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.
A prayer is said, / a story told. Under the dome / the Word explodes.
Imtiaz Dharker grew up a Muslim Calvinist in a Lahori household in Glasgow, was adopted by India and married into Wales. She was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2014, is an accomplished artist, and this collection is accompanied by a selection of those works.
This is my first book of Imtiaz’s, but there are five more that I will be saving for in the months that follow. These poems are beautiful and elegantly drawn, placed in precise and well-defined spaces in which they move and live, waiting for you to discover their detail and complexity. You never leave the same either, a part of the poetry becomes caught on your jacket or stuck in your hair. Pieces of these works return their scents and tastes to you, too, long after they have been digested.
Lessons from the Text
From the first poem, Chaudhri Sher Mobarik looks at the loch to the last, This Tide of Humber, Imtiaz constantly reminds you of the many worlds she straddles; the spaces in these poems seem larger than in any other work I have ever read, that lifetimes and memories and things I will never understand are buried within the lines themselves. From loss and regret to recollections both familiar and unknown, this is a book that is painted both in words and pictures.
There are so many standouts too: the complex and unnerving Six Rings, Sixty Seconds and A Haunting, that effortlessly straddle the space between life and death, yearning and loss. Double, I think, is a nod to a songwriter I too have written poetry about, and This line, that thread is at least, for me, about as perfect as poetry can get. This is a book I have happily been lost in since I returned from the Lake District with it in my bag.
It transpires that going to the Kendal Festival was a life-changing experience, and the poetic insights I’ve learned from the artists I saw perform are going to stick with me for many years to come. Sometimes, you need to step out of your comfort zones and walk to new spaces. This was like finding an entirely new Universe sitting just beyond my eyeline. Of the many things learnt this year, being a better explorer still needs practice.
Will you read it again? I’ve not stopped dipping into it since the end of June, and there are not many books I can ever say that of, poetry or otherwise.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes. A thousand times.
It can: / do nothing / become a flower / interleave or wait self-enclosed / die and disappear…
Lucy Mercer‘s poems have been published widely in magazines and anthologies. She was awarded the inaugural White Review Poet’s Prize. She recently completed a PhD in which she developed a speculative theory of emblems, and also teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths.
Emblem takes an obscure, hybrid form of combining motto (inscripto), picture (pictura) and text (scriptio) into a form that emerged during the beginnings of the early modern period (1450-1800) and weaves it together with contemporary motherhood, faith and existence. It sounds a lot, and it is… except, for me at least, there are moments of true empathy and comprehension. The visual is a strong part of what I am, and it calls to me from this book with remarkable clarity.
Lessons from the Text
Lucy is an incredibly capable writer and poet, and this collection is woven from a maturity and strength that transcends what can sometimes seem at distance as inaccessible and complex. From the economical brilliance of Single Mothers Study Metaphysics to the dense, sparkling yet reassuring prose of Notation as Memory, woodcut imagery doesn’t just hold these works together, it serves as signposts and markers into a deep and lyrically dense landscape.
There are a couple of collections I have earmarked for more reflective study and consideration once Sealey is over, and this is the first one on the pile. It deserves to be treated as a manual, instructional and educational or a text book to how the mundanity of ordinary life can be transformed with the correct mindset to an almost otherworldly experience. I am ready and willing to be educated.
As a mother of two whose early memories of those days seem a lifetime away from what I read here, there is still connection to be found. The voice that is calling me back to the text, and that I am compelled to follow, promises enlightenment on how poetry is a language of recipes: we may all use the same ingredients, but the end products can be staggeringly different. Emblem is the reminder that my plain tastes undoubtedly could use more flavour and complexity.
Will you read it again? Yes, and then I’ll read it again, and then I can only hope my brain will be inspired enough to use it as a basis for my own poetic experimentation.
Would you recommend it for me to read? I’ve read this now twice, cover to cover, and I’m still no closer to really having a handle on the depths within. This may not be for you as a result, but it ABSOLUTELY is for me.
The boys like me / when I’m well browned / and have stopped sizzling / and am silent.
Nafeesa Hamid is a British Pakistani poet and playwright based in Birmingham who has featured at Outspoken (London), Poetry is Dead Good (Nottingham), Find the Right Words (Leicester) and Hit The Ode (Birmingham). She was also invited to perform at TedxBrum 2016.
In my Sealey selections, there are a couple of personal epiphanies. This is one of them: a book in three parts, the third of which hands over the page to three other poets who have influenced Hamid. They are Amina Mekie, Yasmina Silva and Zeddie. This is a book about learning, understanding and reflection, and the three part structure allows the poetry to do its work so very, VERY well.
Lessons from the Text
This is a collaboration with Poetry Behemoth Joelle Taylor, an exploration of a life that was fractured by childhood trauma, of how mental health subsequently colours everything in an individual’s experience. At its heart however is a story of womanhood, which is such a subjective, ephemeral thing for every woman, it is vital you spend time understanding how that works on an individual basis. By hearing this nuanced yet brutal storytelling, your story undoubtedly alters as a result.
I was lucky enough to see Nafeesa perform at the Kendal Poetry Festival. Her generosity, energy and obvious resilience are a reminder that if we own our own weaknesses and do not let them define us, literally anything is possible. Her work is a singular journey between fugue states and emotional flashpoints: from the completely italicized and shocking School Assembly, to her various states of ‘woman’ (Woman as a McDonald’s Happy Meal balloon is my standout) absolutely no punches are pulled here.
Taylor asks the reader to ‘let this book be her homecoming’ and it is: it’s also a signal to all women that their stories need to be remembered, preserved and passed on as this one is. If you want one poem to change your life, go to page 77. Read What to pack when you’re about to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Again. Mental health issues are difficult enough to cope with, but to endure them as a woman of colour is a feat of true resilience.
Will you read it again? As the Grey Hen poetry is driving one form of personal revolution, this book has prompted me to look at what womanhood means to me. There are ten poems prompted by this text and what I perceive as a lack of my own, personal queer representation being worked on present. I am already benefitting from the catharsis. This book could change your life too.
Would you recommend it for me to read? This is a book I really want everyone to read, especially those who stigmatize women with mental health issues. It is essential, vital and completely unputdownable.
Counting Down the Days: 20 more Poems for the Planet (ed. Joy Howard)
I have never heard of you, small lives / that seem to belong to the land of Lear. Still / the loss of you accuses.
We’re back to another anthology today, but there’s no social media handles attached. I discovered Grey Hen Press during my time at the Kendal Poetry Festival back in June. This is one pamphlet from their considerable, rich and varied output, filled with poets over the age of 60.
I now wish I’d bought more of these tiny, delightful books than the handful that came back with me from The Lake District. Counting Down the Days is a tiny piece of magic; 20 poems, 20 different authors, and an object lesson on how solid environmental poetry can do an extraordinary amount of heavy lifting.
Lessons from the Text
There’s an incredible breadth and depth of ability and skill on show over only 35 pages: from Barbara Hickson’s brutal Loss Adjustment, the terror of bushfires in Requiem for a Sunburnt Country by Many Macdonald to the very real consequence of nature being removed to accommodate human greed in Char March’s There will only be a loss of 352. Honestly, there’s not a duff poem here: Joy Howard’s curation is superb.
I am a great believer in poetry without restrictions or boundaries, and was initially a bit sceptical of why Grey Hen sat where it does: however, having done my homework via their website, their history and this approach makes perfect sense. The press is a piece of history in itself, and their tiny books pack a powerful, lasting punch. It does make me smile though, knowing I can’t submit anything to them for the next four years…
We need to support small presses, as I said at the weekend, especially those who choose not to cater to conventional tastes. This is well worth both your time and effort, and considering how cheap the wee books are, maybe you could go pick up a handful to finish your own Sealey reading this month. There’s a vast range of subjects and interests catered for on their website (see below)
Will you read it again? I’m currently working on my own Environmental poetry, and it is hugely useful to have other people’s ideas and benchmarks available as a way of seeing what’s not only popular, but powerful. This will be sitting by my computer for the foreseeable future.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Don’t just read this one, go and buy some more too.
due to my chest / no longer keeping time / I assume / it’s mine
Nina Parmenter lives in the Wiltshire countryside where she splits her time between writing, work and motherhood. She’s been published in numerous journals, anthologies and websites, and she has been nominated for the Forward Prize.
I should be honest and state up from that I was already looking forward to Split Twist Apocalypse before it arrived, having been treated to Nina’s poetry in an online course I finished at the end of July. I described her work back then as ‘existential angst’ and wondered if this would be borne out by the collection…
Lessons from the Text
Nina doesn’t disappoint, you know. Reading her work, at least for me, is that feeling of knowing you’re in a safe space with ideas and experiences often lived until… everything just expands… and the Universe crashes your party. Everything is writ large and magnificent, and there you are, floating within it. These poems are the sense of one amongst the whole, and every one holds brilliant, incisive moments of awareness.
From working awkwardness in Meanwhile, in the Grasmere Conference Suite to an environmental warning, under a microscope in The Sociopathic Goddess Gives the Earth a Gift, there is something in here for everyone. From introversion to extravagance, from the real made into surreality and pretty much all points in-between. Nina does great titles too…
This is a poet whose voice is strong, distinctive and humorous… though I sometimes suspect the laughs hide a deeper, more disquieting viewpoint. We all question ourselves like this, the existential angst is never one person’s to carry unaided. Show Nina some support and buy this collection and learn from her about yourself in the process.
Will you read it again? I am wondering when I will be getting time to reread all these poets, to be honest. Have I set myself up to an impossible task? Not with Nina’s work. So much fun, so very enjoyable. A distinct and enjoyable voice.
Would you recommend it for me to read?Why are you not reading this collection already?
Swapping the Present for a Future: The VERVE Anthology of Beginnings (ed. Caroline Bird)
She had a scar on her temple – / it belonged to a fairy story she couldn’t remember…
If you live in Birmingham, you’ll know about Verve, both Festival and Press, both of which are dedicated to promoting the city and its vibrant spoken-word scene. Verve was co-founded by Stuart Bartholomew and Amerah Salah, and also promises to find homes for voices that struggle to fit or be heard.
The Anthology was published earlier this year and contains 24 poems: every one is a unique, stunning piece of work. Full credit to Caroline Bird not simply for staggering curation, but an eye to pieces that don’t just complement each other, but lift a whole as a result.
Lessons from the Text
Anthologies are tricky beasts: it can be hard to pick out favourites in a sea of difference, especially if dozens of poets are involved. However, having a favourite poet of mine doing the curation is a massive plus: this work is both a testament to her skill and to how much top quality work is being produced by poets right now. Of course, there was never going to be a duff poem here… but honestly, the range of work is immense.
I’ve listed my favourites below, but there’s a better than average chance that those favourites will change on subsequent readings. Anthologies are great in that regard, especially if you’re trying to write a poem for a submission that has a specific brief. Understanding how another poet approached a subject is, after all, a proven teaching method. We learn from each other, and all move forward as a result.
If you’re stuck for gift ideas as a poet, I reckon asking for specific anthologies is a great idea. You have a mini encyclopedia of ‘how other people craft’ and can use it as reference material for yourself going forward. All the courses I take will make me read poems I’ve never seen before, and it is a realization that however well-read you think you are? You aren’t. This group of 24 are a quick, easy gateway experience. Go buy it.
Will you read it again? It will, over time, have Post it Notes inserted into it with ‘Poem on X here’ written on them, as I find works I want to refer back to when I’m working on different projects myself. There’s a lot of white space to admire in this anthology too, which can often be scary but actually is a whole second tier of poetry proficiency.
Would you recommend it for me to read? YES. Read more anthologies. Read more poets, and if you can’t afford to do it as much as you like? Anthologies allow you to know work by lots of people and talk about it with confidence. It’s a win/win for everybody.
small poem / heart luggage/ small poem / for under / your pillow
Nadia Lines was a top 15 winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2019, first-prize winner in the 11-15 age category in the Turn Up the Volume challenge on Young Poets Network, and first-prize winner in the 2019 poetry translation challenge with Modern Poetry in Translation.
Stephen the Phlebotomist is, in Nadia’s own words, is a debut pamphlet ‘about vampires, Jesus, and a year spent locked indoors.’ I chose to crowdfund her publisher, Nine Pens in 2021 and so her work appeared on my doorstep earlier this year. I am exceedingly glad that it did.
Lessons from the Text
I must admit, I’d read Nadia’s pamphlet a few times already before this overview. It’s previously been difficult for me to take in, because pretty much all of my experiences at her age have been lost, making it REALLY hard for me to align myself with it. However, the more I immersed myself, the larger my window of comprehension became. This time around, I experienced something of an epiphany.
The best poetry for me is time travel, without a doubt, transporting a reader directly into the past where the words were originally created. Nadia’s time machine is beautiful and fragile and simultaneously brimming with youth, expectation and possibility. It is like arriving in a fresh life with no expectations, and only these poems as your narrative accompaniment.
Like the dedication tells us, this book is the people within it: Stephen, the inhabitants of the Danger Bath, Beatrice… possibilities that might have been, that I am grateful that Nadia chooses to share with me, and us. This is the most joyous journey, into a space where anything seems possible and everything shines with love and unexpected depth.
Will you read it again? Yes, I will. There’s a lot to learn here from how Nadia uses form and white space, as important I think as her words.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Yes, I would, and I’d urge you to support small presses such as Nine Pens. Without them and others, there are a multitude of poets whose work would never see the light of day.
we are all fools here / we do not speak his language…
Zoe Brooks published a collection of poetry in 2020 called Owl, Unbound, which remains in my top twenty favourite poetry books of all time. This piece however began its life back in 2013, where it won the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition’s award for best poetry ebook.
Fool’s Paradise isn’t a selection of poems. It is a massive, 66 page ‘poem for voices’ which was first performed in London, back in 1992. I wonder how many of these words were inspired by Hannah Kodicek, whose monoprint is the main cover’s striking illustration.
Lessons from the Text
In the last few days, I’ve picked out favourite poems from my previous selections, but Zoe’s work is not built like that. It is a fascinating, dense and dark narrative that takes you on a journey: of the Fool, and the three Travellers that accompany him. It brings to mind not just narrative poetry from my past, but the works of Brecht and Beckett in its telling.
If you are not aware of the events of the Velvet Revolution or indeed of the political complexities that existed in Europe during and after the fall of Communism in so many countries, it is very much worth your time investigating these before you read Zoe’s work. It can be occasionally confusing with four different voices, but I absolutely encourage you to persist.
Zoe’s story is of unexplained loss, of violence and fear, and how close we live to death whilst still moving forward with our lives. The Travellers tell stories of places and events that could be real, or imagined… or are they simply reminding us that Hell is often a place where other people hide themselves, to allow a measure of control of their lives and others?
Will you read it again? I have not yet done this work justice, and I’m on my third read. Each time I’ve seen something different in the text, it’s opened up new and fresh questions and queries. Do I need to know the real truth about it in order to enjoy what I’m reading? I didn’t think so.
Would you recommend it for me to read? Absolutely. I’d like to see someone do this justice one day as a radio event, or at least pick four people to read the parts with a proper aural accompaniment. I think it could be a great gateway experience to explain what went on and how it was created by Zoe.