Two immediate surprises from this volume: firstly, how much poetry is included within its 343 pages; secondly, that Penguin have chosen to repackage, reprint and retitle a 2017 anthology. Surely they could have put together a new book? We all know how quickly work can be requested, submitted, edited, typeset and printed these days!
Never mind. If I wasn’t someone who reads the small print, I’d probably never know, although the Introduction and section of review quotes still refer to the book by its previous title, The White Chalk of Days. What is missing is, of course, any mention of the recent Russian invasion and war, which as I write has been happening for 160 days. Perhaps that is a different book, one I’d like to see, but I suspect I am not alone in wanting to find out more about Ukraine because of the current conflict.
The prose, some of which is excerpts from longer works, is perhaps more obviously Ukrainian. The fiction is often set within the country, and characters dress, speak and act in specific ways, in settings that seem to be actual places. The essays grapple with issues such as history, culture, poverty, oppression, often from surprising angles: Taras Prokhasko’s ‘Selections from FM Galicia’, a series of ruminations on the nature of cities, the seasons, language, and much more, could be non-fiction or fiction, but is perceptive, insightful and engaging. Yuri Andrukhovych offers up a brief history of Prypiat, a city which only existed from 1970-1986, when it died from ‘Acute Radiation Syndrome’, but the piece is also a travelogue and philosophical discourse. Who can be held accountable? What can be done? Nothing it seems…
Elsewhere things get more fantastical and perhaps more ‘Westernized’. Andrey Kurkov’s prose excerpt is about a KGB captain who arranges for the hand of Jimi Hendrix to be brought to L’viv so it can be buried in the Lychakiv Cemetery, whilst Yuri Vynnychuk’s excerpts ‘From Spring Games In Summer Gardens’ swim ‘along the waves of daydreams’, sometimes reminiscent of Virginia Woolf in their lucid brevity. Viktor Neborak was part of Bu-Ba-Bu performance group, and some of his poems seem rooted in that world:
It rises up like a head,
the lopped-off head of a vagrant.
It utters words from the beyond
once, twice, and for the third time:
I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
Are you devouring TV soaps?
You gaze at dragons behind the glass!
I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
Remember you can’t hide anywhere!
I AM THE FLYING HEAD!
I AM THE HE AD FLY
ING HE AD I
INGHEA I AM
AYO AY O
(‘From Genesis of the Flying Head’)
—Paint a BABE naked BLUE
with lips the day looks BA
BU in dithyraMBs BU taBOO
put your teeth in BUBABU
(from ‘A Drum-Tympanum’)
Elsewhere, Marjana Savka writes about how ‘books we’ve never read are opening for us’ and listens to Sonny Rollins, the ‘Lord of Jazz’; Andriy Bondar ponders how Ukranian he looks and takes advice from Robbie Williams; Sylvia Plath turns up in Marjana Savka’s ‘Who, Marlene, Who?’; and Serhiy Zhadan serenades ‘Alcohol’ in the guise of a lover, or vice versa.
Other poems seem more mainstream, taking love, loss, separation and distance, family and relationships as their subject. Ivan Malkovych spends ‘An Evening with Great-Grandma’, whilst Bondar ponders the fact he has ‘very good genes’ and that his ‘great-great-grandfather lived to be 119 and died with dignity / simply walked into the house and died’. Lyuba Yakimchuk considers her ‘Grandmother’s Fairy Tale’ and ‘The Book of Angels’, but also takes her clothes off ready to make love before learning to also shed her family’s expectations and judgement:
and now we wear nothing at all
such people are called naked
(from ‘such people are called naked’)
The (original) Introduction offers context for the anthology, which arose out of the Contemporary Ukrainian Literature Series of events, and came to a close in 2014 due to a war with Russia. It also introduces the 15 writers selected, whilst the new Preface re-contextualises the book in the light of more recent events. Throughout the book there are helpful footnotes, and each author gets an introductory page before their work.
If there is little here to suggest that Postmodernist writing has taken root in Ukraine, and little evidence of textual and linguistic experiment, it is nevertheless an intriguing and informative anthology with plenty of different styles of work on offer. Whilst I feel Lloyd’s Schwartz’s claim on the back cover that this is an ‘act of moral generosity’ is somewhat hyperbolic, it is nevertheless deserving of your attention and time.
Rupert Loydell 9th August 2022
Category Archives: Anthology
Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965 edited by Mark Andryczyk (Penguin)
Two immediate surprises from this volume: firstly, how much poetry is included within its 343 pages; secondly, that Penguin have chosen to repackage, reprint and retitle a 2017 anthology. Surely they could have put together a new book? We all know how quickly work can be requested, submitted, edited, typeset and printed these days!
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 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
The Fire of Joy edited by Clive James (Picador Poetry)
This is presented as an anthology of poems, some 84, arranged chronologically, with extensive commentary, seen as suitable for memorising or reading aloud, in that sense a bit like Ted Hughes’ By Heart collection, although the Hughes is neither chronological nor offers comment on the poems. James variously and perhaps surprisingly eloquently gives about four or five paragraphs to each poem. This struck me as very refreshing. The book was indeed put together just after James’ death in 2019, and it is a most unusual effort. But I think we get out of it not just those often perceptive insights but a curious assortment of pickings from English literature from the metaphysics of the Renaissance on.
There are two forces of fascination, then;- the choice of poems, and of course how memorable they are, along with the commentary. James might be seemed to some as an Aussie philistine, and he is unafraid of voicing some strong opinions. We might remember that his unfinished doctoral dissertation was to be on the influence of Dante on Shelley, would that there were such. James himself undertook a translation of The Divine Comedy. This is the same man who was Observer TV critic for about 10 years, and was suitably telegenic, eg in his TV series on fame.
The choice of poems is suitably expansive. A few little known names appear, some Australian, but other than that it makes for an interesting primer on the course of English poetry; this might also be got of course via such other anthologies as The Rattle Bag, though that has a rather scatter shot arrangement.
The book is just a little too long to digest in one sitting. Among the metaphysics we get Donne, Herrick and Herbert. Milton is represented but not Dryden; there is besides a Shakespeare sonnet (‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame’). There is reasonably full coverage of the Romantics. James notes the considerable impetus of Keats’ poetry toward higher things, had he longer stayed the course.
When we get to near contemporary poetry, Hughes (‘Pike’) and Heaney are here along with Plath, whom he does appear to take relatively seriously (‘Cut’). But we also find catholically represented Dylan Thomas, Larkin, Donald Davie and Kingsley Amis. Still perhaps what we might call the British Poetry Revival does not figure here greatly.
James manages to turn a relatively fresh ear to many of these writers, though the choices at times can seem a little quirky, ie why that particular Shakespeare sonnet for instance, from such a range of choice.
What does one come away with? This is actually a fairly short, concise anthology; very often there is the attempt to spread the net wider. But James has put his imprint on it, in a way we have found from previous anthologies such as those of Yeats and Larkin, not to mention the current Ricks.
Not everyone is likely to be disposed to the emphasis on commentary, which is fully half the book, and of course this is somewhere Hughes didn’t go. Some anthologies such as that of Keith Tuma provide extensive prefatory matter; quite often we get merely the poems.
One could cobble out, piece together a kind of argument about where James sees poetry going. He says of Plath and Hughes, ‘Although the towering Hughes raided the whole of history and all cultures for his ideas, she was the one with the poetic scope’. (p251) He accords Heaney high praise,- ‘when he spoke he made hundreds of years of troubled history seem at least a touch more bearable’ (p268). He also attends to Walcott, but not Brathwaite, ‘Walcott had more talent than anyone knew what to do with’ (p270). As the cited Walcott poem concludes, ‘Sea Grapes’,- ‘The classics can console. But not enough.’ In terms of direction, this strain of influences will doubtless continue to work on through.
The choice of poems is decidedly idiosyncratic. James does not go for some of the major targets, eg for Eliot we get ‘La Figlia Che Piange’, though with Pound it is the now familiar couplet ‘In a Station of the Metro’. Of Pound’s flirtation with fascism, James offers,- ‘Pound himself was very slow to deduce that the Dream was a farcical nightmare’ (p107). Olson, who took so much from Pound, isn’t here, but John Berryman is. To Davie James attributes a ‘misplaced admiration for the mind of Ezra Pound’ (p213) though we still have canonical works like Kenner’s The Pound Era to contend with.
I think the book actually has a pretty good take on Anglophone poetry, even if it could hardly be termed radical. One can only wonder what Hughes might have done had he scope to comment on the poems in By Heart. What I come back to is that the whole scope of the book is quite refreshing, and maybe Clive James could get away with it because it was a posthumous, albeit somewhat impassioned exercise. I find it too as helpful in the effort to get a grip of the development of English poetry. Whilst some here are overlooked, there is too much of quite certain relevance here to make it much more than a personal indulgence; James deferral to poetic affinity is too strong to invite dismissal.
Clark Allison 19th October 2021
New Poetries VIII Eds. Michael Schmidt, John McAuliffe (Carcanet)
Anthologising is, assuredly, a contentious art, not just a little like canon forming, despite numerous protestations. The mere act of including someone and leaving others out, with its corollary to granting book publication, seems nonetheless indispensable. We need to try to get a better flavour of the times, to put worthy contributions within the same pages of a collaborative volume, just to digest and try to sample what has been going on. In contrast to the Bloodaxe Staying Aliveseries, which began in 2002, Carcanet’s New Poetries has just reached its eighth volume, having commenced in 1994, with by the standards of the series more contributors, some 24, than usual this time out. A slight bias is doubtless inevitable in that we find here Carcanet authors as well as Manchester associations. Nonetheless the range of poetries is highly diverse.
Aside from the high calibre of the various poets, presentation wise each gets to say something over a page or two about their attitude to poetics, and this in itself makes for fascinating reading. The order of presentation is, if you like, random, which I would definitely say is to the good, – I get very tired of presentation alphabetically – and there are no author photos, which again is probably advantageous in directing the reader to the text, rather than wondering too much about what the writer is as a person. This is assuredly both more in depth and if you will serious than the Bloodaxe anthologies, but more importantly is not focused on the single poem.
Which poets might appeal is almost certainly down to personal preference; some have been already generously lauded, others are relatively unrecognised. Schmidt and McAuliffe are somewhat dismissive of attempts at labelling or categorising even. As the introduction states, ‘Particularism would be our philosophy…It entails a resistance to theories and “schools”…To say more would risk a limiting definition’ (pviii). This view certainly has its merits, but I would maintain that in the course of time some sort of filtering by subject tag or name association becomes pretty much inevitable. If our editors think this gives their writers some breathing space for now perhaps that should not be berated.
In terms of overriding themes or methods, I’d say most of the poets here do not adopt strict formalisms; but there is certainly quite a lot of objectification going on; a certain inhospitability to introspection might be noted. The poets seem more grounded than airy; there may be more nods to ecopoetry, rather than high flown verbal display or game playing.
To be a little hopelessly partial, three poems I particularly liked here were Colm Toibin’s ‘Curves’ (p337), Joe Carrick-Varty ’54 Questions for the Man who Sold a Shotgun to My Father’ (p109) and Benjamin Nehammer ‘Things as they Must Be’ (p139). Also Isobel Williams’ Catullus renderings work very well as a set; Christine Roseeta Walker’s poems are vividly evocative of her native Negril, Jamaica. Nehammer’s poem concludes,-
you struck against your sense of things
as they must be, as they are
bound to be in the very end,
when the trees will stand in bloom,
when a figure you have met and forgotten
will return and demand what he is owed. (end p139)
Well and one might also insist that the subject is owed something besides, but Nehammer’s phrasing is very fluid, precise and exact. That ‘sense of things’ most here would regard out in the world rather than in interior states.
This then is a quite persuasive rendering of the view on present poetics from Carcanet, and as such no doubt does what it meant to accomplish which is to display, map out and sample what is going on in contemporary poetry. One need hardly add that there are many woman poets and poets of ethnicity here, also. Whether anything of major consequence has been omitted is another issue, and let’s say there are no Instagram poets here, for instance. But what we get is a very fulsome, variously enticing and accomplished slice of the poetic milieu.
Clark Allison 15th May 2021
Staying Human: New Poems for Staying Alive Edited by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books)
Perhaps going against the grain, for a book with a more popular following, indeed maybe people who don’t often read poetry, rather than for its critical reception I’ve found this book quite vital and engaged and indeed, to my ears, broaching new ground for poetry’s place including in the quite diverse market of anthologies, a Bloodaxe specialism.
Arguably Neil Astley’s now four volumes of the Staying Alive series, from 2002, is the most impacting mainstream venture in poetry publishing possibly since the Hughes/Heaney Rattle Bag. The emphasis here as there is on the single poem. Rattle Bag was organised alphabetically by poem title. I’d say thankfully Astley has not done so and the poems here are arranged thematically under ten headings with a poets’ index.
I think a difficulty arises in pitching either too high or low. Readers might have high expectations of these poems, but they are very human with human qualities and flaws, hardly the Psalms of David. I think a little time and poring over the book makes that all too apparent.
Having ten sections to contend with I think is actually a merit. Each comes with a short editorial introduction. Speaking of first and last I think the opening is a little underachieved, the conclusion nearly persuasive once we get to it.
So, very briefly, Tom Leonard (d2018) first up presents us with,-
not to be complicit
not to accept everyone else is silent it must be alright
not to keep one’s mouth shut to hold onto one’s job
not to accept public language as cover and decoy (beginning ‘Being a Human Being’, p22)
This is something of a call to the creative impulse to remain critical and engaged, ie not just parrot what we’re taught or told but to use our independent faculties. It does seem to me a mite understated, but actually on going through the rest of the book it holds up remarkably well. This is something of the sense of what it says ‘to be human’.
The book actually covers a great deal of humanist ground, with a stress on empathy and relating and recognising those relational qualities in poems that deal with how we think and feel. Astley chooses to end with the poet Nick Drake and the ecocrisis, with a poem called ‘The Future’, though Astley adroitly names this section with the question mark, ‘The Future?’.
Think of me not as a wish or a nightmare
but as a story you have to tell yourselves (p499)
A standout I think is ‘Conversations about Home’ by Warsan Shire, and her prose poem has some remarkable lines like ‘Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.’ (p419) This is from section 8 called ‘Roots and Routes’ which has those resonances of where we feel we belong.
An excessively critical voice would doubtless deride some of these efforts as too populist and accessible, not enough craft on offer. But there are very reputable poets here besides, like Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Vahni Capildeo, Ruth Padel and James Berry, one could go on. If I have some modest misgiving it is perhaps that the emphasis on poems not books speaks a little to the very contemporary and the fleeting foreground of awareness, although perhaps reading some of the fine poems on exhibit here might lead the inquisitive further to books by the collected, comingling authors.
Clark Allison 30th April 2021
The Tree Line: Poems for Trees, Woods & People ed. Michael McKimm (Worple Press)
Anthologies, like woods, are places to return to. Their contents linger in the mind as one feels the urge to revisit a particular location. From childhood’s world onwards trees can be very important as places of refuge, tree-houses, and doors of escape: Sherwood Forest is quite ingrained in the British consciousness as a mapped out world of freedom and secrecy. Anthologies are reflections of their editors and they represent a very particular bringing together of poems which repay being looked at again and again: they are books, like memories, to be carried around with one. This new publication containing some sixty poems is no exception and it could not come at a better time: look at the website and buy a copy for Christmas!
One of my favourites is Ern Strang’s ‘Prisoner Writing Home’:
“The view is open only so far
and does not include the sea.
Beside him, the bed
and a letter to his mother
or his father or his brother.
Does it matter?
There is one tree in the cell,
a thin sapling birch
that glints in the light
like church bells glint…”
In Dickens’s novel Little Dorrit we are introduced to the ‘little fiction’ by means of which Mrs Plornish escapes from the confined living premises of London’s Bleeding Heart Yard near Clerkenwell. This infernal region of London is made up of large houses which are divided up into tenements and Mrs Plornish brings up her family inside a cramped living-space from which she escapes by a leap of the imagination:
This poetical heightening of the parlour consisted in the wall being painted to represent the exterior of a thatched cottage; the artist having introduced (in as effective a manner as he found compatible with their highly disproportioned dimensions) the real door and window. The modest sunflower and hollyhock were depicted as flourishing with great luxuriance on this rustic dwelling, while a quantity of dense smoke issuing from the chimney indicated good cheer within, and also, perhaps, that it had not been lately swept. A faithful dog was represented as flying at the legs of the friendly visitor, from the threshold; and a circular pigeon-house, enveloped in a cloud of pigeons, arose from behind the garden-paling.
For the inhabitants of this claustrophobic tenement which exists below the level of the main streets of London this interior decoration is ‘a most wonderful deception’ and ‘it made no difference that Mrs Plornish’s eye was some inches above the level of the gable bed-room in the thatch’. A more recent adaptation of this theme is of course the film ‘Shawshank Redemption’ in which a man escapes from confinement by tunnelling physically through the wall which is decorated with a picture: imagination leaps through stone. In Ern Strang’s poem the tree’s shadow thrown upon a wall possesses the capacity to “grow / through concrete”.
On the opposite page from this poem there is Harriet Fraser’s ‘View from a Manchester flat’ in which a window
“…looked onto other windows
a straight-line scene, bricks, metal, glass,
littered corners, a sleepless hum of cars”
But as if to alleviate the sense of monotonous repetition in this outlook “there was, to make me smile”
“a single slender tree, a birch,
its branches close enough
if I stretched beyond the sill
That past tense of “was” casts its own shadow over the following lines and the poem moves inexorably towards a conclusion which possesses a sense of inevitability:
“One day, I came home and found it gone.
Sawdust and twigs, ignored discards,
and the hacked stump, a raw full stop
of life cut short.”
The “hack and rack” of “growing green” which asserts a sense of human responsibility in Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’ (‘felled 1879’) is felt here and the loss projects itself into a future in which the poet wonders how she could tell her children’s children “that once there were trees”.
To plant a tree is an act of faith and Peter Carpenter’s poem, ‘Tree in the Garden’, records the planting of an alder which his wife had brought back from a local shop some ten years ago. The tree has “come on / from a stave sheathed in cellophane / to something with a trunk the girth / of a telegraph pole…”. Now, next to the London Road it
“…gives its pick
and mix shadows, like Pisarro in Norwood.”
A palimpsest nature of the past glimpses at the viewer of Pisarro’s early gouache sketch of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’, 1871. That sketch was made as an early study for the oil painting which hangs in the National Gallery and it reveals a female figure whose “pentimenti could be seen / still on the gravel, advancing towards me, / as a darker stain” (Peter Robinson, ‘Lawrie Park Avenue’ published by Shearsman Books in The Returning Sky, 2012) Robinson’s poem makes us aware of a stillness residing in a frame as an erased past shadows forth into the stillness of the poem’s present before concluding:
But lacking such things to do with the past,
like this figure he had painted out
who fills the air with an indelible stain,
there’d be no possibilities.
They thicken into leaf, his flanking trees.
Look, now, it’s as plain as plain.
Peter Robinson’s contribution to this new Worple anthology takes its title from Heidegger’s late work Die Holzwege (Off the Beaten Track) and it concludes with the line
“and how the tree survives on trust!”
This echoes perhaps a line from Heidegger’s essay ‘Why Poets?’ from off that beaten track:
“Mortals keep closer to absence (if we think of their essence) because they are concerned by presence, the name of being since antiquity.”
Ian Brinton, 13th December 2017, St Lucy’s Day.
Write To Be Counted: Poetry to Uphold Human Rights (The Book Mill)
Love, not hate, is the focus of the three editors of a new anthology of ‘resistance poetry’ edited by Jacci Bulman, Nicola Jackson and Kathleen Jones. Its ambition is to raise funds for PEN, a charity that defends freedom of expression. In the words of the editors: We propose to produce an anthology to allow us all to stand up and be counted: to express our outrage, to honour and nurture the values we believe in, to join the upswing of positive resistance to the assaults and threats to the creative and compassionate global community. Our focus is love not hate.
The anthology was launched at the Poetry Café in London on October 4th, and is on sale from the http://writetobecounted.blogspot.co.uk/ and from Amazon. Details on the blog.
Write To Be Counted has not sacrificed quality of work to the notion of ‘charity’ or ‘worthiness’. The editors were able to be choosy, overwhelmed by the response to the call-out. Writers come from all over the world, and the book includes poets of wide reputation alongside others who are not so well known. The result is a rich collection of 87 poems. The notion of protest is challenged, the concept of truth questioned. There are public declarations, and private meditations. It is an exploration of how we live amongst other humans, and what truly belongs to us, and how it is denied. It is hard to select a few poems to represent the collection, but consider ‘Colmbrook Immigration Removal Centre’, by Iranian refugee Nasrin Parvaz:
Hazily you remember/that some rich man/has bought this prison/all the inmates included/just like serfs or slaves/and you try to figure out/how anyone makes money/holding you prisoner
In striking contrast, we have Charlie Lambert’s ‘Generation Protest’, where the hipster generation reflects upon the protest culture of its youth:
Fifty years, and have we binned/Dylan/Blowin’ in the wind?
A walk on the beach brings out the personal experience of gendered expectations in Emma McGordon’s ‘Queer Beach’:
It’s happened before. I’ve been a that or an it,/a hybrid match of mixed-up bits…
I wish… he’d known all along/I was a woman on a beach, back against a rock, staring out to sea
The editors plan a series of readings. Scheduled for March 2018, is a reading as part of the Words by the Water festival in Keswick. Details to be announced. See http://writetobecounted.blogspot.co.uk for updates.
Elizabeth Stott 9th November 2017
Balkan Poetry Today, 2017 edited by Tom Phillips (Red Hand Books)
In his editorial comments at the opening of this first issue of a new magazine, Balkan Poetry Today, Tom Phillips stakes out his purpose with clarity and determination:
“Balkan Poetry Today is not designed to be a comprehensive survey. Nor is it a ‘greatest hits’ package. Not every country in SE Europe, not every language spoken there is represented in this issue (although many are) and readers already familiar with those few poets from the region who have been translated into English may wonder at some of the more notable absences. This, though, is a magazine, not a representative anthology, and our policy has simply been to publish the best work which we have been sent or otherwise come across rather than to fulfil the more ambitious task of charting an entire region’s poetic output.”
This is the beginning of an adventure and it carries with it the momentum of a serious journey. That setting of keel to breakers reminds me a little of J.H. Prynne’s ‘Tips on Translating Poems (Into or Out of English)’ which he wrote in Cambridge a little over ten years ago. The last of the 24 tips pointed to the importance of recognising that no translation work is ever fully completed since there “can never be a best or a right solution”. He reminded his readers that the best kind of poetical translation of a poem is another poem, “without any didactic extras” so that the reader “will be rewarded by enjoyment of a good poem which gives a strong experience of its foreign original”. Prynne concluded that this was the aim of all poetical translation and that it allowed the efforts of the translator “to bring very real benefit in understanding between cultures”.
This last point is one which was highlighted by Ana Martinoska in her introduction to the 2011 Arc publication of an anthology of Six Macedonian Poets in which she commented that “there are no nations or literatures that are small, insignificant or culturally less important than others” and that every culture and genre “should be presented to a broader audience without hesitation or fear of marginalisation”. Prynne’s last comment in his tips was “Translation is noble work!” and Martinoska referred to the translation of poetry as being “one of the best forms of cultural representation, as mediation among languages and nations, cross-cultural and inter-cultural communication bringing the world closer together, both in time and space”.
With this last statement in mind it is refreshing and heartening to read Tom Phillips’s words:
“It is, of course, conventional for any publication with the term ‘Balkan’ in the title to attempt a definition of the region. BPT has adopted a rather loose one with blurry edges – and one which includes the various and not inconsiderable Balkan diasporas. We are, in fact, pretty much leaving it to the poets themselves to decide whether they identify themselves as Balkan or not and to define where the cultural, geographical and linguistic boundaries lie. In practice this means that in this issue you’ll find work by a Romanian poet who writes in Czech, a Bulgarian who lives in Slovakia and a Croatian who writes multilingual poems in Croatian, French and English. In future issues we hope to publish work in transnational languages like Roma and Vlach. We use the word ‘Balkan’ in the broadest possible sense and with no intention of suggesting that ‘Balkan poetry’ exists as a single, homogenous entity.”
This first issue of an exhilarating new journal is sheer delight and one of the first poems that drew my attention immediately was ‘Private lessons in May’ by Aksinia Mihaylova (translated by Roumiana Tiholova):
“I’m trying to teach you the Cyrillic alphabet of scents:
that the geranium on the balcony across the street
is more than a mere geranium,
that the linden tree in June
is more than a mere tree,
but we aren’t making progress fast enough.
Your thumb is following the candle shadow
that the wind is making tremble on the open page,
as if drafting mobile borders
between you and me,
as if to protect you,
as if you are that boy,
who once lost his watercolours
on his way home from school,
and who’s still painting
the lost sky of his childhood and the hills
in the same colour.”
In 1923 William Carlos Williams had been convinced that “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white /
chickens”. Wallace Stevens was to refer to those words as a “mobile-like arrangement” and Hugh Kenner suggested that they dangled in equidependency, “attracting the attention, isolating it, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” The delicate movement in Mihaylova’s poem traces the act of translation itself, the spaces between one mind and another in a world of “mobile borders”.
Balkan Poetry Today is available in a limited edition print version via the Red Hand Books website: http://www.redhandbooks.co.uk/ and an e-book version will be available soon.
In a world of narrowing confines this new journal is refreshing: it opens doors on each page.
Ian Brinton 30th July 2017
Vanishing Points Eds. John Kinsella & Rod Mengham (Salt Publishing)
The moment of change between one century and another is no easily defined discrete box into which ideas can be crammed later to become defined as Twentieth Century as opposed to Twenty-first Century. Thomas Hardy knew this well when he published his much anthologised poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’ on December 31st 1901. The poem looks forward to the newly defined Twentieth Century with a limited sense of blessed hope “whereof he knew but I was unaware” whilst also looking back at the Nineteenth Century’s corpse “outleant”. This sense of one eye being cast over the shoulder whilst the other is fixed firmly ahead is the hallmark of the Salt anthology of poems, Vanishing Points, edited by John Kinsella and Rod Mengham and published in 2004.
The backwards glance is towards the anthology Conductors of Chaos, edited by Iain Sinclair in 1996 in which, as Randall Stevenson suggested in Volume 12 of The Oxford English Literary History, there was a clear attempt to make great demands on readers to ensure that they “looked at the language on the page—rather than through it, towards a familiar, represented reality—transparency and ease of ordinary understanding had to be eliminated as far as possible”.
Sinclair’s introduction to Conductors of Chaos had thrown down a glove for the editors of anthologies and for serious readers of modern poetry:
“The work I value is that which seems most remote, alienated, fractured. I don’t claim to ‘understand’ it but I like having it around. The darker it grows outside the window, the worse the noises from the island, the more closely do I attend to the mass of instant-printed pamphlets that pile up around my desk. The very titles are pure adrenalin; Satyrs and Mephitic Angels, Tense Fodder, Hellhound Memos, Civic Crime, Alien Skies, Harpmesh Intermezzi, A Pocket History of the Soul. You don’t need to read them, just handle them: feel the sticky heat creep up through your fingers. If these things are ‘difficult’, they have earned that right. Why should they be easy? Why should they not reflect some measure of the complexity of the climate in which they exist? Why should we not be prepared to make an effort, to break sweat, in hope of high return? There’s no key, no Masonic password; take the sequences gently, a line at a time. Treat the page as a block, sound it for submerged sonar effects. Suspend conditioned reflexes. You don’t need to sign up for Tom Paulin’s masterclass to reap the reward. If it comes too sweetly, somebody’s trying to sell you something.”
As if to emphasise even more the links between one century and the next, three of the seven titles mentioned by Sinclair were published by Rod Mengham’s Cambridge based Equipage Press and there is perhaps a sense of appropriateness here in his being the co-editor of the first significantly challenging new anthology of the Twenty-First Century. In his introduction to Vanishing Points Mengham takes up the challenge of reading as thrown down by Randall Stevenson, looking at language on the page:
“The vanishing point lies beyond the horizon established by ruling conventions, it is where the imagination takes over from the understanding. Most anthologies of contemporary verse are filled with poems that do not cross that dividing-line, but our contention is that many poems in this volume are situated on the threshold of conventional sense-making. They go beyond the perspective of accepted canons of taste and judgement and ask questions about where they belong, and who they are meant for, often combining the pathos of estrangement with the irascibility of the refusenik.”
The thirty-two poets in this anthology are from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and United States of America but despite this wide geographical range what binds them together is “a strong insistence on finding ways of continuing and renewing the lyric impulse in poetry in English”. The British contributors include Caroline Bergvall, Brian Catling, David Chaloner, Andrew Crozier, Andrew Duncan, Roy Fisher, Ulli Freer, Tony Lopez, Barry MacSweeney, Anna Mendelssohn (Grace Lake), Drew Milne, Ian Patterson, J.H. Prynne, Peter Riley, Geoff Ward and John Wilkinson. Some of the poems in the anthology are from a much earlier date and Roy Fisher’s The Cut Pages first appeared in 1971 from Fulcrum Press before re-emerging in 1986 as a joint production of Oasis Books and Shearsman Books. Introducing the first appearance of the poem Fisher had told his readers that the “aim in the improvisation was to give the words as much relief as possible from serving in planned situations” and that the work “was taken forward with no programme beyond the principle that it should not know where its next meal was coming from”. This method of composition “produced very rapid changes of direction”. More on the cusp of the millennium Barry MacSweeney’s ‘Totem Banking’ and ‘I Looked Down On a Child Today’ were both written in 1998-1999 and included in his posthumous selected poems, Wolf Tongue, which appeared from Bloodaxe in 2003. ‘Totem Banking’ is dedicated to J.H. Prynne and the appropriate nature of its inclusion in this anthology is emphasised by Mengham’s introductory comments concerning the way in which “writers in this anthology have been part of a process of exchanging ideas manifested in little magazines, in the publishing programmes of small presses, and in the sheer volume of email and internet transactions”. It was Prynne, along with Andrew Crozier, who began much of this exchange of ideas with the creation and publication of The English Intelligencer back in the 1960s and it is a measure of the Cambridge poet’s professional commitment to new forms of writing that an extract from his own Red D Gypsum should form part of the new horizon posited by the editors of Vanishing Points.
Although Red D Gypsum was published by Barque Press (Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland) in 1998 it was one of the later sequences which prompted Andrew Duncan in 2003 to write “Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction…people have different perceptions of what ‘good pattern’ is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom”. Writing about the sequence in 2009 Nigel Wheale suggested that it is worth thinking about the sense in which reading it “may be a cumulative experience for the reader” requiring a different reading strategy. This, of course, is entirely in tune with the editorial comments in Vanishing Points and John Kinsella, the co-editor, stressed that “Typically, a poem gives the reader or listener something to take away from the text—an emotional gravitas, whimsical joy, intellectual or spiritual connection or awakening”.
At the end of the last century Kinsella had formed a publishing partnership with Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery and this new Salt Press heralded the world of Print-on-Demand (PoD). The press soon made a name for publishing a pluralist view of poetry and the 2004 publication of Vanishing Points was like the raising of a standard.
Ian Brinton 10th April 2017
Tears in the Fence 64
Tears in the Fence 64 edited by David Caddy is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, fiction, prose poetry and translations from Jeremy Reed, Jim Burns, John Welch, John Freeman, Sally Dutton, Chris Hall, Michael Henry, Beth Davyson, Kinga Tóth, Paul Kareem Tayyar, D. I., Lydia Unsworth, David Pollard, Mike Duggan, Jeff Hilson, Sheila Mannix, I.S. Rowley, Richard Foreman, Jay Ramsay, Alison Winch, Andrew Taylor, Alan Baker, Sophie Herxheimer, L. Kiew, Ric Hool, S.J. Litherland, Rachael Clyne, Andrew Shelley, Tom Cowin, Morag Kiziewicz, Matt Bryden, Jessica Mookherjee, John Phillips, Ian Brinton & Michael Grant trans. Mallarmé, Terence J. Dooley trans. Mario Martin Giljó, Greg Bachar, Jennifer K. Dick, Matthew Carbery, Mark Goodwin, Aidan Semmens, Peter Dent, Sarah Cave, Julie Irigaray and Maria Isokova Bennett.
The critical section features John Freeman on Jim Burns: Poet as Witness, Andrew Henon on Timeless Man: Sven Berlin, Mary Woodward on Rosemary Tonks & Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Jeremy Reed on John Wieners, Norman Jope on Chris McCabe, Marsha de la O in conversation with John Brantingham, Neil Leadbeater on Jeremy Hilton, Nancy Gaffield on Geraldine Monk, Lesley Saunders on Alice Miller, Belinda Cooke on Carole Satyamurti, Steve Spence on Dear World and Everyone in it David Caddy on Andrew Lees’ Mentored by a Madman, Nigel Wood & Alan Halsey, Duncan Mackay on E.E. Cummings , Notes on Contributors, and Ian Brinton’s Afterword.
The front cover is a black & white detail of a Sven Berlin watercolour (1982, private collection) and the magazine is designed by Westrow Cooper.