Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Poetry review: Jonathan Bay (House of Three)

Poetry review
By Jonathan Bay
Published by House of Three

Straight off the proverbial bat, I feel I ought to announce my bias for Jonathan Bay’s work. We’re good friends, and we meet up almost weekly to discuss poetry and drink expensive beer. That said, I don’t think this is an over-exaggeration: Jonathan Bay is one of the finest poets writing in Scotland today.

Let me unpack that a little before I get into the review of this pamphlet. I have spend several years reading Jonathan’s poetry, and in one sense it has a fatal flaw in terms of gaining public attention: it’s probably not immediately going to smack your head against the concrete. It may not instantly appeal to poetry competition judges, for that reason, too. Bay’s work is subtle and deceptively gentle, but once you actually sit down and start to think it over, you realise you’ve unearthed some truly outstanding, impactful and excellently-crafted poetry.

It’s bad science to start with the conclusion and then follow up with the evidence, but that’s what I’m going to do. Bay’s work can easily be overlooked, but that’s a big mistake, so I want you onboard before we get going. Ready? Okay.

For me, this pamphlet is about re-examination and transformation. Whether it’s through poems about travel, surgery, emotion or family, Bay doesn’t shy away from the complexities of challenging topics. Nothing is easy here, there are few “answers”, but there are explorations and questions. It doesn’t ask you directly, it plants seeds in your head and waits for them to grow. In that sense, this collection is outward looking but through an inward lens. It’s overtly personal, but never to the degree that it feels unapproachable. It’s alien without being alienating.

Jonathan is a Californian transman living in Scotland, so links between travel and the body are particularly relevant to this collection. In the opening poem, “Riding America”, we follow the narrator on a bike-rider across the US:

Remember the feeling of straining metal
between your legs

Hopeless miles in sticky heat
my mind has forgotten who we were then

The body and mind, like the bike, has migrated. Taken as a literal reading, we envisage a sweaty bike ride in the sun, but through another view of mind and body transformation, the poem takes on new potential: “straining metal / between your legs” evokes surgical connotations. “Straining” and “hopeless miles” also infer mental struggle and a feeling of futility, with the near-pleasure (or perhaps the partial alleviation of psychological pressure) brought about by a mind “[forgetting] who we were then”. Whilst the speaker suggests the mind “has forgotten”, however, this truth is complicated by the plural address of “we” – perhaps more than one rider, but perhaps more than one self. Is the old self ever truly forgotten, even if we will the mind to forget them? This concept doesn’t only apply to people who have undergone physical change, but to anyone who feels they have changed (which is to say, everyone).

I could go on. In this briefest of sections, there are so many layers to peel away. At times the poems are much more obviously visceral and cause a near-physical reaction when reading them. In that way, Bay keeps us on our toes. We predict a gentle complexity, only to be hit by something much sharper; it cuts. In “Pap Smear” for example:

she couldn’t put the speculum
in and hold it

my degenerated vagina only
wanted to spit it out

We both felt badly
about the way my hole hurt
but I didn’t say a thing

how could you

To someone uninitiated to this world (and I expect to others) this felt intrusive in many ways. I felt as though I was intruding on a private procedure and reflection, and yet there are people (the nurse) present, and the poem itself is a public document. The real kicker, however, is that final line, isolated (which to me also implies something of the speaker). It simultaneously evokes several questions, none of which is necessarily obvious or absolute:

  1) “how could you” say anything about the practical problems faced by nurse and patient? That’s just how things are. There’s a sense of acceptance here.
  2) “how could you” do that to me? The patient might ask of the nurse, or vice-versa.
  3) “how could you” – a question potentially uttered by those on the outside: how could you change your body? How could you go through that? And so on, and so on…

There’s a sense of discomfort, intrusion, accusation, acceptance, struggle, all in three short words. I bow to the master.

That’s not to say the pamphlet is always serious or always so intense. There’s lightness, too, and though we might be swayed into reading through a single lens, that shouldn’t be the case. The more you read these poems, the more you take from them. They’re physical, emotionally poignant, asking questions and forcing the reader to ask questions.

Poems such as “Support”, for example, in which the narrator realises family support isn’t always the “big things” but also helping fill out forms or helping to “do math / at the kitchen table / with the light dimming” can, and perhaps should, be taken at face value.

This review could go on forever, so let’s draw to a close.

If you agree that poetry should challenge and affect us, I suggest you check out Jonathan Bay’s work post-haste. His poetry is approachable but complex and impactful, with layers which reveal themselves with time and patience. Whilst the publication itself is a bit strange (three poets in one collection, but none of the collections are titled) I whole-heartedly recommend the poems therein. 

Russell Jones

Poetry Review: Bone Ovation by Caroline Hardaker

Poetry review
Published by Valley Press
RRP: £6.99

Don’t judge a book by its cover, so sayeth the saying. But in the case of Caroline Hardaker’s Bone Ovation I think it’s an appropriate judgement. This engaging and (for lack of a better word) creepy collection, with its macabre cover (an insect, I think a bee or wasp, half-stripped of its hair and flesh to reveal a part-skeleton, akin to a dissection) is a surreal dive into the darker end of human psyches, and our skeletal binds to this mortal coil.

This pamphlet is full of mesmeric poems which force their music into your skull, and then break it apart. There are poems about love and mountains, clans, feet and rice, to name a few, but what particularly struck me was Hardaker’s unusual use of repetition. The poems often repeat images (bones, skin, breaking/destroying/reconfiguring, butter and bodies) and sounds to create an almost chant-like or invocation-like quality, a spell-binding. This is what lingered with me, and will be the focus of this review.

I’m a peculiar fellow and repetition has a profound affect on me. Let me expand on that to give you an idea of why Bone Ovation’s repetitions of sound and content led me to a sense of ‘madness’… Sometimes I dream of repetitions, in numbers or patterns, layouts, blueprints, sounds or phrases. When this happens, it makes me physically unwell (or, the repetitions are a form of delirium caused by an illness, I haven’t quite decided). Bone Ovation is a short collection (23 pages of poems) with frequent repetitions which, in me at least, stirred a feeling of instability, obsession and even tangible insanity. I don’t feel this was accidental or even simply a product of my own mind, though, as the constant references to mortality, bones, breaking and reassembling, link our bodies with our psyches, as well as the erosion and reconstruction of the world and our perceptions of reality.

This sense of sweeping instability is further enhanced by Hardaker’s use of strong rhymes, which establish and then destroy attempts to gains something reliable in terms of form and patterns. Nothing is certain, and Hardaker lures the reader into false predictions. The musicality of the language, whilst tying into the prayer-like / spell-like qualities of the pamphlet, eventually bait the reader into abandoning expectation, unsettling the ground they walk on. We are destabilised further through inconsistent and peculiar sentence structures, breaking down how we process thought on a linguistic, even grammatical, level.

There are many examples to be plucked from the collection. Here is one from “Your Bones and My Bones are Chicken Bones”:

The chicken is a chicken – splaying gnarled bones and plucking skull,
and no new squawks will help that lie be sown.

But our bones are the same, I grant you,
our bones are the same …

Here, the repetition of “chicken” and “bones” in such close proximity not only draws connection between them, but also seems to undermine the assertion that “The chicken is a chicken”. Is it, really? This seems patently obvious until it unravels to suggest that the chicken is, when reconsidered through bone, rather human. So, is the chicken really chicken, or is there a hint of human there? And if there’s human in chicken, is there not also chicken in human? The poem asserts that the claim “The chicken is a chicken” is a “lie” which cannot be true despite our attempts to linguistically (through “new squawks”) prove it otherwise. Language is therefore incapable, or perhaps (more kindly) a somewhat blunted tool, in challenging the realities of physical world. We might squawk “a chicken is a chicken”, but that doesn’t make it true in every sense.

However, the poems build to a more multifaceted set of queries: our perceptions of ourselves, and other creatures (or indeed the nature of reality) unravel through  the poems’ repetitions, which is reassembled and re-explored in various poems through the collection. Rather than drawing similarity from rhyme and repetition, Hardaker’s poems force us into reassessing those motifs to examine them for difference.

I realise I’ve taken quite a personal and philosophic/linguistic approach to this collection (rather than looking at themes and specific poems, and saying how much people might enjoy the collection) but it invites that kind of reading. There’s so much to admire in these poems, not only as particles but as a whole body. This is simultaneously a delusion and a carefully crafted artwork which forces the reader into new perceptions, a feat which is not only skilfully handled in such a short space, but engagingly so.

Bone Ovation is a unique collection of poetry which disturbed me into thinking differently about bodies, history, perception and psyches. It does so with a great orchestral style which invites rereading and reassessment. Go check it out!

Russell Jones

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Poetry interview with Jayant Kashyap


Ahead of the launch of my new poetry pamphlet, Dark Matters: new sci-fi poems, Indian poet Jayant Kashyap has interviewed me about poetry!

We talk about the importance of line and stanza breaks, pamphlets versus full books, staying positive and rejections, bad art, sci-fi and more. It's a long interview but hopefully there are a few tasty nuggest in there for you to enjoy.

Russell Jones

Friday, 6 April 2018

The mathematics of poetry publishing success

Okay so the title of this post is pretty click-baity, but I do come to that at the end. More accurately, perhaps, this post should be called: "How often should you send out your poems for publication?" because the two are - unsurprisingly - very closely linked.

I’m going to try to answer this question my examining my own submissions over the last year. It starts off a bit mathsy, but I hope you make it through to the analysis later, and my points / learnings at the end…

In 2017 I sent out 164 poems to 33 different magazines/books. 23 poems were accepted in 20 publications. That makes a hit rate of around 14% (per poem sent) and 60% per publication approached. It means that most took a poem from me, and a few took 2.

I also submitted pamphlet manuscripts to 8 different publishers, including a few competitions. I had 4 pamphlets looking for homes, and sometimes submitted more than one to each publisher. In total I sent my pamphlets out 28 times. 3 of the pamphlets found some success (one pamphlet was accepted, one has been provisionally accepted, one more is currently in a short list).  4 publishers are yet to respond. Per submission (28 total), that’s a hit rate of 11%. Per publisher approached (8) that’s a hit rate of 38%.

I would consider this a very good hit rate, personally, particularly "per publication" (60%) rather than “per poem” (but 14% isn’t bad). Based on the number of pamphlet publishers I approached (8), it’s an incredible hit rate (38% positive, 12% definite acceptance) which I’d never expected.

Let’s not discuss full manuscripts because I want to keep those cards closer to my chest.

What was my process?

Well, I keep good records of where I sent each poem, when, and whether it’s successful. This means I can make sure I don’t send them same rejected poems again next time. If a publisher says, “nearly, but not quite – please send us some again” then I make a special note of them.

I was selective about the places I approached and what they might want, particularly if they had a theme. I targeted a number of publications I've wanted my poems to appear in for some time (in some cases I’ve been submitting to them unsuccessfully for about a decade!). Magazine successes included Magma, Atrium, Antiphon and Ink Sweat & Tears.

It’s worth noting that my stats might be a little off because I’m also, on occasion, approached to write poems for commissions. So, those are pretty much automatically accepted, rather than me submitting them.

It’s also worth noting that my submissions included about 15 competitions which cost me around £260, and only one poem was shortlisted, with no prize money in return. This is a really poor hit rate (let’s be generous and call it 7% but you could also call it 0%), and in retrospect I should have entered fewer competitions, and only submitted poems which I felt were “competition winners” (that’s another blog-post for another time).

Now that almost all the poems have been returned with rejections or acceptances, it's about time for another round of submissions. I’m sure this all sounds big-headed, but I'm trying to be factual and honest for the sake of understanding a successful approach or where I’ve gone wrong. My points/learnings are these:

1) Poems /poets get a lot of rejections. Therefore, expect to send out a lot to get a little back
2) Keep the poems out there, if they're half decent they'll find a home somewhere, you just need to be persistent. Keep accurate records so you don’t repeat submissions and you can monitor your progress
3) Be more selective about paid competitions. Though it's hard to judge what will do well, the entry fees can add up (and poets tend not to be rolling in cash)

Something of an aside, but I do not submit to magazines and books which expect a submission fee. I don’t think this is a good practice, but if you have the money then it’s up to you (I understand it can support publications, but paying to be read seems wrong as a writer, to me).

And that’s about it! Go forth, and multiply!

Russell Jones