The Significance of a Dress Launch

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AAThe launch for “The Significance of a Dress” is at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020. Free entry. Refreshments provided.

The Significance of a Dress is collection of “poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

A book trailer for the collection with a recording of the title poem is here.

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where next year is not the future but a question. Each refugee, suffragette or shushed voice and narrative encompassed by the poems is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. In ‘Dismantling The Jungle’, flames form “an echo of a former life”. This vivid collection is full of such flames and echoes. Whether it’s “Each dress hangs from a noose” (‘Bridal Dresses in Beirut’) or “Everything Abdel sees is smeared, despite his glasses” (Stories from The Jungle), Emma Lee’s focus is precise, poised and packs emotional punch. Her evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful, powerful and haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

“From the title page of ‘The Significance of a Dress’, Emma Lee cleverly fashions a feminist metaphor for #MeToo into uncompromising forms. These include the terrible symbol of bridal dresses hung from nooses in Beirut, signifying rapists absolved of their crimes through marrying their victims, a figure walking home in the UK uncertain whether she is safe from rape after a recent attack in the area, and further victims of rape and domestic abuse. The reader is never let go, with head dunked into the murky waters of domestic life until forced to accept Lee’s compelling argument of a grossly unequal world. The poet does this with immense skill in versification, giving her audience no option but to pay attention.

“This is daring, well-imagined poetry with global scope, giving voice to women from myriad backgrounds and cultures. It goes far beyond the boundaries of #MeToo, arguing the world has become one of disturbing realm of sexual inequality, in an atmosphere of constant threat. Lee’s collection addresses unfairness, advocating for those who have been denied the ability to speak for themselves.” Dr James Fountain.

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press.

The Significance of a Dress

Emma Lee The Significance of a Dress cover imageThe title poem is set in a refugee camp in northern Iraq, loosely based on a media interview with the owner of a wedding dress hire shop. I think it’s frequently forgotten how long people end up living in these camps, which were only designed to be temporary. Women often take in sewing to earn some money to buy food and electricity to support children. Those living similar camps are expected to pay for food and energy but not permitted to take on permanent jobs. Why would a wedding dress hire shop be successful?

Some matches will be love matches and I’ve no wish to suggest otherwise. Some, though, are arranged. Parents wish to protect their daughters in a camp where young men outnumber other residents (generally because they can travel alone unencumbered by children or older relatives), and see marriage as a way of achieving this in places that are not policed and where sexual assaults are common. In a camp of people who had fled war are still suffering trauma and feel they are still living in limbo: not accepted in the place they have sought refuge but unable to return to their original country, marriage is an act of hope.

There is a danger of child brides. The particular wedding dress hire shop I wrote about has a mural outside showing a young girl in a white dress clutching a teddy bear. However, no one asks how old the brides-to-be are, and it’s not always easy to tell the age of a heavily made-up teenager. For young people who have seen their homelands bombed or escaped conscription, either into the military or guerrilla groups, romance and marriage feels like a future, albeit one lit by cheap diamante.

In 2015, I joined Kathleen Bell and Siobhan Logan in editing “Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge”. One of the criteria for choosing poems for inclusion was that poems shouldn’t focus solely on doom and gloom. The book would be a difficult, but not a harrowing read. I carried that criterion into “The Significance of a Dress”; there are notes of hope, rescue and small but significance acts of kindness.

“Poems informed by, and immersed in politics. Whether investigating the lives of refugees, families or women in crisis, everything has a significance beyond the surface. Beautiful, hair-raising words and form, utterly from the heart.”

“Nothing is unimportant in The Significance of A Dress, where each poem’s narrative is personal and individual, yet simultaneously universal in its reach and significance. Emma Lee’s evocative imagery is reinforced by taut lines, striking juxtapositions and intimate, moving details that pack emotional punch. The Significance of A Dress is a beautiful haunting collection.” S A Leavesley

The Significance of a Dress is published by Arachne Press on 27 February 2020. There will be a launch at the Central Library, Bishop Street, Leicester LE1 6AA from 7pm on Wednesday 11 March 2020.

Emma Lee the Significance of a Dress launch 7pm 11 March 2020 Leicester Central Library LE1 6AA

“Mimicking a Snowdrop” Launch Reading

A really delightful book launch for Emma Lee’s new chapbook ‘Mimicking a Snowdrop‘. The most exquisitely presented launch, including snowdrop napkins and 3 huge home-baked cakes.

The cakes may have been more of a hit than the poems… There were silk snowdrops too.

One of the advantages of hearing a poet read their own poems it that you’re hearing the poem in the voice it was written for. This isn’t necessary the poet’s own voice. Poetry (fiction) gives the writer the opportunity to try out another’s voice, to explore a situation from differing perspectives or bring a historical voice to life. You can also hear the intended rhythm of the poem. Some poets read over every line break as if it were an enjambment, others make a slight, deliberate pause. A poet may emphasise words or use stress patterns differently from a reader; accents play a part too. A relaxed drawl gives a poem a different rhythm to a rapid-fire splatter of words.

Another advantage is that there’s an opportunity to hear more about the background to some of the poems. Whilst poems need to be able to stand alone without copious notes and/or an introduction, a reading, rather than an open mic slot or a slam, can offer space for a poet to talk about the inspiration behind a poem. I’ve blogged about the background to the title poem, “Mimicking a Snowdrop” before and it was good to have the opportunity to talk about it at my reading.

At the launch, I read (where the poems are available on-line in a single click without scrolling, I’ve linked to them):

“Convalescence 1914”

A Poet rehearses her rejection of a novelist’s proposal”

Photo Cotswolds 1935

“Bow Road London’s East End”

“Before and After at Gower’s Walk”

“Billy’s Sunflower”

“Mimicking a Snowdrop”

“Night Fever”

“Put the baby in the filing cabinet”

“Still life with a Static Matrix Screen Saver”

“Bolero to ‘She’s Like the Wind’”

One audience member offered to write a review so I’ll post a link when it’s available.

Thynks Publications have described “Mimicking a Snowdrop” as like “Moving through a picture gallery with paintings packed with detail. At the same time the movement is one of listening to a story teller who shifts from story to story leaving the listener with a desire to know more.”

Friends (Quaker) Meeting House in Leicester is a lovely venue to read in. The hall was designed with making it easy to hear speakers in mind and so it’s possible to read without using a microphone. There are no awkward echoes either. The seating layout can be altered to suit.

This is likely to be the last blog post of 2014. 2015 will kick off with more reviews.

Two forthcoming Poetry Readings

Brittle Star Magazine is coming to Nottingham on 27 November 2014 from 7.30 pm at West Bridgford Library. I will be amongst the readers.



For almost fifteen years, Brittle Star has been publishing scintillating poems and short stories from new and early-career writers, many of whom have seen their work in print for the first time. And on Thursday 27 the November, 7.30pm, we’ll be at West Bridgford Library, Nottingham at a joint launch and say-hello-to-Brittle Star event. You’ll get a chance to meet the editors, Martin Parker and Jacqueline Gabbitas, and share some good, writerly, readerly times. This event is free, but booking is advised. Telephone the library on 0115 981 6506. So, come and join us for an evening of fantastic writing, readings and company –  And, being so close to Jacqueline’s birthday, there might even be cake!


The next forthcoming poetry reading is in Leicester:

Mimicking a Snowdrop by Emma Lee forthcoming reading in Leicester in December 2014

Mimicking a Snowdrop

Mimicking a Snowdrop Emma Lee poetry book cover

Interspersed with contemporary poems, “Mimicking a Snowdrop” features seven poems inspired by reading Lilian Bowes Lyon’s poetry and about her life. She never wrote her autobiography but did write an article for “Orion” (Nicholson & Watson, London, 1945) about life in London during the Second World War and frequently wrote letters to friends and acquaintances. During the First World War, while still a teenager, she helped out when Glamis Castle was converted into a convalescent home for injured soldiers (she was a cousin of the late Queen Mother). Lilian went onto learn first aid nursing and became a voluntary assistant despatch nurse when she left her family home in Northumberland to study at Oxford before moving to London. She’d written poetry throughout her teenage years but her first two published books were novels.

Through her publisher, Jonathan Cape, she met the novelist William Plomer who later proposed marriage. Both of them knew this was not a romantic proposal. William Plomer was English but had grown up in South Africa so felt like an outsider. He thought a marriage to Lilian would be a route into acceptability and possibly a cover for his sexuality. At the time, Lilian was in love with someone else. She and William remained friends so her rejection must have been a gentle one.

In 1939 she became a sponsor for two Czech brothers enabling them to travel by Kinderstransport to England. Initially she placed them with a friend but then moved them to a farm where they could be with other Kindertransport children and speak their own language whilst learning English. She kept in touch with both until her death. Lilian also assisted Anna Freud’s Hampstead Nurseries for war traumatised children. Lilian’s assistance was mostly likely financial because she was busy putting her first aid and nursing skills to use elsewhere.

She left Kensington in 1941 and moved to Stepney in London’s East End. During the Blitz she’d visit bombed houses, offering immediate first aid to survivors while waiting for ambulances to arrive. There were no official air raid shelters in London and most Londoners used Tube stations or Tilbury Goods Depot, which fell into disuse and has since been demolished to pave way for modern flats. Tilbury had no facilities so earth buckets were used. Conditions were damp, cramped and dark. Fights for space were common until a ticking system was introduced.

Lilian also did voluntary work at a nursery based in a church hall on what was then Great Garden Street. The children were among London’s poorest. Their fathers and older brothers had been drafted into the military. Their mothers or guardians were queuing to buy food, taking in laundry or sewing work and trying to grow vegetables and look after chickens in small back yards. The children had also witnessed the aftermath of bombing raids and experienced bereavement. The nursery’s primary function was to give these children space to be children and a brief respite from war. With very limited facilities, the activities offered were often of imaginary role play. In her article for “Orion”, Lilian describes a game where the children, having spent time chasing each other around the hall, were encouraged to quieten down by pretending to be a flower.

(Playgroup London 1944)

Minnie pulls her arms tight to her sides,
bows her head and stares at the floor,
wishing her thin dress was less grubby.
She senses the rumble of bombers.
She bites her lip, tucks her chin closer:
can’t cry in front of the boys.
She remembers the handkerchief fluttering
amongst the rubble of her aunt’s house,
where she used to have to take her shoes off
and promise not to touch the ornaments
so she’d look at the photo of auntie in a long, white dress
when auntie would say, “It starts with you
unbuttoning his shirt and ends with you ironing it.
See yourself doing it for the next forty years,
before you even think about saying yes.”
Minnie had snatched the handkerchief,
looked up the embroidered flower in a book at school,
wished she had time for delicate stitching
instead of sewing sheets edges to middle.
Swore if she saw one in bloom before her January birthday,
next year would be better.

Mimicking a Snowdrop is available from Thynks Publications.


Three Questions Not to Ask Writers

Leicester Mercury out of my suit featureThankfully none of them asked by the Leicester Mercury in preparation for their feature on my poetry. But here’s three questions most writers dread:-

Q 1: What inspires your writing?

A: Everything. There is no secret store only available to those genetically destined to become writers, no magic pot of ideas that if only it were to become available to non writers they’d become writers too.

Q 2: What do you write about?

A: You could probably read a collection in the time it would take me to come up with a neat, two sentence summation. Alternatively type my name in a search engine (or follow the links) and read what’s available on-line.

Q 3: When did you start writing?

A: I’ve always written. Even as a toddler I used to make up stories. When I learnt to write, I started writing them. Or did you mean when did I start writing for publication? Or did you mean when did I identify myself as a writer? Or when did someone else recognise me as a writer?

For Question 1, far better to ask what inspired a specific poem or story. Question 2 is incredibily tricky for someone who writes poems, stories and reviews, encompassing fiction and non fiction, sometimes genre sometimes not, to actually pin down and say “I write about x.” Question 3: where do I start? Like any good interview, the best questions are not so hopelessly open-ended I don’t know where to start or are so hopelessly closed I can only answer “yes” or “no”. The best questions are specific and allow for a generous answer.