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.
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?