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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

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

Broken Sleep Books 2020 anthology edited by Aaron Kent (Broken Sleep Books)

This unassuming, slightly chunky book delivers far more than its undemonstrative cover design might intimate. It is essentially a sampler of what Broken Sleep Books got around to doing in 2020, and some 24 poets are presented along with five examples of prose or nonfiction. It strikes me as pretty remarkable actually, the novelty and standard of writers represented. The publisher is using on demand printing. There is a mantra, ‘Lay out your unrest’, a good one to ponder over. But there is no mission statement nor any commentary on the writers appearing here. They are arranged chronologically according to date of publication and each writer gets approximately about 8 pages, give or take.

So perhaps first off, the grade of contributor quality is satisfyingly met if not exceeded. This, naturally, is a long way from a Faber or a Picador. The press I’m most reminded of is Knives Forks and Spoons. And by that, that Broken Sleep are largely dealing with newcomers and fringe activity. They haven’t quite yet settled with any ‘house’ authors whom they might wish to centre on or prioritise. Also, Aaron Kent is an able publisher but I wonder if he has other interests; he has a great way of identifying talent, but is that centred on literature or perhaps on other media. I think some of us are wondering about YouTube, just to cite one prominent hub of activity.

The book leaves the reader with a dilemma. Surely, all these tantalising excerpts are most entertaining and thought provoking to encounter, but which of these 28 assembled authors would one want to know more about. Being newcomers, few names are readily identifiable. 

And this appetite for novelty attends both to form and content. Some contributors are formally highly adventurous. And the range of subject matter is wide including an amount of risqué material, even in our age of unshockable indifference.

I’d perhaps venture that Kent is not getting behind a particular style of writing as such but rather more a sort of sensibility, a state of attitude or mind, that is slightly offkey, an amount of radical departure from what would ordinarily be expected. Looking with a new perspective is some hint, although the waters can become a little uncertain.

The layout prescribes that no one or more authors is highlighted or given unusual prominence. Two I particularly liked were Jonny Wiles, quite radical formally, and Alex Mazey, who is promulgating a Baudrillardian vision of consumerist society. The book both begins and ends well. The conclusion, a most unexpected short discourse on the rhinoceros in classical literature by Luke Thompson is quite fascinating. The opening by Emilee Moyce is actually reasonably indicative of what to expect. Her opening poem ‘Over the Moon’ concludes;-

            I felt that I was floating,

            my eyes no longer burned, and I slept

            until the sun came and went away again,

            waking only when the moon called my name.  (p12)

which in its mode of narrating is suitably moonstruck and, I think, quite original.

There are numerous edifying passages like this scattered through the anthology. I am reminded again that its design is highly understated, with few real hints of what to expect, although the plug from Andrew McMillan isn’t far off in speaking of an ‘exciting, and vital press in the dreamscape of UK publishing’. A valuable find, then, and I certainly hope that Aaron Kent, our editor, finds his way in the creative sphere, and there might be some anticipation as to where he heads next. 

Clark Allison 5th June 2021

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