Everybody's Reading

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Review by Kitty Horsfall of "The Rotters' Club" by Jonathan Coe

This, quite simply, was a book I couldn’t put down. A coming of age novel set to the social backdrop of Birmingham in the 1970s, the book follows a group of teenagers and their families as they navigate adolescence, trade unions, girls and politics. Split into three sections, The Chick and the Hairy Guy, The Very Maws of Doom, and Green Coaster, each segment tells a different story of a different cultural era, whilst tracking the teenage boys’ progression into men. As the book progresses, their political awareness becomes more prominent, and the ending ties in with the election of Margaret Thatcher, and ‘the death of the socialist dream’. Jonathan Coe’s writing holds such a perceptive quality that it makes the characters almost tangible.

The main character, Benjamin Trotter, is a sensitive, confused boy, struggling with the muddle of emotions characteristic of youth – a romantic musician and experimenting writer (the last chapter of the book written from his perspective is all one sentence, comprised of 13955 words, and holds the record for the longest sentence in English literature), he is a thinker who finds God after finding a pair of swimming trunks in a locker; the punishment for forgetting them in P.E at King Edward’s School is swimming nude. His seemingly hopeless pursuit after the beautiful Cicely makes for a touching but relatable section of the plot, and serves as the perfect antidote to the heart-breaking effects of his best friend’s, Doug, father’s affair with the older sister of Claire, the girl his son is pining over.

My personal favourite character, Benjamin’s younger brother, Paul, is hilariously Conservative to the point of ridicule, with an iconic scene where he rides behind his older brother and his friends, fully aware he isn’t wanted, singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’ by the Sex Pistols in a choir-boy’s piercing voice, peddling furtively along on a child’s bike. The comedy in the book is not only side-splitting, but relatable, making for both an addictive read and a trigger for poignant thoughts. There are several twists along the way, one of which provoked an audible exclamation from me – it is very rare for a book to have such a lasting effect on someone, and I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone looking for guidance through their school days, or for anyone wishing to reflect upon the tangle and lessons of youth.

About the reviewer
Kitty Horsfall is 17 and studying for A-Levels in English Literature, History and Geography. 

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Magyarazni" by Helen Hajnoczky


No, Hungarian is not a gendered language,
but no, you do not want to play Joseph in the
goddamned Christmas play again this year!

No, you’re not jealous that no on asks her which
bathroom key she wants, even though
you’ve been asked this while wearing a skirt.

No, no long hair, no stockings,
no heels, no tailored shirts. No way to indicate
them, no not them, not her, not him, just them.

No, she always gets to play Mary, and no,
you do not want to play a goddamned
shepherd either!

Just no.

In an interview posted over at Touch the Donkey, Calgary poet (recently returned to the city after an extended period schooling in Montreal) Helen Hajnoczky discusses her second trade poetry collection, Magyarázni (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2016):

Q: I’m curious about the Magyarázni poems: you speak of a difficulty in part, that came from writing out your relationship with your cultural background and community. What prompted you to begin this project, and what were your models, if any? I think of Andrew Suknaski writing out his Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds, for example, of even Erín Moure exploring the language and culture of the Galicians. And might Bloom and Martyr have progresses so quickly, perhaps, due to it being a kind of palate cleanser? 

A: Magyarazni germinated for a long time. There’s a wood chest in my parent’s house that my dad carved, and the tulips in his design are what inspired my project originally, particularly the visual poetry in the book. I started doodling tulips in the margins of my school notes with letters at their centre, with the accents used as stamen, long before I had really been introduced to visual poetry. The moment that sparked the project, though, was one night when my dad and I were up late chatting about when he, his sisters, and his mother left Hungary after the ’56 revolution and I thought “I should really write this down.” So, I went and typed up everything he’d said and made a little chapbook of it for him. I wanted to do something more on the topic though, and was fortunate to get a grant for the visual and written poetry book and to travel around Western Canada interviewing people who’d come during or after ’56, or whose family had done so. Originally I’d thought of including the interviews and poems in one book, but the interviews are numerous, long, and detailed and really deserved to be their own thing (which I’m still slowly working on). Though I didn’t use anything from the interviews in this book the people who so generously told me their stories definitely influenced me and the writing of MagyarázniFor more poetic influences though, Oana Avasilichioaei’s book Abandon, and the way she deals with cultural identity and nostalgia had a huge influence on me. The way Fred Wah’s writes about cultural identity, how that’s tied up with family, and the way he sets all this against the backdrop of the prairie all strongly informed the way I approached writing this book too—there’s a lot of Calgary in Magyarázni. Additionally, in 2007 Erín Moure and Oana Avasilichioaei spoke at the UofC for Translating Translating Montréal, and I have this fuzzy memory of them discussing translating words based on a feeling of the word or based on a word in a third language that the word in the source text reminds you of (I can’t remember precisely what they said and I don’t want to misquote them or misrepresent their ideas, but I believe the discussion was something along these lines), and this idea was key in the writing of Magyarázni. For example, the poem “Belváros”—the word translates into English as “inner city” (so, downtown), but I always hear it as ‘beautiful city,’ because in French ‘belle’ means beautiful. I went to a French immersion elementary school and I started hearing the word that way as a little kid, and I still hear it that way, not as inner city but as beautiful city. Because the project struggles to answer the question of how much one person’s experience of a language or culture can be representative of a community as a whole, I thought it was important to include these little hyper-personal feelings about words in the manuscript.

The author of numerous chapbooks, Hajnoczky’s first trade collection appeared as Poets and Killers: A Life in Advertising (Montreal QC: Snare/Invisible, 2010) and a portion of her manuscript “Bloom and Martyr” was selected for the 2015 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award, to be published as a chapbook by Kalamalka Press “in spring 2016.” 

As the press release for Magyarázni informs us: “The word ‘magyarázni’ (pronounced MAUDE-yar-az-knee) means ‘to explain’ in Hungarian, but translates literally as ‘make it Hungarian.’ This faux-Hungarian language primer, written in direct address, invites readers to experience what it’s like to be ‘made Hungarian’ by growing up with a parent who immigrated to North America as a refugee.” Bookended by the poems “Pronounciation Guide” and the prose poem “Learning Activities,” Magyarázni is composed as a stunning, lush and lively abecedarian, and each poem appears with a corresponding visual poem in resounding red and black. There is an element of “coming-of-age” to this collection, as the author/narrator works to reconcile the past with the present (and future), from a childhood built by Hungarian language and culture (from her parents’ own stories to her own engagements with cultural heritage), and how such foundations now require translation and explanation, even as she attempts to reclaim those same histories. Magyarázni writes her childhood home, her parent’s homeland and her time spent in Montreal (as in the poem “Zibbad,” as she writes: “You’ve been here longer now / than you were ever there and then some”), writing embroidery, linen, memory and grief.


Your reflection
      splintered in foil
these solemn treats

this bitter history
sugary sweet

unhooked from the tree
you melt

a plastic angel dipped
in flames, blurred
      and bubbling

you unwrap
the old world
          you chew
    and smile

        you don’t swallow
until they look away.

The poems are composed as someone caught between two poles, still navigating the blend of culture and cadence of language, family and belonging. The extended paragraph-poem “Learning Activities,” a poem that closes the collection, ends with: “Please note that W is not a true Hungarian letter. Please note that X is not a true Hungarian letter. Please note that Y is not a true Hungarian letter. Cut the sickle and hammer out of a communist-era Hungarian flag. Tell me, do you miss speaking Hungarian? That is, do you miss your father?”

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Conjugation" by Phil Hall

 "Orange chair    blue porch    white Stetson
am re-reading      Cold Mountain   translated by Red Pine

  woke to fog    a cremation dream    it is garbage day

Olson:     words made to taste    like accuracy    pincers
  the king birds are back    an osprey shrieks

in the wooded swamp    ice reigns yet    first the school bus

  no motor    no drive   passes    only one child so far    up front
then the Trueloves    would it hurt them to signal    bastards

   despair is elitist    do not count pages   forget    the work

w & k    both built   from 2 Vs   or 3   end up with only    or  deface the cartoon    until the joke    is fearful"

Perth, Ontario poet Phil Hall’s latest collection is Conjugation (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016), a complex, engaged and expansive collection that continue his meditative explorations into the lyric fragment, collage, poetics and the deep self. “Conjugation,” according to one online source, is “the modification of a verb from its basic form,” and Hall’s poetry manages a deep and serious play in the way words are constructed, pulling apart the mechanics of language and how it interacts with ideas (a play that has, it would appear, deeply influenced the work of Ottawa poet Pearl Pirie). As he writes: “but there’s a fee / a fee that sees    & hears wonky // fe-ces   we’re were   subtler/fugues   etc.” Similar to Dennis Cooley, Hall engages the mis-heard word, the mis-step, and runs with it, managing to make connections where there otherwise might not have been.

Over the past few poetry collections, Hall has shifted from his more overt engagements with Ontario gothic/rural, including his own childhood and history of abuse, to a more overt engagement of multiples—poetics, “the prison of metaphor,” pulling apart the minutiae of language, personal history, direct observations and his immediate environment (including the Ontario wilds of his Perth homestead)—each holding similar weight throughout, woven together as a precise, dense and thorough series of ongoing threads.
Constructed out of an opening poem, seven suite-sections and a coda, the short poem-fragments in Conjugation follow a similar tone and structure set in a number of Hall’s poetry collections, and, as with much of his work, the poems within could be presented in a variety of orders. It becomes curious how an order built so carefully, with such precision, is also constructed to be opened at any page, and read in either direction. His poems are less narratives than a series of accumulations, and the order in which you interact with them might even bring you to an entirely different conclusion.

Hall has become known for his shuffling, reworking and reprising his work, giving the sense that his poems might be less “finished” than simply set in a particular way for a particular temporal, whether temporary or permanent, reason, including poems shuffled and re-set for the sake of a chapbook, a public performance or a trade collection. “Early versions,” as Hall himself writes in the acknowledgments, of elements of the first section, “Gap & Hum,” appear previously in his X (Thee Hellbox Press, 2013) and My Banjo & Tiny Drawings (Flat Singles Press, 2015). The fifth section, “Essay on Legend,” was originally produced as a 2014 chapbook through Mark Goldstein’s Beautiful Outlaw Press (Goldstein is also designer of this current volume, as well as many of Hall’s recent trade collections). Cobbled and stitched together from a variety of threads, found and salvaged lines and objects, his “Essay on Legend” begins with an anecdote about a dog, utilizing such as a starting-point for a sequence of observations on poetry, anecdote and violence, each circling around the very idea of “legend.” The chapbook version was produced in an edition of 52 copies “in commemoration of the second annual Purdy Picnic at the A-frame, Roblin Lake, Ameliasburgh, July 26, 2014,” acknowledging the late poet Al Purdy as one of Phil Hall’s long-standing touchstones. At the Ottawa launch of the chapbook in 2014, Hall spoke of starting out as a good Ontario “son of Al Purdy” poet that slowly began shifting towards Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978); from stories and the anecdote to “that purse sound of the vowel.”

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Review by Kevan Manwaring of "The Loney" by Andrew Michael Hurley

This impressive debut novel, previously published by Tartarus Press, has sucked in accolades like quicksand – which would normally be enough to put me off reading it, being the contrarian that I am, but in this case I decided to give it a punt (thanks to my local library – use ‘em or lose ‘em). For once the praise seems justified. The Loney is an atmospheric study in faith, truth and the uncanny. It focuses on two brothers – one an elective mute – growing up in a Catholic corner of 1970s London. The universe of the novel is limited to their immediate family – the overbearing ‘Mummer’ and forebearing ‘Farther’ – and faith community, the claustrophobic, competitive parish riddled with sins, small and large. When their much-loved priest dies, a new Father tries his best to shepherd this unruly, opinionated flock. The annual pilgrimage to a shrine on the Lancashire coast, to the lonely stretch of the title, vividly evoked by Hurley, is hoped to cure all ills – especially the mutism of ‘Hanny’, the narrator’s brother. Instead, the trip opens up a whole can of worms. I must admit that I found the relentless pettiness and neurotic Catholic minutiae less engaging than the Loney itself – which is the real ‘star’ of this narrative. The author succeeds in creating a tangible sense of place, one that epitomizes the ‘English eerie’ as discussed by Robert Macfarlane and others. The Loney has a brooding sense of malevolence, as though the bleak section of coastline was the antagonist itself. Something chthonic and unwelcoming lingers there. The remoteness and neglect provides a zone of projection for the inchoate fears of urbanites (something that has been happening in English Literature since Beowulf). Whether the drear flatlands of the Fens, the grim North Country of the Gawain poet, or the blasted heath of Shakespeare, Britain’s few wildernesses offer a dark playground for imagined terrors. There are shades of The Wicker Man here – the spectre of dodgy pagan rituals awaiting the unwary who stumble upon them (the pilgrims might as well have ‘sacrifice’ pinned on their backs), although the ‘terror’ scale here is less Hammer, and more Hill. Hurley’s aesthetic reminded me of many of Susan Hill’s settings – lonely stretches of coastline, causewayed islets, chancy footing and vindictive tides. Madness always in the wings, or in the annexe. The Loney’s ‘heart of darkness’, Coldbarrow, could be in Hill’s real estate portfolio. One could imagine The Woman in Black’s sister living there. The stifling religiosity, small-mindedness and demonization of difference also reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit. And I found shades of Graham Joyce also – although his prose has more warmth and humour to it – and a broader church than depicted here. The Loney is simply modern Gothic. Hurley has done nothing new under the sun here, but as a debut it is supremely confident, polished and promising. His prose is unshowy, no-nonsense, and easy-to-read, but there are poetic flourishes – distinctive dialect, arresting analogies, striking imagery – which make it punch above its weight at times. The ending is open and unsettling. Hurley resists exegesis and closure. What we are to make of the strange events is left to us to gnaw over in the middle of the night, while the existential wind of nameless terrors howls outside. Take it on holiday with you to an isolated cottage and scare the bejeezus out of yourself.

About the reviewer
Kevan Manwaring is currently undertaking a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester (in the form of a novel). He is an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies at the British Library, and teaches creative writing for the Open University. One day he hopes to have a proper job. Blog:

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Saint Twin" by Sarah Burgoyne

the ocean you grew up watching has decided, finally, to take you in. “where else was i going to go?” you ask, setting off. it spews squid and minnows into your little boat for you to eat if you are hungry. you throw them back because you know the ocean is hungrier. at night, the moon casts a sidelong glance into your boat. you are less round. the ocean is delighted with your company. it carries you from place to place, each day a little easier, imagining your bright bones, sideways moons, it’ll use them as walking sticks."

The author of chapbooks through Proper Tales Press, Baseline Press and above/ground press, Montreal writer and editor Sarah Burgoyne’s first trade collection is Saint Twin (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2016), a collection of, as the back cover informs us, “story poems, short lyrics, long walks, tiny chapters, and fake psalms.” A hefty poetry collection at nearly one hundred and seventy pages, Saint Twin is a curious mix of straighter lyric, prose poem and short fiction, blended together to create something far more capable than the simple sum of its parts. Part of the unexpected quality of Burgoyne’s surreal lyrics comes from the structures of her pieces, slipping prose beside more traditional line breaks beside dialogue/script. Whereas most poetry collections hold together through their structural connections (some of which are the result of editors and/or copy-editors), Saint Twin remains deliberately scattered, almost collaged, maintaining a strength far more evocative than whether the collection of poems maintain consistent capitalizations or punctuations, all of which speak to Burgoyne’s incredible capacity for putting a book together. Furthermore, while the book might be structured into eight sections, one has to seek out the connections through other means; poems from the second section, “Psalms,” for example, according to the contents page, exist on pages “10, 13, 18, 23, 27, 30, 36, 42, 48, 51, 57, 61, 63, 67, 72, 81, 99, 113, 116, 119, 124, 132, 137, 139, 142, 144, 147, 152.”
Torn up in the surgery of night. The buttering under of it. Seven halos away from becoming a sprig of something anointed. Never too few in the brooding door frames; the spoken-to lighting the walls. The corner-drawing minds buttoning silver horns of ancient wisdom. A voice: Dance with me, future loser, I love you. Hide under the table, I will call down the Lord without sulphur. To cast alms over our future mistakes."

I’ve been long intrigued at the options on how to construct a poetry manuscript out of scattered parts, aware that some who compose in chapbook-length units have set the units side-by-side for the sake of the book-length manuscript: Toronto writer Kevin Connolly’s first collection, Asphalt Cigar, is a good example of this, as are Kansas poet Megan Kaminski’s two collections, Desiring Map and Deep City (I’m less aware, with Kaminski, the chicken-or-egg of “which came first,” admittedly). Another poet, such as Stephen Brockwell, might have composed the individual pieces of his 2007 poetry collection The Real Made Up into  section-groupings, but resorted the manuscript into a single, book-length unit, allowing the final selection to blend together as a more cohesive single unit. What makes Burgoyne’s collection so unique is in how she somehow manages both sides of the structural divide, as one infers that the sections were composed as single-units (at least two of her section titles correspond with chapbook titles), whether as short lyrics or prose poems, but were re-sorted for the sake of the full manuscript: the uniqueness lies in her adherence to that earlier, compositional structure, while allowing the book to live (or die) on its own single-unit coherence.

The poems in Saint Twin contain multitudes, from surreal wisdoms, biting self-awareness and hard-won observations to a wry humour, dark prophicies and proclimations, and an incredible optimism, such as in the poems “MY NEIGHBOUR’S MISFORTUNE PIERCES ME / AND I BEGIN TO COMPREHEND,” “IT WAS NOT IN PARKS THAT I LEARNED HUMLITITY” and “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, IN A NICE WAY.” As she write to open the poem “TO THE MASTERS OF OUR YOUTH, GREETINGS”: “the last days of a person’s life are the same / as the first.”

Maybe everything is good, after all.
The act of reading and the act of understanding
made it. The point is, relates to reality.
No wonder.

And what of this?
Precise laws. Behavior of individuals.
Unintentional walk. Map of maps.
Wheels on the table legs. The main activity
continuous drifting, these visions.

Dear professional juxtaposer,
maintain a division.
Cyberspace, I walked across it.
I’m a little disappointed.
Where the body is, at the corner."

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.

Review by Rebecca Reynolds of "Alive, Alive Oh! and Other Things That Matter" by Diana Athill

Diana Athill calls Alive, Alive Oh! "a report on what living for 97 years has taught one rather lucky old woman." In fact, most of that "report" appeared in her six previous memoirs, covering her childhood on a Norfolk estate and personal and professional life afterwards, when she was an editor at André Deutsch for 40 years. This volume contains some extra pieces – including chapters on having a miscarriage when she was 43, politics in the West Indies and life in a residential home.

This is no anguished coming-to-terms; Athill’s attitude to life is gently positive, and as a writer she is refreshingly unwilling to exaggerate the bad side of her own experiences for effect. (This is perhaps linked with having to be the sensible bystander when, as an editor, she sometimes had to nurse writers through personal or professional crises). And the book is quite as much about the outer world of travel, friends and rose bushes as it is about moments of sense-making – or rather, it is about both together. Here is where she starts to notice the poor living conditions of many black people in beautiful Tobago:

"But it was the very richness of what surrounded them that made the houses’ poverty so shocking, as though you split a glossy fruit to find only a little wormy dust. I met Europeans who had come to run businesses in Tobago who said of the people in the villages, 'they never do more than they absolutely have to' – and I heard black people say it, too: black people who had escaped. The closer you looked, the more you wondered that so many did escape, because simply becoming accustomed to a life so reduced, which a person naturally has to do if it’s the only life on offer, would shrink his mind and dry up his energy." (p.51)

I did fear the autobiographical material would be stretched rather thinly by this time though – already in her previous memoirs the same events are sometimes touched on more than once (and some are even within the pages of this one book).

So does she have anything new to say? Yes, she does. "The Decision" is about moving into a residential home – not so much a decision actually, but a gradual change in attitude helped by seeing one of her friends move there, another unwisely sticking in her own home, and the fact that she had people to support her and was able to consider the option slowly. "A Life of Luxuries" covers trusty bespoke tweed suits, ball dresses and a misjudged choice of green tulle in which to be presented to Edward VIII. "Beloved Books" is about the two writers she thinks about most often now – Boswell and Byron.

Athill shows an editor’s trust in the value of precise language and a Jane Austen-like trust in the ability of abstractions to express and define thoughts and feelings, for instance when she reflects on her feelings towards her partner (who is married to someone else) when she finds herself pregnant:

"If, when I told him I was pregnant, he were to offer to leave his wife and come to me, I would be quite as anxious as I would be happy. I would not, whatever I decided, try to make him do that. Perhaps this was cowardice – a fear of actually having to face a lack of success which I thought I could envisage with equanimity. Or perhaps it was vanity – a desire to go on representing freedom, pleasure, stimulation, all the joys of love rather than its burdens. Or perhaps it was really what I would like it to be: the kind of respect for another person’s being that I would wish to have paid to my own. But there was no doubt that, if I was pregnant, life would be a great deal easier if my lover and myself were otherwise than they were." (p.67)

So – not spread too thin, but a little fragmentary. It is a short book, and half the chapters have been published elsewhere in some form. But I can’t remember reading anywhere else a personal account of life in a residential home and can’t help thinking that books from the perspective of advanced age will become much more important as we all live longer (current average life expectancy in the UK is 81.5 years, according to the Office Of National Statistics). Especially if they are written in such a wise, positive voice.

About the reviewer
Rebecca Reynolds works as a museum education consultant and writes non-fiction. Her book Curiosities from the Cabinet: Objects and Voices from Britain’s Museums will be out in a couple of months. This looks at 36 objects in UK museums, using interviews with over 40 people who know the objects well – curators, artists, academics, users, makers and others. She blogs here: http://objects-ofinterest.blogspot.com.es/

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Shaindel Beers, interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

Shaindel Beers is the author of two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time (2009) and The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013), both from Salt Publishing. Her awards include First place Karen Fredericks and Frances Willitts Poetry Prize, Grand Prize Co-winner Trellis Magazine sestina contest, First place Dylan Days Poetry Competition, and others. She currently serves as English department chair at Blue Mountain Community College, as Poetry Editor for Contrary Magazine, and on the executive board of PAWS, the Pendleton Animal Welfare Shelter. She lives in Pendleton, Oregon, with a zoo of pets and a wild five-year-old son. Her website is here.

JT: You've written two full-length poetry collections, A Brief History of Time and The Children's War and Other Poems (both with Salt Publishing). How far do the collections share similar preoccupations (e.g. time, memory, feminism, violence)? In what ways do they differ? And do you feel that you "progress" and develop as a poet, or is it more complex than that?

SB: This is a really interesting question. I like that you’ve picked out time, memory, feminism, and violence as my themes. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard my work pinpointed that succinctly. Michael Chabon theorizes that all writers are obsessive compulsives, and everyone is writing the same thing over and over, hoping to get it right, so those might very well be my themes for the rest of my life.

I think the way they differ is that A Brief History of Time was my first collection, so a lot of it was written over a long period of time, and I didn’t really have a theme in mind. It was essentially my creative thesis for my MFA, so I just wrote with no plan. If a graduate advisor said, “Try this, write in this person’s style,” I did. I think it ended up being largely autobiographical and having a larger arc as a result.

The Children’s War started out as an obsessive project where I did nothing for a while but look at children’s artwork from war, and then it became a philosophical question – should it be a whole book of just that? Would people read a whole book of just that? Would I be lessening children’s war experiences if I put poems about something else in there? So, in my first book, I had a broad scope and narrowed down, and in my second book, I had a narrow scope then broadened. If you put one on top of the other, it’s an hourglass!
I think the progression is always more complex than that. That’s the journey. Figuring out who we are, seeing how we turn out.

JT: You write short fiction as well as poetry - and I understand that you're also in the process of writing a novel. What do you see as the overlaps or differences between the demands of these genres?

SB: Everyone is writing a novel. At least, that’s how it feels. I actually have a few novel starts where I’ve gotten “stuck” at the same point. I think it takes a lot of guts to write a novel, to keep going with something that big and assuming that people are going to stay with you. I don’t know if I have the confidence for it. I assumed my career would go in a sense like, poetry collection, short story collection, novel. I need a few more short stories to round out a collection, so I think I’m going to stick with that first.

If I ever do finish writing a novel, I’ll probably have to do it in a course or with a novel coach. I’m not sure if I’m disciplined enough to do it on my own. That’s sort of the beauty of poetry. It’s a small, intricate work – like painting a tile. You can have an idea, and you do it, and you might touch it up now and then, but it’s done! You have a little four inch by four inch work of art. I don’t think I’m ready for murals yet.

I think a lot of the pressure to feel like I had to have a novel is gone. I think it was mostly from outside, from people who only know novels, who expect something you wrote to be made into a film and for you to become rich. I think I’m past that now. It helped me to meet Peter Meinke, who is a wonderful poet who is now in his eighties. He has written many, many books of poetry, and I believe two short story collections. I asked him about that because his one short story collection won a Flannery O’Connor award, and I loved it. He told me he’s always writing poems, but he writes maybe one short story a year. That’s just how he works. I might be the same. I guess we’ll see. It’s kind of nice to be still under forty and calming down about these things.

JT: What can poetry achieve which other art forms can't, do you think?

SB: When I was a dance major, I used to get into “trouble” for admiring the other arts more than dance. Dance was so hard for me, and it seemed so easy for everyone else. I spent a lot of time being amazed by everything else – sculpture, music, painting – that I didn’t really appreciate the art that I was working on at the time. I don’t think there is any one particular art that can capture anything that another particular art can’t capture. All of the arts are sisters, and I love when we can collaborate and do them together – poetry and music, dance and sculpture, etc. One of the choreography projects I did when I was in college was that we had to go to a Rodin exhibit and start a choreography piece from the beginning pose of a sculpture. It was amazing to think of negative space in that way – the way a dancer and a sculptor both use them.

I think the goal of all art is to express human emotion – to somehow make it last, to make it more understandable and universal, and there are different ways of doing that. I’m for all of it.

JT: Would you say that your writing is heavily autobiographical or memoiristic in its subject matter? How far is it "confessional" poetry, for example?

SB: This is always a tricky question. I feel like “confessional” poetry was a phrase used to denigrate the writing of female poets. No one calls male poets writing about war “Confessional” poets, even though they’re certainly writing autobiographical, personal work. I’m still figuring myself out. I’m still becoming, so I think I’ll always be a part of my writing in that way.

JT: You teach as well as write. Does this help with the writing? How do you see - in more general terms - the place of the "poet" in contemporary capitalist society?

SB: I think that teaching while writing is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m a professor, so I get to talk about writing and books and ideas all day. I teach at an institution that values my creative writing, celebrates my publications, sends me to conferences, and writers’ retreats, but then there is the feeling of always grading or always being behind grading. If I were a person who could hold down a 9-5 job at a bank or something like that, I might get more writing done, but I don’t think I’m that kind of person. I like to spend a lot of time in my head, staring out the window at clouds.

As far as the place of the poet in contemporary capitalist society, I think that the song “Cold Dog Soup” by Guy Clark says it nicely: “Ain’t no money in poetry / That’s what sets the poet free.” I like to ignore the fact that the next line is “I’ve had all the freedom I can stand.” I like to think that as long as I’m not making money as an artist, I’m not beholden to a market. I can do what I want. Would it be nice if poetry made money? Yes, but then, I’d probably lose some freedom.

JT: What are you working on at the moment? What are your medium and long-term aims for your writing?

SB: I’m always working on a bunch of different things. I’m sort of a poster child for adult ADHD, so various things occur to me, and I get obsessed and do them right then, and then sometimes they fall to the wayside. I was working on a sonnet sequence about boxing and domestic violence, somewhat inspired by Floyd Mayweather, Jr., and the amazing article on him in Grantland, “The Boxer and the Batterer” by Louisa Thomas:

I recently finished a long-form essay which is very important to me that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I’m working on a series of circus poems as part of a collaboration with the cellist Jesse Ahmann:



We seem to have the same artistic sensibilities, and I feel very fortunate to be working with him.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), the short story collection Kontakte and Other Stories (Roman Books, 2013), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Kershia Field, interviewed by Jonathan Taylor

Kershia Field is a twenty-one-year-old contemporary poet from Leicester currently working on her first poetry collection based on Mental Health and the stigma surrounding it. You can find her poems on her blog kershiadoespoems.blogspot.com. She also blogs at http://itsonlykershia.blogspot.co.uk

JT: Why do you write poetry? What, for you, is poetry for?

KF: For me, poetry began as a way of venting my feelings in a way that I could understand. I never used to talk all that much about my feelings, it made me feel uncomfortable so poetry became my own private way of letting off steam. It was never meant to be for the public and I never considered it to be anything other than a private thing.  Now it's become integrated into everything I do. I see something on the news, I write a poem. I see a stranger, they inspire a poem. It's my way of appreciating the tiny details of life that to so many people seem like nothing.

JT: When did you start writing poetry? Tell us a bit about how you got into it, and why.

KF: I started writing poetry when I was around eleven or twelve. I loved English at school and I loved reading and getting lost in the worlds of other authors. When I was eleven I was entered into a young writers competition where students had to write a 50-word story, and the best ones from the school would be sent off and published in a collection. I wrote my story about deforestation and a small girl whose best friend was a tree. I never thought I'd get in but somehow mine was one of the select few that got chosen and published. It gave me the confidence boost to keep writing. I never wrote anything again publicly for a long time, but in private I had something that I felt I was good at and that was amazing.

JT: You run two very popular blogs: a personal blog and a poetry blog. What is the relationship between the two forms of writing for you? Are they totally separate, or do they overlap in various ways?

KF: My personal blog and my poetry blog arguably do crossover in places; however, I never intended for that to be the case. My personal blog was my way of talking about issues and sharing my experiences with things like Mental Health and University AFTER I had come to terms with the experience and felt I could provide advice and support where I could. I started my poetry blog in 2015 to publish work that I did as part of my creative writing course, since it'd already been graded and if someone else said it was okay then I felt comfortable posting it. I didn't consider putting anything else on there at first, but my personal life took a turn for the worse and I found myself writing more and more poetry as a way of dealing with the change. In the same way that my personal blog was intended to reach out to people, my poetry became something people cold relate to so I took the plunge and started posting and I never looked back.

JT: Talk us through the process of writing a poem: how do you start? How do you conceive the relationship between form and content?

KF: I've never been able to just sit and write a poem about something I don't find interesting, and often the things I find interesting are things that other people wouldn't even notice. So I suppose the first thing I would do is to find something that intrigues me. I don't really have a fixed way of writing poetry, I've never been the kind of person who can sit and follow a strict set of rules when writing, which is why most of my work is free verse.  If I do have an idea I jot it down and then I find that word association provides me with a grounding to work from; writing an emotional response to something also helps me get to grips with an idea. Some of my best work has been shortened from longer pieces of  emotive prose that I've changed into poetry. Sometimes I'll have an image and if I can't explain it immediately I use a metaphor and that becomes the poem. People have said to me that even though my work is free verse, it still has a distinct style that makes it obvious it's mine and I can sort of see that.

JT: Which other writers and poets have most informed your notions of poetry?

KF: I was fascinated with the work of Angela Carter  growing up. I loved the dark, gritty tone to her writing and have always been amazed by how quickly she captivates an audience. Whether you like her work or not, you will almost definitely be drawn in by her style and her story telling and that is something I aspire to be able to do as a writer. I also love the style of Rosemary Tonks; her collection Beduoin of the London Evening holds some of my favourite poems, and I love the way she can romanticise even the bleakest situations. I also love the work of Mitch Albom, who always a new perspective on the simplest of ideas.

JT: Given the emotive nature of your poetry, how do you understand the relationship between emotion and poetry?

KF: A lot of my poetry is based on real experiences, and the smallest of significant moments. It's a means of closure for me: turning something negative into something positive, or writing down something I'm not sure of so that I can understand it better. Everything I write is a little piece of myself that I share with people, so I think for my poetry to be successful, I have to be comfortable with my own emotions. If I'm not, it can frequently sound like jibberish. A lot of people find my work relatable, so I absolutely have to understand myself, what I'm trying to put across and why so that if I am giving mixed images or ideas then it's clear that this was deliberately done.

JT: What are your longer term aims for your poetry and writing?

KF: I'm currently working on putting together a collection of poems related to mental illness, an issue that very close to my heart. I'm hoping to get this published at some point within the next two years. I'm also hoping that one day I can write and publish a collection of poetry in an autobiographical style, sort of like a photo album of moments in my life, but with poetry instead. I'm continuing to update my poetry blog regularly in the hopes that I'll build up a bigger readership and I'm already considering starting a public website where I publish the work and reviews of other people as well as myself.

About the interviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk. 

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Review by rob mclennan of "Quiet Book" by Pattie McCarthy

"& to & such a pretty bird. this is
the first sonnet for the third baby. if
I sound prepared for that, I am not.
let me know you’re all right in there, would you?
Kevin says : I dreamt it was a boy.
my brother says : your favorite presidents
cannot be F D R & Jefferson—
that’s illogical. Emmett says : when I
was pregnant with you, that was a tough week too.
Asher says : seashell, voilà.     & the third
(having outgrown a perfect, fragile world)
baby (     bird from brid OE from unknown
origin)        'because he was crying
I like him most of all,' says my son." 

(Pattie Mc Carthy, "x y z & &")

Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s sixth trade collection is Quiet Book (Berkeley CA: Apogee Press, 2016), a collection focused on domestic patter and patterns, writing on home and children, mothering and everything in-between. Constructed out of three sections—“x y z & &,” “notes for clothespin” and “genre scenes”—the poems in Quiet Book follow McCarthy’s previous poetry books—bk of (h)rs (Apogee Press, 2002), Verso (Apogee Press, 2004), Table Alphabetical of Hard Words (Apogee Press, 2010), Marybones (Apogee Press, 2013) and Nulls (horse less press, 2014) —for their formal invention and innovation, focus on women, mothering and the body, and themes of Medieval artworks and archives, armed with her fierce and fiery intelligence and an evocative musical cadence that sings through every line. As she writes in the short sequence that sits in the centre of the collection, “clothespin”: “the kiss is domestic is / domestic is kiss monumental // breech upon which / so much pinch.”

Originally produced as a chapbook in 2015 through Ahshata Press, “x y z & &” is a suite of thirty-three poems that explore and extend her work in collage and accumulation, stitching together scattered notes on parenting, language, nursing, childbirth and babies. McCarthy magnificently articulates the anxiety, distraction, exhaustion and bliss of parenting small children, as she writes: “I had four hours in a row alone / to work & I looked at photos of them / & remembered the limitless mistakes / it was possible to make with the piano.” And the structure of untitled poems composed as a suite also means it is possible to begin on any page, and read in either direction. In a 2014 interview at Touch the Donkey, she briefly discussed the suite:

"I have a chapbook called ‘x y z &&’ coming out in the fall (Ahsahta Press)—it’s a sonnet sequence I wrote after my third child was born (I wrote a sonnet sequence after each child was born). One of the epigraphs is from Anselm Berrigan’s poem 'Looking through a slant of light': 'Sending his mother to the typewriter / To type a poem that would embarrass him / Years later.' That’s my preemptive action on this front.

"There are things related to the children that I do not write about because they are invasions of privacy, sure. It was harder when they were infants/toddlers because it doesn’t seem as though they have privacy when they are so little – it doesn’t feel like I have privacy during that phase either. 


"Obviously, I think they are brilliant & funny & clever—it would be impossible to resist them getting in the text."

The third section, “genre scenes,” explores the depictions of women in a variety of domestic situations and labours throughout Medieval artwork. A selection of fifteen pieces appearing previously as fifteen genre scenes (eth press, 2014), the twenty-four poems that make up “genre scenes” study historical depictions such as “woman nursing an infant with a child feeding a dog,” “& child, with apple tree & bread & doll” and “a woman scraping parnsips, with a child standing by,” that riffs off Nicholas Maes’ 1655 painting “A Woman Scraping Parsnips, with a Child Standing by Her,” as she writes:

"bring the knife toward the body toward the body
watch now watch me bring the knife toward
plane the woody surface a sharp parallel knife
keywords food people vegetables child woman young
vegetable kid person adult female lady two people two
two two persons indoor domestic scene scenes homely inside
indoors interior interiors vertical preparing sitting sit sits seated
domestic parsnips parsnip scraping basket knife house home
tags woman child cap basket knife jug skirt apron ewer bodice some things
women do with their hands working by a window
the girl is beautifully grumpy & learning something
boil the parsnips until tender
boil the eggs very hard"

In a recent interview conducted by Christy Davids for The Conversant (posted December 2015), McCarthy writes: 

"So—with Quiet Book and thinking about the domestic—the poems in 'genre scenes,' I mean I didn’t know very much at all about seventieth century Dutch painting, but I was a little bit in love with the idea of writing about those paintings while I was writing these poems about being pregnant and giving birth and having a newborn. Genre paintings—you know in the ranking of the French Academy of Fine Arts—it’s the middling genre, right. It’s: history paintings, and portraiture, and then genre paintings and the domestic—and they are small and not serious. So there was something perhaps perversely attractive to me about these paintings of people plucking ducks and deboning fish and nursing babies, and doing all this work inside the house. While I was writing these poems, I kept thinking about how we are sort of instructed not to take that seriously—‘mommy poems.’"

There have been quite a stretch of poets writing on and around the domestic in intriguing ways over the past few years, allowing the small and smaller details of home and children as material for more language-centred writing, from Canadian poet Margaret Christakos to American poets such as Dan Thomas-Glass, Julie Carr, Rachel Zucker, Chris Martin and Farid Matuk, whose chapbook My Daughter La Chola (2013) also appeared with Ahsahta Press. Given that home and children are so much a part of the days of certain writers, it seems almost impossible to not wonder why more poets don’t include such details in their own work. As McCarthy herself says in the interview, it was important to write “mommy poems” in such a way, despite knowing that the genre itself repeatedly gets a bad rap (despite so much evidence to the contrary). McCarthy provides material beyond the ends of the standard alphabet and into every parents’ movement into new and unfamiliar territory, writing the confusion, exploration and small and large discoveries beautifully, including two poems on the sometimes exhaustive and all-encompassing stretches of nursing: “milk fever cluster feeding witching hour / cluster feeding milk fever witching hour / witching hour milk fever cluster feeding / witching hour cluster feeding milk fever.” (“x y z & &”). Anyone with a small child or two, who is also interested in the language of great poetry, should be reading this. Or should I say: everyone.

"suppose the clothespin    spring-
loaded for clouds       see

also & see

weathering   its backbends
bellies attractive domestic
practical &

monument I want to walk
around & around & around it until
William Penn fits in its pinch

genre : common
artifacts & its significance (if
any) is unknown

the gaze of the clothespin
falls on itself"

(Pattie McCarthy, “notes for clothespin")

About the reviewer
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com