You’re a half-shut knife, the woman / in the neat scarf says.
Claire Askew grew up in Scotland, and holds a PhD in Creative Writing and Contemporary Women’s Poetry from the University of Edinburgh. Her first book, This changes things, was published by Bloodaxe Books in 2016. She is also an award-winning novelist, with books in her DI Birch series published by Hodder and Stoughton.
I left Claire’s book until last in my Sealey adventure for a couple of reasons: having heard her read in the Summer at someone else’s launch, I found myself compelled to go back and pull out her body of work. There’s also something about this book which means I cannot keep away from it. It has a lot to do with it being one of the few poetry books I’ve read which places a trigger warning well before a poem appears.
Lessons from the Text
This book is an amazing thing, that gives on one page and summarily destroys on the next: Claire is a remarkable writer and every poem is a song, the lyrics of a story it is impossible to look away from. From the roll-call in The women who’ve loved you to the abject terror of brazen male violation in Men, these poems know the stories and are not afraid to tell them in their uncompromising, frightening seriousness.
It takes a phenomenal amount of courage to write like this, to be unafraid of the details, to present the truth and events that you often have no choice but to live in an audience and a space. It is also the knowledge that these things have happened for centuries, are happening as I type this, that makes the whole collection as incendiary and powerful as it will always be. These moments don’t fade in time either, they gather fervour.
Only when you have been through these attacks, when you know the men responsible and why they need to control… do you find the strength to write. This book should be required reading for so many people, needs to be held up as a demonstration of what is both good and bad about the world. Of all the books I’ve read this month, this is the one that resonates the most on a personal level, because inside many of these poems, pieces of my own life lives and breathes.
Will you read it again? Yes. I’ve used at least one as a prompt for my own work.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Everybody needs to read this book. EVERYONE.
You were the first friend to take a poetry course of mine. I thought, This will be a test for me.
John McCullough has won the Hawthornden Prize, has been shortlisted for the Forward Prize and the Costa Poetry Award. His work has been nominated as Book of the Year in both the Guardian and the Independent, and he teaches Creative Writing at the University of Brighton.
I met John on Twitter (absolutely true story) or rather, I encountered his poem Flower of Sulphur for the first time when it was nominated for the Forward Prize. It’s a poem that will stay with me for the rest of my life: clever, deeply personal, educational, heart-rending, practical and utterly, completely brilliant. I was beyond pleased when he became a mutual, and this collection is… well, it’s 100% John at his brilliant and acute best.
Lessons from the Text
Panic Response is another of those books which I wish I’d written: from the surreality of A Chronicle of English Panic, through the idiosyncrasies of deconstructing Emily Dickinson in Six! to the mini movie/banging Sarf Coast anthem that is Prayer for a Godless City… it’s one of those classic double albums from the 1980’s when not a single track was duff, and you wore out your vinyl playing it on repeat. I am legitimately on the second copy of this book, and that’s as high as my praise goes, to be honest.
When you look at a blurb and people appear to be throwing about disparate moods about a text, it becomes a lot more exciting, or at least it does to me. The whole collection is a series of experiments, of reflections and deconstructions, but at its heart is a poet who utterly gets what is going on in their world and is completely happy explaining in whatever manner they feel. Quantum is the standout poem in that vein.
John is also possibly one of the most accessible and approachable poets in my mutuals: his life is bright, bold and holds just the right amount of soft, cuddly plankton. He’s also not afraid to speak his mind, and that’s something that I wish more poets would do. Not only is he a cracking Twitter follow therefore, he’s also a behemoth collection creator.
Will you read it again?Flower of Sulphur gets read more frequently than perhaps I ought to admit in public…
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes, and there are some other top quality poetic works available at PitM as well…
‘The Storms’ Issue 1 edited by Damien B Donnelly and Gaynor Kane
wind, lifts / here comes the rain / inhale, begin again…
I’ve been at this now for 29 days. The first 28 have been focussing on a need to improve my poetic understanding, but I have decided to reverse the script a bit for the last three days in August by celebrating people who have personally altered the trajectory of my own poetry journey. That’s why The Storms is here now.
Damien B Donnelly and Gaynor Kane are both Irish poets I have been lucky enough to meet via Flight of the Dragonflies, an online Zoom reading event that was so popular it was nominated for a Saboteur Award. Damien produces Eat the Storms, a well-loved poetry and spoken word podcast, and you’ll already know how much I love Gaynor’s work from a few days back.
Lessons from the Text
The Storms both looks and feels like the sheer amount of hard work and dedication I know both of these people have poured into it: an opportunity for dozens of poets to have their moment in the sun, and to be celebrated in print, many for the first time. It’s also a testament to the importance poetry plays in both of these people’s lives, which I know is true and will continue for many years to come.
Impeccably curated (page 33 especially is worth your time) the inaugural issue crosses wind and water, space and time, memory and history. It’s also a journal for photography and art too, and as a long-term project, I feel the potential for this is very exciting, especially as this project has been Irish Arts Council funded. It also helps that Damien is no stranger to the business of promotion and showmanship: there’s already been a high-profile launch in Dublin, and there’s a virtual one coming soon to Zoom.
I’m still working my way through this, but to find myself alongside friends, professionals, highly publish poets and those starting out on their journey… this is a fantastic undertaking. Please buy a copy, and show your support:
Oh my God Sheffield why / do you always leave your coat at home?
Charlotte Ansell left Yorkshire via the North Sea to moor up on the Medway. Deluge is her third collection and was a 2019 Poetry Book Society Winter Recommendation. She’s had poetry in Poetry Review, Mslexia, Now Then, Butcher’s Dog, Prole, Algebra of Owls and various anthologies – most recently These Are The Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS. Charlotte received a Royal Society of Literature Award in 2020, and is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen.
I found Charlotte through the majesty of Butcher’s Dog Magazine and Deluge, at least for me, is the poetic equivalent of discovering that I have found someone who appears to write in the same pitch and range as I do. I’m concerned this is as fangirly as I’ve come this month, too, but HEY. I fucking love this collection /shrug
Lessons from the Text
The thing about Deluge is twofold: it’s a cinematic, massive canvas in which there are countless scenes of photographic, historic brilliance, and yet within the pages lurks the real sense of terror, panic and loss that will not leave you, creeps back into your brain long after certain poems have been read. My love for this collection is tethered to many poems, but it is What You Learned in Therapy which resonates so keenly, for reasons that remain hugely personal.
This collection is sensibly divided into sections, and it is within these blank dividers that the most fulfilling work appears. I defy anyone who has had kids to readthe sequence entitled Jumping Puddles without emerging changed. The sequence Drained has been one I have been returning to for some time, because in a way it feels like looking back on portions of my own life, with Charlotte’s narrative playing the part of me. That’s how it feels to live in this collection.
Of everything I have read this month, I think this collection is one of the most easily accessible, well-written… but, more importantly, this is a beautifully didactic piece of work. It teaches as easily as it entertains, and that is no mean feat in poetry. Take it from someone who is trying to learn that craft themselves at present. It seems so deceptively simple on the page, but reality is considerably harder.
Will you read it again? I am reading it on a regular basis. Back this goes to the bedside cabinet once Sealey is done. That pile is bigger too now than when it started…
Would you recommend it for me to read? Absolutely please do. There is genuinely something in this collection for everybody.
Yes But What Is This? What Exactly? by Ian McMillan
Time passes. It passes / It passes. It scores.
Ian McMillan was born in 1956, in Darfield, South Yorkshire, England and was educated at North Staffordshire Polytechnic. He has been a poet, broadcaster, commentator and programme-maker for over 20 years. He is currently the presenter of Radio 3’s The Verb, a spoken word show. When not volunteering regularly at the Darfield Museum, he can be found watching Barnsley FC or being a top quality grandfather. He also spends almost as much time as I do on Twitter.
This pamphlet is 16 poems long and, if I were teaching a poetry course, I’d use it as an object lesson not only in what poetry can create as an experience, but how economy is often the best form of presentation. There is a depth and reach in every work that only comes with a proper understanding of words. Ian and words work together very well.
Lessons from the Text
The titular poem in this collection is a masterclass of how to start with an idea, and comprehensively exhaust it: it’s what Morecambe and Wise used to be so, so good at when at their comedic peak. It’s the reason why I spent so much time listening to Mark and Lard on Radio One in the 1990’s. Jokes can be warped upon themselves, woven and rewoven and stretched and smoothed: this sequence is, for want of a better metaphor, poetic Blackpool Rock. The word ‘Time’ is written through every word, as repetition makes the end result that much sweeter.
Ian’s poetry is, it appears to me, exactly like the Ian I see working and broadcasting on any given day: honest, smart, funny and slightly surprised that anyone is listening. Every single poem here never pretends to be anything else than its poet’s authentic voice. It does that job so effortlessly and comfortably, it should also be taught as the benchmark for what to aspire to when people pick up your work. I’m fairly confident I could spot a McMillan original in a poetic line-up, which some might consider a disadvantage. It absolutely isn’t.
There’s controversy here [Three Flat Caps at the Bottom of the Stairs], musings on current events [Lighter] and simple moments of unmitigated brilliance [Seeing a Goal Scored from a Passing Train] Every single one is held together with the stitchings of a man who remains at the absolute top of his poetic game. When someone possesses such an eye for detail, and practices his craft on a daily basis, you KNOW it’s worth your time. If offered a pie and a pint or this book… be smart. Insist on both.
That would be true perfection.
Will you read it again? When there is enough money, I will collect together everything Ian has written. I’m not saying I’d make a shrine, but at the same time, I’m not saying I wouldn’t. So we’re clear.
Look through the window / and see the place you are standing: / at a crossroads in the Forest.
Stewart Carswell grew up in the Forest of Dean, but currently lives in Cambridgeshire, where he organizes the Fen Speak open mic night. He studied Physics at Southampton University and has a PhD from Bristol University. His debut pamphlet “Knots and branches” was published by Eyewear in 2016.
Stewart’s work is very much grounded by a sense of place, space and history: all these themes resonate in a collection which also has its fair share of reflective, personal moments too. Many of these poems are also directly linked to landmarks, both man made and natural.
Lessons from the Text
As we come to the end of the Sealey Challenge this year, I realize that this is the first collection I’ve chosen that uses history and the environment, in the main, as its backdrop. Stewart’s gentle grace and easy accessibility makes the journeys both compelling and enjoyable, and read with pictures of the places he often describes, extremely evocative.
Of particular note in this collection is the trio of verses that make up Far into the deep Forest, a rumination on mortality in Extinction on the tenant farmer’s holding and the rich and multi-faceted Mast year, juxtaposing cannon fire with the torrent of acorns fired into an unsuspecting forest floor. Imagery of numerous histories effortlessly combines with the natural world and the unstoppable passage of time.
This book, and this writer were both discovered during Lockdown thanks to the massive increase of Zoom Open Mic and Reading events. I’d probably never have heard of Stewart otherwise, and this is also your scheduled reminder that there is a massive world of spoken word events still taking place virtually, even now. It doesn’t have to just be about reading new work. You can find places to listen to it too.
Will you read it again? I’ve been working on an environmentally-themed piece in the last few weeks, and this was part of my pre-project reading list. Yes, I will be coming back to it as a result.
Would you recommend it for me to read? I’ve not said no to a single book yet, and today will not be any different.
ELEMENTS: Natural and the Supernatural by Fawn Press
I come to thee veiled / I come to thee gleaming / of gill and membrane.
Fawn Press is the product of Scarlett Ward Bennett’s brilliant imagination: a West Midlands poet whose debut collection, ache was published by Verve Poetry Press in 2019. She was nominated for a 2020 Forward Poetry Prize and the Best Spoken Word Performer in the 2019 Saboteur Awards. Elements is a debut publication, and the Press has subsequently gone on to publish a number of pamphlets.
I cannot begin to tell you what a joy this collection is: the curation is so consistent, the composition utterly balanced, yet equally full of depth and resonance. The brief, according to the anthology’s introduction, was “…to reflect the diverse identity of The Creative County… to share their experiences of the natural and supernatural elements that make up this world.” This book succeeds, and then does so again in new and unexpected ways.
Lessons from the Text
Over 30 poets are involved in this project, the majority of which were new to me, and there has been a lot of internet searching for individuals other work as I’ve gone through the anthology. From the first poem [on an English Apple] to the last [Oxygen] the range of subjects is both enlightening and educational: A Prophecy, which I picked as the Twitter selected poem is a joyous reminder of how a body can have use after death, whilst Destroying Angel (quoted from above) reminds me that not all fungus is edible.
In between, Scarlett’s skill as a curator changes this collection into something not just compelling, but almost spiritual. I have only the greatest respect for poets who can create such magic with the juxtaposition of disparate work: the indelible, natural material that all of these works are woven on becomes a sturdy yet often transparent medium, allowing the reader to see beyond the ideas and feelings into their own imaginations.
I really want to see Fawn Press succeed, and I wish Scarlett nothing but positivity and love for her journey as a small press owner. This truly is a remarkable debut work, that I would urge more people to purchase and read, if only as a reminder of how brilliant the natural world remains, and how we should be fighting tooth and nail to ensure that, going forward, it remains that way.
Will you read it again? The Post-It Notes were out in full force when I read this the first time on release, even more so this time on the re-read. You can learn so much from other poets!
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes, and please support Fawn’s growing pamphlet output. There is something here for everyone!
The seated scales, the empty wheelchair, a confused man and his penis.
Hannah Hodgson is a poet living with a life limiting illness. She has been published by BBC Arts, The Poetry Society, Wayleave Press, Verve Poetry Press and Seren amongst others. A recipient of the Northern Writers Award for Poetry in 2020, she is also a Diana Legacy Award 2021 recipient.
This is not the first poetry selection we’ve read this month that focuses on mortality. Hannah, however, is considered a palliative care patient, which adds an extra dimension to the work here. Her book, 163 Days, is undoubtedly one of the best collections I’ve read not just this year, but ever. Life is different when viewed through her experiences, with every single aspect transforming into unbelievably powerful moments.
Lessons from the Text
The first poem in this pamphlet, Year 11, is such a staggeringly complex and accomplished piece of work as to beggar belief. It paints disability and illness, lies and truth as overlapping, brilliant concepts, the complexities of what we do as humans to fit in or stand out, how we often deceive to feel connected. Except, in Hannah’s world, the inescapable permanence of mortality underpins so much.
We are in the world of hospitals, where normal actions take on extraordinary secondary significances, but in amongst it all is the comfort of repetition, seeded with the worries and issues built into us. When presented in lists, as is the case in Danger:, the two worlds overlap, allowing the terrible to sit easily beside the mundane. Age Progression Software is a beautiful example of how every conversation inevitably leads back to mortality.
There are 25 poems here, and every single one is affecting. It is a magnificent tour de force from a young woman whose authentic voice is so strong, powerful and so often angry, with utterly good reason. I’ve seen how hard Hannah works, what she brings to every reading, the tenacity of her outlook and the brilliance of her wordplay. This is also worth far more than a fiver in terms of educational value alone.
Will you read it again? Yes. Absolutely, and this is going on the pile of ‘Learn to Write Poems like This’ that I need to study for future reference.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Buy two copies. Also go and buy 163 Days. Hannah deserves ALL the plaudits.
The wall of the student residence in Khartoum / is painted with a red and white sign
Rosie Garland, or as she is also known in certain circles, Rosie Lugosi, has published seven solo collections of poetry. She’s been in a post-punk/gothic rock band (The March Violets) worked as an English Teacher in Sudan, and successfully battled throat cancer. Her debut novel The Palace of Curiosities won the inaugural Mslexia Novel Competition in 2012.
There will now be some fangirling, which I make absolutely NO apologies for: this woman is a force of nature. She taught me the basics of stagecraft and performing poetry back at the inaugural Mslexicon. It was, I have to say, like being given keys to a place you always wanted to play in, but other adults wouldn’t allow access because they knew it would make you uncontrollable. This collection therefore holds multiple, significant and hugely personal resonances.
Lessons from the Text
From the opening poem [Letter of rejection from a Black Hole] it is apparent these poems aren’t going to just welcome me, they’ll be sucking me through space and time to the Other Universe where choices aren’t restricted, and my freedom is truly liberating. Large swathes of this book speak to me in a language I have not encountered in anybody else’s books, and it remains my ongoing task to eventually collect all of Rosie’s work together, to occupy their own space on my bookshelf.
Whether it is the perfect economy of There is no there there, the acceptance of time and change on a cellular level in Goods to declare or the health-related terrors in Personal aphelion, the stuff of stars, mixed with infinite possibility is what holds this collection together. This is the poetry that I covet, wish I’d written myself and crucially has inspired me to do just that. Here are fragments of my own personality, recognized and accepted. It is okay to be what I am.
Poetry’s a massively subjective canvas, when all is said and done, but it is easy to point out the kindred spirits out there, good souls with true vision. Rosie’s work is unlike anything else I’ve seen and read, and I am massively, hugely grateful that not only does it exist but that she chooses to share it so willingly and openly. Here is a history, written in light and dust, willing the reader to join together stars and moments to unlock their own potential.
Will you read it again? I hope, not too long from now, to be able to read one of Rosie’s poems in one of my own poetry performances. Her influence on my work is significant and not to be underestimated.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes please. Go and buy it now. You will not regret it. THANK YOU.
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.