Thursday, 1 December 2011

Pamphlet Power

I have three fairly new poetry pamphlets just now that I would like to write a little about. Regular poetry reviews bore the life out of me so I'm not going to attempt such an exercise. Instead I'm going to do something that looks more like a survey/questionnaire (market research has been one of my, ahem, fields of expertise...). *Most of the "questions" are self-explanatory but the “first/last poem power” may need some introduction. I remember hearing or reading Don Paterson talk about first and last poems in a collection (I think when his book “Rain” came out). Basically he said they should be the best poems in the collection and whether we agree with that statement of not I want to test these three pamphlets on that criteria. Just for fun partly.

So, pamphlet one... into the ring!

Title – Vintage Sea
Author – Marion McCready (formerly known as the blogger Sorlil... now blogging under her own name here)
PublisherCalder Wood Press
Price – £5
Number of poems – 29
Cover – artwork by possibly the internet's finest purveyor of images Roxana Ghita

Recommendations – on the back James Owens, morgan downie and Hugh McMillan say nice things about MM's poetry. I like morgan's offering – “it is not magical realism but a realism that becomes magical”.
Phase in career – first collection
First poem power (*see introduction) – “Razor Shell” is probably my favourite poem in “Vintage Sea” thus far so yes, a good choice of opening poem. It is possibly the plainest poem in the collection but it is very effective. The title comes from it too.
Last poem power* – yes, definitely a powerful piece once again... though perhaps more so for a person of some religious leanings as one of the quotes is from the Bible (I only know because I asked...) and the poem references “the Eternal”. Still, I like it anyway especially “the sun-bell of your arms”.
Everything in between – there is a lot of beauty in this book, a lot of nature, colour and birdlife. There are also a fair few “I”s, a huge amount of water and quite a few mysterious female characters/spirits/mysteries. It is undeniable that Marion has the voice that some poets look for and never find or hear and her voice says things like “My hair rests on the waist/of the North Sea” (from “Castle Sands” – the book is full of sea and hair!). Marion writes often of her admiration for the poetry of Sylvia Plath but whereas I find Plath's poetry almost (heresy alert) comical at times I can enjoy Marion's poems without sniggering – especially the subtler ones. Plath was a little distracted by her own brilliance, I suspect, but sometimes the less glittering life can help the writing, I think (and Marion lives fairly quietly on the west coast of Scotland, has worked in a fish factory, went to uni but has a practical, regular life that keeps her grounded, at least most of the time...). Perhaps because of this (at least in part) Marion can write simple lines very well (and that is to be cherished, I think). Take “I am pushing this pram/uphill forever” from “Becoming Spring” or “I'm up to my knees in nothing” from “Child” – so easy-sounding but so right. And then on the other hand she has a kind of mystical side that stops the work being too mundane (so she has the lot in some senses – in terms of potential anyway).
Overview - if she keeps hard at it (perhaps with some kind of mean mentor) I can see Marion's writing career panning out nicely as Scotland looks for more strong, dedicated women poets to fill up the ranks. Onward, watery woman of the west, onward!

and our next contender...

Title – Grave with Lights
Author – JoAnne McKay (blogs as a dog – here, damned clever canine...)
Publisher – self-published, handmade by the poet indeed, available at blog (link above)
Price – £10
Number of poems – 13
Cover – Like fancy wallpaper and the whole thing comes in a little fabric bag/slipcase, images inside the pamphlet are by Victor Henderson

See JoAnne holding a copy of the book at this blog post
Recommendations – as with JoAnne's previous two pamphlets this one is introduced/endorsed by Hugh McMillan. No matter how flattering the intro I'd have to say that if you keep this up guys people will talk... maybe someone else next time?
Phase in career – third self-published pamphlet (and I self-published... we are the true hardcore!)
First poem power* – (not counting the poem on the dedication page) “The Countess of Bathory of Romford” is a poem of JoAnne's that I have come across online once or twice and somehow I do like it more on a proper page (maybe I'm just getting old...). It is a kind of Essex anthem and I love the cheek of “for we all hate grass”. It sings pretty loud and clear.
Last poem power* – “Grave with Lights” is my favourite in the book, for sure. A tiny little slip of a thing it will even fit in here:

Grave with Lights

When the sky is great,
such night as this, and not sky
but heavens to ask
why do I feel
this thing, that thing
is child's why.
Because I said so.
Because why not.
Because you are so
very, very


JoAnne McKay

So yes, a good end.
Everything in between – I much enjoyed JoAnne's first pamphlet “The Fat Plant” (and wrote about it here) but her second one “Venti” (near prize-winner and very beautiful item, as it was) didn't do so much for me, I'm afraid. Maybe I'm just allergic to prize-winners (near or otherwise) or maybe it was the balance within the book (there was more of JoAnne's erudite content in “Venti” than the “Plant” and I have my allergies to that too I think, though I'm not proud of it...). Maybe it was also that some of the “Venti” poems felt more consciously poem-y, if you know what I mean, than those in “The Fat Plant” and I like a poem that isn't too excited about itself being a poem on the whole. Whatever... I never judge prizes (and we all know prizes are the way to proceed) so JoAnne should probably ignore everything I say! Bad news for her is that I enjoyed the work in “Grave with Lights” (as well as the first and last poems I liked “On Looking”, “Edge”, “Romford Handfasting”, “I Shall Give You”) so I hope that doesn't jinx its progress...
Overview – despite being of English origin (if married to a Scot) JoAnne is still managing to make her way as a poet in Scotland (ours is the last voice Scots ever want to hear really but sometimes they just can't ignore it...). JoAnne does have a strong voice too (like Marion) though the McKay version does splinter off in many directions thanks to the many strands of her personal history (Essex abbattoir survivor, horrific experience survivor, ex-copper, mystical mother, at times ferociously academic expert type person, at others weary working wifey). One thing you can never say about JoAnne McKay, however, is that she is boring. I hear she never sleeps.

and finally...

Title – The Heavy Bag
Author – Ross Wilson
PublisherCalder Wood Press (them again... they have published several of my favourites now...)
Price – £5
Number of poems – 24
Cover – Sepia family photo, nice and fuzzy... and I'm no whizz at typefaces but that doesn't look like one of the approved "poetry" ones (good).

Recommendations – first a cringe-moment... Colin Will did you really write “This collection marks the emergence of a refreshing new voice in poetry”? I feel like maybe I've read that line a few hundred times before (naughty Colin). Luckily the back cover also contains, in place of the usual recommendations, a charming quotation from one of Ross's school reports that kind of makes up for the first sin (I'm presuming the quote is genuine... and OMG was RW really at school – primary school – in 1989..?).
Phase in career – first collection/pamphlet
First poem power* – Yes, Ross (and Colin?) have done their first poem homework because “What's in our Hands” is an absolute cracker and I won't show it here because then you might not buy the pamphlet. To be honest it's so good that it sets quite a high standard for the rest of the book to live up to (like a really high-achieving first child...).
Last poem power* – “Milne's Bar” is yes, another really strong poem (linking with the title, linking with the opening poem...). Good work, very good work.
Everything in between – there is a lot of family content, a fair bit of Fife and a lot of boxing poems (unusual... but Ross was a national schoolboy boxing champion). These all ring good and true (though I suppose they could all be fiction – how the heck would I know?) and they all contain well-drawn characters and crunchy snippets of dialogue (“The Way John Went Out” is my favourite just now). There are also several crap-job-and-crap-training-course poems which I enjoyed too – “Stuck” perhaps most of all (“Because we were unemployed/we had to get up early every morning,/ sit in a portakabin in Kirkcaldy,/ and listen to a man speaking/ through a rolled-up cigarette/ as though it were a microphone.”). There are few women in the book (just a lassie here and there, a factory full in “The Old Patterns”) but that's fine – it balances out nicely with Marion's sea full of mysterious long-haired, seaweedy females and, heavens, poetry needs the male point of view too (especially the, if you like, ringside view that Ross works pretty well). My least favourite parts of “The Heavy Bag” are the end rhymes (for example in the sonnets “Friday Night” and “Saturday Morning”). I love end rhymes but on this evidence I don't think they're Ross's strong point (not as yet anyway). He gets away with the rhymes in “Milne's Bar" but they are more scattered and casual, somehow. Still, a lad doesn't have to be good at everything does he?
Overview – “The Heavy Bag” is a very strong first book – varied, rich, individual and a refined-kind-of-raw. Let's hope he keeps that edge (and in contact with interesting, vibrant content) as his writing career progresses. Scotland has a lot of successful male poets – it's some crowd to stand out in – but I think he could do it, given time. You could say that he's challenger material alright (and he will have to get used to bad boxing references from other people writing about his work...). It's lazy, isn't it, just lazy...

So that's my survey over. I hope you've seen something that interests you.

p.s. pic at top of post is this week's art class offering... my first try at a watercolour (messy but I enjoyed it... I like mess really).


Crafty Green Poet said...

good reviews, nice refreshing approach to take too. I'm currently reading Ross's book and will review it soon too.

Rachel Fox said...

Cheers Juliet. Glad you enjoyed the visit.

hope said...

It's nice seeing this from a "poet's" perspective, rather than just a critic's. Because I enjoy your work, I truly understand even more your comments.

Ironically, the one weird thought I had of a non-poetic nature was, "Why did someone using such a lovely sepia photo pick that ghastly red type?"

LOVE your watercolor, by the way!

Marion McCready said...

Thankyou for this, Rachel! I'm thinking I'd like to use "I can enjoy Marion's poems without sniggering" as the blurb for my next collection lol :)))

Emerging Writer said...

thanks for the reviews. It's hard, I think, to review when you know the writers, even if remotely. I'm off to spend some paypal money.

Titus said...

Great stuff, and I like the innovative way of tackling the pamphets. Personally, I'll be nicking, " I hear she never sleeps."

Plus, I already own 66.666666 recurring % of them, so only one to buy! Which I intend to.

Rachel Fox said...

Glad you're enjoying them but really... no need to quote me anywhere, any time!

Rachel Fox said...

As for knowing these poets, EW, these are people I know online more than in the flesh really. I suppose I know JoAnne best (because she stayed her once with the family) but that was a couple of years ago and we've hardly met up since (they live right across the country from us, may as well be another continent). Marion I have said 'hello' to once at the StAnza festival but other than that it's just online that I know her (again she lives a long way from here) and Ross I barely know at all (again a "hello" at StAnza - literally just a "hello" - and then he's visited the blog when it's been a subject that he's interested in... one long visit when I wrote about Richard Yates and "Revolutionary Road" back on the old blog). So I didn't feel too inhibited writing about these three. I think I was pretty honest with my views (but they are of course only my views... and I'm certainly not industry-standard, as it were...).


Enchanted Oak said...

I can't believe the box just ate my fricking brilliant comment!!!!!

All right. This is too heart-breaking. It was very funny, you would have loved it, can't possibly recreate it, damn.

Suffice it to say that I told you you're a good albeit tart critic, Little Miss What's Your Name. I will go buy the other two books. In passing, I enjoyed your godlessness comment on my post and wish to point out that Tolstoy's spiritual anarchy is actually blasphemous, which suits me because I have a long checkered history of anti-war demonstration in my youth in Barstow, California, a town of utter nothingness. I love your watercolor, especially the blob below the second tree from the left, which is where my previous comment got lost, so enough said.

Rachel Fox said...

Who you calling a tart..?

I'm glad you like the painting. Some of the extra blobs appeared because when I stood outside waiting for my lift home it was very windy and wet out there. This added a few splatters to the picture...
still, such is life.


Rachel Fenton said...

Superb survey/review! Straight to the bone without leaving any gristle on. You can get a name for yourself writing like that.

Best line "people will talk.." :) Very funny.

All tickle my fancy, all will have to wait until New Year as I am skint as the bone you've butchered!

Your watercolour is utterly fantastic - keep at the painting!

Rachel Fox said...

Oh, you're just too full of compliments! Nice though.