Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’). Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

3 JP

In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.”

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.

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Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed

The Salt Book of Younger Poets – eds. Roddy Lumsden and Eloise Stonnborough

So to kick off, The Salt Book of Younger Poets is by no small margin the most exciting new book of poetry I’ve read in months. There’s a real feeling of variety, curiosity, ambition and openness here that was disappointingly lacking in Lumsden’s last anthology Identity Parade; where that felt loose and willing to lower the criteria for admission, The Salt Book maintains an impressively high standard. There are a few writers in here who already read like the finished article, and most are more suggestive and provocative (in the pleasing way) than many of our lauded prize-listers. For the sake of brevity I’ve picked out a handful who I consider worth bringing to your attention.

Dai George

[Brief intro: George is, as you’ve guessed, Welsh, has studied in Bristol and Columbia and lives in London. His first collection drops in 2013 with Seren. Listen to him read on Poetcasting.]

George’s four poems in the anthology are of an absurdly high standard. Here’s an extract from the opener, “New Translation”:

Thanks to the hacks that still insist
on fixing the smallest glitch in Luke,
the Lord’s prayer can be gamely glossed
at the tenth line. No more is sin a lake
we’re led to like bullocks on market day
but rather rum misadventure:
Save us – and here things get a little coy –
at the time of trial. So censure,
you will note, ceases to be the point.

Unf. Disregarding the fact that I’m a sucker for biblical references in poems, just listen to this thing. It sounds bloody great. It fits an energetic conversation with a delicate subject into a rhyme scheme I didn’t notice first time round and a meter that not once stutters through a series of not-uncomplicated sentences. The poem continues (and here I curse the name of copyright that makes me hesitate to reproduce it in full) into a Donaghyean (Donaghesque?) investigation of romantic temptation that acknowledges and incorporates all of its vital complexity without once appearing dry or distant. It’s a remarkable balancing act that resolves into something completely touching that only relinquishes its secrets at the third or fourth reading.

The other three poems I would be more than delighted to show to anyone who doubts the capacity for strict patterning to convey something moving, in both senses of the word. “Plans with the Unmet Wife” follows its conditional ‘Should we meet first in a market / somewhere equidistant from our lives’ with twelve lines of a developing romance to the satisfyingly earthy ‘how is this going to work?’, before another as-yet-unrealised domestic scene melts back to a depiction of the poet’s own very much completed childhood. The poem acts as a celebration/deflation of the poet-in-youth trope, balancing the writer’s own partial aggrandisement with the wholly uncertain vision of his future. And it sounds bloody lush.

I could go on. So I will, just a wee bit more. “Distraction During Evensong” ends with ‘wishful voices winding through the air / like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.’ HOLY. LIVING. FUCK. Look me in the eye and tell me you aren’t a wee bit short of breath. Dai George is the most exciting poet in the book and one who gives me some hope for the future.

Jay Bernard

[Studied at Oriel College, Oxford and lives in London. Chapbook Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl published by tall-lighthouse a couple years back, I have a copy if anyone wants to borrow it, it’s great. Currently poet in residence at the University of Singapore. Of course.]

Our friends up North (and I’m sure down South) know all about Bernard, who has performed at StAnza and the West Port Book Festival in recent years. If you didn’t watch her read in the above video, do so… now.

Great, right? One of the great things about catching wind of a writer early on is seeing their improvement over time – the three longish poems in The Salt Book are expansions and deepenings of themes that Bernard has been writing about for years, articulate confidences about love, loneliness, intimacy and life in one of the biggest cities on the planet. Particularly affecting is “Tuesday Morning”, which I at first took to be another fruit from the Poet’s Tree of Wahey I Had Sex Last Night but is in fact something far more interesting and 21st-century-Donne. Let’s listen:

I do not move, but something ebbs –
some small internal me wants to stretch
to their full height. They detach themselves,

unpeeling their skin from my inner limbs.
In the dark morning, lit with red stars
and Venus setting, they turn, they climb,

they wedge a foot in the groove of my groin
then vanish. They leave, gone, enjoined
with a cargo of my thoughts, all my lies, my lungs,

my regrets, my unadmitted wrongs; I’m left
hollow in the bed.

It’s no coincidence I’ve picked out a passage that rhymes: one of Bernard’s most satisfying improvements is in the sonic texture of her writing – not only in this end-rhymey poem but in all three pieces is there much greater attention paid to the demands of the poem as an orchestrated unit of sound. This is anything but chopped up prose.

AND I hasten to add it resonates like a fucker. The poem’s self-absorption is coupled with a vivid depiction of the speaker’s better self taking its leave, with the attendant disgust that perhaps only ‘someone who never stopped / to see what inward sign was blazing’ could possess. “11.16” and its relaxed, storytelling tone is the perfect vessel for one poet’s discovery of another in a dilapidated toilet stall that rings a very “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford” bell in its closing lines ‘Those figures of history / Who whisper “do something”’. The management of tone is pitch-perfect. Bernard is in serious danger of writing a book of poetry that every fucker in the country could love.

Laura Marsh

[Born in Bedfordshire, studied English at Christ Church, Oxford and works for a documentary film company. No word as yet on upcoming publications. Poetcasting]

Okay, after all that let’s calm down a wee bit. Marsh writes small, beautifully formed things, so let’s look at one in toto, “Mistakes in Closed Captioning”:

You’re the horse and I failed.
You will trample
a too-narrow hallway, not looking
where you are going, where the broken glass
is trodden into pheasant tracks by girls
with nicotine eyes, who set fire
to aerosol cans. Mud will splatter
your shins to theme music; on the A-road
I’m hurrying down, squinting, you will pause,
yourself again, as something I misread
returns to you.
You look worse than I feel.

Admittedly this has a little exerciseyness about it, but it’s a terrifically suggestive, lyrical piece. Her five short poems are elegantly composed (in both senses) and carry some of Hughes’ pagan bones-and-earth in their investigations of love, a philosophy summarised by the close of “Relics”: ‘We love with senseless nails and thick skin, / you say, till what a lock of hair undoes / we feel with the bones that will come to dust.’

Niall Campbell

[From South Uist, studied at Glasgow and St Andrews, won an Eric Gregory, has a pamphlet out very soon with Happenstance which I will be purchasing.]

Campbell’s another that StAnzaficionados will recognise. His work shows some of the generous close payment of attention that I liked best about Jarrell and Bishop, and if “The Apple” is a little too much in debt to Don Paterson we can excuse him for his excellent taste. Again, the gods of infringement will have to bite me, here’s “The Tear in the Sack”:

A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar,
cocking its head in the silence
of a few deflowering trees,
witnesses more than we do
the parallels.
Its twin perspective:
Seeing with one eye the sack-
grain spilt on the roadway dirt,
and with the other, the scattered stars,
their chance positioning in the dark.

What more is there to say? This is a fully realised unit of thought. Campbell conveys a mature sympathy for the presented object (a rope, a boat, an apple), a satisfying sense of disquiet and has a great ear to match: ‘I began to weight it / sure that if it was wax the few lost grams / of seeds and stones, would tell in the palm’. That ostensibly superfluous comma is certainly not. And it’s hard not to like “Hitching Lifts From Islanders,” with the line ‘“That’s one fucker of a fucker, eh?” he said.’

Inua Ellams

[Born in Nigeria, his second pamphlet, Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All-Stars was published by Faber in December, and as of writing there are seven copies left on Amazon.]

First of all I think you should listen to the above video, and then his tracks on Poetcasting. He is an excellent reader, and I’d love to see him perform live. Here’s an extract from “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem”:

‘But more than seeds are sown here. You
can tell by his tender pat on tended patch;
the soft cuff to a boy’s head […]
The sky sways on the safe side of tipsy
and it’s altogether an alien time of half
life and hope, an after-fight of gentle fog
and city smog, where the debris of dew dips
to this narrative of progress, this city tale;
this story is my story; this vista my song.

I cluster in the quiet, stack against steel,
seek islands, hope, a pen to sow with.’

Ellams is probably the only writer in the book who successfully makes the sound of his writing overcome a thematic lightness, or actually make the sound of the poem his theme. Each of the three pieces is excellent in its own right, each has a very careful passion and emotional generosity that makes it very easy to get lost in their sound; they embody what the fella was talking about when he talked about poetry’s hypnotic tendencies. Moreover, Ellams is very carefully tending his own poetic patch – “GuerillaGardenWritingPoem” is also among the better I’m a Poet and Here’s What That Means pieces in the book, in that he takes care not to steal the limelight even when the fictionalised Writer is the poem’s vehicle. Though as you can see he does that irksome thing of breaking lines when they reach the correct length as they appear on the page rather than where it makes more rhythmic sense, but that’s a very minor gripe when the poem is so beautifully plotted when spoken aloud. And I am little if not easily irked.

To wrap up, there are plenty of great writers included in the book about whom I have slightly less to say, and I hasten to add that by no means belittles their achievements. Special mention should go to Jack Belloli’s “Yurt”, Kayo Chingonyi’s “Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly”, Siofra McSherry’s “Faust”, Richard O’Brien’s “Isthmus” and Vidyan Ravinthiran’s “Jump-Cuts”. These guys are defs worth looking out for in future. After that slightly rhapsodic intro I should probably now make the qualifier – not everyone involved is great shakes. To me at least. There’s a lot of the fancy-pants artful-arrangement-of-sentences that’s not quite a short story so let’s call it a poem stuff, a lot of formatting disguised as poetry and a lot of the posturing bumff that is juvenalia’s calling card. But for quite so much to be quite so good is a heartening pleasure.