some books, a little news, happy new year

It’s an end-of-year post! I’ve tried to keep it brief.

First, personal news: Next month I begin a part-time Research Assistantship at the University of Liverpool (which, happily, I can do almost entirely from Edinburgh). As this position will run alongside finishing a thesis and the other bits of ir/regular work that pay the rent, I’ve decided to put the blog on hiatus, at least for the time being and certainly in terms of the regular update schedule.

This also means, of course, putting an end to my Patreon campaign. I can’t satisfactorily express my gratitude to everyone who has contributed, or how life-changing it has been to see, in the plainest terms, how much faith those folk have in the work I do. Being empowered to consider myself a professional writer for the past two years is a gift I will never forget, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I hope I’ve done right by you.

(Links to where you can buy each of these books are at the foot of the post. Edit: forgot to add Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers, which I loved. Amended!)

Books I wish I’d had time to review this year:

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas (Graywolf)

The quality and intensity of political thinking in the foundations of many poetry books over the past years has been a serious joy. Lyric writing that treats its political work and its poetic work as coterminous is gradually finding an engaged and energetic readership in these islands, and in the meantime there is no shortage of work crossing the Atlantic. If I could wish for one book to reach a domestic publisher, though, it would be Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. The book negotiates with the various formal decrees from the US government to the First Nations, including the apology for the colonisers’ atrocities from which Whereas takes its name. Long Soldier explores how this legacy is engrained in every encounter with white America, from the interpersonal to the governmental. Her capacity to activate so many perspectives simultaneously, from the traumatic to the mundane, with subtlety, sensitivity and unflinching precision, demands close and attentive reading.

 

Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)

No one I’ve read writes like Pascale Petit. The way her densely wooded imaginative space, seemingly inescapable and full of vibrant, beautiful predators, spans multiple collections as a poetic theatre is by itself a remarkable achievement. It has not only been the punctum of multiple collections without feeling overworked, but seems to gather new dimensions in Mama Amazonica, its human and bestial subjects interweaving more fluidly and powerfully than ever. Additionally, the book is shaped and arced primarily as a book, to be read in order with discernible authorial control of the reader’s experience over time. There is a poem close to the end that just broke me. Some day I hope to come back and give the collection the attention it deserves, but I sincerely hope someone better equipped beats me to it.

 

Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)

There has been a heartening number of new collections this year which engage thoughtfully and critically with contemporary expressions of masculinity; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds most obviously, but also Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours, Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Alarum, Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape, William Letford’s Dirt, Raymond Antrobus’ To Sweeten Bitter, Keith Jarrett’s Selah; I’m sure I’m missing some. But Kumukanda stands out for its capacity for – or attraction to – jarring contrasts, a book that, like Long Soldier’s, holds moments of joy and moments of injustice in their due esteem, each illuminating the other. Chingonyi is a deft and skilful narrator, has a sharp eye for the small details that make a story get up and walk. His work is keenly aware of the canon, and exactly how much space it fails to make.

 

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)

Chingonyi is among the astonishingly talented cohort to graduate the Complete Works mentoring programme; British poetry would be deeply impoverished without it. The most recent anthology maintains the promise and quality of previous iterations; suffice to say that if Raymond Antrobus, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Leonardo Boix, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Will Harris, Ian Humphreys, Jennifer Lee Tsai, Momtaza Mehri, Yomi Sode and Degna Stone don’t have long and prosperous careers in these islands, it won’t be for of want of talent or ambition. The anthology is too rich and various to summarise and a paragraph, but if you only have room in the post-holiday budget for one book, this is the one I’d put in your hands.

 

Books I read this year that are not just good but fundamentally changed how I read poetry:

Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches).

An education and a celebration. A dozen ways of thinking about art I’d never considered before. A clinic in how to make a many-minded book into a poem all of its own.

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)

Left my brain fizzing, a combination of surgically precise thinking and an utterly human earthiness. New thoughts every time I’ve come back to it. Great puns.

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

Risky, self-assured, angry, charismatic – evidence that working in traditional forms is no excuse for traditional thought. Bergin manages the shifting trustworthiness of the book’s narrators unlike anyone I can think of.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2016)

A beautiful, hallucinogenic yarn, an intricately observed character study and artfully modernised myth. An excellent argument for critically studying pamphlets as full and completed works.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)

Often acutely self-critical, an insightful challenge to generic expectations of elegiac poetry. Touches some tender nerves, but never sensationalises. Validates all aspects of grief, from the existential to the absurd, a deeply humane book.

Anne Carson – Float (Cape)

Like attending a party where everyone is smarter, funnier and more interesting than you but would be delighted to tell you some stories, if you’d like to listen.

Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015)

Wish I’d found this sooner. Its close and nuanced engagement with British society and politics make Kapil’s lack of a British publisher somewhat glaring. A tough but enlightening book.

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)

Very tempting to read in one sitting, materially altered my perception of colour. Originally published in 2009 in Nelson’s neck of the woods, tremendous to have it readily available this side of the ocean.

Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)

Ramlochan’s book is devastating in its directness, its refusal to mince words. I couldn’t manage more than a handful of poems at a time, but came back to it as soon as energy permitted.

(A very incomplete list of) Books I read this year which I loved and would unequivocally recommend:

Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)

Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)

Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)

Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)

Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)

William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)

Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)

Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)

Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)

Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)

Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)

Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

Hope you don’t mind indulging a slightly exhaustive, hopefully not exhausting list to end the year; partly I’m concerned not to leave any loose ends before I switch the lights off for a bit. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who’s been reading this year. Here’s to 2018 being a little kinder. Love and solidarity.x

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Links to shops:

Layli Long Solider – Whereas (Graywolf)
Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)
Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)
Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)
Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches)
Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears)
Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)
Anne Carson – Float (Cape)
Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books)
Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)
Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)
Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)
Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)
Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)
Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)
Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)
Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)
Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)
Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)
William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)
Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)
Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)
Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)
Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)
Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)
Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)
Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

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Kayombo Chingonyi – The Color of James Brown’s Scream

Full Disclosure: Wrote about Chingonyi’s work in a post on Ten: The New Wave last year, several poems from which appear here (some with minor alterations, I think). Have not met him or seen him read. Review copy purchased with assistance from Patreon backers.

Review: The Color of James Brown’s Scream is published by Akashic Books in a series commissioned by the African Poetry Book Fund. The series editor, Kwame Dawes, provides context for the pamphlet series, which:

‘seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans.’

Dawes also provides an introductory essay: he explores the book’s engagement with garage and grime music at its culture of making and curating, the problematic norms of contemporary theatre (difficult not to see literary/poetry culture reflected here too), and twentieth century Zambian history. He also provides insightful discussion of how art acts as a site of cultural belonging, ownership, ‘a sense of “home” that is constantly being contested, but one [Chingonyi] must contend with always’.

The preface also makes space to draw attention to the poet’s formal skill, linguistic richness, his ability to make his poems tactile and sensuous; this instinct to make the art sensually pleasing seems itself a central theme, an assertion against nullity, against being erased or simplified. In ‘This Poem Contains Gull Song’, the poet lays out a kind of aesthetic manifesto: ‘such music / we forgot how to understand, since / it lacks that carefully planned sweetness’, ‘an old tune hidden / in the genes of a new one’. The opening piece, ‘In Defense of Darkness’, is partly an account of lovers meeting after time apart (‘the harshness of the journey written / into the depth of a clinch’), but figures its darkness metaphorically:

‘Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.’

The poem’s catalogue of sounds (‘Drum-brush of fabric. The clink of a zip / on laminate floor’), of tastes and smells (‘Coconut oil, laundry detergent, sweat, / dry shampoo, Burberry Weekend’) faces up against memory’s incapacity to recreate these ‘local delicacies’; the poem seems to ask if it feels less true for being at least partly fictional? Chingonyi seems to be outlining what is at stake in the book: this particular act of witnessing cannot, finally, be confirmed as either memory or fiction; the reader has only the poet’s word, or the word of the poem’s protagonists, for guidance. Throughout the book, the question of authenticity, of recognising the truth of one’s testimony, is a recurring concern.

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In this light, the book’s several poems about music feel united by their drive to accurately preserve or relive important moments in the past, providing as much context as the lyric poem can carry. ‘The Room’ is an outstanding piece, smuggling its deep thinking about the politics of musical (literary?) borrowing into a plain-spoken and comprehensible scene, and a kind of sonnet if you include the two-line epigraph by Oddisee:

when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound,
you’re picking up the room it was recorded in.

While the poem itself doesn’t veer too far from this thought, it does bring it into a practical context; the poem’s action all happens:

‘in the few moments’ grace
before the store clerk, thin-voiced, announces closing time’

and is deceptively full of characters: the clerk, the three musicians in the recording, and the ‘purist’ and ‘mere completists’: the antagonists in the poem’s internal drama. The purist is ‘hung up on tracing a drum break to its source’, finding ‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’, in their dedication to specificity gaining access to an understanding that eludes the ‘completist’:

‘air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The few moments’ grace in the store correspond to a few moments in another room, possibly many years earlier, with all the quirks and flaws (‘the MacGyver theme tune’?) intact, a little window into a past, historical, moment. Again, ‘The Room’ feels aligned with ‘In Defense of Darkness’ in its determination to recoup a memory, to be the ‘purist’ understanding the fuller context behind the ‘hiss’, ‘hiccups and spools’ of a moment.

The book’s title poem is similarly concerned with understanding the present by honouring the past. Here, the tradition of garage music is commemorated or elegised, by a poem that seems in tension between a kind of nostalgia for a time of legendary musical figures (Larry Levan, James Brown and Willi Ninja feature), an acknowledgement their significance to the present (‘some / of us don’t know it is your grave / we dance on’), and a recognition of the pitfalls of idolising the past, becoming stuck on ‘a taste we’ve been / trying to recreate ever since’. The poem is alive in the richness of its imagination, doing in language what Levan did in music:

‘I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin-fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.’

Chingonyi connects Levan to the mythical figure Legba, which Dawes’ introduction describes as a shape-shifter, a communicator between mortals and immortals, and a survivor of a wound that leaves him with a ‘phantom limp’. Levan, the poem subtly suggests, keeps a tradition alive that goes back much longer than any of its contemporary practitioners.

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In the subsequent poem, ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the poet recalls his own adolescent discovery of garage in a ‘white-flight- / satellite-town’ in Essex. Chingonyi is at pains to tell this story in its full complexity, and the poem acknowledges the misogyny and machismo of teenage boyhood (‘the underwear section of Littlewoods catalog’, ‘Victor’s dad’s latest copy of Escort’) and art as access to social hierarchy:

‘slick lyrics I could earn stripes
by reciting tomorrow lunch in front of anyone who’d listen’

‘Assemblies,
talent shows, tours of local junior schools, and lunchtimes
in the music room making haphazard recordings onto TDK
cassettes, broken tabs Sellotaped, a surfeit of fame secure.’

On the other side is hard-won self-esteem and sense of belonging through artistic discipline, and at the heart of the poem is the discovery of a recording of his four-year-old self and the ‘kettle drum pitch’ of his father’s voice. There is quietness amid the bravado, silence in a poem devoted to sound:

‘If I throw off the reason I’ve adopted he sat next to me
that day as I rewound the tape and asked me again
and again till the streetlights bloomed through the still-
open curtains and settled in the lacquer of the table.’

All of which makes the poem’s close, ‘Eminem ruined everything’, a bodyblow. The music industry’s compulsion to promote whiteness intercedes, forces the young poet to ‘rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line’, confronted by the fact that:

‘no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme’

The poem ends abruptly and unjustly, ‘anyone with sense knew it was all about hip hop now.’ The whole story, the time spent learning a tradition from roots to branches, is rendered irrelevant with a single publication.

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This entrapment by the demands of white culture is at the heart of the sequence calling a spade a spade, with an epigraph from American poet Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poems are tight, eleven-line stanzas (almost every line eleven syllables), a precision and levelness of tone that allows a kind of distance from the deep hurt and dehumanisation taking place in each tableau. In ‘The N Word’, the speaker addresses the appropriation of hate speech into contemporary middle class argot, ignoring its extremely recent acceptability in ‘a Pinter script’, or ‘polite conversation’, ‘making wine from the bad blood of history.’ In ‘The Conservatoire System’, the question of visibility is unravelled, a poem too knotted and complex to quote in part:

‘All of that to fetch up here, on secondment
to the institute of whiteface minstrelsy –
where I must flay myself nightly or risk
the indignity of being seen, in blackness,
as I am or as I’ve been taught, from without,
I am; an unconvincing Everyman.
But why would I want to be that dry bastard
with his pronouncements on all that can be seen
and practice this, his art of self-effacement, by which
he shakes off the vulgarity of being,
the better to make himself praiseworthy?’

The poem ties the speaker’s blackness to his unconvincingness – who needs/fails to be convinced? – and the assumption that white male actors (consider Martin ‘Everyhobbit’ Freeman) are best suited to be the audience stand-in, observer and commentator. The luxury of being everyone and no-one is contrasted with the choice faced by black performers to be either hypervisible or overlooked. Successful mediocrity is for white people.

The following piece, ‘On Reading “Colloquy in Black Rock”’, a 1946 Robert Lowell poem, draws attention to an academic unwillingness to address casual hate speech in canonical works, ‘The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now’. The labour involved in unpicking contemporary social norms is left to the student (‘Ours is to note the working mind behind the word’), to acknowledge that one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets had no compunction about considering black people in terms of ‘us and them’. The cumulative effect of these pieces is a painful reminder that ‘blind casting’ is suspiciously selective, that the US is not the only anglophone nation with a culture of racism to confront. The poems pose a question Chingonyi expresses, in a review of Daljit Nagra: ‘what would happen if we were allowed to be in our full complexity’? What could poets of colour achieve if they weren’t obliged to fight racist assumptions every time they put pen to paper? Extrapolating from this, how can white readers change how we read (who we believe? who we prioritise in our reading lists and festival lineups?) to make this a reality?

In her essay ‘Not a British Subject’, Sandeep Parmar does vital work identifying trends in publishing poets of colour in the UK, that to be accepted in the cultural centre the poet is encouraged to emphasise their own difference or marginality for a white readership, her concern that ‘increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness’. (Her conversation with Juliana Spahr in the recent issue of Tender is also required reading.) The Color of James Brown’s Scream draws strength from its literary and musical touchstones, asserts the value of artistic communities outwith the poetry mainstream, and refuses to simplify its acts of witness for the benefit of the uninformed. Its demand that we educate ourselves about, for example, the history of black music in the UK, is an assertion of value and not a performance of otherness; as Khavita Bhanot recently put it in Media Diversified, the book does not ‘diversify’ so much as ‘decolonise’, challenge what non-marginalised poetry readers might consider culturally valuable.

Tl;dr: A challenging, much-needed book from a thoughtful and skilful writer. Better yet, it’ll only set you back a fiver.

Further reading: Review by Nisha Ramayya in Ambit

Buy The Color of James Brown’s Scream direct from the poet

Chingonyi on Daljit Nagra, Kei Miller, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe and Helen Mort

Interview with Cadaverine Magazine

Khavita Bhanot: Decolonise, not Diversify in Media Diversified

Sandeep Parmar: Not a British Subject in The LA Review of Books

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

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: The New Wave

Full Disclosure: Have seen both Bernard and Ellams perform live, will be on a panel with Howe at the upcoming Saboteur Awards. Review copy provided by Bloodaxe.

Review: As often, Fiona Moore’s gathering of data is an invaluable resource when it comes to talking about ingrained prejudices in poetry. Talking about this very publication, Moore lays out as starkly as possible the discrepancies between the demographics of the general populace and those who become published poets; in 2005 black and minority ethnic poets made up just 1% of the big presses’ publications, a figure now standing at 8%, though far behind the 14% that would be an accurate reflection of Britain’s demographics – though even this is at best an arbitrary quota, potentially a bluff to refuse further restructuring of power (and a recent post by The Bookseller suggests the problem is by no means restricted to poetry).

What can be done to meaningfully change such structural biases? Perhaps by changing the means by which poetry is identified as ‘excellent’ or otherwise worthy of attention: in the past ten years, only four of the thirty TS Eliot judges were non-white, and only seven of fifty Forward judges; Moore’s research has not yet extended to editors of the UK and Ireland’s poetry magazines and presses, though I doubt it would make encouraging reading. For a case study on gender rather than race, VIDA’s figures on the LRB and TLS’s terrible track record of publishing women was met with derision and attempts to discredit the figures instead of practical engagement with a clear problem. Breaking these systemic barriers would require those with cultural power to give up some of that power, and resistance is perhaps not surprising. Ailish Hopper’s thoughtful essay in the Boston Review examines the collusion between prevailing aesthetic norms and whiteness, a prejudice unreconstructed since the time of Yeats’ (seldom fully quoted) exhortation to his ‘proper’ inheritors in ‘Under Ben Bulben’:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

One needn’t look particularly far in contemporary British poetry to see this principle alive and well, that Yeats’ criteria for ‘whatever is well made’ (and, crucially, who gets to sing it) remains unexamined.

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The Complete Works have now published two ten-poet anthologies of new work from BAME poets, with an introduction from each poet’s mentor and around ten pages’ worth of poems apiece. It’s enough space to show multiple aspects of their work, to set up something more involving that a greatest hits or a technical highlight reel. TCW director Nathalie Teitler frames the book’s ambitions:

‘There will of course be those who ask ‘Yes, but why does diversity in poetry matter?’ To them I would say that poetry has the potential to hold up a mirror to society; at its best, it has the ability to show what a society may become.’

With that in mind there is, of course, a limit to the value of yet another white opinion on these poems. In some cases I was acutely aware that my set of critical tools simply weren’t up to the job. Perhaps against better judgement I want to at least draw attention to some important work collected here, work that seems a result of a complicated working-out of the poet’s relationship to a dominant, exclusive and restrictive culture, a recognition of and statement against their marginalisation. There is much to recommend from each poet in the collection, and it’s only for the sake of brevity that I’m not writing about them all.

Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire’s first collection is near completion, according to this pretty awesome interview. Shire is introduced in The New Wave by Pascale Petit, who identifies some shared practices in the former’s ability to work an extended metaphor, particularly as a way of understanding or owning trauma. In ‘The House’, Shire employs ‘body-as-house’ to render in physical terms a series of painful past relationships, as a way of incorporating the genuinely comic aspects of romantic failure, as in the miniature masterpiece of gradual revelation: ‘Are you going to eat that? I say to my mother, pointing to my father who is lying on the dining-room table, his mouth stuffed with a red apple’, and the starkly, almost unspeakably appalling, ‘I said Stop, I said No and he did not listen’. In the linked interview, Shire speaks about being a survivor, about how her trauma became deeply psychologically rooted, and describes becoming able to form positive relationships as an extremely demanding process of learning and unlearning. ‘The House’ disrupts notions of safety in what are traditionally our two safest, most integral spaces, the body and the home; Shire does not shy away from the complications involved in reclaiming those spaces, or how such an act is ultimately compromised. That she does so with such a sharp, generous sense of humour (listen to the audience in the video above) is a wonder to behold.

Elsewhere, metaphor fades into the background of an already-meaningful act of presentation. ‘Men in Cars’ is four short pieces on sexual disappointment, estrangement and abuse, and Shire’s ability to lend the poems’ male characters humanity, the individuality of their failures, is itself an extraordinary gesture. Though they do monstrous things, they are not monsters, and again, Shire’s grim touches of humour (‘The car was filled with weed smoke, I would emerge from it like a contestant on a singing show’) makes the poem bold, clear-eyed. ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ depicts the cultural estrangement of the speaker’s uncle, the sense of being inside and outside the British idea of ‘home’:

‘Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women who cannot pronounce your name,
you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
pressing your face into the ground, praying
in a language you haven’t used in years.’

Shire is a hugely talented poet, insightful, perceptive and visionary. You can find more on her blog and twitter.

Kayo Chingonyi

Chingonyi’s selection starts with two excellent short lyrics, ‘How to Cry’ and the wonderful ‘The Room’, a short metaphysical exploration of the ethics of sampling other people’s music, with the epigraph ‘‘when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound, you’re picking up the room it was recorded in’ – Oddisee’. The poem moves from the mundane circumstances of the original recording (‘the few moments’ grace // before the store-clerk, thin voiced, announces closing time’) to the point of transformation (‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’), to the poem’s sonnet-like turn, its recognition of the need for skill and study, but also respect for the origins of the work, the poem concluding at its point of departure:

‘mere completists never learn a good song’s secret;
air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The poem’s syntactic grace and balance are integral to its weighing of two scenarios, two artists working with one artefact. The poem’s two sentences give more time and space to the creator than the sampler; the poem’s formal message matches the semantic. Christ I love a bit of formal shenanigans. But maybe that’s too much nerdiness and the poem stands wholeheartedly as an achieved piece of imaginative and musical play: in either case the closing rhymes of ‘remix/secret’ and ‘day/acetate’ are worth savouring.

The remainder of Chingonyi’s selection is a series entitled ‘calling a spade a spade’, again with a epigraph, this time from Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poem consists of nine eleven-line stanzas, exploring the attempts of white society to make the speaker conform to race-based preconceptions, whether in the worlds of literature, pop culture, even cricket and a nativity play. The poem’s first lines illuminate this problem beautifully, in a section titled ‘The N Word’:

‘You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a Transit van’s rolled-down window;
my shadow on this un-lit road, though you’ve been
smuggled from polite conversation.’

Chingonyi here quite rightly implicates the sophisticated artistic culture that still sees fit to appropriate words to which it has no claim, in the name of, perhaps, ‘realism’ or, as in a later section on ‘An all-white production of for coloured girls. / I expect my lecturer to get the joke / but he smiles, the thought of theatrical risk’, a kind of aspirational ‘edginess’. In the poem, of course, the play becomes a reality, praised for its ‘authenticity’. Later Chingonyi examines his own acting career, the tension between ‘never say no to good money […] rent’s due’ and ‘My agent says I have to use my street voice. / Though my talent is for rakes and fops’. These are challenging and beautifully crafted poems, asking the reader to see the incongruity of a (polite) society that claims ‘our post-race moment’ and the poet consistently trapped in a limited number of ill-fitting roles. Chingonyi is currently working on his own manuscript, ‘Kumukanda’ (a Zambian word for initiation rites which he discusses in this interview), more info on his blog and twitter.

Jay Bernard

Once again, I found it enlightening to read Bernard’s interview with Poetry School; here she gives some valuable insight into the mythic elements of her work and Weldon Kees’ turning the tables ‘on those who think that the power of ‘personal’ poems lies in autobiographical truth’. It also gives some impression of the poet’s creative restlessness and curiosity, the desire to challenge her own assumptions and treat her work as more than appeasement of that looming spectre, ‘The Rent’. Bernard’s selection here shows an astounding range of registers, from the weird medieval-gothic ‘Song of the Strike’ to the frank, direct, almost scientific observations about family violence and sexuality in ‘Fake Beach’; that she writes with such assurance in each is wonderfully disorienting, the awareness that at any moment the game might irrevocably change. I can’t think of another poet with such faith in the reader’s capacity to keep up with the poet’s vision.

That vision is to the fore in ‘Song of the Strike’, part of a series of poems in which dismembered heads talk to each other. In this one, the head is itself an audience to a Bosch-like parade of ‘elephants, without tusks’, ‘hawks circling on one-wing flight’:

‘Below I saw a breath of bats swarm towards me,
swarming up towards me; below I saw their tiny bitter faces,
I heard through the still-tender pipes of my throat wing-hum,
clammy joints a-hum – coming up and through me –

And like starlings they veered right like thieves’ eyes’

The poem’s quasi-scriptural repetitions prepare the way for a struggle between god the employer and his team of demons protesting their ill-treatment:

‘Do you know – (God: ‘I do.’)
How difficult it is to saw a boy in half? […]
Why us? If demons punish the wicked
we know better than angels do what is good –
and angels, clad in silk, would be devils
if they set foot on earth, so blinkered in their knowledge.’

The poem manages to hold its premise steady, staying just on the mythic side of allegory, allowing its broader implications room to breathe. ‘Song of the Strike’ is just as aware of abusive power structures as any of Bernard’s other poems, is a memorable rendering of god-as-neoliberal, zero-hours labour as demonic punishment.

The last poem in this selection is ‘The Basics’, another remarkable set piece that follows its conceit to a surprising and enlightening end. Its three-line stanzas are tiny tableaux of school- and home-life, jumping from one to the next in an ostensibly simultaneous moment:

‘In at least one staff toilet
someone is looking into the cistern
where the small pool of water –

and in at least one student toilet
someone is bunking a lesson,
trying to rub –

and upstairs in an empty classroom
a teacher begins to wonder
why it matters that – ’

It’s a brilliant effect, each exploring the interior lives of the children and adults of the unnamed school, giving (however briefly) space and importance to the (however incompletely understood) moments of loneliness and failure of the poem’s cast, before making an incredible final gesture of hope (maybe), of putting ‘the day’s lesson / to the test’. The poem’s close is too good to spoil. More of Bernard’s work is on her blog and Twitter.

Tl;dr: Ten: The New Wave is an exciting book, and I defy any reader to come away without hope for the future of poetry in these islands. It’s currently on offer (£7.63!) on Hive.co.uk.