This April for her pick of the best new poetry, Mab Jones has chosen items that sit on the border of prose and poetry (in some cases) and offer a window into the great reserves of creativity in contemporary literature (in all cases). So, from Cardiff Writer’s Circle to west Wales to London, journey with us through April’s best new poetry.
Cardiff 75: Contemporary Writing From The City, Cardiff Writer’s Circle (Parthian, price: £10)
In celebration of Cardiff Writers’ Circle’s 75th anniversary comes this bright green anthology, full of life and energy, showcasing the output of various members of the group and spanning both prose and poetry. Irrespective of achievement, endorsement, or place in the literary hierarchy, everyone in the Circle is allowed a voice – or, indeed, a page – and this is CWC’s greatest achievement: providing a platform for writers, and a warm and welcoming space in which to share as well as sharpen their writerly tools.
I’ve worked with the group a little in recent years, running workshops and judging some of their in-house poetry and fiction competitions, so it would perhaps be unfair for me to single out any of the writers or pieces herein; suffice to say, what you get is a brilliant pick‘n’mix of style and subjects, tones and moods. Goblins, guilt, and ‘spag bol’ are just some of the topics on hand, indicative of the mutivarious voices contained with the book’s covers, and tales may arc from the sublime to the silly within a few short sheafs. A very enlivening read as a result, this Parthian-published book is therefore heartily recommended, and a really, really good book for dipping randomly into, as well as of excellent quality all round.
Hymnal, Julia Bell (Parthian, price: £10)
I really enjoyed the everyday detail in Julia Bell’s Hymnal: the domestic, the real-life recollections, the ‘mundane’, the memories. The testimonial power of poetry is made apparent as Bell paints her scenes, mostly in first person, which are often quite direct and so give a sense of immediacy as well as immersion into the events of her life. At times, there are tinges of Adrian Mole-style wit; at other moments, there are queries, rebellion and instances of punkish revolt, including the ‘I’ (the author, we presume) of one poem flashing her tits at headstones in a graveyard. Great!
Raised by a minister, Hymnal tells the story of a childhood, teens, and young adulthood as Bell becomes, well, herself – questioning, reflecting, wondering, and queer. Life in her early beginnings seems “subdued”, stifled, at times, by the rigors of religion; or else there are places and spaces in her Welsh upbringing that are tinged with hidden terror (“there were eyes in the trees, watching”). But it’s the following, in a poem which comes after one taking the heteronormative wedding of Princess Diana as its subject, which makes this book stand out:
I don’t know why I want to know it,
or why I want to know it now,
but I have a very important question:
Mum, what’s a lesbian?
Difficult question, of course, but there’s bravery in the asking, and also in the sharing of this question – and, indeed, her entire life story – in this book. Autobiographical, alluring, with keen evocations of Welsh setting and clever reworkings of Christian images, Julia Bell’s Hymnal is a hymn to “the possibilities of … life unfolding”. Amen to that.
Republic, Nerys Williams (Seren, price: £9.99)
A flick through Repblic by Nerys Williams and you will note that it’s prose, not poetry. Prose poems? Poetic prose? Maybe all of these, although in the introduction Williams refers to them as “prose scatterings”. I like this term. Each piece was created using a ‘restraint’ – common in poetry, and in short prose (flash) forms – namely, that each was restricted to just 20 lines. I, like many writers, believe that restraint can cause unusual and unique imaginative compulsions and creative outpourings, and that is what’s to be found in this wonderful collection, for sure.
The stories in this volume all come from rural west Wales, and from myriad sources / people. I personally love voices and views, as many of ‘em as possible. I was a contributor to the New York Times column Lives, for a while, and this book reminds me a little of that – you never know what you’re going to get! – but also there are echoes of Paul Auster’s True Tales Of American Life, which I adored.
I adore Republic, too. Like Hymnal, it’s told through the eyes of a woman coming of age, and there is that same questioning sense, but the ‘I’ in this collection is myriad/multiple, and the book goes so far as to call itself an ‘anti-memoir’, expanding on this to further challenge pastoral cliches and chocolate box ideas of Welsh places, as Bell’s Hymnal does, too, in its own way. This excellent collection comes with a soundtrack, which I would urge you to listen to, but make sure you get the book as well.
Sagrada Familia, Helen Anderson (Nine Pens, price: £7.50)
Loss is the main theme of Helen Anderson’s Sagrada Familia, another interesting and evocative pamphlet from the fantastic small press Nine Pens. How the living live with bereavement appears to be the main question, and these poems detail that – making an answer of sorts, as the I of the poems remembers and recollects, ‘sifting’ and ‘scouring’ the flotsam and jetsam of a beach, “mooching around” looking through vintage items, and other activities which, in some way, intimate loss. More overt are poems such as How To Grow A Window, the final piece in the book, which is playful in its premise but also powerfully affecting, taking the details of life for those who are bereaved, and listing them, almost lyrically: “That widow is on the hunt / for words vast and exact enough”.
Altogether, it makes Sagrada Familia a very emotive read, but this is achieved through detail and intelligence rather than any kind of outpouring. ‘Grief writing’ is a really interesting subgenre or strand within contemporary poetry at the moment, because it seems, to me, all about finding new ways of exploring bereavement and connecting to readers, away from what has been done traditionally – the dirge, the eulogy, the lament. Loss can be a list, it can be “between hills”, it can be a mix of emotions – “wistful/regretful/raging”. A keen-feeling, keen-thinking book that offers a powerful effect on the reader.
Artifice, Lavinia Singer (Prototype, price: £12)
Some of the poems in Anderson’s Sagrada Familia address writing in and of itself, but in Lavinia Singer’s Artifice, this is a major theme – along with creation generally, including of other objects. In the opening section, for example, many of the poems address artworks; waxworks, a woodcut, a painting of the queen. Ekphrastic poetry, in a way, then, but addressing the act of making more than the resultant piece, which makes this book instantly quite unusual.
And, like these diverse artworks, the poems themselves are also very diverse, different, and creative, with experiments of shape and forms apparent – there are poems scattered across the page, poems split into a series of ‘sinking’ columns, poems shaped like triangles or rounded vessels. There’s a poem which takes the shape of a cross, with two sections of text crossing over each other, melding and mixing; there are poems with missing words, or with words crossed out; and, more besides.
Sometimes, it’s the combination of words and phrases alone that shines with strangeness and originality, as the author places them together in unusual and original combinations. Overall, the book is therefore decidedly daring, and great fun to read, with a gilt-edge of wit shining throughout.
The ‘artifice’ of the collection is, therefore, decidedly playful in its tone and intent, as well as provocative and experimental, and it’s this which makes the book such a joy – we join Singer in her sewing together of this, that, and the other, finding beauty in “dogs shouting”, sensing magic(k) in “Roadside shadows”. Beautiful, ebullient, effervescent, and elegant to boot, it demonstrates that ‘artifice’ can be artful and inspiring, rather than pretentious or pious.
words MAB JONES
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