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.
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.
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.
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.
Black Bough Poetry, founded in 2019 by Matthew M. C. Smith, has reignited the independent poetry scene in the United Kingdom through their publication of high-quality, imagist poetry and their engagement with poets and presses of all backgrounds through their amiable Twitter activity. It has been a genuine pleasure to watch the project develop, and further, to have been offered opportunities to actively participate and have my work published. There are few editors I trust more with my work than Matthew and his team of guest readers. So, when I was invited to read and review their first print release, Deep Time: Volume 1, inspired by the work of Rob Macfarlane, I was more than excited.
However, I feel I ought to begin by making this clear, I had reservations about this specific project when I first saw the submission call. I had not, and have not read Macfarlane’s text, Underland. On the surface, it does not appeal to me in terms of genre. With that being so, what follows is an honest review of a poetry that ‘mines a range of deep spaces, plummeting into mythologies, histories and deep geological time.’
What is immediately apparent, is the range of contributors. Indeed, there are a number of superbly talented writers among the contents listings and some other less familiar names. Seeing poets such as Ryan Norman, Dai Fry, M.S. Evans and Kari Flickinger is enough to whet one’s appetite and helps me to put aside my reservations. The collection is arranged into five chapters, and the texts are carefully arranged by theme. Despite their connections, there is a great deal of variety in terms of writing style that warrants attention.
The opening poem of the collection, Laura Wainwright’s, Poem found on a cave wall, makes creative use of white space and sets the standard for the rest of the collection. This text helps to direct us, below surfaces, into other worlds, ‘unfazed, forging beyond cold… going/ deeper,/ travelling further’. The texts themselves serve as footholds in the readers descent, ‘After the ice age, after the fire,/ five mass extinctions./ I reach to high-five handprints of burnt ochre,/ silhouetted on stone.’ Karen Hodgson Pryce picks up where Wainwright leaves off, and her manipulation of the page in the poem, Drawn, is eye-catching. An expertly crafted text, where the actual written word is equal to the free form, ‘when steel/ meets cloud,/ and whales/ are lost/ in the/ choked sea’. Black Bough have developed their reputation publishing striking, imagist texts, and this would sit neatly alongside anything previously published.
I should also take time out to mention the images printed alongside the poetry, which only heighten the experience for the reader. Beautiful, raw and deceptively rudimentary images that display a primitiveness, that A.A. Parr’s line could be describing, ‘histories revealed themselves/ as red powder on white rock bone.’
The juxtaposition in the opening line of Ankh Spice’s poem, Solstalgia, ‘Half-done sun flares the water, light lancing clear depths’, highlights the craftsmanship of the work on offer throughout. While the texts eschew traditional form and structure, the poems remain poetic and the language in this poem (and throughout) is inventive, surprising and sometimes challenging. This is no criticism. My personal taste has been tested here and I feel more inclined to read beyond the parameters I had created for myself previously. Perhaps this David Bowie quote is apt here, given the subject matter and themes thrown up in this collection, ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being’. If this collection has done anything, it has widened my experiences.
“disintergration” (2020) is Mullen’s fourth poetry collection, following “curse this blue raincoat” (2017), “testimony” (2018), and “35” (2018). It is a text that shows the writer to be working at the peak of his powers.
In terms of style, each of the collections have strong similarities. However, Mullen’s acute ability to say so much with so little has never been more apparent. The individual poems, by their very nature, are both pithy and incisive and the craftsmanship displayed is truly remarkable. As a reader who has closely followed this writer’s development, I can say with authority, that the writer has evolved into one of the foremost and exciting poets in the independent poetry community.
Mullen eschews the restraints of form and structure, preferring to write with total freedom. He sees the page as a tool in itself and makes intelligent use of space to breakdown his work, and in doing so makes it that much more immediate and accessible. Those readers who claim to be unable to ‘get’ poetry, this is the work for you.
There is a muddying of the line between the poet’s own voice and experience, and that of the poet-speaker. In this way the poetry has a transient quality, and I am in awe of Mullen’s capacity to find beauty in the banal. This is perhaps most apparent in “images”, ‘like blackbirds preparing broods in colour/ you will see yourself in teardrops/ in autumnal mists/ over russet meadows/ in spider-web-december sonowflakes’. Such elegance.
There is a common theme, centred around death and rebirth – a regular juxtaposition between gravity and hope that throws light on what it is to be alive. Consider, ‘i pull out the notebooks the pen/ but the words aren’t there’ in contrast with, ‘the next day / blossom under branches/ faces in the woods’. Such peaks and troughs are a constant throughout. While Mullen writes about the end or disintergration of one relationship, he also proffers great optimism for those yet to come.
The beauty of the chapbook, is that it provides the writer with a platform to compose a series of themed and inter-related texts. In “disintergration” Mullen has taken this form of publication to new heights. It is a superb addition to the poet’s existing ouevre, that shows great development of skill and exposes a vulnerability, that was until now absent.
Following an incredibly productive year – I got the chance to catch up with Paul once again. He was as open and inciteful as ever.
Paul, you have something of the troubadour about you if you don’t mind my saying so. Where are you at right now?
Well I’ll take that as a
compliment! I guess the idea of the troubadour has always appealed, especially
since many of my heroes and influences could be considered as such. People like
Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Lee Harwood, Joni Mitchell. Of
course the meaning has changed over time. Troubadour nowadays has that
free-spirited, hippyish, dedication-to-your-art connotation attached, which I
Right now I’m at a
crossroads in my life. I’ve been living between Spain and the U.K for most of
this year, and pursuing a career change that will take me away from lecturing.
I feel like I’ve achieved everything I can achieve in education now; the job
has changed to the extent that a lot of the pleasure has been taken out of it.
I still love working with people closely, and helping to inspire and encourage,
so my next move will still involve that close contact with people, but not in a
As far as the writing is
concerned, I’ve had a very promising year. I decided it was time to really
target literary magazines with my work at the beginning of 2019, and so far
I’ve had over fifty different publications take my work in seven months. I
think it is really important to spend the time submitting so you can broaden
your readership. It is also very rewarding and encouraging to see your work
alongside other emerging voices in a wide range of diverse and edgy
we last spoke, your third collection 35 has been published, do you want
to discuss the concept and how it differs from your first two collections?
My third collection, 35, is conceptual in the sense that it
features 35 poems, 35 images (mainly photographs taken around the world), and I
was 35 years old when I released it. It just felt like a bit of a benchmark.
It’s hard to explain. I liked the idea of doing something a little different.
My first two collections were traditional in the sense that they were poems
without a particular central theme. I think a poet has free reign to do
whatever they want, which is the beauty of the form.
have heard you say that your initial collection curse this blue raincoat was
a response to the work of Leonard Cohen and that Testimony was something
akin to saying what needed to be said, however honest and gnarled. What is the
major spur for you now?
I don’t have any
particular motivations in my poetry other than the need to write. It is a
thrill for me to stare down at a blank sheet of paper, or a blank word
document, and then realise hours later that I’ve crafted and created something
out of nothing. I guess I’m really digging into the depths of my own psyche
these days; I’ve had three published collections and hundreds of poems
published in literary magazines, so I’m much more comfortable in my own skin as
a poet now. The subject matter is rawer, darker, at times brutally honest. My
work is not as safe anymore as it once was. I’ve had people write to me and
tell me that my work has made them weep, or shocked them, or really unnerved
them. They are the best reactions I think because it shows that your work is
you say that you have ever suffered for your art?
This is really a
double-edged question because art, in the most part, is born out of suffering
of some sort. I’ve got a pretty good grip of myself at this stage in my life;
I’m not overawed by much, and any depressive tendencies I may have had in my
twenties are under control. Writing is an excellent form of therapy for me
because it helps me get to grip with everything going on around me in a
positive way. Everyone needs therapy of some sort in my opinion, whether you
suffer from mental illness or not. Some ride a bike, others paint, other walk
the dog or do yoga. I write poems. Have I suffered for that? Definitely. Would
I change it? Definitely not.
important is the editing process and is that a solo effort?
This is the one thing
that I have really improved over the years. A good poet has to also be a good
editor, because learning to slice away the excess to get down to the flesh is
so important in terms of quality. I can write a poem now, then come back to it
the next day and shave 50% of it off. Then I can come back the next day and do
the same again until I’m left with the essential lines. It takes courage to be
a good editor. I also have occasion where others are involved too. My great
friend Kate Evans sometimes takes a critical look at my poems in progress. I’m
also in the process of working with Matthew C Smith, the editor of Black Bough
Poems, to shape my next collection. More than one set of eyes can be a
brilliant reminder that your work can be better with sound advice.
interested to know has there been a shift of focus for you – from full-length
manuscript submission to journals far and wide? Is this an effort to reach a
wide readership and keep your finger on the pulse?
I released three
collections in the space of two years. That was the monster inside desperate to
get out. Once that trilogy was out it became more important for me to think
about a readership, and also explore the literary magazine / journal world. I
also find it very exciting to submit my work all over the world. You find out
so much about your work, but also your own temperament as a writer. Rejections
are never easy to stomach, especially if you have had to wait six months for a
reply without any sort of feedback, but acceptances are extremely uplifting.
That email landing that says “congratulations, we would love to take your
poem(s)…” is a feeling that I really enjoy. I’ve been accepted in some dream
magazines so far this year: Ghost City Press, Barren Magazine, The Bees Are
Dead, Burning House Press and Heron Clan to name but a few. If your name is
cropping up in these types of journals then you are probably being noticed to
some degree, which is not the be-all-and-end-all, but nice. Justification of
your commitment to your art, I guess.
excites you about the poetry scene right now?
The poetry scene is
thriving right now. In the same way that vinyl records have made a comeback, it
seems that poetry has been revived. If something has class, and authority, and
the power to move it will never go away. There are some great poets emerging
with distinct voices. I also like the indie scene that I keep up with on
Twitter too. I think many are opting to avoid the traditional publication
routes these days and do it for themselves. I have mixed feelings about this
because it inevitably means some folk have free license to publish any old crap,
but on the other side of the coin it has given some brilliant voices a chance
to emerge who wouldn’t have had the time or inclination to pursue a publisher.
Traditional publishing can be such a long, drawn out, weary process, with lots
of wounding realisations and disappointments. The inner circle is still very
much who you know I’m afraid.
There are some really
exciting new magazines out there today. I really like Black Bough Poetry, which
is causing a stir and heading towards its third issue. I also like American
magazine, Cleaning Up Glitter. Selcouth Station is another magazine that I
really rate, and Streetcake magazine too. I’m happy to have featured in all of
them. A few magazines that have alluded me so far that I love are Okay Donkey,
Butcher’s Dog and Nightingale & Sparrow. It would be a dream to feature in
Ambit, or The New Yorker, or Under The Radar – all long established classic
do you measure success now?
Success to me is
happiness in what I’m doing. I’m extremely happy at the minute creating,
submitting, editing, and slowly working towards my next collection. If I get
positive responses to my work, which I regularly do (especially on Twitter,
which has been a great tool for interacting with similar minds) then that is
success in my eyes. Of course it would be great to find a reputable UK
publisher to show interest in my work, but I’m not quite ready to pursue that
with everything else going on.
do you feel about describing yourself as a poet?
I don’t generally. It has
obvious stigmas. I don’t advertise the fact that I write unless I’m in the
company of people who may be interested or appreciate it. I’m certainly not
ashamed of it – quite the opposite. I write poems and therefore I am a poet,
but I don’t feel the need to broadcast it. More and more people tend to ask me
about it these days, which is positive.
you open up on your route into publication?
I was lucky. That’s the
truth of it. I was working at a University in a relatively unheard city in
China, called Nanning, when Kate Evans, a distinguished American writer, turned
up to lecture poetry. We became friends, spent afternoons together discussing
our passions for writing and poetry, and she was enthralled with my stuff. She
put me in touch with her editor who also liked my work and offered me the
opportunity to submit a collection. That’s how curse this blue raincoat was born, and Kate Evans helped me to both
edit and order it, and she also wrote the forward. I was in the right place at
the right time.
do you reflect on your decision to leave teaching?
It was time to leave. As
I mentioned before, teaching has become a business where there is too much
focus on unrealistic attainment instead of the individual. Teachers have become
powerless scapegoats today, and quite frankly I got fed up with working eighty
hour weeks, doing everything I possibly could to be the best teacher I could,
and getting told that too much was never enough. It is no coincidence that ALL
my former teaching colleagues are either in different careers or working abroad
now. The government have a lot to do to battle this problem because the
profession has lost some incredible people to teach, influence and encourage
have spoken about your desire to release a novel – do you have an update for
your ever-growing fan base who are eager for more work?
I’ve definitely got a
novel in me, but it just hasn’t happened yet. At the moment I’m almost entirely
focused on poetry, but I’d like to think I could write one before I’m 40. I’ve
completed two, but they were both shit. I think I want to try and get a few
more poetry collections out there first before I focus on sitting down to pen the novel. I’ve had some short stories
and flash fiction pieces published lately in various magazines (most notably
The Fiction Pool and Iceberg Tales), but the longer form is much more
you tell us about your favourite novels – what is it about them that draws you back
to them? What are you reading at the moment?
Wow, how long have you
got! I’d have to try and narrow them down. I loved Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis Ferdinand Céline. It is
such a dark but funny novel. I thought Women
and Ham On Rye were two great
novels by Charles Bukowski. He had a remarkable way of tapping into raw
emotion. I think Gabriel García Márquez’s One
Hundred Years Of Solitude is just about as poetic as prose can be. He was a
There are a few more
contemporary novels that I’ve enjoyed very much: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Never
Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and The
God Of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I love Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and found myself engrossed in its
1500 pages for months. In Cold Blood by
Truman Capote is mesmerising. Things Fall
Apart by Chinua Achebe is essential reading. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is disturbingly gripping. I like the
early novels of H.G Wells and Stephen King – both writers who bring back fond
memories of my teen reading. Dickens is consistently brilliant, and the
greatest creator of memorable characters. I’ll end there because I could go on
forever. At the moment I am tackling Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and thoroughly enjoying it.
who follows you will know that you’re an accomplished musician and lover of all
sorts of different musical genres. But what was the last album you listened to
and what was the last gig you got to?
I have been having a real
Joni Mitchell phase of late. I think it is my appreciation of her poetic lyrics
that draws me back to her again and again. Court
& Spark is the album I really love, although her debut album, Song To A Seagull, is incredible too. It
really says something that the likes of David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen
Stills regard her the greatest songwriter of all time, even ahead of Bob Dylan
and Leonard Cohen. Joni is very inspiring.
I watched the Beach Boys
a few weeks back in Marbella, Spain, and loved every second of it. I’ve spent
the last twenty years watching live music, and I can honestly saw it was one of
my favourite gigs ever. What a body of work. Mike Love is the only original
member left, but the musicianship was spectacular. It was in an amazing venue in
the mountains too.
you concerned about the passage of time?
Of course. Especially
when you see people that you know die, and the reality of mortality dawns on
you. I guess I’m about half way through now if I’m lucky enough to live a
normal lifespan, which feels crazy. I still feel like I’m eighteen. The passage
of time is a major theme or point of consideration for most artists I think. We
are all battling against the years and what we can achieve or fit in before we
die. I love the fact that many of the old musicians like McCartney, Dylan, CSNY
and The Stones are all still out there touring and making music, essentially
defying age. They are all heading towards eighty, so times have changed;
artists are continuing to be artists for longer, and evidently until death.
experience/authenticity important to you? Are you comfortable with the idea of
travel writing when written from the perspective of the privileged white man –
and if not, how do you combat this?
I think you have to take
your privilege and use it for good. I know how fortunate I am to be where I’m
from. I’ve been all over Asia, and into some of the poorest and most deprived
places on earth. I had four years living in China, which is desperately poor in
places. I’ve been to North Korea, Myanmar, Laos, Philippines, Sri Lanka,
Cambodia, Vietnam and India. I’ve seen heart stopping poverty. I don’t think
you can hide away from your privilege. You just have to be humble about it, and
grateful. Whenever I write about these places, whether it be in my poetry or
otherwise, I try to tell it how it is, but also attempt to be positive in some
way. I’ve seen some really disturbing stuff, but it only opens your mind
further to what is possible artistically. And, by the way, some of the greatest
people I’ve ever met have been from these places where they have nothing. We
can learn so much.
you overly concerned by the nuts and bolts of language/stylistics? Or do you
have broader concerns about bigger themes?
I am definitely a fan of
minimalism. I like the shorter poem, and even the micro-poem. I think they can
both be as powerful as the longer form. Anyone that knows my work will also
know that I favour the narrative form. I don’t hold back with language. If the
poem needs expletives then it gets them. It totally depends on that specific
poem and the feelings you are trying to convey.
As far as themes are
concerned, I rarely tackle the major themes these days. I think if you want to
write about Trump, or Brexit, or climate change, or human rights abuses, or
#metoo, you’ve got to get it inch perfect or you can look preachy or insincere.
Half of these things I mention I’m not qualified to comment on, so I generally
don’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about such issues. With my writing,
especially my poetry, I tend to write about my own experiences and emotions, as
well as the things I observe in my daily existence. If you watch the news for
too long with the intention of writing about it you’ll go crazy pretty quickly.
what would you say makes a quality poem? Is it tied to the idea of
The answer to that
question is different for every reader. I personally don’t relate to anything
too lofty or contrived. I like to read about things I understand, or can relate
to. I like it when a writer is prepared to spill their guts. I like bravery.
I’ve read some really raw poetry of late that has made me stop in my tracks. I
think the perfect poem uses every single word as a sucker punch. A great poem has
impact, and doesn’t waste words or lines that aren’t needed. To answer your
question, for me, great poetry is accessible, yes; but not for everyone.
I will keep writing whilst I’m on a roll, continue submitting whilst I’m having success, and continue enjoying homing my craft. At some point towards the end of this year I may be getting involved in editing a start-up journal, which will be exciting. I have my fourth collection in the mix at the moment, with enough solid work for a fifth soon after. The future looks promising as long as I stay disciplined.
The Last Night of Our Lives (poem – originally published in Anti-Heroin Chic)
The Old Man (poem – originally published in Dodging the Rain)
Hemmingway (poem – orginally published in Crepe & Penn)