Poetry Review: Martin Grey – The Pretty Boys of Gangster Town (Fly on the Wall Press)

Martin is an experienced and active Nottingham based poet and event organiser who performs extensively across the Midlands, the Edinburgh Fringe and Berlin, winning the 2018 Southwell Folk Festival Slam.

He has supported several nationally renowned poets, including Jess Green and Dominic Berry.

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In Bones, Grey writes, ‘Held hushed by her helplessness and the fear on her breath’. This is an evocative image that transports me, without hesitation, to a world I remember well from a previous life. This is truth. A tale of desperation, modern Britain one might say – ‘I don’t know how to be alone with her in the street-lit stillness’. Indeed, this poem makes me think about the shame of charity, ‘protect me from/ her pain and protect her from the cracks we let her fall/ through’.

Reading on then, Fish, Chips, Bread and Butter and a Cigarette – the first thing to note is the shape of the poem on the page and I cannot help but ask, what does it add? I hold that it endows the poem with something of a metronome, in that the text synchronises with breathing, in then out. With, ‘In my still-warm fish I’d taste his story’, Grey conjures up the everyday, and by extension, the everyman. This is deceptively simple. So many readers will be familiar with the bus-rides, the cinema visits. This could perhaps be described as an example of blue-collar poetry.

I Should Have Said Something makes for particularly painful reading. Questions are asked of us all, are we merely passive observers, or actors? It is said that the ‘only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ and this is encapsulated with the resigned eyes of the poet-speaker. What can we do? Rather, how can I make a difference now? Readers are vociferously compelled to step up to the plate and act – perhaps owing to the guilt that I carry personally, the final line, ‘I said nothing’ stings like hell.

If I can segue into the poem Focus, I will draw your attention to the line, ‘I’ll make a cup of tea first. Then I’ll focus.’ This is another intelligent poem, and the poet employs a more prosaic form, which expands on the theme at the centre, the meandering mind, ‘Does anyone like their kneecaps?’ – ‘I bet my housemate forgot to wash up again.’ Underlying this, is a darkness – fuelled by guilt and self-doubt and it bubbles to the surface intermittently throughout. This guilt is less concerned with the non-actions of the passive observer and more a sexual encounter, ‘I probably shouldn’t have kissed her […] she must have felt like she was trapped’.

Dancefloor stands out to me, for it speaks directly to men of a certain age, for whom music was everything. There is a nostalgia to be found in, ‘we’d always remember/ how to hit every note/ when we strum the air’, and this is advanced by the repeated wish that ‘Dave was here’. A poem about the unattainable then, that takes me to a simpler place and time, that brings forward the ghosts of lost friends. In short, this poem is incredibly powerful and evocative for a man like me.

In Museum, the ‘talk in depth about yesterdays’ continues and I am struck by the lines ‘in my bright rooms of empty displays/ I build your legacies on sorrow’. Time is important throughout this collection, but never more so than here where the text is concerned with, ‘yesterdays’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘future plans’ and ‘eternal spin’. I think it is particularly interesting how the poet uses the idea of the museum and all those connotations, ideas of preservation and our relationship with history and historiography. This is in no way accidental.

While Grey’s poetry is often lacking in lyricism, it retains a sense of character. This poetry, I feel, draws us closer to the poet, through memory and meagre flourishes – much like when a television detective shines a high-powered torch on a dark crime scene – Grey ensures that we only ever see what we need to, he gives us the focus he bemoans that he is lacking. In doing this, the poet’s words carry much more weight. This is poetry without frill, rather an enormous amount of skill.  

The collection is available here.

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Poetry Review: Lydia Unsworth – Yield (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (KFS, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (Winner, 2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize), and two chapbooks. Her latest chapbook will be released by KFS Press in 2020. Recent work can be found in Ambit, para.text, Tears in the Fence, Banshee, Blackbox Manifold and others. Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter: @lydiowanie

The collection begins with Outer Play – a prose poem, where the language does not exactly excite, but is incredibly effective. Unsworth writes of ‘day-to-day demands’, ‘rustling newspapers’ and ‘nameless patches of housewear’. Consider the semantic field of the everyday on show here – curtain/mirror/bedroom/cupboard/coats/home and compare that to the title of the poems and this throws up a juxtaposition of sorts. What this poem says about the collection that follows is telling, they are not esoteric texts, but they are intelligent and purposeful.

'Yield' by Lydia Unsworth (40 pages)

Beget Each Other is perhaps more poetic, ‘don’t tell the gods I left a mess, tell them to send more clothes’ and ‘We’re growing faster than wild roses’ show a different side of the writer. One that has a philosophical edge and a raw beauty, ‘It teaches us about… a life in time, about letting oneself go.’

In Quiet Ambition and Strengthen Spine, there appears to be a blending of the poet’s own voice and that of the poet speaker, ‘I want to want nothing’. This poem signals a rejection, of sorts, of societal expectations/external demands; although it ends with that dangerous feeling of hope that we can ‘go on being beautiful’.

Untangle seems to tackle, more overtly, the theme of womanhood that has bubbled just below the surface of these poems to this point, ‘This is not the average time it takes a/ person of my age to get their body off the floor.’ Gradually, the poems become more concerned with femininity, or rather the poet becomes less interested in tiptoeing about the issue. In Much Talk we have the killer lines, ‘No one else could make me sadder than a line of you’, and ‘If you drop your/ wife in a car park, spin her round three times, and make a run for it’. Weighty topics handled with genuine courage and humour.

In Seasoning, Unsworth offers witty and valuable life advice, ‘Take what you need, not what you want’. The poet’s attention here turns to body image and which could be said to continue the thread of femininity. This is something which appears to be at the centre of Goat, which states that, ‘It is only because I have a body that I am seen’.   

As concerned as Unsworth is with issues of femininity, sexuality and body image, her poems also deal with environmental issues, ‘Stay empty or/ you will be rendered so: stripped of atmosphere, bland as punishment.’ – ‘We’re pitching our tent and leaving no trace by the/ side of the water.’; and consumer culture, ‘Fashions change’ – ‘Plastic-wrapped humps of landfill sprout parks’. In Yield, Unsworth shows herself, repeatedly, to be a poet with a conscience and a sharp eye, able to focus on the foibles of society in a way that engages rather than preaches, while at the same time she offers up introspective work. It is perhaps her blunt honesty, and diffident wit that gives her work its authenticity. Unsworth is an exciting voice that deserves your attention.

Yield is available here.

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Poetry Review: Serge Neptune – These Queer Merboys (Broken Sleep Books)

Serge   Neptune is a London-based merman, poet, and translator. He is a former Faber Academy student and his work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Lighthouse, Banshee, Brittle Star, Ink Sweat & Tears and Strange Poetry.

These Queer Merboys by Serge Neptune is a poetry collection swept in by the tide, that surprises with beautiful and striking imagery right from the off, ‘the sky is a ceiling of white paper cuts’.

What I find most affecting about this hoard of poems is the how they are brimming with the writer’s honesty and bravery, perhaps most evident in the title poem, which puts forward the truth that, ‘bodies have uses   other than swimming/ if caught in fishnets   things could happen’.

One assumes that there is no more a positive assurance in this text than, ‘the scars left were many and they burned for days’. The themes of sexuality and maturation are at the forefront of everything the poet does here. However, they are handled carefully throughout, ‘When we come of age, she imposed on us the burden of beauty’ – which is only furthered by, ‘freedom made them rainbow-feathered birds/ that leap from rose to lily without a care.’

As a whole, the poems serve as a extended metaphor for the difficulties surrounding sexuality. Indeed, these mermen come forth from the water to the land as those in the LGBTQIA+ community come forth from the shadows into the light. It is then, a display of courage and strength and calls to question non-believers and oppressors. As an ally, I felt a severe discomfort reading the line, ‘The telly blasting SINNERS! SINNERS!’

This collection delivers as a piece of social commentary as much as it does as a piece of art in its own right. I am personally drawn to art which has depth and encourages us to think about our actions in the contingent world. Consider the plight of those too afraid to be honest with themselves and the world for fear of the consequences portrayed in Last time my Lover came Inside me, ‘And the wife had warned him/ about the meremen that crept below the tide’ and those portrayed in Melusine Boys, ‘The bankmen, the office workers,/ doctors & lawyers/ have kissed their kids goodnight & come to find us.’

These poems then, pertain to the ongoing pains of attempted co-existence and the struggle for acceptance, and they do all this with a silky craftsmanship.

The book is available here.

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Poetry Review: Erik Fuhrer – Not Human Enough for the Census (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press)

Not Human Enough for the Census, by Erik Fuhrer is a poetry collection that dips into nightmares, netherworlds, and fantasies. However, there is a remarkable truth that shines through. The references to the uncanny are grounded in realism. Perhaps the text offers us escapism?

When I read, ‘mask of feathers’ and ‘my other face’ in the first poem of the collection, I noted how we are invited to look at the writings as something otherworldly perhaps, ‘not quite human’. Fuhrer goes as far as saying that the ‘world has ended already’. However, the lines, ‘a finger/ that I cut/ out from an origami flower/ with a stem that went on forever’ display an unrestrained beauty that is to be found throughout. This is edgy, prickly poetry. It is barbed, and filled with images akin to nightmares, ‘rat gnawing at/ the glass of your nightmare’.

Fuhrer is constantly shifting our attention across the page – in a rejection of form and structure that strengthens the otherworldliness. However, this is contrary to the images of ‘slugs/ and worms and apples/ and pears…’ By working with the grimy and earthy the poet roots their work, in the familiar, and this is only heightened by the polysyndeton.

We are encouraged to imagine. This is a collection that errs on the edge of normalcy, of the known and presents us with hugely evocative and unexplainable images, ‘now the tree that grows/ between my teeth/ is an infinitely splitting atom’

It would be remiss of me, to consider the collection without giving due consideration to the accompanying artwork by Kimberly Androlowicz, which is equally strong, striking, and evocative. Some of the images have the appearance of rudimental cave paintings. The pairing of artists is complimentary in both directions. The use of colour is bold, and raw, but definitely not amateur. Indeed, the images provide a landscape for these texts. I personally like to read poetry that has a sense of place, and though this poetry is at times unearthly, the landscapes ground it.

This has a feeling throughout that it is as much about creation, as it is about destruction. The work is as much about new beginnings, as it is about death and endings. This is perhaps, furthered in the poems that deal with splitting of carbon atoms and blood, ‘god is liquid in the tempest’.

If one is looking for commonalities between the poems, they are there. This is poetry that stimulates, and whisks you from striking image to striking image. Poetry about blood, and skin cells, about life and being. Prepare to be challenged. There is nothing ordinary about this work. These are poems ‘with holes/ without lungs/ without breath/ without body’.

There is a playfulness in shroom destruction; a waggishness that cuts through some of the difficult language and form. And, in a chanwinked spider, I find the beauty that I am looking for within a collection, and this is for me, the standout text, ‘in the swipe of/ glittering/ slips/ the wire/ onto my body/ as I/ sling/ the cockroach anthem/ to the wind’. Here, in this pithy text, the poet showcases all of their talents: surprising and creative language use; powerful, evocative imagery; and experimental form. That it is brief and perhaps mirrors my style of writing is not lost on me. We like what we like.

I think my favourite lines from the whole collection are the following, they display an attitude, that this poet is going to do things their own way, ‘the answer has the heart of a black hole/ leave it the fuck alone’. If I was going to make comparisons between poets, then there is certainly something of Stuart Buck here, in the otherworldliness and frankness of these texts.

thresholds is a fine example of poetry tiptoeing between the fantastic and the real. Certainly, it is, ‘a knitted masterpiece tucked beneath his ears that would usher in his demise/ as a human and resurrection as the world’s most realistic mannequin’.

The deeper into the text you wander, the more at home with it you become. By the time I reached, all filiation is imaginary, I had developed a relationship with the poetry that went beyond mere reading for purposes of review; I was reading it because I was enjoying it. Wholeheartedly! Indeed, there is a genuine, sparse beauty in, ‘becoming fish/ gilled heart/ gilded tongue/ a spider RANSACKING/ the/ web/ of/ my throat’. This collection from Fuhrer is certainly worth your time and attention.

This collection is available here.

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Robert Edge – Interview

Robert Edge is a Poet, photographer and creative writer currently working on a novel entitled ‘The fairly good Samaritan’. He is also embarking on a voyage of self-discovery as he writes his memoirs. (working title) ‘Inside the bottle’ His poetry is generally sardonic as it pokes fun at, amongst other things; the poetry fraternity. He has two as yet unpublished collections of his work: Tour Guide, an ekphrastic, intentionally ignorant view of art galleries and museums and, Breakfast at Wetherspoons, which plays with his dyslexia, using it to excuse whatever he can pass off as literature.

Twitter: @snaphappybob

You have a fairly unique poetic voice Rob – is this related to your dyslexia?

Definitely. I very much play on the fact that I’m dyslexic. It gives me an excuse to misunderstand when actually I really do understand. I can be a little disingenuous but for comic effect, it works. I think the bottom line is, that I’m really, really childish. I like to make a joke of whatever it is in front of me and see how far I can push it. That’s essentially where the poetic voice comes from. When I first started at uni, on the creative writing component of my English degree, I hadn’t even considered that I’d be writing poetry. Yet, I really hit the ground running with it. That was more to do with my personal life at the time, I’d been through some difficult times and this was my way of expressing it. By the end of my first year, I really started to create a voice.

I think poetry can at times be quite a sombre affair, and can take itself a little too seriously.

Very much so. I think the more poetry events you attend, the more you, not get tiresome of it, but, after the first three or four poems about suicide and depression, it all becomes weighty and crushing. I have been to numerous events that have gotten maudlin and you get to a point where you’re not really listening anymore. You clap when everybody else claps but you’re not really engaging with it. But I think, if you’re making people laugh, then they are engaged. I know of a few poets that are really great at engaging audiences in this way. But there are far too many poets, I find, that are very maudlin and that is not my type of poetry, if I am honest. I don’t think I’m a poet’s poet. I know what I like, and I know what I don’t like, and that goes beyond poetry. My voice then, is sort of anti-poetic, if there is such a thing.

That’s all very interesting Rob. Especially when I consider that you’ve been an active member in the local scene. Can you tell me more about your actual role and how that came about?

Yeah, so this happened as I was studying towards my degree, during my second year and bled into my MRes Creative Writing. To be completely clear, I decided to put on a poetry event in Ormskirk and so I approached a tiny, proper drinker’s pub and was able to put on an event called The Broken Mic, with the idea being due to the intimacy of the venue, there was no need for an actual mic. I had started doing some poetry events and met some other poets and invited them along to headline our nights. I got to know George Melling, and had him come in as a headliner. He’s a lovely old chap who didn’t start writing poetry until very recently. This was the first time he’d been a headliner, and he went on to headline at the Everyman in Liverpool. We had another lady, Joy French, who you may know from the Nationwide adverts. These people all have a voice. Not necessarily a voice that I am in tune with, but the whole point of the event was that it ought to be inclusive. It was a non-judgemental, broad church. I think that when you are studying creative writing, you can become a little embarrassed by your own work, especially if it is rhyme heavy, to the extent that your own voice is taught out of you. Eventually the event moved from that little pub, when the football season got going. Fortunately, Cathy Butterworth who manages the theatre at Edge Hill, gave us a space. ‘I’ then becomes ‘we’, as another student, Jess Tillings, a very talented poet in her own right, got on board with me and we rebranded as Reverb. There was then more visual art involved.

Am I correct in thinking that there was a publication that accompanied the Reverb events?

Yes, this was open to everybody to submit and was not limited to poetry as we also included some photography. I had become the convener of the event and Jess was doing lots of work in the background. We also had a chap named Bill Bullock, who is a graphic designer by trade and a poet too. He helped us put together the publication. Bill has done a lot of work with other poets, and was heavily involved in the Merseybeat poetry event at the Everyman the uni put on, to which Roger McGough turned up during my set, which was quite disconcerting.

The shift away from my early initial idea was fine, and while I loved being the compere, and introducing some amazing poets, like Tom Jenks and Gerry Potter, the whole thing had become a joint venture and was no longer my thing and so I bowed out. However, I’m proud of the crowds we drew and the work we put on.

You have mentioned your research degree there, can you give us some detail? You have stated that you only really became interested in writing poetry when studying your undergrad, so was it the being involved in this local scene that sort of opened up to you the possibility of a career as a writer, or was this more for personal development?

Well, my MRes was not focussed on poetry. I had always wanted to be a novelist or a writer. If I dial back to the nineties, I wrote a play entitled The Fairly Good Samaritan which was about suicide and suicide notes. This was secondary to a play I wrote entitled Art? which had a Faustian theme and was about a very poor artist who becomes massively successful and doesn’t understand the world he’s thrust into. This is linked to my need to make a joke of everything. It was tinged with ignorance and was a reflection on modern art and what people think art is. You will always have people suggesting that ‘You can’t call that art!’ and being a bit sniffy. So, originally, I had wanted to get into acting, then writing, then directing. The problem I have is that I am probably a little bit fragile and I struggled taking criticism at that time. Also, I did not know that I was dyslexic at that point. So, going to university allowed me to build up some resilience and get back into the habit of writing again. Now the MRes, is not a poetry piece, it was a novel but the poetics I had learned were still useful in the writing process. This is a project that is still ongoing. Although I have my MRes now. You know I’m level seven. But the experience of study was very different to the Undergraduate degree. I liked my tutor, he’s a very affable guy. Very supportive. However, I’m not sure that he really got my voice and I was beginning to question my own work, because I had respect for him as an individual. I think to some degree, that the creativeness was taught out of my writing.

So, what happened to that novel?

There’s about twenty-five thousand words written. It’s probably about a quarter of a novel. The opening five chapters or so and I have the plot and structure worked out. I continue to have epiphanies and new ideas and I have notebooks everywhere. It’s so annoying because, I really want to write it, but this Covid thing has given me a flatness and it has stopped me from doing what I really want to do. I need to find the time when it’s right to pick up the pen again. When lockdown originally happened, I began writing voraciously. Although, this was not the novel, I started writing a memoir and I found it so entertaining and cathartic to write, but I just hit a wall. Just recently, I started writing again. I’m a member of a writing group, who I have not really been engaging with, but we’ve had a few Zoom calls and I have read a couple of chapters out which have been well received. I know that they need work, and need to be expanded upon. But I have written about my own mental health and how it affects me and it’s essentially a shout out to say, ‘It’s ok to feel this way! Don’t judge yourself!’ I feel that right now, if I am inspired to write, I will go back to my memoir rather than my novel.

With this in mind, when was the last time you really wrote poetry? And what was it that inspired you to submit to The Broken Spine Artist Collective’s second issue?

I think that it was after I was invited to read at the launch night of the first issue. During my undergrad I had written enough poetry for two collections. I have real favourites, but they are not all poet’s poems. I have one piece which is about my mum, which is more of an everyman’s poem. I have written a love poem, which you’d be forgiven for not realising was a love poem at all. That is about a particular individual who I’ve never felt comfortable telling how I feel. But that’s what I love about poetry. Everything is hidden behind a veil of metaphor and simile. You use the language to create a barrier sometimes, other times to open things up but, I need to feel inspired when I’m writing poetry. I tried to write something last week. A political piece about the relationship between Cummings and Johnson, leading into Trump. Scathing and comic pieces, and although they remain unfinished, I will go back to them when inspiration strikes. I need to feel like I’m a part of something. Now, I think that perhaps because the MRes can be quite lonely. When you are studying your undergrad or a master’s degree, you are bouncing ideas off one another and I feel that I miss that smörgåsbord of inspiration.

Now, as well as being a writer, you’re also a photographer. Can you see correlations between the two outlets?

I don’t think that there is a stylistic link between my writing and photography. I think it’s just that I need to be creative. I grew up in a family where that was never really encouraged. Life was just about working and earning enough to live. I have just listened to two audiobooks, by Louis Theroux and Adam Buxton, and also Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and one by Isy Suttie. Now, the thing is, that I am practically the same age as both Theroux and Buxton, and so I get all of their pop culture references but, they are both from very privileged backgrounds. And obviously Suttie and Moran, highlight the gender divide. But, the impact of class on the men’s success is quite clear. Now, I have digressed here, but I knew that I needed to have an outlet, which is perhaps encouraged more in more privileged settings. When I was in English classes at school, I wanted to be drawing, and that may be linked to my dyslexia. But when I did write, I wanted to be able to use flowery language, but did not really have the vocabulary to do so. I loved the sound of words and would use them out of context. I was given my first camera at eight years old and used to take photos in the school yard of the kids messing about and I have enjoyed photography ever since, working in photo retailing and then becoming a photographer. I feel like that if I didn’t have an artistic bent, then I’d be a bit of a hollow shell. We all need something don’t we? I mean, you can say that you’re a poet, but you’re a father, or husband first. As much as we would like to think that our creativity defines who we are, they are actually our outlet and we can live without them but the world would be a much duller place. We have never needed art more than we do now. I was supposed to go and see a couple of exhibitions in London in April, one was a Titian exhibition. The second was Artemisia Gentileschi, who was a female painter, which was incredibly rare. And she has an amazing backstory which is to be seen in all her work. She was raped as a child by a student of her father’s. She took this case to court at that time, and actually won. You can see this strength of character in her work, this suffering.

We seem to have come full circle, to a natural end. But before we finish, I would like to know what it is you will be doing next. Are you intending to focus on your poetry, the novel, or your memoirs?

I’d love to do all of them. But most likely I will go back to writing my memoir. I have found it to be the most cathartic and gives me an excuse to be nostalgic and look back to before all this madness. I’m writing it as if somebody wants to read it, although I’m not sure that I’m interesting enough. It had the working title, How Not to Have Sex. It’s now called Inside the Bottle, the idea being that we cannot see how people view us. A marketing guru I knew used to say you can’t read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I think that it’s a really interesting concept and that we are all, to some degree, blind to who we are. We are who people perceive we are. We are all the centre of our own universe.

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