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Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2021 edited by Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis (Broken Sleep Books)

Broken Sleep Books Anthology 2021 edited by Aaron Kent and Charlie Baylis (Broken Sleep Books)

This is the annual anthology of Broken Sleep Books, a series they’ve been running since 2018, and includes short extracts, generally about five or so pages from all the titles they’ve published this year, arranged chronologically by date of publication. It is then something of a voluminous sampler, or advertisement, a way of catching up on the press’s activities this year past. As such I think it reflects the publisher’s variousness with a spirit of innovation and verve, one of the most imaginative of small presses for innovative writing right now.

So what are Broken Sleep books about? Publisher Aaron Kent professes himself to be ‘a working-class writer and publisher from Cornwall’, though he now finds himself in Wales. Charlie Baylis is ‘Chief Editorial Advisor’. Aaron has published this year, both poetry and prose, while Charlie has not, though he has earlier titles out from the press.

This is a very full volume, unostentatiously designed, featuring 41 poets and 12 prose writers. It might be admitted that the chronological presentation is a little scattershot and doesn’t manage to reflect too much in the way of thematic clusters, but this is hardly crucial. If you go to the Broken Sleep website you will find that they profess to be ‘A press where community action, inclusivity, and innovation are at the forefront’. This strikes me as very apt. In a publishing environment where the likes of Faber, Cape or Carcanet are well illustrating the mainstream, Broken Sleep are coming from the margins, though this spirit of ‘inclusivity’ being such might suggest that marginality is not fully what they’d wish for; they are, as it were, an alternative press that perhaps harbours a few mainstream ambitions.

The book does not really reflect nor try to what it thinks might be the highlights of the last year. That is left to the reader. The presentation is equal and egalitarian. There are many unfamiliar names here. A few that might be recognised would possibly include Luke Kennard, SJ Fowler, David Wheatley or Aaron Kent himself, who had a book out from Shearsman this year.

I think the press has been very adventurous in taking on a number of, as it were, unknown entities. They don’t seem to be looking for a writing pedigree of past accomplishments, titles being favoured on their merits.

This can be a mixed blessing. There’s a strong sense that much of this material is experiential writing, all to the good. And much of it either unexpected or inventive. And yet in terms of literary accomplishment I sensed little that might be definitive; there is a battling around literary form, but few here whom one might say are exceptional in craft, rather than just very good.

I can note a few highlights. Here is Razielle Aigen,-

                 separated us all winter long

            from Little Italy and think to ourselves

            how well we kept our balance

            between how much everything mattered

            and how easy it was to erase. (p108)

which I think is very finely expressed, and there are moments like this occurring intermittently in the course of the book.

There are a few one might say scandalous poems, such as Alyson Hallett and Penelope Shuttle’s ‘12’ which begins

            fuck handwashing

            fuck the sanitizer fuck the mask

            fuck the gloves o ex-cuse me (p246)

where the coarseness of language is quite bracing or outre, but is at least consistent with the candour of personal expression and experience, and can be amusing at times, as we find in

            I hate it when people are devoted to pure, sky-fucking jouissance (p262)

by Simon Barraclough.

There are very likely enough of these moments to guide us through the book; it can be a good one just to leaf through. Yet I do wonder if it leans more to the experiential than the literary. For instance there is a very interesting excerpt from Gregory Leadbetter and Phil Thomson (photography) which blends the visual and the written together in quite affecting, captivating way

And yet is something missing? The real guides ushering this book along are surely Kent and Baylis themselves. I would have to conclude that we’re lacking the presence of what one might say big hitters. There seem to be few specific authors they are trying hard to get behind, rather than reflecting a diverse community.

So one is left with a sense of accomplishment, but only so far. The egalitarian arrangement is commendable. Yet the reluctance to hit on key authors or themes is a bit frustrating. Has the press arrived at a stage where it wants to nurture specific authors, eg as a Cape or Faber might do? So I would suggest that this book as sampler is much to be welcomed. However, there is something of a lack of putting it into context. What does it all add up to? To an extent this is a new direction in publishing. Yet to compare for example Bloodaxe’s Staying Alive series there is room yet to give more focus and shape to the publisher’s roster of capable and adventurous writers.

Clark Allison 13th December 2021

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