Monday, 27 May 2013

Cultured Llama

Cultured Llama

Strange Fruits, by Maria C. McCarthy
A Radiation, by Bethany W. Pope
Unauthorised Person, by Philip Kane
The Strangest Thankyou, by Richard Thomas
Unexplored Territory, edited by Maria C. McCarthy

A huge amount of energy has gone into launching these new publications by the new press Cultured Llama, and it has obviously mostly come from Maria C. McCarthy. To start publishing with six full books demands courage, and there is little sign of inexperience in the finished articles.

Strange Fruits, by the editor of the series, is in memory of a friend who died of cancer with proceeds going to MacMillan Cancer Support via Word Aid. The poet genuinely remembers her friend Karen McAndrew, with poems about clothes and shopping, and the everyday life of a town including dentists and hairdressers.
The title poem is about litter in the hedge of a new housing development, alongside an old house with an orchard.
In Car on a Country Footpath there's a similar theme:
a bramble-clamped car
though human placed, is not out of place.
As much a part of the landscape now as the lines of planted poplars.

There is quite a lot about Ireland in this book. The poems are personal in a generous, friendly way and her interest in Irish women shows. This is almost a poetry of social journalism. McCarthy is also a writer of short fiction and the last piece in this book is a short prose account of her last meetings with Karen McAndrew, describing their joint shopping trips, and particularly their rendezvous in a favourite café. This piece is beautifully written without a word out of place and for that reason fits well in a poetry book.
In my view editors of poetry presses have every right to include their own work in their lists. It shows their starting perspective as an editor, for one thing. But one does sometimes notice ploys to make this practice more acceptable, and in this case the collaboration with the fund raising charity Word Aid and Macmillan Cancer Support, gives Maria McCarthy an additional reason to place herself on this list. Her work needs no apology and she needs no excuse.

A Radiance, by Bethany Pope, is the début book of a very strong and powerful poet with a voice of her own, searching valiantly for a style she is coming into. It's going to say visceral on the back cover – yes it does. The poems are both long and long-lined and the poet is totally unafraid.
The poet uses family events as her subject. This heightens the drama and you are soon thinking What a family! though you should be thinking What a writer! because the American country life described, although foreign to us, is no doubt not out of the ordinary where it happened.
I am looking for descriptions of mangrove swamps and alligators. There is barely room for them among the family dramas but here they are:

we lived by a river that fed mangroves,
where the herons speared black snakes
and infant alligators, and the city municipalities
in the cheapest of wisdom, allowed sewer water
to flood into streams...

I swim through the currents, a knife in my teeth,
bone-handled. It came from my great grandfather. I slaughtered
nothing on these swims, save for
the dragons which rose in my mind.

Further on in this poem (Selkies, the River's Daughter), the poet stretches even further:

observe the moments I first loved light, in the glory
of Zeus poured out on Danaë, made pregnant
by light.

56 pages like this add up to a far outstanding first book.
Bethany Pope also writes novels, and has recently left London for New York to take up a publishing post. I hope her exciting new job won't take up too much of her time, for this woman must write.

Unauthorised Person is a collection of poems by artist and surrealist Philip Kane, clearly an arty man about town in Medway and Rochester, and brought onto this list as a character, someone with something different in the line of verse to contribute. Basically there are two sections in this book, first the entertaining sequence of poems about Carole and Johnnie, who lurch their way precariously through outer London chic while clinging defiantly to their housing scheme background. It is in a dated, spare, deadpan free verse and it is saved by being all too true. Here are two snippets from their life:

Now that operas are trendy
Carole would like to visit one
she is trying to find
an opera about motorbikes

Johnnie suspects
that Carole is going broody
he worries that babies
would end his musical career.

The second part of the book is a long ballad-like poem about some big-hearted ruffian called Bill who goes out for a drink. Things get much worse, and he eventually heads off from Rochester for London, leaving the lights of the place behind him. This 14 page poem, Among High Waves, has four full page drawings by Wynford Vaughan Thomas, and there are other illustrations and photographs by the author spread through the book.
On the whole, this book shows evidence of its 27 years in the making (as stated on the back cover), while the title itself contributes to the impression that Kane is the mischief maker in the pack, not your product of C W courses and what have you. He's Medway's Mephistopheles!

Richard Thomas' The Strangest Thankyou is a simple book of collected up poems, many of which have had outings in magazines, the old style format of a standard first collection. They are good poems. A lack of consecutiveness in the poems can seem a problem today, when we are trying so hard to turn poetry into books that will appeal to general readers. We have themes, sequences, objectives. The best of one's pieces to date including those published in good magazines, can only be a start. Add to this the wide range of styles offered by this poet and the confusion deepens.
Still, Richard Thomas can produce a poem, and I liked many of the individual poems. Cézanne and his critics:
and I can hear Cézanne.
rolling in his grave with laughter,
'That'll show the bastards.

Or in Life as a Poem :
Sometimes writing poetry is hard,
I go to grab it but it's gone.

There is good control of language, there is facility and exactness, but the shadow of the CW degree hangs over it, with some poems under suspicion of being exercises and just too many wares laid out. There is plenty of evidence that Richard Thomas can write, but I look for more than evidence that someone can write in a book nowadays. I look for structure. And this is why I prefer the term book to the term collection.

Unexplored territory, an anthology, contains poems which are included in the other books above. It also contains fiction. It is a lively, enthusiastic and personal presentation of writers with some connection to Cultured Llama or known to the editor. It has a slight balance in favour of women, and indeed everyone knows there are more good women poets around who have not been picked up by any establishment presses, than there are men. And the contributors are not all from London and suburbs (I see Rosemary McLeish who was living in Glasgow not so long ago though she may have moved on.)
The book is well designed and produced and has a nice cover illustration. It ought to sell well around the Medway, in London and further afield.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Squeaky Clean Presses

Wonderland, by Fiona Sinclair. Indigo Dreams
Everything I thought I knew, by Jo Gibson. Calder Wood Press
The Year's Six Seasons, by Colin Will. Calder Wood Press.

Indigo Dreams, the poetry press run by Ronnie Goodyer is one of those smaller presses that comes out squeaky clean and with flags flying as against the vicissitudes and cutbacks affecting the higher profile poetry presses. Ronnie has an impressive backlist and is still introducing poets and printing second and in this case third collections by very good poets who are never described as “emerging” by the establishment, yet are able to develop their poetry and readerships helped by such presses as this one.
Wonderland is a catalogue of present day and largely urban incidents with close observation transformed into confident and sophisticated verse. All in an informal and eloquent post-beat style (no villanelles, no pentameters, no end rhymes), the style is cumulative and adds up to a very coherent book.
The blurb says Fiona Sinclair likes handbags, old movies and Fred Astaire – subjects that instantly bring to mind Deborah Tyler-Bennett, and there are touches of these subjects from the first poem on, but the people here are more everyday, confronted in their ordinary lives. In Time Traveller :

The girl on the Underground is a sartorial time traveller
yet there are no Sid James remarks from the suited men.

Fear of Letter Boxes will strike chords with anyone who has had problems via the post ( and who hasn't?)
“Sundays, strikes and snow, she is a school kid
whose bully has been excluded fro a few days.”

Among these perceptive small subjects, there are poems about jumble sales, lucky winnings on the horses, and also some very moving ones, such as Inherited Friend:

until her I don't want to be involved anymore
despite mother's boozy begging calls

and when she departed
the little dog smelt foppily of Chanel No.5

Then there's The Decorators have left for good which is both feminist and touching:

until at 50, she finds that her body has deducted every month
from the allocation of fecundity she thought infinite,
so Roberta and Oliver will always be fiction.

Many excellent and interesting poems in here, and they do translate an ordinary urban peopled world into a wonderland. Good title.

Another indefatigable small press, though not confined to poetry, is Calder Wood Press. Colin Will, the publisher, takes an interest in local poets. Jo Gibson, author of a new pamphlet Everything I Thought I Knew, was a founder member of Dunbar Writers Group and has had poems published in Scottish magazines. The language of her poetry is classically English.
The poems here are full of relationships: I and you, giving relevant detail without fully explaining the people. There are vignettes, as here, in Sitting :

You in your chair where, head bowed,
hair falls down while a waterfall
of words pitter-patter.

Me in my chair where, heavy-browed
frowns crumble while an ancient wall
of absurd resistance is un-wrought.

Many of the poems work by contrasts and similes, as in Lost :

as if I'll find you between the words
as if failure is a 'full stop'
as if our hopefulness is a rope
our fate a cliff face

Nothing is over-ambitious and everything works in these poems, and a 40 page pamphlet is a good way to present them.
Calder Wood Press allows strong participation by authors in the design of books. In this case the cover illustration, being a collage of family photos, seems to be the result of this participation, and to my mind, it is rather a mismatch to the book. Although very likely inspired by family, there is little explicitly about family in the text of the book. If anything this implies a lack of a wish on the poet's part to take poetry further afield.
Apart from this niggle, it's a nicely turned out pamphlet, well produced internally.

The other new poetry item from Calder Wood Press is Colin Will's own booklet The Year's Six Seasons. It is an extra to his full books (from red Squirrel and diehard).
It has an an agenda. The poems are local to his area, Dunbar, and it is intended for local sales. I'm all in favour of this approach to publication, books designed for readers. The poem are all vintage Colin Will, though all previously unpublished. Knowing Colin as I do, I see personal stories in some of them: the untitled I thought the sea would be...refers to his “retirement” move to Dunbar and his increasing busyness in poetry, gardening, family and other interests.

I thought the sea would be
a place to reflect,
and it is, but so much to do
leaves little time for quietness,
no space for silence.

I thought the sea would be
different from the place I left,
and it is, but hills and wood
are not too far for when I need them,
and friends are close.

Although not directly in Colin's usual style, this is a superb poem and my favourite. Nearly all the poems rely on a scholarly kind of description, as in this gardening poem, Adam's Way :

Straggly stems of goatsbeard
push between the cultivated flowers,
and self-sown foxgloves
erupt their surprising spires
in places that I didn't choose.

I pull out
only what I don't find interesting,
and welcome strangers
  • Herb Robert poppies, melon, toadflax –
  • not weeds, just bright-faced flowers.
The cover is a photograph of Dunbar, and the title recalls the poet's earlier title Seven Senses.

Poet to Poet: New York, South Wales

The Holy Place, by John Dotson and Caroline Gill, is published in Wales and New York as part of the Poet to Poet project showcasing 2 poets in a single volume, one American and one from UK. I guess they could equally have done New York and Wales. There are five of these volumes so far. There is no suggestion of the poets actually collaborating, and one has to work hard to suss out the links between these two particular poets.

Caroline Gill's poems form the second half of the book. They are a first collection, apparently all previously published in magazines etc. They are well written in a rhythmic, substantial way, rhyme coming more often than not, the language well handled and the subjects direct. There's a sense of the sea and the outdoor world. It's all like a lovely long outdoor walk.
    I would like to single out the way she uses Scottish vocabulary so effectively in a poem called The Ceilidh Place, which gives a very strong impression of storytelling on Skye. The well known Ceilidh Place is in Ullapool, on the north west coast opposite Skye, but we can listen to the stories anywhere with lines like these:

    the crofter enters his neighbour's parlour,
    rests on the settle while divots smoulder:
    a plaintive skirl fills the room with stories.

Mainly it is the Welsh seaboard that holds central stage, but there are also poems about Norfolk and Cornwall and one set in Rome.
    The final poem, Velvet Shadows in Venice, neatly compares Ruskin's discussion with Canaletto's painting, a twist which makes it something more than a mere ekphrastic poem:

    John Ruskin felt that Venice was a clasp
    of gold to keep the sphere of earth intact:
    but Canaletto made his viewers gasp

Complex but clear, Caroline Gill's writing is never wrongfooted.

    If the title from John Dotson's work, The Holy Place, applies to Caroline's poems it must be in this sense of the love of being outdoors. What do these two poets give to each other? On the face of it, you might well ask if there is any reason not to divide this book in half, which would be a pity as it is a very nice little book.
    The aim appears to be to promote the poets to each other's poetry community, a sort of cultural exchange perhaps. It may be wrong to look for parallels between the two poets, yes one does so automatically, as when two poets are placed together in a poetry reading.
    After all, they share the book title. Caroline's poems are landscape and seascape poems rather than nature poems, and while she says she is a Christian in her author's notes, there is no hint of another world or of secondary meanings in any of her poems.
    The poems here by Dotson are not previously published, which tends to make them a sequence rather than a collection, though the poems are variously dated, the earliest 1993 . The title poem is so minimal I had to check it was not a epigraph. It goes:

    the holy place
    is secret

    because it is
    so close

His other poems are also sparse, in a wholly American idiom. They appear to be about “self”, something that doesn't worry Caroline Gill. Is this yet another take on religion? Dotson thinks that self is holy and he is looking for it in his observations of the world, the stars, the kitchen –

    there are the mixing bowls
    there the saucers

    and pain is only what
    falls through the drainer
    into thin air

    when all of a sudden
    you know what

    you cannot know
    is what
    you cannot
    How do you look

Dotson's longest poem here is Trapezium in which he reflects on Ferlighetti's 'poet like an acrobat' – a well enough known poem but I felt it should have been acknowledged. It's still in those short, dry, spare and sometimes despondent lines:

    and what was the truth
    of that curse was

    there was no curse

So I'm left reading a poet I wouldn't have found just now if I hadn't read Caroline Gill, while Dotson's poetry circle will read Caroline Gill whom they would not very likely have come across either. Perhaps that's the point of it. Perhaps other groupings in the new series work better, such as Nightwatch by Aeronwy Thomas and Maria Mazziotti Gillan. (Poor Aeronwy, she's almost always referred to as Aeronwy-Thomas-Dylan-Thomas'-daughter.)
    Or First and Last Things by JC Evans (no relation) and Annabelle Mosley.
    I'm puzzled. I like both poets' work, especially Caroline's but then she is closer to me, what with our South Wales connections and indeed the same university course, which totally irrelevantly was Classics in Newcastle, in the same building where Bill Herbert now teaches poetry and creative writing. Or is this totally irrelevant? A poet of similar background, the same education, the same gender, as against a guy from New York with a much different history? Maybe we all need to move beyond our comfort zones.