Edwin Morgan Prize 2014 – Claire Askew, Niall Campbell, Harry Giles

So this is something a little different. The Edwin Morgan Prize shortlist has been announced, it’s Scotland’s biggest award for poetry, a huge deal for promoting poets under 30, and (even better) a very strong shortlist has been selected.

Full Disclosure: Three of the poets in question I know personally (Askew, Campbell and Giles) and the others have given me permission to write a paragraph or two as a sort of primer on their work. I hope you’ll indulge the air of positivity for now; only Niall Campbell and Tom Chivers have their first collections in the public domain, once the others do I’ll be the first to give them a sound reviewing. For clarity, in this post I’ll be discussing Askew’s most recent poems in the Winter edition of the Istanbul Review, Campbell’s recent collection Moontide, and Giles’ pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam.

Claire Askew:

Askew and myself were in the same creative writing class back in 08/09, and even then, her poetry made the home, family and particularly the lives of older women the centre of her focus. This thoroughly unfashionable commitment seems to have paid total dividends judging by her most recent work, themselves very much connected to what she was writing on back in ye olde days.

‘The axe of the house’ concerns (what we can assume is) the poet’s move into a new house, whose previous owner has passed away. It’s a deeply unsettling piece that forces the reader to question who the key player really is: the speaker (and occasional narrator), June, the previous owner, Mary, next door neighbour and medium between the two? From the outset June’s presence is – very literally – overwhelming, ‘Her smell is on everything: / lavender, talc, menthol and something medical / behind it all’, so much so the narrator feels obliged to say ‘sorry / aloud, splitting floorboards, hauling down / ancient steel blinds that unravel and clatter / like train-wires or hail’. The poem establishes that this act of homemaking first requires a clearance, a difficult, violent and intrusive one, which eliminates the life that went before. Implicitly, it places the young homeowners in the same boat as the men who break in in section iv, ‘They took a bit, a bagful, all valuable: / jewellery, stuff they could carry’; implicitly, the dream in which

Inside, there’s only a folding stool

and June, folded down onto it.
Her hair’s been done.
She has on white, seamed gloves,

a string of beads like tiny,
iridescent eyes. She says
nothing, though you wait a long time.

places June as a silent, well-made, and judging part of the furniture. The closing section, ‘The axe’, uses its eponymous symbol as a kind of fulcrum around which the poem revolves, a quiet, threatening presence ‘buried erect and shining, / L of light, in the heart / of the shed.’ The close of the poem is a brilliant slice of nightmare, a kind of Frost-like short story all of its own, as the countryside and wildlife gradually decay, the narrator and the axe outliving everything.

The whole piece is illustrative of Askew’s strength with extended narrative; her best pieces are underwritten by their palpable reality, their strangeness by the underlying mundaneness. The other poems in the Istanbul Review are ‘Big Heat’, in which the narrative voice is given over to a woman on an unnamed island who assists the white, Anglophone tourists (again, we can assume, the poet seen from a reverse angle); in the poem she has the space to express herself that in reality she supresses: ‘I want to say / that crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford […]But I’m quiet, / pour a glassful for her from our fridge. / She sputters thank you in our language’. Again, the poet paints herself as not only a secondary character but one specifically excluded from the poem’s centre of authority. It’s kind of exhilarating. ‘Bad Moon’ is an excellent, good-humoured piece of deconstruction, and the palpable glee of its last stanza too good to spoil. If you get the chance, look it up.

Otherwise, Claire is @OneNightStanzas and runs a rather excellent blog.

 

Niall Campbell:

I reviewed Moontide way back when; I humbly ask you read that review instead of a ctrl+c-ctrl+v-ed version here. It would be unfair to the other shortlistees.

 

Harry Giles:

Visa Wedding pitches between America and Scotland, and it features (amongst other things) a speaking voice that is as assured and coherent as it is playful and resistant to taxonomy. The opening poem ‘Visa Wedding #1’ puts its cards on the table in (‘mongrel and magpie’) Scots, ‘Listen, hit’s semple’, before making a case that’s anything but. As the poem’s invocation of American and Scottish traditional standards suggest, the poem focuses on the performing ‘I’, its sense of self ‘tursit in that muckle myndin n ma’d-on / ancestry hit’s at lang n lenth hausable’; ‘Visa Wedding #1’ holds in its heart the hope, or ambition, that, since all selves are constructed anyway (cf the somewhat unconvincing nirvana entreated by the country-western lines ‘tak me hame tae the place / I belong’), the improvised nature of the poet’s own is no discredit.

Visa Wedding puts this first principle to good use in its several love poems, each of which take off from engagingly off-kilter perspectives, performing a neat turn in self-deprecating-self-aggrandisement in their bright and oddly scientific conceits (the seduction of rational, fact-based learning in ‘Curriculum’: ‘Get down and dirty // with transects, quadrants’; the moving amount of intellectual effort that brings ‘An Experiment was Carried Out’ to the conclusion: ‘I have failed to prove / the null hypothesis / that I do not love you.’). ‘Sermon’ is an excellent satirical set piece that rewires a speech given by the Prime Minister at the Munich Security Conference by replacing ‘terror/terrorists’ (or similar) into ‘love/lovers’: ‘We need to be / clear on where the origins of love lie’. The book’s most obvious bid for a complicated understanding of sexuality is in ‘Vows’: ‘one of the reasons I can put up with marrying you is / that we both think many-valued logics are / HOT / are much sexier than metaphors’. It might be a sign of the skill with which these ideas are deployed that it’s far easier to quote them than unpack them.

The closing poem, ‘Brave’, is a Ginsberg-y, Whitmanny declaration of contemporary Scotland: ‘I sing o a Scotland whit hinks thare#s likely some sort o God, rite? / whit wad like tae gang for sushi wan nite but cadna haundle chopsticks’. For a poem written at least two years prior to the current independence debate, it shows some remarkable prescience.

Oam: Poems fae Govanhill Baths, published in November 2013, exactly twelve months after Visa Wedding, shows a remarkable development both of the personal/political scope of Giles’ poems and the imaginative confidence of the books’ Scots. As the pamphlet’s afterword explains, Govanhill Baths Community Trust is now well underway in its four-year plan to fully reopen the swimming pool and ‘steamie’, and is already open as an arts venue. The reopening came after a seven-year long community-led campaign, and the book’s sense of the baths’ history is at the heart of its aesthetic. The poem ‘Scenes fae a protest’ puts the telling of this history into the hands of the protesters, brings it into clear-sighted and undramatic terms: ‘auld wifie brang a poly bag / luikit pangit wi sandwiches / Ah thocht ye’d need this’, ‘bluidy pineapple! whar / wad we get a pineapple? / naw thir wis mebbe / five hunner eggs but Ah nivvir / saw a pineapple’. The collection is about putting human experience first.

Oam aims to redress political balances, and, much like Visa Wedding, undermines social constraints as it goes. ‘The hairdest man in Govanhill’ is a totally joyful poem, simultaneously unravelling and rebuilding masculinity into something positive and communitarian: ‘the puils o his tears stap traffic / n weans sweem in thaim / n he greets hairder juist tae please thaim’. ‘Tae a cooncillor’ is a wee bit of political poetical genius, taking a template from Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ in a way the bard might well have clandestinely approved. ‘Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart, / whit unco warld make ye wir maister?’, the poem asks, and has a bloody rollicking time answering. It’s probably the sole note of anger, however ironic, in a book more concerned with asserting the best of the community’s achievements, and even then there’s a joy in its flyting:

Gin maraounjous wirds seem awfie sterie,
a weird whit’s oot o whack, a theory
owerfane – yer wrangs war peerie –
Ah’ll wiss insteid
ye see yersel as ithers see ye:
awready deid.

Harry too is active on the Twitters, and verily runneth a superb poetry-art-activism blog. For more of his work, I’d first check out this fantastic live performance of the series ‘Drone Poems‘.

Niall Campbell – Moontide

Full disclosure: Niall’s a pal. Hope you trust me to be impartial.


Review: Lately I re-read both Nathan Hamilton’s manifestroduction to Dear World and Everyone In It and Sam Riviere’s debut collection 81 Austerities, along with some criticism that came out at the time (see Peter Riley on Dear World, Alex Niven and Stephen Ross on 81 Austerities). Hamilton explicitly sets out to establish the new establishment, a few reviewers in the national dailies tripped sideways to do so on Riviere’s behalf, ‘hyperbolised out of existence’. Hamilton’s response to poetry-as-tradition posited that new uncomplicatedly equaled better, thus old should uncomplicatedly get out of the way; as Riley notes, however, Hamilton’s essay reiterates a process of artistic clearance that happens once every couple of decades, and is itself a fairly traditional gesture. 81 Austerities, on the other hand, doesn’t dispense with a Romantic approach to writing poetry as much as give it a new vocabulary; to that end the book is, perhaps Odes to TL61P aside, as idiosyncratic a collection as has appeared in recent years, and is due praise for its singular vision. Like Odes, however, it suffers from a lack of conceptual complexity and flexibility at its core, and many of its primary assumptions are wholly conventional – self as primary agent, women as prize/object/list of names, art as commerce, self as primary locus of meaning.

1 JP

I mention all this as a way of approaching a book which is openly and wholeheartedly wired into the lyric poetry tradition, and ably demonstrates the benefits of building on the achievements of poetic predecessors rather than painting them as traitors to the revolution. The presences of Frost, Heaney, Mahon, Paterson and Jamie are enabling and benign, less the Bloomian nightmare of Hamilton’s perpetual avant-garde, and Moontide is perhaps most comfortable when negotiating its place within this tradition, and some of the best individual pieces come from an ability to play with the tonal expectations it creates. ‘The Fraud’ comes at the crest of a series of poems (‘After the Creel Fleet’, ‘The Tear in the Sack’, ‘Black Water’) that gradually bring to the surface the book’s imaginative underworld, explicitly one that revolves around island ecology and the sea at night. Here’s ‘The Fraud’ (hope the copyright gods don’t mind):

How like a shepherd or herdsman of loss
I must have whistled out into the evening
that a childhood dog came cowering to my heel:
years under, its coat now wool-thick with soil
and loosely collared with the roots of bog-myrtle.

A surprise then my old companion strained
to sneak by me to the fire and my wife.
Checked by a boot, it bore not a dog’s teeth
but a long, black mouth. Then it slunk back to the hill.
Some nights I hear this thin dog claw the door.

The poem’s positioning in the collection, at the point where historical reality and metaphor blur for the first time, is very pleasingly weird, as is its utter refusal to provide emotional or aesthetic comfort, as in ‘Song’ or ‘When the Whales Beached’. Though Moontide’s opening poems are beautifully measured and conceptually well-crafted, it is ‘The Fraud’’s spot of chaos and fear that first demonstrates the book’s full dramatic range; it’s very rare to see a poem paint its (ostensibly) autobiographical speaker so powerlessly, to prioritise the poem’s own dramatic mechanisms over the speaker’s self-image. See also the wonderfully Gaiman-y ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’, almost a companion poem, in which ‘the drowned climb to land’, ‘drying out their lungs’, ‘wringing their hands / until the seawater floods across the floor’. Moontide’s horror poems are a little genre to themselves.

1 2

And I think this is at the heart of Moontide’s endeavour. Few recent collections have such a facility with shaping the dramatic moment, of locating the crucial detail in its own conceit. This may be where Mahon’s influence bears the most fruit: Campbell shares that poet’s ability to turn the poem on its head in its closing phrases (as seen above), which occurs so often throughout the collection it’s almost easier to note where it doesn’t. This semantic restlessness is one of the collection’s major pleasures, one that rewards multiple readings and close attention.

While we’ve got Mahon on the phone, we should probably also look at Campbell’s concision. Few poems cross the page, which – combined with the well-judged brevity of the book at large, another rare treat – permits the kind of cumulative reading that is one of lyric poetry’s great weapons, the recurring chimes and echoes, that ability to say ‘not only but also’ across an entire book. ‘Window, Honley’ is a good example of this tendency to recycle and repurpose images introduced elsewhere, appropriately (or serendipitously) a poem about time: ‘The village bell’s been broken for a month, […] so I’ll ask what time matters anyway: / just light, less light, and dark; the going off / of milk or love; our tides claimed back: weed rafts, // green wood and all; those old wolves disappearing / from the bleak forest that we dream about’. It’s probably not a coincidence that a collection so deeply concerned with time’s passing is at pains not to waste the reader’s. And how’s this for a finish: ‘the marriage that // left confetti in the streets until the storm; / yesterday’s sweet unrust; a man with pen / at a lit window, that he’s long since left.’

3 LW

As ‘Aesthetics, on a Side Street off Glasgow Green’ notes, Campbell’s work ‘too, / stiffens with the influence of frost’, where for ‘frost’ read ‘Frost’, which I can’t help feeling is a wee breadcrumb for detective-critics like myself. It does illuminate that part of Campbell’s writing that reaches for the deep thought through common language, though, and makes very little fuss about the attempt. Of course, sneaking in a pointer towards a poet of Frost’s stature is its own kind of boldness, and you could argue that on occasion the consciously literary pieces fall flat; ‘Reading Émile Zola, Grez’, for example, questionably asks the reader to look at ‘girls in red tops sleeping on thick grass […] teasingly / disclosing tender shapes they would take on / in a double bed’. However ironically pitched, this brings little to the book’s conversation. Far more common, though, are Moontide’s imaginative and well-wrought lyric spaces, the small victories and evasion of easy conclusions.

Tl;dr: Moontide is a pretty great book, one that manages to keep its ingredients simple and its dishes complex. If there’s some atmospheric similarities to the patriarchs of Scottish poetry (Burnside, Robertson etc), they are largely undone by Campbell’s ability to speak directly and pragmatically about love, to mostly avoid those poets’ casual misogyny, and to consistently puncture or undermine the speaker’s authority. Moontide is a collection that rewards patience and generous reading.

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.