Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Write Now!

A short and salty post: are you a writer in Edinburgh (or near by and willing to travel in)? If so check out the art work of Christopher Orr.

The Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh is looking for writers who wish to respond to Orr's paintings. For more information drop me a quick email at Now, away with you, orr else!

Russell Jones

Friday, 24 October 2014

Two Plugs are Better than One!

Right, you lily livered scallywags, what have you asked Santa Claus for? Go on, tell me, I won't let him in on the secret that you've been incredibly naughty. And at your age!

Well there's no chance you're getting those things, not now. Instead you ought to buy these two books. Several copies of each, some for yourself, some for your loved ones, some for your enemies. They feature a hoard of fine poems from upstanding people unlike yourself.

Be the First to Like This: New Scottish Poetry
Vagabond Press
Edited by Colin Waters
This collection is awash with fine poems from almost 40 of Scotland's versifiers. It includes work from Claire Askew, Colin McGuire, Michael Pederson, Aiko Harman, William Letford...the list goes on. 3 poems per poet, giving a nice feel for what they're all about. I've also a few ditties in there.

Double Bill
Red Squirrel Press
Edited by Andy Jackson
This collection takes inspiration from popular culture such as music, TV and the BIG screen. It makes strange links between its sources, comparing Judge Judy with Judge Dredd, among others. MANY poems and poets including Ryan Van Winkle, JL Williams, Sally Evans, Andy Jackson, WN Herbert, Chrissy Williams...the list never ends.

Buy them NOW. Or I'm telling Santa and he won't be happy. Ho. Ho. Ho.

Russell Jones

Monday, 13 October 2014

Poet Profile: Paul Farley

Paul Farley

The background.
Paul Farley grew up in Liverpool and studied painting in Chelsea. He’s won (or been shortlisted) for a sack full of prizes including the TS Eliot award. As well as publishing poetry on the page he’s been a big name on the radio waves, broadcasting poetry and drama. Check out a fuller list here. 

Why this poet?
Paul was my poetry tutor back in the days when I was a teeny weeny undergrad at Lancaster University. At the time I don’t think I realised just how great a poet he was. We’d go to the pub, he’d recite dirty limericks and tell us horrifying and hilarious stories. His poetry has an awesome musical quality to it which comes through on the page, but hearing it is even better. His book titles remind me of Stereophonics songs for some reason, which is no bad thing: “The Boy from the Chemist is Here to See You” and “Tramp in Flames” for example. His poetic voice is unique and full of charisma, and his poems expertly capture a sense of time and place, tackling difficult issues with a combination of subtlety and flamboyance.

A poem extract
(from “Tramp in Flames”, in the collection “Tramp in Flames” Picador, 2006)

Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry
to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.
We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch
From the Fantastic Four. We can switch to art

my uncle said the burning bodies rose
like Draculas from their boxes.
                                                But his layers
burn brightly and the salts locked in his hems
give off the colours of a Roman candle


in the middle of the city he was born in,
and the bin bags melt and fuse him to the pavement
and a pool forms like the way he wet himself
sat on the school floor forty years before,
and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.

A reading
That same old issue, of course – this is just an extract, albeit about half the poem.

Farley is a master of “turning the line”, which is to say that the lines shift meaning depending on how you read them. Any line in his poems stands well on its own, but then look what happens when you read the line before it, or the one after: it changes subtly but significantly. Let’s look at an example...

Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry
to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.
We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch

Taken on its own “to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.” hits hard. The narrator instructs us of the reality of a man burning in the streets. It’s almost dismissive; this person is “a tramp”, somehow not a human or fully formed character. We learn nothing of him until the end, only his title of “tramp”.

Now attach the first line to it ("Some similes act like heat shields for re-entry to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor.") Suddenly we’re in a kind of literary outer space in which similes protect us from the reality of a burning man. It’s completely true, think about how we talk about death. We rarely say, “I’m sorry x person is dead.” We say “he’s passed on”, “he’s no longer with us”. It’s a simile for death but we use it to soften the blow, as a heat shield against the fire of reality, which is too hot to handle.

And then join the last line to the second (to reality: a tramp in flames on the floor. We can say Flame on! to invoke the Human Torch). It’s a cruel joke, isn’t it? The narrator suddenly moves away from reality, perhaps because they can’t take the image, and they turn it into a bit of a joke by comparing the man to the Human Torch from Marvel comic books.

What is it saying then? We placate ourselves and ignore the cruel reality of what is happening. Later the poem refers to “the city he was born in” and the tramp’s life at school when he’s (we assume) asking for help: “and then the hand goes up. The hand goes up.” Even here, Farley’s challenging how we read the line. “The hand goes up” in class to ask for help, and he stresses it again (The hand goes up.) to show the LACK of help. Is this poem really about someone burning? Well, it could have happened or simply be imagined. But it seems to be suggesting that we, as individuals and a society, find reasons to ignore social inequalities and those who need help, not only when they’re adults but also throughout their lives. Choosing ignorance is what causes the problem, the burning.

This is only my take on the poem, of course, but I strongly encourage anyone to take a look at this poem for themselves. “Turning the line” (I’ve just made that up by the way, I’m sure it has a proper name) is something Farley is a master of, but his poems have such a powerful voice that frequently capture time and location so brilliantly. Reading him is a masterclass in impactful and thoughtful verse.

Go read...

The Ice Age (Picador, 2002).
Tramp in Flames (Picador, 2006).
The Dark Film (Picador, 2012). - this one was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize
Listen to Farley’s poem, “Treacle”, here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

A filthy sonnet

There ain't much poetry on this poetry blog, so here's a sonnet from my upcoming collection "Our Terraced Hum" (part of a 5 poet anthology called "Caboodle", from Prole Books, 2014). This poem will also feature in my first full collection, "The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping" (Freight Books, 2015). 

Get messy.

Basement Beneath the Corner Shop

He’s made himself the castle of his dreams:
the landfill lord, a tin can Midas
moated by nine months of debris. He beams
in the grit of his homemade fortress
because nothing outside can finger through
the pizza-box walls cracked by arrow loops,
his cardboard curtain. The hullaballoo 
of reality is cut by his coup 
d'état, cartons stacked, wrappers tacked, intact
in the order of chaos. Passersby
gleer in, hands fanned over their eyes, retract,
shake their faces at the teem of house flies.
They mark him the idol of their own disgust
when in public but, privately, they lust.

Russell Jones

Poet Profiles 2: Jo Shapcott

Jo Shapcott

The background.
Jo Shapcott is from London but studied in Dublin. She teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has won some big awards including the Costa Prize and the Forward Prize.  Aside from poetry she has also studied science with the Open University. Her collection “Of Mutability” (2011) explores her experiences of having breast cancer.

Why this poet?
She’s one that sticks in my head, like a piece of tasty gristle between my gnashers. If nothing else, her turns of phrase can make me tingle and gurn. Her first collection, for example, she titled: “Electroplating the Baby”. Frankly I don’t think you can beat that. Her poetry is diverse too, from knitting to pissing, cancer to chemistry. She’s interested in everyday life but her poems also talk about bigger issues such as gender and identity.

A poem extract
(from “Of Mutability” – read the full poem here)

Too many of the best cells in my body
are itching, feeling jagged, turning raw
in this spring chill. It’s two thousand and four
and I don’t know a soul who doesn’t feel small
among the numbers. Razor small.


Look up to catch eclipses, gold leaf, comets,
angels, chandeliers, out of the corner of your eye,
join them if you like, learn astrophysics, or
learn folksong, human sacrifice, mortality

A reading

I hate having to paste bits of poems, it really ruins the overall impact. However, we’ll have to cope.

What I love about this poem is how personal it is, and yet it blasts outwards to take in the ‘grand scheme of things’.  Shapcott’s choice of words in the first stanza is brutal: “itching”, “jagged”, “raw” and these words would feel tired if it weren’t for the fact that she’s not talking about flesh as we might expect it, she’s talking about her “best cells”. Of course the fact that these are the “best” ones means that what’s unmentioned (the “worse cells”) is all the more potent. She’s breaking apart. We’re next to her, listening to her talk about her body’s rebellion, and we know this could happen to us too.

And then BOOM, here come the comets and angels. We’re told we can join them, we can learn “astrophysics or folksong”. Is this hope? It’s those things we imagine, those things we don’t quite know, “in the corner of your eye” that open up opportunities. That dissolving body becomes secondary to the possibilities of the mind, but it was the learning of her mortality, and our own, that brings about such vast change and inspiration. It’s as though she’s saying 'once you let go, you’re free to be something else.' She’s prodded life in the eye and she seems to come out victorious, or at least transformed.

I think this poem teaches us something: every experience, even very challenging, even life threatening, can change the way we think about the world and our place in it.

Go read...

Of Mutability (winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award)

Her Book: Poems 1988-1998.

Electroplating the Baby (winner of the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for best first collection) - I think you have to get this second hand now, or read parts of it in her collected poems

Emergency Kit: Poems for Strange Times (edited with Matthew Sweeny, a very fine anthology of poems for all sorts of reasons, a great addition to a book shelf).  

Russell Jones

Monday, 1 September 2014

Poet Profiles, 1: Edwin Morgan

In a bid to share my poetry preferences and spread the good word about some fine poets, living and dead, I have decided to publish a fortnightly Poet Profile.

Have a gander...

 Edwin Morgan

The background.
For anyone who knows me, this guy’s the obvious choice to begin my poet profiles (my PhD was on his sci-fi poetry). Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was the Scots Makar until his death in 2010. He grew up in Glasgow, serving abroad in WW2, returning to teach at Glasgow University. For all the ins, outs and sideways of his life I’d recommend picking up “Beyond The Last Dragon:A Life of Edwin Morgan” by his great friend and biographer, James McGonigal.

Why this poet?
Morgan has to be one of the most exciting poets I’ve ever read. His poetry is diverse, funny and profound. He’s written poems about the Loch Ness Monster, Computer Christmas cards, space aliens, love, loss and liberty. He’s written sonnets, sound poems, colour poems, sci-fi poems, dialogue poems, concrete poems, one word poems, emergent poems... I could go on. In short: check him out.

A poem extract.
(from “The Loch Ness Monster’s Song" - LISTEN HERE)

Hnwhuffl hhnnwfl hnfl hfl?
Gdroblboblhobngbl gbl gl g g g g glbgl.
Drublhaflablhaflubhafgabhaflhafl fl fl –
gm grawwwww grf grawf awfgm graw gm.
Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?

A reading.
First, I have to express how much fun this poem is to read aloud. You’d be missing out (and partly missing the point) if you just read it in your head. Having taught this at secondary schools and universities, I know how much of a kick people get out of hearing it spoken with gusto. Give it a try, go on, now!

This is a sound poem, but the shape also adds to possible interpretations we might make. At first the poem looks like nonsense, but there are hints of intelligence in there. The monster asks questions, seeming to call out dinosaur-esque names: “Hovoplodok – doplodovok – plovodokot-doplodokosh?”

Now Morgan has discussed what’s “happening” in the poem, but to some degree that is irrelevant. The poem encourages you to make up your own stories, to build a narrative from mere sound. Take that idea  a step further and it starts to question the nature of language: isn’t the way we engage with the world also linguistically bound? And isn’t language simply an assortment of noises?

What’s the point then? Communication. Something ethereal is communicated through listening to the poem, whether it’s merely humour or something deeper. But the listener also begins to try to translate the poem. “What is the monster saying? What’s happening?” They become an active participant, decrypting the song and taking from it what they will. This was a major drive of Morgan’s work: communication is key, we need to work hard at understanding each other.

This is a great example, I think, of how a poem can work without the meaning of the words being the most important thing on the page. It shows us how poetry can be effective and affective without “understanding” ever being a part of the equation.

Go read...
Morgan has published SO many poems in books, magazines and so on. If you’re new to his work I highly recommend his Collected Poems, which gives a good sample of a wide range of his stuff. You can also listen to a few of his poems on the Poetry Archive. If he grabs your fancy, visit the Scottish PoetryLibrary in Edinburgh, the home of The Edwin Morgan Archive.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Data Dump Award

Hello old friend. Have you been for a dump? I have. A data dump, of course. A ho ho ho. And a poo.

Data Dump is a regular newsletter about science fiction music, poetry and more, lovingly produced by Steve Sneyd. This is the ninth year that he's run a Data Dump Award for sci-fi poetry published in the UK and I'm happy to report that my poem, "After the Moons" won a gold star and took 1st place.

But here is also the information for those fine sci-fi poets who came in 2nd and 3rd. In some cases you can click their names to visit their blogs, sales pages and so on. Enjoy

Russell Jones
"After the Moons"
from "Spaces of Their Own" (Stewed Rhubarb Press)

Joint 2nd
Andrew Darlington / JS MacLean
"Saturn Sigma Trojan Virus" / "Poetry is True Science Fiction"
Handshake 87 / Awen 82

Joint 3rd
Bryn Fortey / JC Hartley / Neil Wilgus
"Chaser and Chased" / "The Enigma Invasion" / "Yellow Dreams"
Bard 129 / Tiger Shark / Yellow Dreams

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Reviews reviews reviews

Writers are egotistical beasts, always on about me me me. Well I'm the worst of them all. Just look at this blog, it's entirely posts ranting on about moi. Disgusting.

So, here are some reviews (which I wrote, yes me, Russell Jones) of OTHER PEOPLE'S POETRY. You can even check out the poets' blogs or sales pages (in most cases), if you're that kind of person. Follow the links, comment, fornicate -

Click the poet's name to see their blog.
Click the book title to see my review.

Opening the Ambulance Box: Andrew Phillips' The Ambulance Box” (2012)

A Home Run? Willis Barnstone’s Stickball on 88th Street“ , The Istanbul Review, Issue 1(2012)

Separating the Pieces: The Cento, A Collection of Collage Poems edited by Theresa Malphrus Welford”, The Istanbul Review, Issue 1 (2012)

Evenlode: Charles Bennett”, Elsewhere, (September 2013)

This is Yarrow: Tara Bergin”, Elsewhere (October 2013)

Muscovy: Matthew Francis”, Elsewhere (December 2013)

LeafGraffiti: Lucy Burnett”, Elsewhere (March 2014)

Locustand Marlin: JL Williams” (March 2014) 

ProfessorHeger's Daughter: Chrissie Gittins”, Elsewhere (April 2014)

Russell Jones

Saturday, 26 April 2014

"Our Terraced Hum"

Much good news on the poetry front lately (now to sort out the rest of my meager existence!). Prole Books have decided to publish my sonnet sequence, "Our Terraced Hum".

It's part of an anthology called "Caboodle", which includes work from 5 other superstars of poetry:
Karina Vidler, Kate Garrett, Angela Croft, Gill McEvoy and Rafael Miguel Montes.

Due out in December, no doubt I'll update you again so your life can be filled with the joys of the publication process. I know you love it, you filthy thing you.

Russell Jones

Friday, 11 April 2014

Best Scottish Poems 2013

If, like me, you are suspicious of good fortune, then you may wish to throw a black cat under a ladder. My poem "The Ant Swap" from my sci-fi poetry pamphlet, "Spaces of Their Own" (Stewed Rhubarb Press) has been chosen as one of the twenty Best Scottish Poems of 2013!

The list was chosen by David Robinson, the books editor for The Scotsman, who had this to say about my poem:

"I love the mind-bending imagination of this poem, which zooms down to an ant-level view of the world before racing up into ‘the heat of stars, the prized melting flesh of my cosmos’, all somehow seen through a transfer of consciousness between the ant and the poet. I love, too, the image of ‘a tongue’s first flirt with noise’ employed as part of that wished-for transfer, and the signs that it has somehow been achieved, as the poet feels, instead of thought, a sense of the ‘heat of sugar’ that has lured the ant towards the ‘prized melting flesh of roadkill’, and the ant is able to imagine some sort of blissful human nirvana. And all in ten lines, too!"

Read the poem (or listen to my mad face reading it) on the Scottish Poetry Library Website.

Also included is work from:
Patricia Ace, Jean Atkin, John Burnside, Niall Campbell, Angela Cleland, Anna Crowe, Andrew Greig, Diane Hendry, Bill Herbert, Kathleen Jamie, Rob MacKenzie, Kona Macphee, Jim Mainland, J.O. Morgan, Thereza Munoz, Donald S. Murray, Robin Robertson, Ian Stephens and Jennifer Lynn Williams


Russell Jones

Auld Reekie Readers

Far from stinking, Auld Reekie Readers is a group of readers and writers who meet up to share their work and listen to authors read.

As such I'll be talking about Edwin Morgan, sci-fi poetry, writing and editing, on Monday 14th April.

It's at the City Cafe in Edinburgh (EH1 1QR) and starts at 18:30.

Be there or be...somewhere else!

Russell Jones

Monday, 31 March 2014

Writing...and monkeys

Writing...and monkeys

This is a post about writing, and that mystical art of “process”. Essentially it's a bunch of blog posts from various writers – known and unknown – about why they do what they do, and how it is they go about doing it. It's not a book of hints on “how to be a writer” or a set of tricks to get you motivated, so far as I can tell, but a glimpse inside the private lives of the freaks and geeks amongst us, those people who sit on their lonesome and scribble down what the voices in their heads tell them to say...

I received this calling to write a post on “the writing process” from Pippa Goldschmidt, and as the tradition dictates I shall now tell you a little about her:

Pippa is a professional astronomer, which to me makes her incredibly cool before she's even opened her mouth or put pen to paper. She is also the author of The Falling Sky, a novel which has received great acclaim and which I ignorantly still need to read. But I do know this: it's about a female astronomer whose discovery could unravel current understandings of The Big Bang. She is also a fine poet and I included her work in Where Rockets Burn Through:Contemporary Science Fiction Poems from the UK. If you've an interest in science and fiction then she's a definite go-to contemporary writer. Go, go check out her work and ramblings, go now! You can check out her site here, which includes her own post about the way she goes about getting the good words down and chucking the bad ones out.

And so the nebula has been passed on to me. The task is to answer four questions, so here we go...

Question 1: What am I working on?

Back in January I was rowing in Ha Long Bay, in northern Vietnam. A guide told me that on occasion, if you were lucky, monkeys could be seen climbing and chatting among the rocks. Now, I love monkeys. I love them a degree further than is probably sane. I've visited a monkey temple in India, fed a baby monkey in Thailand, I even have a t-shirt proclaiming my monkey love. And yet no monkeys appeared on those rocks. Imagine, if you can, my despair. I longed for those monkeys to voyage down, if only I could call to them in a voice they could understand, they would surely not deny me the pleasure of their company...

That's the long route to saying this: I'm writing a novel about families who can communicate with animals.

I'm also still writing poetry and will shortly be editing my upcoming collection The Green Dress Whose Girl is Sleeping (due for publication with Freight Books in 2015) with editor Andrew Philip.

Question 2: How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I'm perhaps most well known for my work in the sub-genre of Science Fiction Poetry, having published two pamphlets of my own (“The Last Refuge” from Forest Publications in 2009, and “Spaces of Their Own” from Stewed Rhubarb Press in 2013) and edited a book of contemporary sci-fi poems from the UK (“Where Rockets Burn Through” from Penned in the Margins, 2013). The science fictional element seems to have the ability to draw in new audiences, primarily fans of SF, which I am very happy about because it gets non-poetry-readers a bit more interested in poetry, as well as breaking apart some of the snobbishness of poetry and genre.

So far as the novel goes, it's a young adult book (of which there be many) but aside from the story line I've been trying to challenge notions of gender, race and class by inverting them. It's also a book about politics and power, which are subjects I think we tend to – incorrectly – shy away from when giving books to young people. It will include lots of monkeys.

Question 3: Why do I write what I do?

This is a question my mum would ask me. In terms of poetry, I write to distill my thoughts and to see what language can do, how it can change my perception. I think there's something almost scientific about poetry, it's a process of discovery, of experimentation, of refining and refracting, and re-examining the results. What comes out isn't necessarily what went in, the conclusion isn't necessarily the aim. And that's good because it bends the box and slaps you around the face a bit.

My novel feels more like an escape, a world I'd like to visit (although probably not live in). It's a chance to explore my characters and see who they become, as arsey and artsy as that sounds. Perhaps they're imaginary friends; I want to help them out, to lead them down uncertain paths and see what's on the other side.

In all honesty there's a financial element to novel writing too. Poetry is a labour of love, I know I'll never make my fortune from it. More people are willing to pick up a novel and to pay for it.

Question 4: How does your writing process work?

I have two rules when writing: don't do it when drunk, and don't do it when overly emotional. I break them both.

A poem starts as a line in my head, I hear it first like a piece of music from a broken record that wants me to place the needle back on the groove. The poem grows from that line, I don't know what it is when I start it and it's not always clear by the end. Sometimes I am interested in the poem as an experiment. Hey what would happen if I wrote a bunch of one word poems, or a sequence of sonnets about sexbots? Sometimes it feels like more of an expulsion, to sweat something out and jar it. A nice jar of sweat. I try not to force out or overwork a poem, rather I just let them come as they will, sometimes a dozen in a day, other times nothing for months. I almost always work on a laptop: the appearance of the poem is very important to me and if I need to scratch things out with pen and paper its messiness would disturb me and throw me off the scent. Editing can take anywhere from minutes to months. In 2008 I started a poem that is just 25 words long, and I'm still not happy with it. That said, once I feel a poem is finished I don't like to touch it after about 5 years. That feels like I'm editing my old self, trying to pretend they didn't exist or that somehow the person I am now is a “better” poet, with more worthwhile things to say. And that seems very rude to Old-Me.

Writing a novel feels more planned out. Probably because I use a somewhat extensive plan. I know where things start, their potential endings, but not necessarily the finer details in between. The characters react and change, they think things over and respond. I can't plan that part of things because I don't know the characters well enough until they're faced with the dilemma, the romance, the massive murderous bear with platinum claws that chases after them. Redrafting prose is currently an enigma to me, although I imagine it will be copious.

If you've managed to get this far then well done! All that's left is to introduce the next writer, Colin McGuire. Colin has published a pamphlet of poems about sleep, "Everybody Lie Down and No One Gets Hurt" with Red Squirrel Press, and is well known around the Scottish spoken word scene. He has reached the finals of the BBC Poetry Slam and runs a regular poetry night in Edinburgh, called Talking Heids. He can be followed on his blog, here! A full length collection of Colin's work is due out this year.

Peace and monkeys be with you.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

"The Last Refuge" e-book

Hear ye, hear ye, "The Last Refuge" (my 2009 pamphlet of sci-fi poems from Forest Publications) is now available on e-book.

It includes poems about A.I in supermarket barcode scanners, Android birthday parties, a poem from the perspective of a nuclear warhead and more...

It's only £0.77 and is a nice little taster to get you in the mood for "Spaces of Their Own" if you don't already own it.

Buy it here.

Russell Jones

Sci-fi Poetry Awards news

Yarr, ye scurvy Earth Lovers. Whilst I wes washin me space britches in the seas of Neptune I happened me across a few award nominations. Take yer hypershovel and dig at em, afore they leech into that thar parallel universe. Yarr.

Yeh "Spaces of Their Own" has been nominated for a few things, check em out:

* "Spaces of Their Own" nominated for the Elgin Award.
Find the other nominees here

* "After the Moons" nominated for the Rhysling Award.
Check out the other potentials here

* "After the Moons", "Re-entry" and "The Ant Swap" long listed for the 9th annual Data Dump Award.

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Listen to science fiction poems from Where Rockets Burn Through

The one-woman sci-fi poetry guru, Diane Severson Mori, has published an outstanding review of "Where Rockets Burn Through" and "Spaces of Their Own", on the Amazing Stories website.

It includes a big fat slice of sci-fi poetry recordings from a host of great contemporary poets, which I urge you to listen to RIGHT NOW.

Listen to poems by:

 Jane Irina McKie
 James McGonigal
 Sarah Hesketh
 Andy Jackson
 Simon Barraclough
 Jane Yolen
 Dilys Rose
 Aiko Harman
 Ian McLachlan
Kirsten Irving
Kona MacPhee
Bill Herbert
Andrew James Wilson
Claire Askew
Sue Guiney
Ron Butlin
Pippa Goldschmidt

Russell Jones

A poetry book review: Locust and Marlin by JL Williams

rework.jpg (640×477)

Locust and Marlin
JL Williams
Shearsman Books

Our position in the world, and how we reflect on it, is one of the key concerns of this book. This seemed apt to me as I sat in the sunny March of Holyrood Park in Edinburgh, my dog panting at my side, Locust and Marlin getting grubbied by my mud slathered hands. It was a fine setting for reading this book (surrounded by volcanic hills, the hum of the city in the background, people walking to work) in which nature, god and our place in the universe are pondered. There is something quite transformative about reading a collection of poems in a relevant space, and the near-miracle of a Scottish sun made it all the sweeter.

If Williams reads this review then she may laugh at what I'm about to say, because when I bought the book at the Scottish Poetry Library I obsessed over this: the cover feels great. It's a peculiar thing to mention in a book review but the front and back of Locust and Marlin has a velvety finish that makes it pleasurable to hold. The cover image – a sea blue menagerie with hidden images of insects, birds and fish – also rings of the natural imagery and mythology to be found within the poems. Shearsman have done a fine job in creating an artefact worth holding, for sure.

But what of the poems themselves? There's a refreshing brevity to Williams' work, splashes of life and colour that aren't afraid to let themselves stop ahead of schedule. These are glimpses, ruminations, reflections. They avoid answers, and I admire that in a poem. A quiet confidence permeates the collection, in which the poet taps us on the shoulder to ask what we're doing. There are longer pieces too, some of which were amongst my favourites as they begin to dig up the earth a little more.

You could dip in and out of this book and take something from each of the verses. The opening poem, for example, “Heron”, is a short meditation on the nature of the imagination, and a fine beginning to a collection that requires us to fill in the gaps it leaves behind. I would like to show the poem in full, but it's not the done thing, so here are the first four lines (of seven):

Imagine a great silence
whose wings touch no branches.

Imagine a space demarcated
by lack of sound.

Cleverly, this heron is returned to in the final poem, “Revelation”, which is only three lines long, ending: “the feeling of the fishes brushing his legs”. The revelation is the acceptance of being, of nescience, of its position in the world; a revelation which perhaps we share by the end of the book. There's that biblical reference too, of course, and this is a frequently visited home in the collection. The narrators don't always quite know what to do with god, or the notion of it. In “Like Phaeton (3)” for example, the “He” of the poem remains ambiguous, its repetition almost mimicking laughter:


He. He.

He does not speak
as others do.

Comparatively, in “Son (3)” Williams writes:

God isn't here to stake out dry tongues,
to lay claim to scorched fields of hay.

This difference is by no means a criticism of the approaches taken to such a demanding topic, in fact a reduction of god, or an understanding of it, to absolutes, would be to undermine the complexity of it. As a reader with an innate aversion to religiousness in poetry, I was paranoid that this frequent reference would irk or bore me, but that was thankfully avoided. Williams considers the personal, theological and psychological aspects of her core concepts to keep them refreshing. Although they don't all hit the same notes, I was particularly enamoured by the peculiar, sometimes even grotesque language in poems like “Son”, in lines such as “The wind is a cow” and “I can imagine how my lungs smell”. The anatomist in me likes that.

But this isn't to say that the collection is without flaws. As the cover images imply, there are a lot of seas, birds, fish and stones in this book. I'd say the majority of the poems mention them at some point, and whilst book-long tropes can be impressive, they did blur into one another at times and I found myself thinking “oh bloody hell not another stone”. This could have jarred the pleasurable experience of reading the book as a whole, even though it did at times make chimes and tinkles between the poems. And whilst the book asks questions, it asks too many of them, and too overtly. It's full of rhetoric-isms, and although this does lend itself to the nature of questioning our spiritual and actual place in the world, the combined effect is to dampen the concern of each (however well meant or interesting they might be). The most successful poems present these ideas without firing them – shotgun like – at us. These large concepts need to be drawn out of the poem through the reader's interpretation, and in poems such as “Blinding” (perhaps my favourite of them all) this is achieved succinctly and powerfully. The closing lines read:

.........................................................women knead the bread
water unveils
its secret
......................................................... hungry mouths are fed
one to shine
one to see the shining

The pleasure of Locust and Marlin is most profoundly felt on reading it as a whole. Its tone is inviting, gentle, reassuring in its subliminal declaration that there are no real answers, and that we must each find our place amongst the questions. As good poetry ought to, this book made me leave that sunny park a little different to when I arrived, and though I washed the mud from my hands when I got home I've still got some of it under my nails.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Buying a Poster

A number of people have approached me about buying a copy of "1 in 5 teenagers with experiment with poetry" for their doors, fridges, trash cans and so on.

Unfortunately I do not own the images I used on the poster, as I only created it as a silly little thing to show my friends. It's now been shared many thousands of times.

In conclusion: sorry, I cannae print and sell you a poster. But feel free to take a good old gander at it on my blog, and to do as you see fit----


Russell Jones