The Emma Press Anthology of Illness, edited by Amy Mackelden and Dr Dylan Jaggard.
What if I am unmasked, accused / of changing my story in the retelling / of misrepresentation / of misunderstanding?
The Emma Press was founded in 2012 by Emma Dai’an Wright, who works across all areas of the business, from commissioning, editing, typesetting and illustrating to marketing and sales. The Press’ output is varied, elegant and perfectly formed, encompassing poetry, prose and translations. In this Anthology, illness is held up to the light and examined across countless iterations by 30 different poets.
The range of approaches and depth of emotional heft in this collection is massive and will stay with me forever: it is, in part, because I recognize myself in so many places, and more importantly in the white spaces where the poets ask you to consider what it is that they don’t discuss, and that you as a reader cannot see.
Lessons from the Text
There are so many brilliant narratives on show here that it almost impossible to zero in on particulars: in my case, Jane Burn’s Eating Myself to Death was the poem that affected me so much I didn’t want to do this blog, couldn’t do it yesterday when it should have been scheduled. To watch someone else lay out so starkly what an eating disorder really encompasses, and the journey to reclaim yourself from it… make me reassess my own outlook.
As someone who for decades could not be honest over the myriad nature of their mental health issues, I hold nothing but awe and wonder for these poets who can lay out the stark consequence of journeys so clearly. From Lucy Fox’s heartbreaking Trapped, though the surreal horror of Alison Winch’s Occupational Therapist to Mollie Russell’s genuinely disquietening and absolutely on the money My Nephew’s Second Birthday: A Saga of Self-Stimulatory Behaviour…
I know I keep telling you that certain books are a must-have. In this case, I can find myself wanting to send specific people from my past copies of particular poems, just to show them truths I was never able to utter, but these poets can. This is not a fun read: it’s hard and painful and often emotionally draining. I don’t regret it, though. Not one iota.
I realize that a lot of my life could be a LOT easier if I just read simple stuff, but, honestly, where’s the challenge in that? Challenge yourself with this collection. It’s worth it.
Will you read it again? I want everybody to read it who thinks they know what it’s like to be sick, have long term illness, or is arrogant enough to suggest that some people just put their issues on for show. You know who you are.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes, but there are a LOT of Triggers in this book. You might be surprised where you find them, too.
Jesus looks over my shoulder and reads the notes on my phone / please, spit in my eye / he politely declines
Lucy Hurst is a poet and writer based in Lincolnshire, and I hope I am correct in saying that she is still studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at York St John. Her poetry was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2020.
Often, words like ‘visceral’ get thrown about a lot about certain types of poets. In this case, Lucy effectively dismisses the term, then rewrites the rule book on what’s polite and acceptable when discussing their own medical issues. This is a brutal and uncompromising lens, pointed directly at the literal pain of suffering.
Lessons from the Text
When you start with this pamphlet, I suggest heading straight to page 10 and beginning with the five poems which make up Lucy’s Modern Medicine sequence. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern’s the perfect structural payoff, and Hurst makes you squirm like the leeches she initially references. The stream of consciousness reaction to stimulus constructs a compelling and brilliant narrative.
All the poetry here is carrying its own share of discomfort, however: from the abstract musing on dead things as display [At The Museum] to the more unpleasant relationship between Doctor and Patient in Resistance to Treatment, there are many lenses, the fracturing of pain and response from countless, often unexpected angles. Notes on Love is a particularly difficult, yet hugely necessary read.
This pamphlet is a perfect juxtaposition between what we think it really means to be ill, and the true reality of someone for whom illness has become a part of their existence. Massive, MASSIVE respect goes to Lucy for not only sharing this with us, but doing so without compromising on the significance of her situation.
Will you read it again? Yes, and this is another one from which I have made notes.
Would you recommend it for me to read? This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how language alters in the presence of both stress and pain.
The Brotherton Poetry Prize Anthology II by Lucy Dixcart, Lauren Pope, Helen Kay, Kim Deyn and Isabella Mead
“The moral high ground is a fine place to be, but only when built on firm linguistic foundations.” Simon Armitage.
The Brotherton Poetry Prize is presented by the University of Leeds Poetry Centre. The 2022 Prize was awarded to five authors this year: Lucy Dixcart, Lauren Pope, Helen Kay, Kim Deyn and Isabella Mead.
Thejudges this year were Malika Booker, Stella Butler, Zaffar Kunial and John Whale, plus the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, whose Introduction to the poetry our header quote is pulled from. I received this book as an unsuccessful entrant, but will state without issue that my work was nowhere near the standard of this quintet.
Lessons from the Text
It is an important part of every poet’s journey to fail in contest. Once you’ve picked yourself up and licked your wounds, it’s also not a bad idea to read the work that won. Teaching yourself how to write more comfortably whilst reading the work of other poets is a workshop skill we have all undertaken at some point in our lives. Once you learn to start reading between the lines, there’s an awful lot we learn about ourselves, too.
The five women poets who won this prize have produced quite outstanding work here, without exception. Lucy’s photographic and razor sharp with form. Lauren’s work is multi-faceted and constantly shifting. Helen writes of the past as an accessible present. Kym’s mysticism is apparent in every stanza. Isabella is a step away from imagination’s takeover, grounded in reality. All of them fit effortlessly together as a quintet of modern poetic writing.
This is, undoubtedly, the book I will learn most from this month in terms of my own output. The key to accessible poetry is not just a distinctive voice, but words that allow the reader in, let them settle with you and then proceed to challenge their reality. Every poet in this Anthology does that job with such subtle grace that is the reminder there is always space to change, constant room to grow as a creative.
Will you read it again? It already has Post-It notes inserted for reference purposes. Oh yes.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Very much so, and when finances allow I’ll be getting the 2021 Anthology as a complement.
Who owns the sturdily built houses / taunting my relative poverty / along undulating lanes?
Jonathan Davidson, according to the blurb on the inside of this book, has spent a lifetime finding ways to release poetry into the wild. There is so much more to the man: he won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 1990. He has had eight radio plays broadcast on BBC Radio Three and Radio Four, along with radio adaptations of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and W.S.Graham’s The Nightfishing on BBC Radio Three.
He has also produced six poetry-theatre works, is director of the project management company Midland Creative Projects Limited, Joint-Founder of the Birmingham Literature Festival and Chief Executive of Writing West Midlands. A nicer and more hard-working poet you will likely never find and if you wanted a metaphor to encapsulate him with, A Commonplace does the job with style and panache.
Lessons from the Text
A Commonplace was startling when I first saw and read it during Lockdown. It is, for want of a better definition, the best guide I have ever encountered as to why someone chose to write what they did. Poets don’t talk much about their process: you just get shoved a copy of their books and have to work it out for yourself. This is the J. Davidson primer that I needed not only to understand the man, but why he wrote what he did: who inspires him, who he carries with him and, most crucially, how that has altered his own journey.
There is so much good work enclosed in these pages as to beggar belief, all held together with Jonathan’s elegant, precision-built wordsmithery, but I won’t lie. The poems are stronger with the exposition, built brighter by the footnotes. It is all part of a legacy I’m not sure Jonathan as yet realizes he has created, that I am grateful for, and that future generations will one day take for granted, because words are all well and good, but knowing WHY they were written, transforms poetry into a new and stronger creature.
Much more than this, however, is the understanding that all of this is interwoven with Jonathan’s illustrious career, that these poems overlap and hold the fabric of his existence together. There is not one single duff piece in this entire volume. The poets he chooses to highlight with him end up shining a light back to his artistry and brilliance. When all is said and done, this is the best autobiography of anyone I have ever consumed, and at its heart is the man’s poetic soul, brilliant and bold. Buy this book, and see for yourself, then wish you’d thought of the idea first. I know I wish I had.
Will you read it again? This is another one that goes in the ‘Life Changing’ pile. I don’t care who knows I’m a Fangirl, sometimes it’s a job that just has to be done.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Not just read, but take copious notes. Learn to understand your own work, so when people one day ask YOU why you wrote what you did, you are able to frame it in the wider context of poetic existence.
How to Decode your Orange-Peel Fortunes by Alice Wickenden
The way the blossom comes all at once / like tears, / every year a flood of blush grief.
Alice Wickenden has an MPhil in Renaissance Literature and undertook a PhD collaboratively between the British Library and Queen Mary University of London. Their work has been published by Variant Lit and Broken Sleep, and this little gem of a pamphlet is, in their own words, “about those moments when the right song comes on at the right time, when nothing else makes sense but your favourite poem, how that can be enough.”
I tell you what, this is a tiny, perfect piece of clever, brilliant poetical observation. Not a single word is wasted, everything sits in almost unreal balance, and the white space in between is positively stuffed full of possibility.
Lessons from the Text
Eighteen days into Sealey, and I’d thought by now I’d be flagging. The sweetness of Alice’s work, the undoubted sharpness and complexity of the wordplay, the intelligence that makes so few phrases cover so much ground, is something you’ll need to read for yourself to believe. Writing short poems is an utter art form, as I am beginning to learn, and is very hard work. These poems take economical and present it with both punch and flavour.
From the twelve lines of renting aubade that opens a day with mundanity and warmth, to Ephemera which presents a compact yet three-dimensional moment of connection and its subsequent absence… is it loss, or is it simply yearning for return? When there are so few words, you crave more, and a deeper understanding of the text being read. That’s the problem with economy, after all, and done this smartly, you are absolutely left wanting.
Yet again, Nine Pens have done the business here, and the choice of curated titles shows a real understanding of how poetry works in many forms. Honestly, this is a beautiful, vitamin packed read, and I will be searching out more of Alice’s work as a result of reading this. I think she has a lot to teach me 😀
Will you read it again? Yup. I will go seek out Alice’s other work too.
Would you recommend it for me to read? It’s cheap, orange and beautiful. What’s not to like?
Pessimism is for Lightweights: 13 Pieces of Courage and Resistance by Salena Godden
Anything you can do I can do bleeding / I can do anything flooding with blood
Salena Godden’s currently promoting her book Mrs Death Misses Death (which has been optioned to become a TV series in the near future) but I first discovered their work as a poet. She’s written several collections plus the literary memoir Springfield Road, and has been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award. The titular poem was performed at the Woman’s March in 2018 to a crowd of 10,000 plus people.
All of these poems are individual works of art in their own right: The Letter was performed with the London Symphony Orchestra in March 2018, Red was made into a film that was displayed at the Nasty Women art show in London, during 2017. Each approaches their subject matters with blunt, brilliant power.
Lessons from the Text
The last few days have seen some very personal admissions surrounding why poetry matters to me. Salena ‘s work did, I believe, exactly what it was supposed to do: it made me stop just listening and reading and instead made me think, long and hard, about subjects I had never really considered before. The yellow book is a seductive, inescapable thing, especially when it became apparent to me, I could no longer sit and watch the World burn.
Every poem here has altered my mindset. I know it sounds like hyperbole when you say it in isolation, but I defy anyone to just read Sushi, for instance, and feel nothing. Even the simplicity of a piece like Christine opens your brain and heart to something else, that pulls you beyond the words to recall your own experiences and feelings. The best poetry is not afraid to hold you between the lines and make you look, daring you to challenge the truths that emerge.
Although Pessimism is for Lightweights is the banging anthem and the beating heart of this collection, it’s not actually my favourite. Sorry to Trouble You is the piece of this book that has affected me the most, because of who I am and how I’m built, and that this reminds me whenever I doubt myself there is a huger picture to consider. The work will be done, and I will endure because, deep down, other people have endured and fought and survived to remind me of why it matters. Every poem in this book has a voice that is so utterly unique. It’s a work of true genius.
Will you read it again? I never stop reading it. You should do the same
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes, but getting a physical copy may cause some issues. Rough Trade have sold out, so instead go get the ebook 😀
in the pool, my stomach is too bare, and a man / with ribs like a shelf of dusty Reader’s Digests watches me swim
Katie Hale’s debut pamphlet, Breaking the Surface, was published by Flipped Eye in 2017. She has won the Jane Martin Poetry Prize and the Buzzwords Poetry Competition. In 2018 she was part of the Penguin Random House inaugural WriteNow scheme, and the novel she produced (My Name is Monster) was published in 2019 by Canongate.
This pamphlet won the Fool for Poetry contest in 2018. It is as close to perfect as I have ever read in chapbook form, and I do not say this lightly.
Lessons from the Text
The thing about poetry (okay, one of many things) is how it speaks to every single person differently. You can teach people to interpret text, and understand meaning, but you will never teach them to feel it in their hearts and souls. That has to be something the reader allows. I picked up Katie’s pamphlet after the Kendal Festival, read it, and put it to one side. Three days later, the poem Offcomer pulled me back. I was fairly certain I’d identified the poem it was inspired by, and had connected the dots in my head. Once I picked it up a second time, I could not put it down.
Each one of these 15 poems is built differently, but the thread that links them is so powerful and emotional, you end up reading this as a whole. Inevitably, in any collection, there will be one or two poems that maybe aren’t as powerful. Not in this one. From the Polaroid snapshot of 1999 to the superlative narrative adventure in 20 lines that is Free Period Behind the Bowling Hut, and finally the aching tenderness of Thaw, I am only scratching the surface here. It’s VERY easy to see how Katie wins contests.
I’ve said before that I struggle with younger female poets, that there is a difficulty in placing my mind in their spaces easily. Not so with Assembly Instructions. It does exactly what it says on the cover, and if you’ll allow it the opportunity to deconstruct your own mindset and thinking, this is a read to remember. Honestly, when I grow up, I want to write a pamphlet this perfect. I look forward in future to trying to hit the benchmark.
Will you read it again? Don’t tell anyone, but a copy of the poem that gives this title its name is getting written out and stuck on my notice board this weekend. it’s an exercise I’ve been given for a poetry course. I’d like this poem to live in me, and me in it for a while.
Would you recommend it for me to read?Why have you not bought this pamphlet yet?
I dreamed of you as a candyfloss cloud / above a siege of cranes migrating
Gaynor Kane has published four books in an impressive six-year period: she lives in Northern Ireland and has been published widely, including in Black Nore Review, Dreich, Flash Fiction Armagh and the Lothlorien Poetry Journal.
This collection takes the eight forms that the Greeks considered as kinds of love as its inspiration: Ludus (playful love), Eros (sexual passion), Mania (obsessive love), Philia (deep friendship), Philautia (love of the self), Pragma (long-standing love), Storge (family love) and Agape (love for everyone). Each category is granted two poems. It’s a clever framework, on which Gaynor works her customary magic.
Lessons from the Text
I’ve followed Gaynor’s meteoric rise over the past few years with both pride and a notepad: there is always something to learn from her work, ways to make my output stronger. This collection, which covers a lot of territory in sixteen poems, shows a writer not just comfortable with forms, but happy to push the boundaries of their own creativity. From the prose behemoth that is Dan the Man, ‘Big Balls’ to the tenderness of last days in No Recipe For Love, there truly is here something for everyone.
My favourite in this collection isn’t the selected one above however (Stalker‘s still a cracker though, and is a salutatory reminder of what many women will have personally experienced) but To Those Who Say I can’t Sing: skilful use of both list and repetition in a work is difficult to pull off, but Gaynor does so with effortless grace… in fact, all of these poems are a combination of skilled wordplay and smart construction. As a result, the journey simply flies by and, I would like to say, I was very much left wanting more by the end. Sixteen poems is not enough.
There’s nothing for it, I’ll be pulling my other books off the shelf when Sealey is done and diving back into the Kane back catalogue. Gaynor will be launching this book digitally via Zoom with fellow Irish poet Damien Donnelly in September. I cannot urge you enough to consider picking up a ticket: Click here to book your place!
Will you read it again? Yup, and yet again I will lament its shortness. The best things come in small packages, they say, and this is very much a case in point 😀
Would you recommend it for me to read? Go buy all of Gaynor’s books, please, and tell her I sent you. Support a brilliant poet with a huge heart and an impressive ability to weave magic with words.
I have to look for all the possible horror / I will never unsee, I have to look / I push the thick door open.
Giovanna McKenna, after lengthy careers as an actor and a journalist, was tasked to write a poem and found she was full of them. She’s been recently published by Visual Verse, Nine Pens, iamb, Tether’s End and Speculative Books. This full collection stretches to 142 pages, and is fully illustrated.
I discovered Giovanna during Lockdown, in the world of Zoom Room Open Mics, and every time I’d see them on an attendance list there would, I must admit, be a little frisson of excitement. The first poem I heard them read, I believe, was Nonna’s toast, done on one side. I knew then this was a remarkable talent at work. this collection confirms that, and then provides countless justifications as to why.
Lessons from the Text
There are a lot of varieties of poet in the world, and undoubtedly those who come to their craft later in life have a touch that is unique and distinct from the ones who began early. Giovanna’s maturity is without question, and it is not that which sets what are often Technicolour poems apart from the norm. There is an intensity here, confidence of the subject matters that is almost theatrical. Knowing they were an actor, and understand delivery as well as presentation, is part of the key to enjoying this collection.
It is from the stories of family, the wrench and horror of loss, and the moments afterwards where most impact is felt: Grief stains, My mother’s house and Heritage are staggering, outstanding pieces of work, and that same depth of care leeches through every single page. There are reminders, too, that all is not well in the realm of the broken-hearted: Today cannot be that day is my favourite poem in the entire collection because sometimes, you can see the trauma without ever needing to have it pointed out.
This collection is utterly beautiful, and compelling, both inside and out: it’s exterior belies the complexity beneath, as is often the case with lesser known poets. This is a book to be slowly consumed over time, which is why when I’m done here it will return to my bedside table, where it has lived since release. Sometimes, you know what’s needed for the days when things require a different perspective. How the Heart can Falter is a constant reminder that it is okay to be human.
Will you read it again? As I said, this is the current Bedtime Reading book. You have to be summat pretty special to make it into my bedroom 😛
Would you recommend it for me to read? This is not only recommended, but probably one of the best value for money collections you’re gonna find right now: beautifully made, packed full of goodness, and reasonably priced!
as your brummie voice calls / as you chase after it / through honeyed / suburban heat.
Ruth Beddow is a London-based poet and heritage professional, originally from Birmingham. Ruth has been published and shortlisted by Write Out Loud, Poetry Teignmouth, The Magdalena Young Poet’s Prize, and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She graduated from the English Department at King’s College, London in 2018 and went on to an MA in Transnational Studies at UCL.
This is another smart and well-curated choice from Nine Pens, it must be said, which I dove into easily over a couple of hot, Summer evenings. It moves from the beginnings of a life coalescing from puberty, to college and beyond, with the stories and moments that inevitably accompany this: remembered with fondness and occasionally regret. What really shines here is Ruth’s understanding of both language and context, and how to use them to considerable effect.
Lessons from the Text
In the first stanza of Arrival, a scene is set both economically but with total impact, and this is the tone throughout The Thought Sits with Me: contemplation as the basis of the narrative and the poetry itself. From the brilliant All my friends are leaving town to the angst ridden Aquaphobia and the quiet yet powerful Sleep Houses, there is an awful lot to think about here, places to visit, moments to take in.
The epigraph for this collection asks the reader, “how is a person to distinguish what really happens from what one thinks is happening?” Poets have a habit of transposing reality with versions of it that suit their purpose, and although I suspect there might be some of that at play here, there is more of a taste of honesty in this selection than the possibility of deception. I could be wrong, of course, and if I am, Beddow’s work is even more impressive as a result.
After nearly two weeks at this project, this is one of the stand-out choices for a selection I’d recommend to someone who has not read a great deal of poetry. It is clever without being intimidating, accessible without becoming simplistic. When all is said and done, it is a refreshing, entertaining trip through the memories of a poet who is very clearly capable of writing with fluency and ease. This is well worth seeking out for a read.
Will you read it again? Yes, I will, and I look forward to doing so. It also reminds me that I should seek out some more of Ruth’s work, as I’ve done with all the other poets this week.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Absolutely, and by buying this you’ll help another small press in the process.