Wednesday, December 27, 2017

That was the (poetry) year that was

Somewhat contrary to expectations, the world seems to have survived 2017, and continues to produce plenty of new poetry for us to enjoy. It was hardly a 'thin' year from where I was standing (or, rather, sitting and reading). However, there are already plenty of lists of 'the best' of the year out there for you to take a look at (including this one from the Poetry School that kindly included Scare Stories), so I'm not going to add to that discussion. Nevertheless, as the year draws to a close, here are a few reminiscences of the poetry year 2017 as it comes to an end. My memory for dates is terrible, though, so the chances of this being in any kind of chronological order are slim.

In that spirit, I'll start with Rory Waterman's excellent collection, Sarajevo Roses, which came out in November. I enjoyed Rory's first book very much, but this second set of poems feels even more convincing. Whereas the autobiographical element was strong in his debut, the poet manages here to incorporate that direct response to his own lived experience (there are quite a few poems of travel here, for instance), while remaining attuned to the political and social moment. The poems are formally very assured too,  harnessing a direct and apparently colloquial form of speech to a subtle musicality. Trump, Brexit, and so on are all there in the background, but it's Rory's ability to bring that sense of history into the everyday life of the rural Lincolnshire he knows so well that is most impressive. I know many of the places he talks about myself, which adds an extra poignancy for me, but there is a strong 'state of the nation' thread running through these poems, which is all the more convincing for its lack of portentousness. Although he is sometimes angry, the poet is also generous and open-minded. If, in time, I'm ever asked by anyone what England was like at this time of transition and perceived crisis, I'll put this book in their hand.

Another book from late in  the year was New Zealand poet Hera Lindsay Bird's Hera Lindsay Bird, the self-referentiality of which is announced in the title. Despite the apparent reference to autobiography or self-analysis, however, Bird is actually playing with the persona of the self-obsessed 'millenial'. By turns hilarious and bleak, these are fluid and troubling poems. They are deceptively easy to consume, and (on the face of it) brutally honest, but the apparently confessional mode in which they operate is both revealing and concealing at the same time. Are we hearing the voice of Hera Lindsay Bird or a poetic avatar called 'Hera Lindsay Bird'? The poems oscillate between cool insight and desperation. Unnerving but (even more unnervingly) highly entertaining stuff.
Henry Farrer, Winter Scene in Moonlight (Metropolitan Museum)

My own recent publisher V Press had a great roster of work out this year, and deservedly got themselves a Michael Marks Award nomination. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Daniels' debut, Tell My Mistakes I Love Them. Stephen's carefully conveyed sense of the surreal qualities of the everyday allows him to address the big themes from surprising angles, for instance in one poem where intimations of mortality lurk in the background as he describes getting a mole checked by his doctor. He's one of those poets who writes poems about things that other poets wouldn't write poems about, which is only ever a good thing.

Another big favourite of mine from this year in the pamphlet form was Paul Stephenson's Selfie with Water Lilies. As in Paul's previous pamphlets, Oulipo-like games, patterns and constraints structure many of these poems. Sometimes the effect is humorous, as in a poem about Alan Sugar that uses the word beetroot at the end of every line, but in others these surface effects provide a way into talking about more difficult topics, particularly the bereavement that dominates the collection. These poems don't emote, but find a way to pattern language so that the reader finds their way to emotion, which sidles up as if from just outside the field of vision. This writing feels like a kind of magic trick, but I never feel hoodwinked reading these poems. The poet wants to lead us to something true. I think Paul is one of the most interesting people writing at the moment and it really is time someone offered to publish a full collection by him.

Sometimes that move from pamphlets to full collections can take a good while, so it was great to finally see a book from Jacqui Rowe, an energetic promoter of others' work via the award-winning Flarestack Poets imprint. Blink showcases Jacqui's range, both emotionally and culturally, from occasional poems and ekphrasis to responses to Apollinaire and Verlaine; all held together by a characteristic clear-sightedness. Drawing as it does from Jacqui's previous publications, her first 'proper' collection is arguably a 'New and Selected', but it still feels remarkably cohesive.

A project very close to my own adopted home was Angela France's The Hill. I've walked on the eponymous Leckhampton Hill in Cheltenham myself a few times (although not for the decades Angela can boast) and her sense of the place, and of the meaning of place in all of its social, historical and political associations, is unrivaled. She interweaves the natural history of the hill and her own autobiography with the history of riots that took place on there in the early 20th century after a local quarry owner attempted to fence off the land local people had walked for centuries. As Angela points out when performing the poems, this protest pre-dated the Kinder Scout trespass, but is now largely forgotten, perhaps due to the working-class origins of the protagonists. The collection manages to encompass and transcend local history, however, and asks important questions about what it means to belong to a place in ways that cannot be captured in the title deeds of property.

Place plays a very different role in Michael Symmons Roberts' Mancunia, another of my favourite reads this year. Roberts has a particular voice, like someone whispering directly into your ear, conjuring worlds that are written like a kind of ghostly palimpsest over own lived reality. Ostensibly about the city of Manchester, the poems in the book offer many Manchesters, that is to say many possible versions of the city, in order to think about the end of things, the coming of utopia and utopia's likely failure. Here as elsewhere, Roberts is constantly inventive and compelling. 

This year was a good year for anthologies, too. Nine Arches Press did the poetry world (and the world more generally) a great service in producing Stairs and Whispers, an anthology of D/deaf and disabled poetry. As a non-disabled person, the value of the book for me was two-fold. Firstly, and perhaps rather obviously, it confronted me with the reality of other lives. In a world apparently short on empathy, that is a valuable contribution. Secondly, the editors' choices go far beyond poetry that simply talks about disability to consider how differently inhabited subjectivities might make formal innovation necessary, not just in terms of composition, but also in terms of how poetry reaches its audience and makes itself accessible in all kinds of ways. If the poetry 'scene' wasn't talking about these issues until this anthology was published, it must do now.

I'm also going to sneak in Sophie Collins' anthology Currently and Emotion, despite the 2016 publication date, as I only became aware of it later and it feels like one of my 2017 books of choice. If you think that you know what translation is and does, then those notions will be challenged by some of these occasionally weird and occasionally wonderful approaches to translation as a creative process. The book itself is a beautifully produced object, too, as I'd expect from its publishers, Test Centre.
The New Year – 1869 – Drawn by Winslow Homer,
Metropolitan Museum

So, not a best of, then, but a list of 'poetry highlights', perhaps. These are the poetry books I'd be most likely to mention if asked 'what did you read this year?' Clearly, 2017 was indeed a good year, not least in terms of the richness and variety of what contemporary poetry has to offer. And that's without mentioning all of the great poetry events the year gave us (Jan Wagner giving the Poetry Society lecture, Verve Festival, Ledbury, Cheltenham Poetry Festival...). Here's to 2018!

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