester Print Workshop and worked on events with libraries in Belgrave, Countesthorpe, Evington, Knighton, Loughborough, Oadby and Leicester’s Central Library. The Bookshop has been awarded Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year, Vintage Independent Bookshop of the Year and 3 James Patterson grants for its work in schools. Debbie James is ambassador to the Booksellers Association’s Bookseller Network and has judged the Independent Bookshop Week Award, East Midlands Book Award and the Leicester Short Story Award. A recent initiative is to get a copy of “The Lost Words” by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Kay into every primary school in Leicester and Leicestershire by the bookshop subsidising customer donations, a project that could be helped by the bookshop working with the city council and school academy trusts. Creating and sustaining connections is vital for a thriving literary scene.

Hugo Worthy, panel chair, introduced the event and said he was here to learn.

Rod Duncan said he’d returned to Leicester around 25 years ago when he also started writing seriously. He was surprised at how rich the ecosystem was, e.g. libraries, literature development officers, support from the universities, writers’ groups and festivals. He joined Leicester Writers’ Club and felt he learned most of what he knew about writing from Leicester Writers’ Club and gained successes through publication deals and being shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. He was also surprised to learn not every city has Leicester’s great support networks or culture of celebrating the successes of other writers. Leicester is extraordinarily vibrant, e.g. Mahsuda Snaith’s debut novel made her one of The Observer’s ‘writers to watch’, Andrew Bannister’s science fiction trilogy snapped up by a major publisher and Jacob Ross’s Jhalak prize-winning “The Bone Reader”, although set in Grenada was written in Leicester and is now about to be re-issued by Little Brown after initial publication by Peepal Tree. Rod also teaches creative writing at De Montfort University and sees many works in the pipeline which gives him hope for the future. He felt nervous about Leicester applying for a UNESCO City of Literature Status as he was concerned for the impact on existing literary ecosystems and felt the key advantage of Nottingham’s UNESCO City of Literature status was a raised awareness of literature in Nottingham amongst the general public that Leicester lacks.

Katherine Oughton talked about the Heritage Lottery Fund and focus on projects with specific aims, a time frame for achievement and strong public engagement, particularly from hard-to-reach audiences. Heritage is not strictly defined and can include oral histories and people-based projects, not just buildings and artefacts. She mentioned Nottingham’s Bromley House Library’s online catalogue, which builds a picture of what people in Nottinghamshire have been reading for the last two centuries.

Matthew Pegg, who had not been expecting to speak but stepped in on the night, gave an update on what Mantle Lane Arts are doing. Mantle Lane Press has published two more novellas, an anthology of sea-related prose, including a piece by Joanna Harris who had spoken at the first Coalville Literary Festival. A second festival is planned for May 2019. Mantle Lane Press has also produced an anthology of plays written by children in years 7 and 8 from four schools in Leicestershire. The plays were also produced at Curve Theatre. A Wolves and Apples event for writers for children is planned for 29 September. He mentioned being based in the county with a declining bus service meant it was easy for county-based groups to feel isolated from city-based groups and events, but occasions like tonight helped build links.

Momodou Sallah started Global Hands Publishing around a day-job teaching at De Montfort University with aims of international development, public engagement and promoting voices on the margins, especially from Gambia. Global Hands Publishing has so far produced 12 books, some of which are used as textbooks in Gambian universities as well as being used in his own teaching, with worldwide sales. He sees himself as a scholar activist using literature to disrupt normality. Some of the writers he’d worked with didn’t perceive themselves as worthy of publication and needed confidence-building. Global Hands Publishing had been involved with festivals in Gambia and was looking to bringing something similar to Leicester.

Hugo Worthy started audience discussion by asking about other groups in Leicester/shire. The Speculators, Leicester Writes, Word! and Bradgate Writers were mentioned. It was suggested there were 150 poetry groups in Leicestershire. In response to a question about recruitment, Leicester Writers’ Club was used as an example whereby club members are also members of other groups and attend live literature events so effectively act as ambassadors for the Club. The Club also runs summer open evenings so non-members can attend as guests and get a feel for what the club does without committing to join. Leicester Writers’ Club is 60 years old, has 62 members, their ages range from 16-80+ and members include poets, novelists, scriptwriters, short story writers, non-fiction writers, bloggers and writers who are close to seeing their first publication.

Audience outreach and lack of general awareness of literary figures in Leicestershire was discussed as an issue. The Leicester Mercury do not support local writers. BBC Radio Leicester joined the national BBC’s bookclub but chose to support the national choices and ignore local writers. The monthly Leicester Writers’ Showcase event at Central Library would like to increase the audience who want to come along and meet, hear from and ask questions of local writers.

Discussion turned to the publishing industry. As the bigger publishing houses turned more commercial and sales-oriented, ditching mid-list authors who were selling enough to make a living but weren’t bestsellers, it opened a gap for self-publishing and ebook and print-on-demand technologies made it easier for niche publishers and authors to get into print. It’s becoming increasingly common to see hybrid authors who use both traditional and self/indie-publishing routes to readers. The power of traditional gatekeepers (agents/publishers) has been reduced. Momodou Sallah talked about literature being an act of resistance, a vehicle for countering the dominant cultural narrative, important to those excluded from mainstream cultures, and giving writers the confidence to challenge perceived cultural norms and stereotypes.

As with the December 2017 event, there was agreement that there is plenty of literary talent in Leicester and Leicestershire, a healthy literary ecosystem of groups, festivals, universities and support from writers for other writers. However, no real ideas for how to counter the silence from local media or increase the audiences for local literary events.

The Migrant and Refugee Crisis: artistic and civil society responses at Leicester Cathedral

Leicester Cathedral is marking Refugee Week with an exhibition and series of events over the summer. The main exhibition piece is Arabella Dorman’s “Suspended”. Clothing and shoes salvaged from camps in Lesbos and Calais will be suspended over the Cathedral nave with an invitation for viewers to handle and touch the clothes. Arabella Dorman said: “I recently stood amidst the ruins of Aleppo having travelled to Syria to bear witness. A buried shoe, a lady’s handbag, a child’s toy in the rubble are the only traces of the men, women and children who once lived there, refugees now stuck between a past to which they can never return, and a future to which they cannot move forward. “Suspended” seeks to bring these lives to our attention and remind us of the urgent need for compassion, empathy and understanding as we reach out to our fellow human beings in plight. In doing so, it is a call to re-find the common thread that binds the mosaic of life together in celebration of our shared humanity.”

One of the events, “The Migrant and Refugee Crisis: artistic and civil society responses” takes place from 6.30pm on Friday 13 July 2018. This is a panel event organised by Leicester University’s Department of Media Communication and Sociology in association with the Leicester Migration Network and speakers include:

Pierre Monforte and Gaja Maestri from Leicester University’s Department of Media Communication and Sociology, Sandra Dudley from Leicester University’s Museum Studies and Ambrose Musiyiwa, writer and events organiser.

I will be on the panel to talk about “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge” and subsequent initiatives, the Journeys Poems Pop-up Library held at Leicester Railway Station during the Everybody’s Reading Festival and the Journeys in Translation project.

Dr Maria Rovisco, from Leicester University’s Department of Media Communication and Sociology and the Leicester Migration Network, said: “Artistic responses to the European migration crisis gained momentum in 2016. From Ai Weiwei’s high profile Berlin installation, which covered a Berlin landmark with thousands of life jackets used by people seeking asylum, to artistic interventions such as participatory arts workshops in refugee camps and fundraising arts projects, many artists are embracing agendas for justice and social change that extend beyond the arts. Yet, we know little about what is driving civil society actors and artists to engage with the plight of refugees. Against the backdrop of Arabella Dorman’s ‘Suspended’, this panel discussion invites activists, poets, academics and the general public to look at how can we build more hospitable and welcoming societies for those seeking refuge on the European continent.”

There will be a question and answer session after the speakers. More details from the Facebook event.


Addressing a Poetry Reading

A comment left on an earlier blog article asked about “addressing a poetry reading, the articulation, accessibility and where to stand as in the steps for how to engage with your notebooks or computer or paperfiles” so I’ve tried to cover these points here. (TL;DR: scroll to end)

Addressing a Poetry Reading



Open Mic Spots

Some organisers introduce each poet in turn, some organisers expect the poets who know who they follow. There will be a time or poem limit so keep introductions short. Do mention your name either before you read or at the end of your slot. Don’t be tempted to promote you latest book or CD or next poetry reading unless you have agreed this with the organiser beforehand. Note, the time limit includes introductions, promotional plugs and your poems so don’t spend the five minute slot reading poems and then take over the next two slots plugging your latest pamphlet. You’ve just knocked two poets off the bill and won’t be invited back.

Reading with other poets

Check beforehand how the reading will be organised. Will someone introduce each poet in turn, or will all poets be introduced at the beginning of the evening or one poet introduce the next? If you have a say in how you are introduced, keep it brief. It makes life easier for the organiser and the audience aren’t there to listen to the organiser but the poets. It also gives you more opportunity to introduce yourself and make it more relevant to the poems you are reading.

Solo Readings

Think about whether you are happy to introduce yourself or whether you’d prefer someone else to. If your event is being organised by someone else, e.g. you are reading at a hosted night, the organisers generally have someone who will welcome the audience before the event is underway and introducing the poet briefly can be done as part of that. If your publisher is present, they may be happy to introduce you and remind the audience there is a bookstall.

If you are introducing yourself, remember the audience are there to hear your poems. You don’t need to run through your entire publishing career or list every reading you’ve ever done. Focus on a few key points and move on to the poems.

Introducing the poems

Your audience don’t need to know you’re reading a sonnet or that you’ve invented a complex rhyme scheme. Generally they’re not reading poems from the page as you read them. They don’t need to know when you wrote the poem or how long it took you either. Introduce a theme, “This one’s about…” or mention the location if it offers your audience insight into your poem and keep it short, preferrably shorter than the poem.

If you can, avoid mentioning the title of your poem before or during your introduction and only read the title as you are about to read the poem. There’s a risk that your audience may assume your introduction is part of your poem if you do this.

Pause slightly at the end of each poem. Some audiences like to applaud each poem, other audiences wait until the end of a reading. A pause helps indicate to the audience you’ve reached the end of your poem and gives them chance to absorb it before you move onto the next poem.

Engaging your Audience

Before you introduce yourself or your first poem, look at your audience. Even if you’re not feeling it, try to appear relaxed. Audiences generally mirror the performer, so if you look tense and nervous, your audience may start feeling nervous. If you’re concerned someone may put you off reading, focus on a point located within the audience.

Check you have your audience’s attention before you begin. That might mean waiting for a conversation to finish or attracting their attention (“Hello!” usually works).

Once you have your audience’s attention, ask for mobile phones to be turned off or to silent and let them know the format and approximate timings for your reading, e.g. “I’m going to read for around half an hour, there will be a twenty minute interval, and then a question and answer session or further reading.” Then your audience know what to expect and when their next comfort break is. If you do have an interval, remind your audience there is more to come in the second half – even if you say so at the beginning, some audience members may leave during the interval thinking the event has finished.

If you’ve brought books to read or arranged with a publisher/bookshop to have a stall, mention it in your introduction and just before the interval if you’ve having an interval.

You may not be able to look at your audience whilst reading your poems, but do remember to look at them while you’re introducing the next poem or at the pause at the end of a poem.

If there is a disruption, e.g. a late-comer or someone decides they have to get up and open a window, stop reading and let the late-comer find a seat, the window-opener open their window before continuing.

If there is a heckler, ask them to save their comments until the end/the interval. If they are persistent, ask them to leave. Don’t be afraid to ask for support from the organiser or the rest of the audience. It is not just your reading that the disrupter is interrupting, but also the audience’s ability to listen to and enjoy your reading. Don’t let the fear of hecklers put you off reading. Audiences come to readings to hear you read and want you to succeed in your reading.

Accessibility and Where to stand (or sit)

Venue accessibility is not your issue unless you are also the event organiser so I’m not going to cover it here.

Some venues will have an obvious stage area. If the stage is raised area and not accessible to you, use an area in front of the stage because the audience will expecting to look in the direction of the stage.

In less formal settings, pick a spot where all the audience can see you and no audience member is behind you. Some theatres or conference venues organise the audience in a horse-shoe shape around a performance area. In this case, mentally draw a line between the two open ends of the shape and stand along that line. If you try to stand in the middle, some audience members will be behind you and won’t hear you.

If pillars or bookshelves block an audience’s view, you may to ask some members of the audience to move.

If you use a table or lectern, ensure the top level is below your mouth otherwise your voice will hit the table or lectern and bounce back to you rather than out to your audience. This is particularly important if you sit down to read.

If there is a microphone, adjust it to suit you, even if you are only reading one poem. There will be an impact on your ability to read if you’re cramped over or stretching up to reach the microphone.

If there is no microphone, pick a spot on the back wall or at the back of the venue and project your voice to reach it. If there’s opportunity, practice projecting your voice before the audience arrive so you know how loud you need to be.

Where possible, ensure your mouth can be seen. You won’t know if some of the audience need to lip read and if the audience can see your mouth, they can generally hear you.

Engaging with Notebooks, Computer or Paper Files

Reading from a printed page or electronic device is a matter of preference and there’s no right or wrong. What’s key is rehearsing with your preferred set up and ensuring that you can move smoothly from poem to poem. Ask the organiser in advance if they provide any stand or lectern if you want or need somewhere to put papers or a device whilst reading. It is possible to get portable lecterns or use a music stand that you can bring yourself if that benefits you and the venue doesn’t provide one.

If reading from memory, it helps to put your audience at ease if you also have a printed or electronic copy of what you are reading, even if these are put on a table, lectern or stand near you.

If using printed pages, make sure the font is large enough for you to read easily and that the font is printed in a sufficient contrast for you to read in a dimly-lit venue – black on white is fine but if you prefer to read from a coloured background, check the contrast with the text colour.

If you’re reading from a bound book, use bookmarks or sticky notes to easily find the poems you want to read. You can’t look up at an audience, read a table of contents and flick through a book to the right page at the same time.

If reading from loose printed pages, use a pin or treasury tag to keep the pages together and practice reading with them beforehand so you know you can turn to the next poem without dropping all the pages on the floor. Fan through your papers before the reading so there’s less chance of pages sticking together.

If you use wallets or files to keep loose pages together, choose ones with a matt surface so you’re not struggling with glare from overhead lamps on a gloss cover.

Sticky notes are great for making bullet points on to use as prompts for introducing poems.

If using a phone, tablet or computer, ensure the font is large enough, the screen is sufficiently backlit and you can scroll through as you read. Ensure any device is fully charged and think about having a back-up in case of electronic failures on the night.


  • Try to read at a slightly slower pace than you would normally.
  • If you rehearse beforehand, you’ll be practised at pacing your reading to fit the time allocated and will gain a feel for how long it takes to read each poem.
  • Don’t try to act out your poems, the words of your poems will speak for themselves.
    Let your tone rise and fall as it would in a general conversation with a friend or neighbour. Don’t try to affect a voice that’s not natural to you.
  • Now is not the time to try and lose an accent in favour of received pronunciation or develop Poetic Voice (where a poet reads slowly, enunciates each word, favours a monotone and dramatic pauses (unless the poem actually calls for a dramatic pause) and the result is the reading feels unnatural and uncomfortable for the listeners).


Focus on what you can control:

  • Your choice of poems, whether you read from pages, books or an electronic device (check it’s fully charged beforehand). Rehearse so you can read fluently without awkward pauses while you look for the next poem or juggle between a notebook and book.
  • Reduce barriers between you and the audience – I often stand in front of lecterns and tables because I’m not tall – and don’t cover your mouth when you read.
  • Look at your audience periodically to remind them you know they’re there and help them engage.
  • When it comes to introductions, less is more.
  • Try to appear relaxed and comfortable, even if you’re not, because your audience will generally mirror you.
  • Have a plan to deal with your equipment or memory failure (if reading from memory) but don’t stress about the venue’s equipment failures (e.g. microphone not working). You’re not responsible for the latter. If you can, get to the venue early so you can check what equipment’s provided and whether there are any potential problems such as lighting being too dim.
  • Remember to sell books, pamphlets etc if you’ve brought them to sell.

“Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady” Alan Price (The High Window Press) – poetry review

Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady Alan Price coverAlan Price’s poems have a filmic quality to them. They often started with a camera’s eye view of a scene presented in a way to guide the reader to discern the poem’s mood. This allows for textured layers to explore a theme or idea. The poems are not just visual or intellectual concepts. They show compassion. In the title poem,

“White shirt torn off,
no longer assisted
by her adept hands.
Jacket, trousers and underwear
hurled at the chair
she once sat on.

‘Saturation’ she’d said,
‘Are we not seeing
one another too much?’
He kneels on the bed, not guilty.”

He and his Japanese lover take a break. Kneeling suggests supplication, a plea that this doesn’t end. Later he wonders,

“Was he more innocent
falling down naked
or dressed up to the nines,
indulging in camouflage,
smiling for Erochikku?”

Appropriately Erochikku translates as “erotic”. He is left lonely with memories and readers see a mix of desire and regret. There’s an ambiguity here too: the reader is left unsure as to whether the “she” is a woman or a picture. Is she speaking or is it his conscience?

In “Futility of My Own Great War” Alan Price acknowledges domestic subject matters seem unimportant compared with apparently greater subjects,

“To write about the retreat, knowing I’d have run too if they’d put me there.
To write to scared young officers, knowing I’m absent and unafraid.
To write about orders I uncover as wrong, ignorant of how to obey.
To write that I’ll be coming home soon, when I’m always home.
To write with those dying for me, when I live on with my buried life.
To write to discover what I’ve buried. Scenes of the dead.
Writing me, now.”

It also touches on issues around writing other people’s stories, even when the others are no longer with us. How far can a writer go when using someone else’s story? How can a writer understand another’s motives and experiences through second hand sources? Can a writer, who has never been to war, understand what it’s like? On the other hand, writing about a relatively uneventful life, albeit from a position of knowledge and understanding, can seem unimportant and not worthwhile, even when a personal truth can be expanded to a universal one. It’s only a compassionate writer who would consider such issues. It’s left for the reader to decide which way the writer should decide.

In “Mischievous Shoot”, another writer is urged not to lose sight of what made her a writer in the first place. A writer has posed for her author photo wearing glasses, “the kind actors wear to show how arty they are”. The last stanza is,

“I watch her posing through this album
before her stories found a publisher.
Before she had her hair cut short, grew ill,
grew better, grew back into her mischief.”

Other poems touch on more contemporary issues. “Fortress Europe” takes Katie Hopkins’ comparison of migrants to cockroaches in The Sun newspaper to its natural conclusion, the attack refers to a suggested gas attack,

“In the dark of their old chambers
they hiss and chirrup on festering laws.
All will survive the attack,
draw plans to creep and stick around.”

The last quoted sentence could be applied to Katie Hopkins: she is paid to provide controversy and click bait and, so long as she is careful not to say anything that can’t be shrugged off, she will survive even when readers attack. It’s when she’s not talked about, she will be quietly dropped. A cockroach potentially could survive a nuclear blast: they will outlive humans. That wasn’t the metaphor Katie Hopkins was aiming for.

“Accommodations” doesn’t specifically say so, but could refer to the Grenfell Tower fire where 72 people lost their lives when fire broke out and cladding used on the tower facilitated its spread.

“You expect to live in a safe tower
shielded from wind, flood and fire.
Yet the clothes that clad your body
protect and attract more than
every panel of these huge walls.
I’m trembling, not burning.”

It concludes with a fantasy that tower blocks are appreciated, invested in and owners take proper fire retardant measures. This in turn allows the inhabitants to thrive and become part of the wider community, instead of being left as victims of cost-cutting measures by investors more interested in balance sheets than a duty of care, a system that tries to shift responsibility onto inhabitants whilst robbing them of power. A theme picked up in a recent novella after Grenfell that imagines inhabitants dreaming of owning a house and a garden closed to whoever lives next door, rather than an apartment in a community of neighbours.

“Wardrobe Blues for a Japanese Lady” contains assured, quiet poems, crafted so the reader knows the poet has confidence to allow them space for interpretation: the conclusion is not as important as the journey. Alan Price employs visual images to guide readers, creating poems that stay in the memory after the book has been read.

“Wardrobe Blues for  Japanese Lady” is available from The High Window Press.


Publishing and Diversity

Lionel Shriver’s arguments are generally more nuanced than reported and the click bait headlines do her no favours. Underneath the headlines and selective quoting, there are some valid points for discussion.

I am not generally a fan or initiatives that shift the focus from the writing to the writer. Labelling someone ‘a women writer’, ‘a disabled writer’ or ‘a writer from an ethnic minority’, implies the label is significant, a lazy shorthand for someone who writes chicklit, someone who writes about triumphs over adversity or someone who writes about the experience of being from an ethnic minority. Once labelled, it can be hard for writers to escape that label and has a restrictive impact on their writing. It sets the expectation in the reader’s mind that the writer will write in a certain way or even flag a writer as not being for them even if the writer is exploring a topic of interest to them because the reader doesn’t see beyond the label.

The label ‘male, white writer’ is never used because there’s an assumption the default writer is male and white. The work of the default writer has evolved into a yardstick against which all writing is judged. Writing can’t just be measured on objective criteria. You can produce a technically proficient sonnet that’s boring to read. Subjective criteria and cultural values become part of the measurement and, against a white, male yardstick, it’s no surprise writing by writers who are not white or male gets under-represented. Under-representation occurs when writers face additional barriers to publication and when published writers find themselves less likely to get reviewed and less likely to be put forward for prizes.

This is where initiatives to increase representation from under-represented writers have come from. Some of these have been recording statistics on who gets reviewed and who does the reviewing. Some have been in creating new prizes to draw attention to under-represented work. More recently, Penguin Random House have opened a mentoring scheme (publication is not guaranteed) and a crowdfunded anthology focusing on working class writers is underway.

If an increase in representation could be achieved by encouraging under-represented writers to write and submit more work, the imbalance would have been cured by now. It hasn’t done so because “submit more” assumes gate keepers, such as editors, agents and publishers, don’t have biases and work on objective criteria only. Rejection is a key part of being a writer, but writers are only human and no one rises above a long string of repeated rejections, particularly when making submissions to magazines or publishers who don’t publish work by writers like them. For example, if a magazine publishes 40 poems in an issue, each by a different poet, and 35 of those are by men and 5 by women, it doesn’t inspire women to submit work. If women do submit work and get rejected, they are more likely to assume it’s not worth trying again because only 5 publication slots are open to them. A man, seeing the majority of contributors are men and assuming that he has 35 publication slots open to him, is more likely to assume it’s worth trying again.

Balancing initiatives also have to define who they regard as under-represented and assume writers would be happy to identify as the relevant category of under-representation, even if such identification carries stigma and prejudice. Initiatives risk being criticised as filing quotas and possibly diluting the quality of work due to being part of a numbers game instead of focusing on quality. There’s also a risk of alienating those who qualify as under-represented but don’t want to be labelled. Most initiatives rely on writers self-identifying.

Broadly, I think the balancing initiatives have merit, but the debates they’ve triggered need more nuance and less black-and-white thinking. Immediate responses to click bait headlines or selectively quoting to support an agenda is not the way to contribute to the debate.