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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William Letford – Bevel

Statement of Prejudice: Extensive. I’ve met WL a couple of times and seen him perform another couple. He’s a tremendous performer, exerts more fruitful scrutiny on the vocal/aural composition of his work than almost any other poet I can think of, and has a rare talent for inspiring total unbroken attention from a live audience. I have great hopes for this book, particularly considering Michael Longley (my original poster-on-the-bedroom-wall poetry hero) said he regretted Bevel not making the TS Eliot cut (of which more later): “ Bevel was kind of word perfect – an extraordinary first book. I found it very refreshing and I think he’ll be a contender with his second book.” I choose to read between the lines and speculate that ML was thwarted by his fellow judges. Anyway.

3 PF

It also makes sense to say now that the coverage of Bevel in some quarters – our own Gutter magazine being a particularly egregious offender – has been frustrating to say the least. In every one I’ve read, the opening paragraphs make a screaming deal of Letford’s work as a roofer. Which would be all well/good, but it almost always appears instead of the column inches that should be discussing his skill as a writer and performer of poems (or not, there’s no obligation to enjoy his work, we’re talking critical/emotional engagement here), and the condescending and reductive implications bubbling below the surface (“Gordon Bennett! A workman who can write! How splendid”) are insulting to the time and effort Letford has obviously invested in his work, and degrading to the publications who print them. Letford may have hammered some nails in his time, but we should no sooner privilege that work over his poetry than we should discuss the crop yields on the Heaney farm, or the inpatients at Carlos Williams’ clinic. We should be better than this.

Also also: I have seen some of the poems in this book performed live, and where appropriate will be discussing them both in terms of their publication and performance, as it would be daft not to.

Reality:

A poem

Is an object made from language

A poem
Should pass from fire to fire – from chest to chest

A poem
does not belong to the poet

Make no mistake, WL knows what his work’s about. And while Bevel has the rough edges and occasional so-so-ness of many first collections, there’s so much generosity, so much unselfconsciously given over to the reader, such loyalty to both the life of the senses and life in community, it’s difficult not to love.

Alright, let’s calm down for a second. WL seems heavily influenced by Tom Leonard and Edwin Morgan, and while their voices sometimes get in the way, WL has plenty to add to their vocabularies, not least the controlled panic of the avifauna in “Thurs hunnurs a burds oan the roofs”, wherein: ‘we’re no dodos we kin fly forget aboot the fields Frank look it the sky’. WL employs a very Morganian strategy of making an ostensibly silly and aurally pleasing surface to smuggle in a much deeper engagement with a discussion that animates the entire collection, of which more in the next para. On another day I’d posit that the closing line’s addressee ‘Frank’ is none other than New York gadabout O’Hara, but ochone today just isn’t that day. Here’s the poem in action though. You tell me.

“Wit is it” is another piece that confronts, less directly but no less powerfully than “A poem”, the book’s central concerns. [Also a piece to bait the less engaged reviewer into bloviating upon the nobility of manual labour, but we know better.] In it, a series of specialised workmen use their trades as a means of understanding the world: ‘The stonemason sade it’s aw in yur heed / Yur eyes ur like windeez an yur brain’s gon naywhere / build yourself a palace’. Each stanza is a witty piece by itself (‘A looked it the gaffer. Work hard, he sade / bit that wiz his answer fur ivrythin’), but the cumulative effect is nothing short of (though certainly not restricted to) a highly complex creative philosophy: that the art we make is, essentially, not our own; not only does it depend upon the successes and failures of countless others that went before us, but also the presence of our peers to read/hear it, and without a deep concern for both of these factors, we’re lost. At this point we should probably take a cold shower lest we forget that Bevel is, at heart, a sincere celebration of the sensory world, its struggles, complications, losses and small redemptions, the palaces we build behind our eyes.

Yeesh. Look what you’re doing to me, Bevel. This is a respectable establishment for godsakes. Throughout the book are a series of short prose pieces, in which the brusque, punchy tempo of the lyrics are replaced by something slower and more contemplative. A short prayer to the copyright gods that I may quote in full “In the mountains of northern Italy”:

‘The chapel on the hill has no roof. For five hundred years its four walls have framed the universe. The locals laugh at the Sistine Chapel and call it the coffin lid.’

Look at that! Just look at how much is packed into those three short sentences by way of the piece’s engagement with the book’s recurring themes: the spiritual primacy of the observable universe, the idea that art belongs to the world, the community that keeps it alive, and that’s before we examine the tight sonic architecture. These are simple but big ideas, and worth considering at length. See also “Winter in the world”:

‘The old lady struggles, footsteps careful, leaving shuffle marks in the snow. No shopping bag, so maybe it’s church, and maybe not. Perhaps she is out for walk, because she can, and the night is spare, and she is undiminished and harder than bone.’

That grabs me something fierce. I can’t remember the last time a book held so complex a tension between the desire (explicitly stated on several occasions, like the excellent “[T-shirt wrapped around my head]” or the cantankerous “Newsflash”) for death-defying immortality and the desire to observe and document the actual waking world. WL seems to understand implicitly that if art really is the key to surviving one’s body, it cannot be done alone.

Elsewhere, “The light and dark of Adeona” and “No distractions” deserve a shoutout, there are some beautiful little formal touches like the two one-sentence-per-page series that pop up unexpectedly and act as little haiku-y interludes, and a couple of charming set pieces like “It’s aboot the labour” and “Sex poem number 1”:

‘aye       right       okay      right right            okay’

On the neg side, a couple of the travelogue poems are a little meh, and while there’s the occasional feeling that the poems’ gender politics lean toward the conservative, WL still ends up safely on the positive side of a great many of his peers, who shall remain nameless. On the topic of those peers, how this book was left out of a list that included Sean Borodale’s self-obsessed debut is beyond me. Bevel is a challenging book with a more coherent socio-political philosophy than anything on the shortlist, and its omission is a black mark to both the Poetry Book Society and the TSE judges.

Tl;dr: Bevel is an important book as much as it is a great debut for an exciting writer. It provides an unusually frank point of entry to the world, a wit and charm about society at large, and a mind actively engaged in the question of what the heck it is we’re doing with this whole art thing in the first place. Read it slower than you think you should.

PS: I know I said I’d write about the performance, but there was too much to go on as it was. I hope the included videos speak for themselves.