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.
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?