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.

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