A descent into the mayhem of a crisis, coming to terms with Covid concerns in The Kitchen Sink Chronicles, looking out for holds of hope, wishing for buds to blossom, to refill what the shelves no longer offer before the bough breaks and it comes down to all but a cradle of wood, no ketchup & only birds who get to see the Savannahs now.
Adele Cordner’s poetry pamphlet, The Kitchen Sink Chronicles, published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press with perfectly fine lines of fragile illustrations by her daughter Florence Cordner, is an unmissable account of a family’s journey as they reshape the landscape of their everyday lives between mid-March and the end of August 2020.
Loo roll shortages, no ketchup in the cupboards and bland beige blobs left behind on supermarket shelves instil these poems with a fear that only yesterday we would have thought was a joke and yet Adele never lets the words drown in despair but moves through familiar settings of front lawns, back gardens, shopping aisles, now fitted out with invisible booby traps, with the resilience a mother needs to hold onto, regardless of the situation in order to protect her family, the falling trees and the baby birds, lost to their position. Beyond the numbers that eventually came to numb us and the pre-prepared speeches that washed over our skin quicker than any invisible deathly dust, these poems pull us in to the everyday concerns; house bound, bubble bound, the worries that came before Covid; road accidents, crashes, broken dishwashers, children’s illnesses, distance from family members and the gentle release occasionally found in unexpected places; dropping your hand into the soft tide to let things wash away.
This is a brave account of a terrifying time told with compassion, consideration and that resilience that keeps us all breathing. This is an invite to come inside a home and, having been kept away from other homes but our own for so long, how can we refuse not to pull up a chair in this kitchen and listen to the tale of how it all unfolded.
Check out Adele Cordner’s website for more info and to buy the book…
Elisabeth Horan’s latest collection Just to the Right of the Stove opens by the fridge, a cold beginning perhaps to counter the heated conversations that will unfold from our two protagonists, one already doomed and the other trying to decide. The first poem is voiced by both Sylvia Plath and our own Elisabeth, wondering if the only way to make it on the page is to step away from the flesh. Sylvia promises to help and so the timer is set and on we go…
The first half of the collection is entitled Welcome to the Kitchen, the heart of most houses though certainly the place most haunted in one particular Primrose Hill home. Identity, depression and an acceptance of it are key themes here along with an understanding of what it takes to be true to oneself and how that truth can be isolating, discomforting and how quickly you can be removed from society and turned into a Pollack canvas of mixed acrylics that nobody really wants to understand. The kitchen is the heart of the home just as the mind is the control centre of the body and the collection walks barefoot across a razor-sharp, frenzied fear of what happens when control falls away.
The mind and the oven here are inseparable. They both heat, bake and burn, require constant monitoring, tease with thoughts and scorching flames. The question that resides between each carefully chosen, and often fragmented, word is how far one is willing to go to document one’s rises and descents? Following on from Bad Mommy, Stay Mommy and Alcoholic Betty, Just to the Right of the Stove further examines those demands of fame against what it means to be an artist, to have a voice and to be brave enough to share that voice, no matter what comes out. Between the icon and the eager student are toss ups, teasing’s and taunting’s all bordering on how truthfully we must be when revealing who we are, how we got here, who bent us backward or who we climbed over. ‘She is so bad, she yells at her kids. She ate her own heart…’ this collection devours, destroys and often dismisses the soul while trying to figure out how best to save it when faced with society’s attitude towards strong, demanding, willing, broken, battered, unstoppable women clinging on to either creation, medication or bipolarisation.
Here, Horan walks the line of motherhood, trying to balance crazy and creative, fathers, sons and Freuds, all in kitchens and clinics, alongside children looking for answers to questions our author is trying to break down into edible parts while Plath’s ghost makes its way around the kitchen and its distractions as the timer winds its way down to that ever-important stove.
In the end, we are left to dig out hope from the ashes after their final scurry towards that stove; the broken teeth, the skin that could not hold and the message one left the other, before the future of one or both is enveloped, all just to the right of the stove that Horan has stoked with her own exquisite touch of unequivocable honesty. Riding the fine line between the beast and the better, there is a rawness here to the flow and form that is as addictive as the tick of the timer. This is not a comfortable ride, so I suggest you buckle up, as it’s also a ride you won’t want to miss.
Here we are given the perfect opportunity to examine what we worship, how we worship and how, with time, understanding and self-worth, the student can become the standalone talent and the icon can become human again.
Under Photon Crowns, Selected Writings of Dai Fry is the first individual chapbook collection published by Black Bough Poetry and is an incredible kaleidoscope of journeys, bright black waves of twisting movements that take us far beyond the glories of ‘Majorelle skies’ and down deep into the ‘wild-green waters’ to ‘the breath of the Kracken’ with the understanding of how all things are connected and yet, equally, as displayed in the opening poem, how we are held like single stars burning in solitude; ‘tears cried alone… in quiet rooms… of a wondrous infinity.’
I have long been a fan of Swansea-born poet Dai Fry since discovering him on Black Bough Poetry’s weekly #TopTweetTuesday, who incredibly only began writing a few years ago and yet, to see his delicately carved poems come together here is quite magical. I say delicately carved but they are not of a delicate nature, they are big, bold, bright adventures which stretch far beyond our tiny claims to this little spec we call home, for a time, within the Universe.
Dai writes with a seer’s knowledge as if he himself had walked this earth and stepped underland to seek out echoes of the ‘dark imaginations’ of Neolithic warriors and hear their dreams and disasters, as if it were possible to be a neutrino and yet understand the essence of everything ‘its presence as absence revealed’, as if he had been beyond the Rapture and time travelled back again with his visions which bring us to the beautiful balance of this book of two parts; the opening section of poetry and the closing section of prose.
The poetry transports us up and out, with all the knowledge Fry has acquired, as if he had swallowed all the stars, all the planets, all the photons hurtling through space and then the prose brings us back to the beginnings of all things; Fry’s youth in Tycoch, in Wales and its tissue-wrapped Angels, bottles of sleep setting ‘Oblivion’, duffel-coated interstellar spaceship troopers and a box of fireworks where he possibly first began to reach out and touch the magic of a star he was able to light himself. This entire prose section is, as Dai himself says, when waking to a dreamy snow-covered morning… ‘a magic Kingdom unspoiled and pure as things always are in the beginning.’
This chapbook of both the extraordinary and the elemental is perfectly woven together with a series of illustrations from French astronomical artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, deepening that sense of infinity with eclipses of the sun, the moon and the shimmers of the Milky Way.
Dai says, in the brief introduction, that ‘I am at heart a chaos poet, I seek the underlying pattern…’ and that is indeed what this collection of selected writing achieves; stretching out as far as possible in order to bring it all back in, back home, back down to the pen and the page.
And here we have the impossibility of infinity captured beautifully. Out there, in the universe, the light is dark but here, in the poetry of Dai Fry, the sound is sensational.
Forever After, Between the Pages of Poetry Collections A Series of Interviews with poets on how their collections came together & what followed after.
When my debut poetry pamphlet was published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in September 2020 there were two things I started to reflect on; the journey it had taken me to get to the point of having a group of poems working together as a collection with a publisher and an audience and then, the second thing, which I hadn’t really considered, what to do next!
Over the course of this series we’ll dive behind the pages of our guest’s collections to see how they came about and what happened after. Funny how all fairy tales end with the kiss at the altar, when we all know the real adventure commences after the walk back down the aisle.
Today’s guest is…Thomas McColl
And so, to forever after, let us begin… Thank you for joining me today, here’s the first question…
1 Tell us a little bit about your last collection; inspirations, directions, wishes and vows.
My last collection, which came out early last year, is Grenade Genie, published by Fly on the Wall Press. Sub-titled 25 brief studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted, the book is filled with poems as dramatic as the four C-word headings they’re grouped under – poems with titles such as Shopping With Perseus, Literal Library, Statement by the Pedestrian Liberation Organisation, The Surgery I go to has a Two-headed Doctor and The Greatest Poem (which possibly is my greatest poem, albeit a poem that’s actually about the worst ever poem, and one written by me to boot).
In any event, the poems are more serious than they necessarily sound, and one of the themes, or main points made, in the book is that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable, but while that knowledge can generate either a sense of hopelessness or the nothing-to-lose strength to rail against it, one strength of poetry is that even if only the former gets expressed, the latter is automatically achieved.
At any rate, there was a much more deliberate direction taken when compiling this book than there had been with my previous collection, Being With Me Will Help You Learn. That collection, published by Listen Softly London Press in 2016, was a kind of eclectic greatest hits of all my poetry writing over the years since the 90s, and while my poetry has always been, to some degree, engaged with the world around us, the poems in Grenade Genie are definitely much more focussed on issues, both social and political, and I feel fortunate that I found, and was taken on by, the right publisher, Fly on the Wall Press, which, as well as being very much a socially conscious press in terms of the work it publishes, has done a great job in getting my collection into shape, all the way from the accepted manuscript stage to the book then coming out a few months later, in April 2020.
2 How did it feel when you saw your collection in print for the very first time and, perhaps more importantly, how did it feel when you sold your very first book?
It felt great when I saw the collection in print for the very first time, but it was simply relief I felt when I sold the first book, and relief was what I continued to feel as the book continued to sell – for even though I’m extremely proud of the finished item and the poems within, and I believe the book is very much worth people’s money, I never take anything for granted when it comes to achieving sales, and definitely not when attempting to promote my work during lockdown.
3 How did you promote your current collection and what did you learn about yourself and your collection in the days that followed, afterwards, that you hadn’t known before?
Grenade Genie was released right in the midst of the first lockdown, last April. In the months leading up to publication, I’d set about organising various live events and festivals in London and further afield, and with a fair few slots confirmed – included a 60-minute feature slot at the Leamington Poetry Festival in July – I was ready to go on what was effectively my first ever proper tour to promote the book, with featured readings as far afield as Coventry, Birmingham, Rochester and Saltburn – but then, at the end of March, the first lockdown began, and slowly but surely all the dates I’d organised ended up getting cancelled.
Right from the off, however, I was in a position to get straight into the swing of the ‘new normal’, for on the day after the book was published, Winchester Fest (who’d put me on their bill and had decided to go online) facilitated the launch of my book via Zoom with a 60-minute feature – and, with events only able now to go ahead if they went online, opportunities arose which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. For instance, I ended up being a featured poet in the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, which was based in Virginia and which I’d normally have had to travel to in order to participate in but now could be a part of from the comfort of my bedroom in London. And new opportunities arose regarding radio as well: Shows which, previously, I’d have had to travel to in order to talk in the studio, I was able to, now, be a part of without leaving London, and in this way I ended up being on Rick Sander’s Brum Radio Poets show on Brum Radio and on Hannah Kate’s On the Bookshelf show on Manchester FM, and I managed too to get poems from the book featured on BBC Radio Kent and BBC Radio West Midlands. So, over this past year, it seems to have been a case of ‘what one hand taketh away the other giveth’.
Anyway, one thing I learned from this experience is to simply keep on going, even when everything seems to be going wrong or going against you, and all your best-laid plans have gone to waste – for, despite all the setbacks which have undoubtedly occurred since lockdown began (with all live work cancelled and avenues for publicity curtailed, and a general apathy taking over everything), I’m still very glad the book came out when it did, as it’d been four years since my previous collection had been released, and I really wanted to keep some momentum going, and no matter what obstacles you find in your way, you have to simply try and keep on course, no matter what (even if all you can see ahead are even more rocks than you’ve already managed to navigate through), and we’ll just have to see if the good ship Momentum – with a poet at the helm who’s more Captain Pugwash than Captain Cook – is actually going to make it through these troubled waters intact.
4 What happened after the honeymoon? Writing is rarely about one connection, one love affair, one marriage. Did you feel pressure to start another collection immediately or had you earned time to settle into your new life as an author and have a well-deserved break?
I don’t think I’m at the stage yet to have earned the time to rest on any laurels, and in any way savour and take stock of all that I’ve achieved, as there’s always the danger, if I stop to think too much, of feeling that my modest yet impressive enough achievements are as much as I’ll ever be able to crack, and I don’t want to get to thinking like that, as I think it’s very easy to – especially when you take time to actually look at the situation you’re faced with and, as a result, then see how starkly the odds are stacked against you. So, while I’m able to remain in the state of mind that thinks – in spite of all the signs suggesting otherwise – that I’ve actually got something more to give and enough to reach some higher heights, I’ll continue trying to keep what impetus there might be going, and even as the last collection was coming out, there was already another poetry collection in development, and other forms of writing too, which leads us very nicely on to the next question.
5 Are you exploring other avenues of creativity aside from poetry? Are there other forms of writing or publishing or art that inspires you, that requires time now for exploration and dedication?
Yes – I’ve always written prose in tandem with poetry, and while it might be my downfall that I’ve never solely concentrated on one form or the other, one good thing is that there’s been much cross-pollination, with poems morphing into both flash fiction pieces and short stories, and vice versa. For instance, the first poem in the Combative section of my book, entitled Shopping With Perseus, started out as a piece of prose, a 721-word story that was first published in the urban feminist literary magazine, Geeked, then, edited down to 500 words, won first prize in the Third Annual Stories of SW1 Writing Competition, then, finally, edited a little bit further, ended up as a poem in the book.
I’ve written both a novel and novella, and while neither of these manuscripts have found publishers yet, extracts from them have been published as standalone stories in magazines such as The Ghastling, Sick Lit and Here Comes Everyone. Other short stories of mine have been published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, Smoke: A London Peculiar and Fictive Dream, and, collected into a manuscript, were longlisted in the Mslexia First Drafts Competition in 2017.
6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing or photograph or artwork that most represents you, at this very moment, knowing we are forever evolving, updating, changing, turning, what would it be and why and would you like to share it with us?
It’s a poem from my book, Grenade Genie, called The Phoney War, that most represents me now. It’s a poem about childhood, and play, and when reality intrudes on play, and though the poem represents me as a child, it also represents me now, as a middle-aged adult, coming to understand much more the significance of how harmless fun in the past wasn’t always such harmless fun for others.
THE PHONEY WAR
Our imaginations at war – with umbrellas for rifles, our enemy invisible – we defended the sofa, had it pulled out from the wall.
Inside this narrow tunnel – with seat cushions overhead – we hid.
With each attack, we watched each other’s backs. You saw the Germans in your mind I could not see, and I saw mine; We shot them all too easily.
With the air-strikes, though, we met our match. Shells – like steel fists – struck, and the seat cushions, punched up into the air, fell about us.
So, we rose and came out fighting – shot down five fighters and three bombers with two umbrellas, then finished off the conflict in close hand-to-hand combat.
By the end, there were a thousand German casualties and, without even a scratch between them, two tired Tommies, smoking pencils, feeling tough.
And now the war was finished, and with both of us famished, we ran from the living room into the kitchen, calling for Gran to serve us up our tea, and found her quietly sobbing at the stove.
7 What are you currently working on? Is there a new pamphlet, a collection, a novel? Where do you want to go next?
I do have enough new poems, just about, to form a new collection, though I’ve, so far, decided to split and submit this material to poetry publishers as two separate pamphlets, as yet without success, but there still remain submissions outstanding – so, who knows, there’s still hope.
If nothing, though, gets through, it may mean that I have to order the poems differently or present them as a collection instead, and, of course, what doesn’t find favour one year may well find favour the next, especially with new publishers continuing to emerge which may be more receptive to what I’m trying to achieve and say with my writing.
Anyway, I also have a horror novel, set in London, out on submission, and there’s a novelette, a collection of short stories, and even a rhyming picture book text, that are all doing the rounds at this moment in time – so watch this space, as they say!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs.
Before we depart, would you please take a moment to answer the following 9 quickfire questions…
What’s your favourite time of day? The morning (as long as I’m not having to rush into work, and I’ve got time to do some writing). What’s your current favourite song? Slave to the Rhythm – Grace Jones. What’s your current favourite taste? My partner’s homemade dahl, with rice. What’s your current favourite smell? The smell that emanates from an extra-long match as I watch it burn after lighting the gas stove. What’s your current favourite colour? The colour of classic punk – Day-Glo pink. What’s your current favourite distraction? Lavishly illustrated books on the Second World War that were published in the 1970s and, in looking at them, take me back to being a child discovering books for the first time. What’s your current favourite item of clothing? My comfortable chinos. What’s your current favourite poem or piece of writing you recently read? I recently did an interview about the influence of the poet Stevie Smith upon my life and, in preparation, read some of her work again, and one that remains a favourite now, as it was back then when I first got into her in my teens, is a very short but very effective poem, called I Remember. What’s one of the things you have discovered about yourself through writing? That I’m patient when it comes to writing – or, at least, I am in the sense that I’m prepared (and able) to play the long-game, and I fully intend to see it through.
Thomas McColl is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ThomasMcColl2 and has been featured on radio, newspaper, multiple journals and is the author of two poetry collections Being With Me Will Help You Learn published by Listen Softly London Press in 2016 and Grenade Genie published by Fly on the Wall Press in 2020, both available to buy on his website…
Thomas was recently a guest on my poetry podcast Eat the Storms and you can here him reading poems from Grenade Genie on the 1st episode of Season 2, below is the Spotify link but the show is also on Apple, Podbean , Google Podcasts, PocketCasts and many more platforms…
Two weeks ago, I sat in the armchair by the window, a wet Wednesday afternoon and opened Serge Neptune’s debut poetry collection These Queer Merboyspublished by Broken Sleep Books and an hour later had finished the last page, one of the few books I’ve sat and devoured in just one sitting. As I dived into the pages of this collection I was reminded of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; the big, bold, brash musical of the German boy willing to become a good girl for the American soldier but left broken, later, with only an angry inch, but beneath the bravado there was a darkness and similarly here, in Neptune’s world, we have the sensory mermen swimming in as a choir, seeking comfort, seeking caresses; ‘…expert hands that know what to do…’ seeking kisses; ‘…our tongues laid out like summer…’ but the waves can drag you down, hands that once hugged can hold you under and kisses come from lips that have teeth beyond the seduction of all that is soft.
Very quickly you realise that this is not just a collection of poems, it is a complete queer narrative coming up out of the ocean; ‘…a merman finds a stranded sock, black scab on the shoreskin, feels for the first time the touch of fabric, juggles it from hand to hand then wears it as a glove to give it words…’ and out of the water and onto shore that can leave you drowning, drying, drinking, dissolving, revising, reshaping, evolving. Looking for acceptance, understanding, splitting ourselves open so as to be loved; ‘…men took us in their arms, cuddled us at first, fastened lips to lips, we begged for hands to hold our throats…’ so as to be equal, so as to be able to walk among the others with two feet instead of fins; ‘…the potion they served us, like surgeons, cut through our blood with irons, parted our spine… scales would fall… each step felt like a pig’s heart skewered with nails…’ but the pain better, perhaps, than the scorn of being different. And yet, even after all that, comes the torture; ‘…the telly blasting SINNERS! SINNERS! You shall not lie with a creature of the sea, for they have no soul…’ the revelations of what we are willing to do for that acceptance; the cutting and folding ourselves into pieces to make us more lovable, more manageable, until finally we become unrecognisable and don’t know how to get back to who it was that we once were; ‘…once the water in my bathtub was all cherry, I tried to stop the flowers of my wrists from blossoming.’ But still we rise, upon the next current; current wave, current attraction, current love; ignoring the ‘…Cassandras nobody ever listens to for fear of drowning & what is it to love a man if not to drag him underneath to steal his last breath.’ This is a journey that never falters, that never panders to convention, an unstoppable, unshakable, uncompromising debut of only 20 poems and yet it reads like a fully developed novel and we are left wanting more and thankfully, dear readers, I do believe that more is on the way. Serge Neptune has started something and we rejoice in the fact that it’s not yet finished!
‘And when I taste the taste of you, it is the layered shell sprinkled-tang of all recorded time.’
The quote above is the last line of the 1st poem in Jane Dougherty’s debut collection, a collection that opens straight away into the sea’s water and the air’s rain falling onto the earth with its rough edges of fragility, thick sweetness of honey and shells of echoed songs. And that is exactly what each poem is here; a finely tuned echo of a song once sung. Nature unravels the truth of its beginnings and the path toward all its endings across these pages; in the great arched sky, the moon and stars, the cry of the owl and the footsteps of the fox. There is a fine line sensuously navigated here balancing the order of life and death, an order reflected in how carefully each poem appears on the page, how it follows the last and makes way for the next. Nature is rampant but not always at peace, like the darting robin and the blackbirds who forget to sing and the lonely whale in the poem Blue Whale Debris- the last witness of the decay, sentinel with nothing left to guard but these endings also bear echoes of the light that sparked joy along the route still shining even if it’s only as bright as laughter in the dark or in the hope that we will drift with the gold of summer sunset in our eyes…as long as it’s together. The acknowledgement is of both love and loss, the burning sun and drowning wave, being alive and knowing death is growing out there, between the blue and the red. Blood, of course, flows through this collection, that which is thicker, or thickest of them all, blue and rich and poisonous, running through the veins of the body, of the Earth, of these poems, all streams, all liquid flowing, floating towards the heavens or roots growing down into the deep, dark dampness of the earth. Blue comes first as a returning colour, not only for the water but also in mourning for all that has passed and then red; for all the suns setting over the land, for all the suns setting fires to all that once roared. The title of the collection cleverly returns throughout the poems to add further flow, albeit with slight turns and twists, always the same water but never the same droplet, with titles like The Thickness of the Water, lines like water dilutes the thickest blood and thicker than water but not clay and the poem Things that are Thicker than Water which exposes the narrator’s understanding, and perhaps acceptance, of all that is almost too much to bear; the tightening of knots, the squeezing of the heart, the fear of losing, the loneliness, the weight that pulls you down into the ocean and the incarnadine stain left behind in the water. When looked at from a certain angle, life can be unforgivable and yet, there is beauty too in this struggle, in this observation of all we cannot control like the fragility, and perhaps the predestined fate, of Ophelia laying herself and her sorrows, with the help of darkness, into death; Take me to the river, she said, where sunlight dances on golden points… So, he did, and they did, for a moment.
Midway through the collection, we hear the storm is coming on gulls slender wings; the pace here is that of the winter wild, running reckless, whether we are getting closer to heaven or to hell, a dystopian landscape unfolding under the blues growing grey coming towards the ocean of mist; and where will we shelter, you and I, when the sky tears its coping from side to side and then, with a nod to James Joyce, we are swept back to the ancient lands of our ancestors where our tongues taste the breath our mothers breathed, still twisting beneath the soil, whispering of smells from the language of the dead; air and rain and turf and corduroy. There are cycles here; not just with life and death but in the movement of the water; running, rising, falling, returning, in the scents that come back through new noses, exploring, hunting, gathering, shedding, a realisation that all things have a time to breathe and, later, a time to sleep as if the narrator has sat in the garden of the Earth and watched how the animals go about their business without questioning or worrying or losing time over the why. As we come to the final poems in the collection, noticeable words rise up that perhaps were not as visible before in the struggle of life; happiness, euphoria, kisses, passion, the singing of blackbirds, desire and the memory of a life lived; when I am old and have no fire’s glow to coax the blood to frozen fingertips I’ll think of those raw days of long ago and how you warmed the magic with your lips. Age brings with it a balance, an acceptance, an admittance of what has been and what must come to an end and with that comes the end of a collection where the reader has been transported, tasted the rain, drowned in the waves, felt beaten, broken and then a breath of air that resuscitated, offered rebirth, brought me back to buoyant. The final poem leaves us perfectly with the Well Water; the red foxes and the horses and a reflection of all that will become stars. I’ve followed Jane Dougherty since the early days of WordPress, have taken up her poetry challenges, marvelled at her knowledge of poetic forms and styles and loved her time travelling novel The Pathfinders, but this is the first time I have had the chance to read her work as a collection and it is an astounding accomplishment. I note the dedication to her mother Mary and her father John and I think she has listened well to their voices from beyond and they will be proud. A poet who is in full control of her flow and that shines throughout every carefully created line, each vision she has painted and the love and respect of nature that we are invited to witness through the eyes of someone who has been paying very good attention. Thicker than Water runs deeper than its simple size suggests. It is light to the weight but buy it now and see how the wait for its arrival will deepen the worth of its contents.
This collection brought me back to jazz nights at Le Duc des Lombards in Paris in the late 90s with its strained light, stifling smoke and those journeys the sounds took me on; joyous, jerking, juvenile, gyrating, discombobulating, dysphoric, destructive, devouring, divine, the mind always running after that next note, never quite able to identify the melody, overthrown by the chorus, broken by the refrain and suddenly raised by an unexpected pause to catch your breath before it dived back down again. The Gull and the Bell Tower by Kari Flickinger is exactly that; an unstoppable, unrelenting and sometimes unforgiving flight into the syncopated jazz beat where words tremble on the page like strings across the double base. Mingus, Davis, Coltrane and even the Duke are already rummaging through their own ashes for ways to transport rough riffs from the dearly departed to accompany this debutant’s outing. I read it first from beginning to end but I’m not sure that’s even necessary or the best way to do it, each poem stands alone, this is not purely a collection but a collaboration of perfected poetic hits. A triumph of words that, as it says itself, defies the organised poem, being too fat with words, with depth, with flow, with movement that carries emotion in waves, floods of water, drowning, reviving and drowning again and sometimes both, back and forth, up and down, over and in between these flights of fancy, fear, folly, force, all of which we meet in the very opening poem- wings jumping towards the truth even if the feathers cannot be trusted and, right there, we have been forewarned; this is a journey into what will keep us afloat and the lies that will bury us under the weight of a feather that can turn to steel, lips that can turn to other mouths while we swallow words that, not always comfortably, spiral down the oesophagus, like love, like loss, like life, like the very best jazz.
‘Sound can tell you before you are gone how it was you went’ and it’s all here, waiting for us to hear it, be seduced by it, deduce it and then reduce it to nothing so we can catch the next flight out. An astounding body of work that does not end when you turn the last page, for it is only then that the questions arise and you are compelled to dive back in to uncover the answers. For like jazz, like life, the rhyme is only accessible when you slip beneath the distractions of the flesh. In the guts of The Gull and the Bell Tower the bones have slipped out from the disguise of the skin and are waiting for you to finally see them. This is not just a debut, it is a revelation.
The Gull and the Bell Tower is published by Femme Salvé Books and is available here…
Anne Walsh Donnelly opens her chapbook The Woman with an Owl Tattoo, published by Fly on the Wall Press, with the no-holes barred, blaring, bold Guide to Becoming a Writer, a poem that documents a life in change, in search, in turmoil, in the depths of despair, indivisible from the pen. And we instantly know we don’t want this collection to end. Death comes early to this collection, by the second poem in fact, limp body floating face down in the pond. The owl, who once watched the wife watch the husband sleeping, didn’t make it. The timer now ticks for that wife to decide her own fate. What follows is an often comical, always honest account of how we ignore what we don’t yet understand, kiss things to distract us, perfectly documented in the poem History of My Sexual Encounters, speak vows that will only bury us and ignore the thoughts of the therapist until a waitress at the Costa checkout confirms the truth that cannot be concealed any longer, there is only so much support that can be bound within a bra. These confessional poems, steeped in admissions, revelations to mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, are delivered with a very dry wit and yet we are never unaware of the fear and bravery it takes to speak and write each word but Anne always gives us the right to breathe and laugh with moments like the hilarious response from the daughter in the poem Coming Out to My Daughter that her once married-to-a-man mother now has a girlfriend ‘well, you’ll have company while I’m off at college’. Although the Irish father, traditionally never one for many words or a showing of too much affection, is the one who brings us to tears with his reply in the poem Coming Out to My Father which I will save for the reader to discover themselves. But have a tissue handy. The poem Being in Love at 50 is rich with its symbolism, that dry desert suddenly flooded with wet vulvas, children re-drawing the images they had of their parents, boring polyester shirts for the ex’s and those liberating lace bras in cerise now worn for the new lover. Just beyond the midway mark, the poem Ache of Naked Bodies shines in its simplicity, one of the shortest poems in the collection and yet it manages to hit the mark perfectly, just like that vision in the tallboy mirror as bodies are braided but when that tenderness does arrive, also depicted in the poem Someone to Watch Over Me, it is simply beautiful to witness. There clearly have been so many bold, brave battles on the way to this point which makes the crescendo call of Mná na hÉireann resound in the soul, that final sensual understanding of your own identity and the acceptance of your body and its embrace by another body ‘how could you not want to drag a woman to bed at seven on a Saturday evening?’
The arrival of the tattoo in No More Fairy Tales inks forever into outer flesh the freedom that has been found within; our heroine, no longer tied to former entanglements, saves the princess and off they run for a happily ever-right-now, far away from that pond where the owl once drowned. The final poem I Have Lived is a perfect example of how to end a collection that began by drawing us into a quest to find the self and culminates with a resounding yelp from the mountain top. An acceptance of who she was, what she did while lying next to his body and what she managed to become that left her licking the maple from another woman’s lips. We are left with the question ‘What is left there to explore?’
and we all shout for more, please, more!
The Woman With An Owl Tattoo is published by Fly on the Wall Press and available here…
‘Begin with fearlessness…’ from the poem How to Begin
Mamiaith by Ness Owen
There is a deep sense of loss in the opening poem to Ness Owen’s Mamiaith (Welsh for Mother Tongue) but it is delicately laid down with a hope for rebirth; a memory planted within the roots so we can look out the window at the end of each day and remember where to blow those goodnight kisses. As we read further and deeper though, we can see that it is not only a hope that has been planted, but an exploration that has begun of the very land where we have our roots, the connection of soil and soul. We start out by opening up to the lessons of the ground beneath us and later, as we near the end, when the birds look down upon us, there is a sense of freedom in their flight. Simple chores, like mowing the lawn and cooking, become studies in life and how to adapt what we’ve learned and who we’ve learned it from, acknowledging those spirals we move in while trimming off the edges to come closer to the truth. Even the preparation of a simple stew, a rwdan, holds more than just a recipe for making a meal; at the same time as the bones boil on the stove there is a battle brewing between the tradition of silently keeping a lid on everything while we can also hear the stirrings of the next generation’s desire to be bright and brave and bold and empty the contents of a pot of traditions and ask how they came to be and why they have been kept. Interesting to note a poem that follows shortly after this boiling stew is one of a girl, grown into woman, watching her own daughter grow up but again, all is grounded by that soil, never far from those feet, stabilizing the soul as if to say this is how it goes.
The collection cleverly deceives the reader with its light appearance; delicate forms of short poems with few words but that too is its strength, like a language not used enough so that words are forgotten and we must cut to the truth without the fluff and frills. I myself have lived in 4 countries now, two of which I had to learn other languages and eventually found my truth to speaking up was to hold the main words, all else would be understood if the message was clear enough to comprehend. Every poem is reinforced by the echoes each one carries, repetitions to remind us to ‘write and dance and dance and write’, an invitation to rediscover the former songs that once marched out of tightened throats like the reusing of the words in The Appeal to the Women of the United States of America, a peace petition originally written in 1923 – 24 and how the sharing of these stories and the making of our own new ones is the only way to survive the wave that eats people. Following on from Dawn Dumont’s quote at the beginning of the poem One Name, Cymru- to be born indigenous is to be born an activist- we realise that the fight is happening here, within the considered calls rising up from these carefully chosen lines, each word perfectly formed into a sense of identity often bashed, often silenced but ever resilient. I am reminded of the famine walls in Ireland, built during a time of such struggle for the Irish workers, when the British decided that if aid was needed then it was to be earned and so they made starving peasants build boundary walls around farm lands, a task of no importance, in order to give them food in return. The walls still stand, tight rocks beaten into position with blood and tears and a longing to be recognised as equally worthy. And that is what shines through in this collection; tongues once stolen from mother’s mouths, pulled and pushed into position repeatedly, wanting to break out and be recognised as individual and not just a part of a puzzle someone once decided was too difficult to complete and so tucked away in a box.
Sometimes we don’t always understand the call, the song, the note, the granite, but it is our song as Ness Owen so strikingly tells us and, if we listen carefully to the stories, we will come to realise that ‘the wave is hungry again’ and the time to march is here for ‘silence won’t shape our future.’ So we come and gather and open this collection to learn to listen to the Buzzard because… ‘there is something reassuring in her cry…’
Dal dy dir (stand your ground) Ness says in one poem and this collection is testament to that strength of standing your ground and being heard in a ‘voice that is ours to proclaim a word at a time.’
This collection comes together as a triumph of the soul rising from struggle, a resolute banner call to reclaiming the truth of history and identity of Crymru and I will leave to with a tease of the opening of Female Blackbird Sings…
‘Your song isn’t as loud as his born knowing you’ll have to try harder still you sing not just with truth but wings and tail forcing out your voice like you’re drowning in the chorus till you find the one note to stop them still…’
Mamiaith is published by Arachne Press and is available to buy here…
In the new chapbook Quicksand, by Julie Stevens, published by Hybriddreich, there is a line in the opening poem that reads ‘I’m a factory working hard to produce a mystery, a collection of broken parts awaiting an answer…’ and this is indeed a collection of broken parts but it delivers its message clearly and its truth shines on every line, in every carefully chosen word, in the strength of each poem to be able to stand alone as well as accepting the support of the collection because, of course, what writer is not happy when allowed to sit and ponder and put pen to page. But, when the only option you have is to sit and ponder and put pen to page, then things change. Julie has had MS for 30 years now which means she cannot run or race or climb or dance. But here, in Quicksand, that is what the words do instead and she gives herself over to them completely.
She portrays brave here without any coverup, with lines like ‘a body once complete now waving goodbye,’ ‘an invisible carcass,’ and ‘I want to tear down all the trees, rip up all the grass.’ This is a naked account of daily life; simple, ordinary, but only if you consider ordinary to be the feeling that getting up out of bed is as difficult as climbing Everest and going for a coffee and a smooch around the local shopping mall is something you need a super hero power to do but then you are the only one who thinks the coolest super hero power would be the ability to simply walk.
‘What do you want my brutal friend?’ Julie asks at the end of the poem Relapse, when her ground has once again been shaken and taken from under her but perhaps that is how you deal with disease, maybe this is how you come to terms with the challenge to life and limb; befriend it honestly, acknowledging your body’s position within the quicksand that you can never climb out of.
The final two poems could have been placed there to appease the reader, to offer hope when closing the book so we, at least, can walk away, move on, but the truth is that these two poems are more admissions to the writer herself of her own ability to keep moving forward. They are bold poems telling us that if she can’t do one thing then she’ll find a way to do the other while watching those finish lines move ever further into the horizon. These poems shine like medals at the end of a race, with the acknowledgement that tomorrow another race will start all over again. But each time someone reads this collection it means that one more person will be there to cheer her on.
The beauty that rises from these lines comes from the honesty that is shared and that honesty takes flight because of the beauty they speak of. This is not a collection of shiny happy days but it shines nonetheless because of the energy Julie’s spirit jumps into every day. She is not called Jumping Jules just because of her athletic past but also because of how she is making brave leaps into the future, regardless of whether that requires a chest of drawers, a crutch, a wheelchair or a scooter.
The collection begins with the body as a factory but ends with the mind as the thriving force behind it all. This is an important collection that not only looks at the frailties of the body under MS but also at how it looks at the resilience of a spirit that will not lay down.
So watch out for more from Julie Stevens and listen for her stick tapping into the day.
I can remember, creeping down the stairs, after midnight, my parents sleeping, my heart trying to break out of my ribcage, turning on the tv as the sound of my breath rose beyond control, turning down the volume and clicking on to Channel 4 to watch Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane as nerves stuck like knives in my belly and skin shivered like I’d been dropped in the middle of Antarctica, naked. But all this means I can completely relate to the line in David Hanlon’s debut collection that reads ‘the film held my hand like a parent holds the small child’s at the seaside as they take their first steps into vast unknown waters.’
And that water returns, throughout this collection, ‘I was the slow drip of a leaky sink faucet’ but its flow is not that of a steady stream, for nothing is that easy for anyone that ‘only came out in the dark.’ There are cacophonous waves, both visual and visceral here, that almost drown and others that you hoped would drag you under. Again, I recall those days, after school, after the pushes and shoves and teases and spit-covered jackets on the way home when my run was equally too ‘like a girl’ and then building myself a cage where I was also ‘drowning in the decorated whirlpool of my bedroom’, all the while knowing my ignorant bullies had ‘less words’ than I and less understanding of what it took to survive.
The honesty expressed here rests on a nerve of ‘jagged mountain tops’ but never begs for sympathy. At times there is the question of doubt- ‘did I rattle for decades in this flesh prison of my own making’, questioning who made the cage and who held the key. And then comes ‘the rope I couldn’t climb in PE’ and the wonder of what would happen if they saw you hanging there one day. I can recall myself, sitting in my caged room, on the floor, already lost to prayer, and wondering what would be the reaction if I stopped it all, there and then. When I woke up the following day, a part of me had already learned that there was not going to be a simple way out except for up and over and through. And that is what this collection is, a climb along the edge of a cliff as you hold the edge of each page, as if that will give some form of support to the boy trying to find his way to becoming a man, while not fully fitting in or wanting to accept the pre-formed and outdated mould of masculine.
Sometimes there is a time to shout and roar and scream and cry and wish and hope and yell and other times there is a need for space and stillness and silence and this is what Hanlon achieves so beautifully in Spectrum of Flight; in the layout of every page there is so much said in the open spaces between these words and phrases and confessions and beatings, as if each blank space is a moment to think, recall, breathe, relax, release. At other times, while reading and rereading, I recognised this as a map of complicated footprints that a child whose identity had been bullied, beaten and broken needs to make to get across the cavern, that cliff face, the end of innocence, the journey into the world that is cruel. What David both painfully and poignantly creates here, amid these lines, is a roadmap to a place called freedom and sometimes, like the journey, it will tear you apart, unexpectedly, in the middle of the page and you turn to the next quickly, not sure of what you will find waiting.
We cannot shed all our skin, we are not snakes, even if there are serpents among us, but what we can hope for is that time will take the bruises and turn them into tools, tools that can become strengths giving us the courage to open the cage we closed in around ourselves for protection and find our way to the ocean.
David Hanlon has learned to be a great swimmer. Not by choice. He has also become, possibly also not by choice, but by need, an exceptional poet, a documentary maker with the pen as his camera and a raw, broken, battered, but partially intact vulnerability that raises this collection to a mind-blowing lesson in survival that every school should be lucky to teach to their students who are still trembling and drowning and dying in those often too cold corridors. Vivid, visceral and a voice that has found its victory.
Spectrum of Flight is published by Animal Heart Press…
Katie Proctor is only 17 and yet already understands her position within the universe and how precarious that is and how it changes, how sometimes you sleep next to the stars and other times you’re left alone hoping that very star is whispering your name on her tongue, in another time and place- ‘you, with your letters stamped and waiting for me, covered in stars and moonlight.’
She knows the feeling of a bed too big for one body- ‘cold with the memory of the night before’ but doesn’t run from it, instead she turns into it and dreams of- ‘better Tuesdays.’ And that is just how this collection flows; with dreams of better days while holding the memory of the ones that have slipped from our lips.
There is a considered acknowledgement here of our insignificance within infinity; that moments are indeed fleeting, an acceptance usually reserved for a much older person but it is here, within the lines; light realisations of how things flit and fade- ‘before temporaries became today’s permanents and we burned kindred spirits, soulmates.’
In the final poem, also entitled Seasons, we find hurt positioned next to a realisation that it is possible to pick the pain ‘out from the fabric of your being with those tender fingers.’
The message is to get up, go out, embrace all that might happen, for tomorrow it will all change again. Love the summer, winter will fall, but there will always be the promise of another spring. This collection unfolds with the best of each season and is made all the more hopeful in the knowledge that someone so young already has learnt how to make the most of a spark before it all flashes out.
This collection is so fresh you literally feel the soothing breeze take you through its twists and turns and struggles and acceptances and you’re left feeling all the better for having read it, like a summer shower after a heatwave. Seasons comes with all sensations and Katie Proctor has them all beautifully bundled up in here.
Seasons is published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. You can find Katie on Twitter and instagram at @Katiiewrites to buy her collection.
My debut poetry pamphlet collection is called Eat the Storms and was published on the 17th September 2020 by The Hedgehog Poetry Press. In 2019, while still living in Paris, I was one of three winners of the White Label Debut Poetry Pamphlet Collection and this collection is that winning dream come to life.
‘I wanted to draw the sound of the moon on a sun-drenched beach…’ that is the 1st line from the 1st poem in this collection and that is what I was looking for; to capture those impossible moments when the senses are confused as to which one should be working. To stand in a darkened room and still see a spark of light so as to not completely disappear into only sadness. To see fragility as not something weak or wearisome but as something as precious as the marbled perfume of the ocean as its waves wash over you, to witness the length of elastic learning its limits, to see how air can enter the body and sooth the spirit, to be able to confess to capturing colour without being called crazy because I was willing to lean in and lick the honey off a purple petal.
Below are some of the reviews…
Just occasionally you come across a voice on poetry that is distinctive and unique. Damien Donnelly in this first collection ‘Eat the Storms’ is exactly that. Donnelly’s poetry is beautifully written and dense with vivid imagery, sometimes synesthetic and sometimes surreal. It demands to be read aloud and as one does a kaleidoscope of colour illuminates each page, for these are poems that play on the cultural associations of colours, imbuing them with personal significance and resonance. This is a writer of real talent, whose first pamphlet rewards reading, reading again and reading again. Nigel Kent, author of Saudade and Psychopathogen
In a pamphlet saturated in colour, Damien Donnelly takes us on an immersive journey through a landscape of pigments. Written with great lyricism and emotional intensity, these poems contrast darker hues with lighter tones to create a sequence of poems that will linger in the memory. Jessica Traynor, author of Liffey Swim and The Quick
This is a richly suggestive, highly vivid collection of poems, depicting a wide canvas of emotional landscapes with painter-like precision… It’s no surprise that Donnelly is also a painter and designer and repeated references to colour amplify and intensify emotions in rhapsodic waves of word-pictures, provoking intense feelings of joy and grief… This is a striking, powerful collection, which achieves a balance between a personal, expansive and lyric style and the taut control needed to achieve fine poetry.Matthew MC Smith, author Origin: 21 Poems and editor of Black Bough Poetry
Damien Donnelly is the archduke of alliteration and a poet in love with colour and sensuality. The poems in this first collection pop with blinding whites, rich reds and purples, and the yellow of Van Gogh sunflowers. They are jazz riffs on journeys, prisms chasing and catching the light. There is darkness too… Above all, there is a sweeping positive energy, a welcoming of all that the world has to offer, and a certainty that “dark doors open often into hopeful”. Catherine Ann Cullen, author of The Other Now and Poet in Residence at Poetry Ireland
These are beautifully crafted poems taken from an artist’s palette ‘where language is lulled/into a lake of stilled thought’ where we ‘shed red thorns’ and find ‘the peace that dawns with the dust,’. From the surreal ‘Shades of Blue’ to the aching ‘Tattered Brown Trousers’, this collection asks us to catch these moments, to ‘catch the kisses,’ acknowledging that ‘It takes time to swallow the truth’ but arriving at the hope filled conclusion of ‘how much there is to love,/ to let go of, to learn from.’ Ness Owen, author of Mamiaith
Signed copies of my collection are available from my blog…