Guest post: Zoë Brigley – What is Ecojustice?

In this guest post Zoë Brigley, co-editor of landmark anthology 100 Poems to Save the Earth, looks at ecojustice – what it is, why it’s important – and talks about its place within the anthology and in poetry more widely.

100 Poems to Save the Earth. Edited by Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans.

Our climate is on the brink of catastrophic change. 100 Poems to Save the Earth invites us to fine-tune our senses, to listen to the world around us, pay attention to what we have been missing. The defining crisis of our time is revealed to be fundamentally a crisis of perception. For too long, the earth has been exploited. With its incisive Foreword from editors Zoë Brigley and Kristian Evans, this landmark anthology is a call to action to fight the threat facing the only planet we have. 

What is Ecojustice?

After recently publishing 100 Poems to Save the Earth with Kristian Evans, I received many questions about ecojustice. With resolutions for the new year being made, this felt like a good time to talk about why ecojustice is important, and to spotlight some of the poets from the anthology.

In basic terms, ecojustice links ecological movements to global social justice movements, a move which is necessary because sometimes environmental movements have been coopted by groups with racist or bigoted agendas. (See this article in The Guardian by Jeff Sparrow on eco-fascism). Ecojustice refuses environmental narratives based on restricting or blaming people with fewer privileges, but instead listens to the voices of social justice activists. Very often, groups with fewer privileges experience most acutely the deprivations and hardships caused by climate crisis. Environmental changes are already horribly real for populations in the Global South. There are also, however, more direct connections between the active oppression of groups with fewer privileges and environmental exploitation.

Earlier this year, I spoke to scientist Kerry Ard about economic inequality and pollution, and how certain neighborhoods in American cities (often inhabited by low-income people, often of the global majority) are sidelined when it comes to their needs for clean air and unpolluted water. The obvious example is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan – I strongly recommend the documentary Flint: Voices from a Poisoned City by Elise Conklin. Or you could take for example the oil pipelines in the US that damage Native communities environmentally but also in terms of rising sexual violence against Native women. Here’s an interesting article too that explains the links between #BLM, racial justice and climate justice.

So social justice and climate justice are not two separate projects, and according to Raisa Foster and Rebecca A. Martusewicz, ‘Environmental and social impoverishment can be traced to the same deeply embedded cultural ways of thinking and being that our industrialized systems use and are created from’. Foster and Martusewicz hint at something that many writers have emphasized – see Wendy Wheeler in A New Modernity (1999).  The Baconian, empirical worldview dominating Western thinking has also caused deep, intractable problems.

Foster and Martusewicz describe how dualism in ‘Western industrial society’ has dictated ‘where we locate value’ and ‘what we learn to identify as inherently inferior or superior’. They conclude: ‘Social and ecological violence is born in and maintained by this fundamentally violent hierarchical structure:  culture–nature,  mind–body,  reason–emotion,  man–woman, and civilized–savage’. Thinking in the context of Latin America – a contested site of some of the most biodiverse areas in the world, Verónica Schild suggests that dualistic thinking is inherent in a capitalist society, as capitalism seeks to extract value from sites of nature as well as poor women, both of which exist on the other side of a constructed binary. She also notes that many indigenous activists have already made the connection between the capitalist shaping of nature and the shaping of women’s lives. Although our anthology was mainly focused on writers from the UK and Ireland, we did give a flavour of writing from around the Anglophone world, including indigenous poets like Carter Revard, Gwen Nell Westerman, Craig Santos Perez, and Ellen van Neerven.

"We cannot live / with the seas in our bellies" - Ellen van Neerven, 'Love and Tradition'

van Neerven is an award-winning writer and editor of Mununjali Yugambeh (Southeast Queensland) and Dutch heritage. van Neerven indicated in interview that her work has parallel themes that are ‘environmental’ and ‘anti-government.’ This comes together in van Neerven’s poems as, in Jeanine Leane’s words, ‘In this built-up and built-over environment the poet asserts the continuation of Aboriginal culture’ and ‘Australia is a nation imagined and constructed over many Aboriginal nations.’ Leane sees in van Neerven’s work the importance of ‘the role of women as gatherers of often small but essential items of food that sustain the clan – lizards, insects, bugs, berries, fruits, frogs, seeds, tubers’ but also ‘as gatherers and keepers of family histories, knowledge and secrets from Country that are handed down to nurture and sustain future generations.’

In 100 Poems to Save the Earth, we included ‘Love and Tradition,’ dedicated to van Neerven’s Aunty Nancy Bamaga. The poem is a prayer registering the danger of rising sea levels. Sparsely written, ‘Love and Tradition’ carefully maps out the problem while also calling on the wider community to recognise the effects on the indigenous community. van Neerven poses what Leane calls ‘the everyday activism that occurs in the Aboriginal home, differing from the more public or “loud” expressions of activism’ but posing ‘the home front as a sovereign space of nurture, growth and actualisation.’ 

There are many other poets in the anthology writing about ecojustice. For example, Ross Gay’s poem, ‘A Small Needful Fact,’ emphasizes the nurturing work of Eric Garner at the Parks and Rec, before he was killed in a racist murder by police. Kazim Ali in ‘Checkpoint’ emphasizes the pettiness of customs officials juxtaposed with portentous events in nature which seem to accuse humanity. The Cyborg Jillian Weise explores the body and nature in the context of disability, commenting on the hierarchies and judgements imposed on both. Sean Bonney’s ‘Our Death / What If the Summer Never Ends,’ Erin Robinsong’s ‘Late Prayer’ and many other poems in the anthology call out capitalism and its detrimental effects on nature and people.

"Some of us voted. Some of us put on balaclavas. There were several earthquakes. Endless strategies of tedious indifference. Some major buildings and some statues defaces. Declaration of endless war. Parties in the park. Criminalisation of drinking. Several dead friends." - Sean Bonney, 'Our Death / What If the Summer Never Ends'

Many poems speak of ecojustice in global terms. In interview with Nicholas Wroe, Welsh/Indian poet Tishani Doshi has commented on how transnationally, women often ‘have to navigate economic and environmental hostilities’. In Doshi’s work, concerns for women and for the environment mingle and jostle, and she also challenges the centrality of human beings over nature or the greater-than-human. In ‘Self’, the poem included in the anthology, there is an acknowledgement that the world does not necessarily need people. Also thinking on a global scale, Vidyan Ravinthiran’s ‘More Context Required’ seems to grapple with global circulation of information about climate crisis and social justice, which can’t be fathomed from ‘beautiful computer-generated maps.’ Other poems register how war creates disconnectedness from land and people, as populations are killed by remote control. Mir Mahfuz Ali comments on the violence of war in ‘MIG-21 at Shegontola,’ where a boy riding a bicycle seems to be the only survivor of an idyllic rural community destroyed by missiles.

Some poets speak from a spirit of hope in the face of climate and social injustice. Roger Robinson’s ‘A Portable Paradise’ turns to wisdom from his grandmother about rewilding ourselves – carrying a paradise within us in spite of injustices we may face. Registering awe of the greater-than-human, Carter Revard describes a happy afternoon as two Native boys explore nature in ‘Over by Fairfax, Leaving Tracks.’ The poem extends into networks of global capitalism, across time and space towards a profound thought about how nature might be preserved in our memory – if we survive.

"stippled tracks from soles made / in Hong Kong, maybe with Osage oil. / Lawrence and Wesley pick blue-speckled flints / along our path, one Ponca boy / in braids, one part Osage / in cowboy hat." - Carter Revards, 'Over by Fairfax, Leaving Tracks'

What you won’t find in the anthology are moralizing or didactic poems for the simple reason that we don’t think they are very effective. As we suggest in the anthology introduction, poems that work through clichéd or even moralizing trains of thought can be easily dismissed. Poems that seek to make people – already feeling immense guilt about climate crisis – to feel even more guilty don’t help. People are moved to act far more out of inspiration, hope and – yes! – sometimes fear than out of guilt. What tends to happen more often with didactic writing is that people turn away and put their heads in the sand.

That doesn’t mean that these poems aren’t moving, inspiring, brilliant, or that they don’t work on the reader in significant and subtle ways to make those connections between damage to people and the environment. According to Foster and Martusewicz, ecojustice proceeds ‘from the fundamental acknowledgment that humans are utterly dependent upon a complex and diverse ecological system,’ and ‘damages to the ecological system are damages to ourselves’.

Zoë Brigley

Books and Articles to Read

Leane, Jeanine (2020) ‘On the Power to Be Still’: rev. Throat by Ellen van Neerven. The Sydney Review of Books, August 3rd. https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/van-neerven-throat/

Foster, Raisa and Rebecca A. Martusewicz (2018) ‘Introduction.’ Art, EcoJustice, and Education: Intersecting Theories and Practices, ed. Raisa Foster, Jussi Mäkelä, and Rebecca A. Martusewicz. London: Routledge: pp 1-9 (p. 1, 3).

Schild, V. (2019) ‘Feminisms, the Environment and Capitalism: On the Necessary Ecological Dimension of a Critical Latin American Feminism’, Journal of International Women’s Studies, 20(6), pp. 23–43 (p. 25). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.proxy.lib.ohio-state.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=qth&AN=137364832&site=eds-live&scope=site (Accessed: 15 October 2021).

Wroe, Nicholas. ‘Tishani Doshi: “I can go out alone at night but the dangers don’t go away.’ The Guardian, 27 July. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/27/tishani-doshi-interview

Note

This article is based on a paper, ‘Justice, Ecologies, and Transnational Feminist Poetics: What Poetry Has to Say About Ecojustice’ given at the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) Convention this past October 2021. Thanks to the NWSA for including this paper.

Zoë Brigley is a poet and academic who has three PBS recommended poetry collections: The Secret (2007), Conquest (2012), and Hand & Skull (2019) (all from Bloodaxe). She has also published a collection of nonfiction essays Notes from a Swing State (Parthian 2019) and several chapbooks. She is Assistant Professor in English at the Ohio State University where she produces an anti-violence podcast: Sinister Myth. She won an Eric Gregory Award for the best British poets under 30, was Forward Prize commended, and listed in the Dylan Thomas Prize. She is the current editor of Poetry Wales Magazine.

100 Poems to Save the Earth is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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Guest Post – Polly Atkin: On Co-Tenancy 

In Much With Body I wanted to write into and around the relationship between us – as individuals, as humans – and the ecosystems we live in. I wanted explore to what Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara call the ‘contingency between environments and bodies’ that is central to disability poetics, with a focus on the particular environment I have made my home.[1] In many ways this is an extension of conversations begun in my previous collection, Basic Nest Architecture, which revolve around questions of belonging, of location and dislocation, of co-habitation, of what it is to live in a sick body in an ailing world. I’ve always found it difficult to separate myself from my environment, to draw a clear line or apprehend a solid barrier between me and the rest of the world, to be certain what is internal or external. This sense of permeability, coupled with a complicated sense of bodily risk, determines all of my encounters with the world, all of my movements through it.

Photo of a deer on a hillside.

I wanted to bring that sense of permeability into these poems – from those drawn from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Rydal Journals, that place rain and pain in parallel, both leaching in an out of the body – to the poems about the frogs and toads who come into our house every summer. We are none of us able to call ourself separate from one another.

Photo of a frog

There is a kind of eco-poetry, and a broader kind of nature writing, that wants to remove the human observer from the observation, to cut out the body of the writer from the writing. It sees the human as degrading the nonhuman, as distracting, diverting essential attention. I can’t help seeing this tendency in nature writing to blot out the body of the writer as coupled to the tendency Virginia Woolf writes about in her essay ‘On Being Ill’ to present the body as a clear pane of glass to see the world through. I am not a clear pane of glass. My noisy, interrupting body never lets me forget its presence. As Woolf writes, ‘all day, all night, the body intervenes’. To me the relationship between the intervening body and the other outside is the poem. To pretend otherwise is the distraction.

Photo of an owl amongst the branches of a tree.

I wanted to bring the intervention of the body into the foreground of these poems, whether they are centred on an encounter with a deer, or an owl that won’t be photographed, or a disappearing hospital, or the body’s internal machinations. I cannot write an owl, but I can write myself observing an owl, what observing it in my body gives me, what the co-presence of our bodies in the same space does, what it changes, what it enables. I wanted to write about co-habitation, about co-tenancy of a shared home, whether that is a woodland, society, or our bodies. Luckily for me, my co-tenants were obliging.

Polly Atkin

This cover shows a painting of a swimmer floating on her back in a blue green lake.

Much With Body is the startlingly original second collection by poet Polly Atkin. The beauty of the Lake District is both balm and mirror, refracting pain and also soothing it with distraction. Much of the landscape is lakescape, giving the book a watery feel, the author’s wild swimming being just one kind of immersion. There is also a distinct link with the past in a central section of found poems taken from transcripts of the journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, from a period late in her life when she was often ill. In common with the works of the Wordsworths, these poems share a quality of the metaphysical sublime. Their reverence for the natural world is an uneasy awe, contingent upon knowledge of our fragility and mortality.

Polly Atkin’s latest collection Much With Body is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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[1] Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara, ‘Introduction’, in Disability Studies and the Environmental Humanities Toward an Eco- Crip Theory, ed by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Jay Sibara (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p.1.

Guest Post: Other Women’s Kitchens – Alison Binney

Alison Binney’s pamphlet Other Women’s Kitchens is the winner of the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2020.

For me, the kitchen is often the most appealing room in any home. In the house where I grew up, we had a dining table at one end of the lounge, which was only ever used when guests came round. All our other meals were eaten in the kitchen, so all the most interesting, impactful conversations I can remember are located around that small table, in the most intimate space in the heart of the house.

Some of my happiest memories are of cooking with my Mum – first as a small child entrusted with cutting out mince pie lids or stirring jelly cubes into boiling water, and later as an equal, experimenting together with Delia’s latest twists on old favourite recipes. And that kitchen was where the action happened too – the chip pan fire that we put out with a wet tea towel; my Mum’s shrieking encounter with a mouse that leapt from a sack she’d brought in from the garage; the gash from the cheese slicer to which my left thumb still bears witness. So much, also, that was less dramatic but more influential – all those conversations over cooking, over eating together, overheard from the family phone on the kitchen wall.

Assorted jars and utensils on a kitchen surface

When I was hunting for a title for my first poetry pamphlet, I was not surprised, then, to be drawn to the final phrase of my poem Every time I came home: ‘dreaming of other women’s kitchens’. This poem recounts a time in my life when I was finding it hard to live up to what I felt were impossible ideals: a time when it seemed as if all my school and university friends, my cousins, and all the children of everyone my parents knew, were getting married, and then having children. Where the family kitchen had always been a space of comfort and camaraderie for me, I no longer felt confident in my place there, uncertain, like so many young gay people, about how my identity as a lesbian might fit with my parents’ expectations of me. The idea of other women’s kitchens, where I might experience an easy acceptance and a sense of fulfilment that I could not otherwise be sure of, felt like a very appealing fantasy.

It struck me, once I looked at the pamphlet through this lens, just how many of the poems in it are located in kitchens, or in kitchen-like spaces, or make reference to food. There’s the makeshift kitchen in a wicker barn where Anne Lister and her partner Ann Walker brew tea and coffee on the last day recorded in Anne Lister’s diary. There are the married women who ‘came home hungry, smelling of lentils’, after their encounters in a supermarket car park. There’s ‘tea with the lady mayoress’ in a found poem sourced from an old edition of the Girl Guide Handbook. And then there’s the kitchen as the location of a first date – probably just the sort of kitchen, complete with ‘individual chocolate mousses’, that my younger, uncertain self would have been delighted to know was waiting for her in the not-too-distant future.

Teapot and two mugs

I’m thrilled that the cover for Other Women’s Kitchens, painted so skilfully by Kate Winter, captures the mood as well as the appearance of my parents’ kitchen. I also love the shadowiness of the two superimposed figures, which allows plenty of space for imagination and interpretation. The teapot at the centre represents for me that sense of comfort and companionship integral to the essence of a kitchen – the place not only where significant things happen, but in which, so often, they’re mulled over, digested, poured out.

Alison Binney

Cover of Other Women's Kitchens by Alison Binney which shows a painting of a colourful kitchen with two greyed out figures in it.

Other Women’s Kitchens is Alison Binney’s debut pamphlet of poems and introduces us to a gifted new voice who writes with flair and feeling about coming out and coming of age as a gay woman in 21st century Britain. The collection explores the challenges of discovering and owning a lesbian identity in the 1980s and 1990s and the joy of finding both love and increased confidence in that identity as an adult. An adroit admixture of the heart-wrenching and the humorous, the book features shaped and ‘found’ pieces, traditional narrative and compact prose poems. Beautifully entertaining, pointedly political and often very funny, Other Women’s Kitchens is essential reading.

Other Women’s Kitchens is available on the Seren website: £5.00

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Seren at 40: Looking Back – Seren Friendships

As we continue to celebrate our 40th anniversary, our founder Cary Archard looks back at some of the long-lasting friendships which helped Seren grow into the press it is today.

Seren Friendships

Looking back, I’m struck by how important friendships have been to Seren’s progress the last forty years. ‘They came into our lives unasked for’ is the first line of ‘The Uninvited’, the first and earliest poem in Dannie Abse’s Collected Poems. I first met Dannie at a reading soon after he and his wife Joan bought Green Hollows, their home in Ogmore-by-Sea, in the early Seventies. It was the start of a forty year friendship. From the beginning of Seren, Dannie was an enthusiastic supporter, always particularly keen we should encourage and develop our poets. When within a year of start-up, running things from home became physically impossible, my living room already overflowing with parcels of books and a bigger space needed, Dannie offered the use of the annexe to his Ogmore house.

Black and white photo of poet Dannie Abse.
Dannie Abse

Ogmore-by-Sea was a wonderful place to be based. From the upstairs office window you could look across the grey sea to Devon or muse on the terrors of ‘the eternal, murderous fanged Tusker Rock’ (‘A letter from Ogmore-by-Sea’). Across the road was the Craig-yr-Eos Hotel (since turned into flats) where at lunchtimes you could discuss work over a pie and seek inspiration at the bar. Subsequent office locations have never been so romantic or so characterful. Seren’s super modern, hi-fied, all modcons, present office in the middle of Bridgend just doesn’t have the same charm. Looking back it’s tempting to think that life generally was better then, the pace slower, the publishing world kinder. A time when friendship influenced the decisions. Pressure now seems greater. Success however modest has its price perhaps. Dannie has been much missed since his death in 2014.

(A footnote: Dannie’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve set in Cardiff in the thirties and Forties, published in 1954, never appeared on my Cardiff grammar school syllabus; instead for O level we were offered Harrow and the British army in Churchill’s My Early Life.)

From one chance friendship to another. Also in the early Seventies, I found myself teaching English in the Cynon Valley where I had grown up. I’d applied for the post of a history teacher in Swansea but missed the deadline for applications. Some kind officer in the Glamorgan office had noticed I had appropriate qualifications and sent me the details of the English job. I was lucky. Fortunate also to have arrived there just before Mrs Lewis, highly respected and loved Senior Mistress and German teacher, retired. So it was, ‘totally unasked for’, that I became a colleague of Gweno, wife of Alun Lewis (1915-1944), one of Wales’s finest twentieth century writers. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Lewis’s poetry and stories, even though I had grown up in the same valley. And as far as I can remember, his name had never been mentioned in my grammar school education.

Covers of Morlais, Alun Lewis Collected Poems and Alun, Gweno and Fred (John Pikoulis)
Covers of Morlais, Alun Lewis Collected Poems and Alun, Gweno and Freda (John Pikoulis)

Gweno and I became friends. It was a friendship which led to Seren’s most important publishing achievement, namely the publication of Alun Lewis’s Collected Poems, Collected Stories, and his Letters to my Wife. (Lewis is a wonderful letter writer; comparing him to Keats no exaggeration.) When Gweno returned to her family home in Aberystwyth, I often made that steep climb to ‘The Chateau’, a striking red house, high on the hill overlooking the bay. We talked about Alun, the young Cynon Valley boy (he was under thirty when he died in Burma), his family (I got to know Mair his sister later on), her involvement in his second book of poetry, Ha! Ha! Among The Trumpets, her guardianship of his reputation, and the progress of John Pikoulis’s biography. To be entrusted to publish the author’s work by his wife was a remarkable privilege. It was an unforgettable day when on one visit she brought me a packet inside which was a faded manuscript tied in a red ribbon. It was Alun’s copy of his unpublished early novel, Morlais, which Seren published in 2015, Lewis’s centenary. Just in time. Gweno sadly died the year after.

Cary Archard

Dannie Abse: A Source Book is available on the Seren website: £14.99

Morlais by Alun Lewis is available on the Seren website: £12.99

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To celebrate our anniversary we’re asking our readers to share their favourite Seren books from the last 40 years on social media. Tag us in your photos on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the hashtag #Seren40.

Find out more about how Seren was founded in our previous Seren at 40 post: In the beginning

Karaoke King – A Playlist by Dai George

To celebrate publication of his new collection Karaoke King, Dai George has created a playlist of songs which tie in with the collection. Read on to find out what he chose and why.

The cover of Karaoke King shows a drawing of a white, teenage boy wearing a white shirt with a yellow and brown vest with horizontal stripes. He has his head on one side and his glasses are wonky. He is wearing a crumpled yellow crown.

This confident second collection by Dai George addresses the contentious nature of the times. Always deeply thoughtful but also alternately ebullient, angry, curious, ashamed, the poet moves through urban and digital spaces feeling both uneasy and exhilarated. As with the Auden of the inter-war period, there is a feeling of history shifting, as a younger generation confronts its ethical obligations, its sense of complicity and disappointment. Ecological crisis hovers in the background, glimpsed in the ‘Fooled Evening’ of a world whose seasonal rhythms have fallen out of joint. Karaoke King also contains numerous reflections on popular culture, culminating in ‘A History of Jamaican Music’, a sequence at the heart of the volume speaking to urgent contemporary questions of ownership and privilege, pain and celebration. 

Karaoke King – A Playlist

The Lumineers – ‘Ho Hey’

The Platters – ‘The Glory of Love’

Teddy Pendergrass – ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’

McFadden and Whitehead – ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’

Frank Sinatra – ‘New York, New York’

Big Star – ‘Nightime’

David Bowie – ‘Station to Station’

Treorchy Male Voice Choir – ‘Myfanwy’

Lord Laro – ‘Jamaican Referendum Calypso’

The Ethiopians – ‘Train to Skaville’

The Skatalites – ‘Guns of Navarone’

The Uniques – ‘People Rocksteady’

Alton Ellis – ‘Rocksteady’

Derrick Harriott – ‘The Loser’

The Paragons – ‘On the Beach’

The Techniques – ‘Love Is Not a Gamble’

Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – ‘Croaking Lizard’

The Congos – ‘Nicodemus’

Bob Marley & the Wailers – ‘No Woman, No Cry’

The Uniques – ‘My Conversation’

Gregory Isaacs – ‘Soon Forward’

Sister Nancy – ‘Only Woman DJ with Degree’

Yellowman – ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’

Sizzla – ‘Babylon A Use Dem Brain’

Count Machuki – ‘More Scorcha’

The Heptones – ‘Party Time’

I-Wayne – ‘Living in Love’

The Maytals / Sister Nancy – ‘Bam Bam’

Charles Trenet – ‘La Mer’

Bruce Springsteen – ‘Thunder Road’

Dusty Springfield – ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’

Bob Dylan – ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’

In another lifetime, I tried to be a music journalist. A teenage pop nerd, I grew up reading too many issues of Mojo and the NME, and built my identity in large part around the songs that gave me solace, joy, a sense of difference. One way or another the journalism thing didn’t happen, but my new collection of poems, Karaoke King, maybe represents an attempt to grapple with the legacy of that obsession.

Poetry, of course, can’t offer what journalism can: it can’t give you facts, analysis, coherent narrative, or if it tried to do that it would be very bad at it. What it can do, though – maybe – is capture how songs hit the mind. It can sift significance, and work towards some understanding of how an individual stands in relation to these musical artefacts that are at once fixed, specific, culturally determined, and yet endlessly transmissible from radio to radio, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. From the liturgical prayers I heard being sung at Canton Uniting, my childhood church, to the Neighbours theme tune, Karaoke King is full of songs overheard, half-remembered, reapproached, transposed – hauntings and visitations. I thought it would be fun, and maybe interesting, to put together a playlist for the collection, with a set of ‘sleeve notes’ fleshing out the story of how these songs came to be there.

Close up photograph of a vinyl record  playing on a turn table.
Photo by Jace & Afsoon on Unsplash

The first four tracks all come from ‘Poem on 27th Birthday’. Set in a hilltop bar in Italy, and written more or less in situ in September 2013, it was the first poem I finished after wrapping on my debut collection, The Claims Office. I tried to be more open and porous in writing than I’d allowed myself to be till that point, and for me that meant tuning into the ambient sounds, letting them bleed into a collage. The dominant tune is an earworm blaring from a nearby car stereo, a sweet-natured, folky track I recognised but couldn’t place – later I found out it was called ‘Ho Hey’ by the Lumineers. It’s the sort of song that Adolescent Me would have scorned, but in a charmed moment it came across, in the words of the poem, ‘as nothing less than the Glory of Love’, a nod to the great doo-wop song of that name by The Platters.

The other songs filter in from a compilation of ’70s funk and Philadelphia soul that the barman switched on to replace the slick elevator jazz that had been playing till then. So we have a singer I recognised, Teddy Pendergrass, singing a song I didn’t know in the moment but later tracked down as ‘I Don’t Love You Anymore’ – one of his first solo singles, a four-to-the-floor disco ripper about breaking somebody’s heart – and this soon flows into ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ by McFadden and Whitehead. Songs touching songs, overlapping, building resonances. I most certainly did love the addressee of the poem, so it’s the McFadden and Whitehead song that takes over, its message of empowerment modulating through the speaker into gratitude for love.

More earworms, next, with Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, overheard on one of my many circuits of Clissold Park in Stoke Newington over recent years. The poem it’s taken from is called ‘The Park in the Afternoon’, which unsurprisingly is about parks in the afternoon, but also the neoliberal cult of productivity that turns people into a political problem if they have nothing to do at that time of day. I loved the weird euphoria of this song, with its glitzy promise of inclusion – I wanna be a part of it! – being reclaimed as an anthem of solidarity or defiance.

‘Night Time’ by Big Star is one of the darker songs on this playlist, a theme tune for a run of poems in the first section of Karaoke King which map a hard time in my life – a dark night of the soul. The song itself is quoted in a poem called ‘Rock vs Pop’, an elegy to Roddy Lumsden. Roddy and I bonded originally over music, meeting on an internet forum called Black Cat Bone where debates like ‘Rock vs Pop’ could become seriously heated. Big Star were the sort of group that exposed how hollow that dichotomy is, and I know Roddy was a big fan of their legendary, troubled third album, Sister Lovers. It’s another song about wanting to be a part of it – At night time I go out and see the people – only this time there’s no Sinatra-esque bravado: the irony of that desire is painfully apparent the moment you hear Alex Chilton’s fragile, haunted vocal.

Photograph of boxes of vinyl records stacked in a shop.
Photo by Alano Oliveira on Unsplash

David Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’ is more literally about a long night of the soul – a long and disoriented journey. The poem I wrote about it for Alex Bell and John Canfield’s ‘Bowieoke’ night (and subsequent anthology Cold Fire) tries to capture the sense of blackout and damage on that record, but also to deconstruct the iconography of the Thin White Duke, his persona of the time. Whiteness is of course a part of that formulation, and it’s one of the tacit themes of this book that white pop music culture must grapple honestly with its numerous, often unspoken debts to Black musicians and Black musical idioms.

The place in the book where I’ve tried to confront this legacy, as openly as possible, is ‘A History of Jamaican Music’. The reggae songs on this playlist all offer up quotations and allusions from that sequence, and taken together I think they make for a great, roughly chronological listen. I’ve written about the genesis of this sequence before, so don’t want to belabour the point. All I’ll say here is that, just as these musical selections offer one, partial journey through the rich heritage of reggae, so too do the poems, from my own, very subjective perspective. I wanted to reflect honestly on my relationship to a music and a culture that is too often enjoyed in a passive or exploitative way by British people. These are indeed songs of joy – and songs that can, and should, be enjoyed widely, I believe – but also struggle and complexity; songs, moreover, that could never wholly belong to me, or anyone in my position.

Before we get to them, though, we pass through a song from a culture that is indisputably my own. ‘Myfanwy’ is beautiful, of course, and probably familiar to many people. The title poem of the collection remixes it as a death fugue, a mouldering totem for a certain dubious, romantic myth of Welshness – so I’m glad to pay tribute to it here as God, or the Treorchy Male Voice Choir, intended it. Reading that poem, the eagle-eyed might spot a few references to Twin Town, a film I still love despite its ridiculous, shallow, very unromantic vision of Welshness. (The title of the collection itself, Karaoke King, is a moniker given to the film’s hapless Elvis wannabe, Dai Rhys.) The film’s final scene of a sea burial serenaded by a suited and booted male voice choir crooning ‘Myfanwy’ sums up much of what is funny and pathetic about those old myths and their modern revivals. Maybe one day we’ll be able to hear ‘Myfanwy’ differently again, stripped of all the pageantry.

Photo of a colourful Bob Dylan mural on the side of a building in New York.
Photo by Weston MacKinnon on Unsplash

There’s a wistful turn to the final few songs on the playlist. Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’ wafts in like the last day of summer or the first of autumn, a mood I wanted to channel for a poem called  ‘September’s Child’. That in-between, nostalgic cusp state more or less represents the situation with my hair right now. ‘Poem in which my hairline recedes’ is the vessel for those (rather trivial) anxieties, and Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Thunder Road’ is the sonic foil – another yearning cusp song, only this time one that stands on the brink of impossible self-realisation and success.

After that, yet more ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’’ from Dusty Springfield, one of my favourite singers. From my teens I’ve always been drawn to classic girl group pop and its soft-soul, adult-oriented offshoots – Dusty, Dionne Warwick, the songs of Bacharach and David, Goffin and King. I saw in this music a model for my own hopelessness in love: solace and fellow feeling in a woman’s voice, when it was women that I yearned for. The poem ‘Obsolete Heartbreak Suite’ is a type of farewell to all that, and an attempt to reckon with the gendered dynamics of the art form, with its unequal distribution of male and female creative labour. I still love all those Brill Building songs but the drama and intensity is second-hand now, thankfully.

Finally, we come to ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan. After listening to the glorious official version from Highway 61 Revisited, do seek out the alternate takes that are collected on The Cutting Edge, a box set covering Dylan’s time in the studio during the famous ‘Thin Wild Mercury’ years of 1965-66. It’s the sound of those false starts and early drafts that I wanted to capture in ‘The Mercury Mine’ – Dylan’s painstaking, instinctive graft as he toys with a phrase until he gets it right, rearranging speech parts, nudging them into better arrangements. It’s something of a cliché to talk about ‘pop perfection’, and I’ve loved enough brilliant, three-minute pocket symphonies to understand what people might mean by it. But I think a space for poetry opens up whenever we encounter pop imperfection – hesitance, provisionality, the formation of ideas. That’s one way into it, anyway. Another might be to follow what happens when we encounter perfect music amid the mess and imperfection of our lives.

Dai George

Listen to the playlist in full on Spotify.

Karaoke King by Dai George is available now. As this week is #IndependentBookshopWeek, why not buy through bookshop.org?

Ilse Pedler: Being a Poet and a Vet

This week we publish Ilse Pedler’s debut collection Auscultation. In this post she reflects on finding time to write around her career as a vet and how this inspires her poetry.

The cover of Auscultation shows a stethoscope against a white background with an orange and brown butterfly resting on the chord. Beneath the image is an orange box with the title and author name.

Auscultation means listening and specifically, in medicine, listening to sounds that come from the body’s internal organs. If listening is a central theme of this collection, it is also about being heard. Ilse Pedler is poet of breadth and depth. There are poems about waiting rooms and surgical instruments, about crisis calls, about overhearing farmers and pet owners and colleagues. There are poems about surviving a stern childhood and a heartbreaking sequence about being a stepmother. This is a compelling set of poems from a striking new voice.

“Unique and utterly original.” – Kim Moore

How do you juggle writing poetry with a demanding career, particularly a career like veterinary medicine? Being a vet is not so much a job as a way of life. You come to live to the rhythms of animals, their needs take priority over your own. Work becomes a river; fluid, broken over rocks, never ceasing.

I’ve always written but during university and early years in practice, life as a vet was so all-consuming, poetry was squeezed to the very periphery. Slowly though, it began to filter back, sometimes it was people’s stories, sometimes it was the relationship between an animal and its owner. I started to feel the need to write down what I was experiencing. I also became frustrated at how little time I had to devote to poetry, until I went to a reading by Dennis O’Driscoll who worked full time through all his career. His comment on the dilemma of work and poetry was ‘Just write’. This became my mantra in the following years and I found myself jotting down fragments and ideas in between seeing clients or after I had finished an operation and on more than one occasion, I pulled over into a layby on the way back from a visit to write a few lines.

At first, I was hesitant about sharing my poems. I thought, because I hadn’t studied English or had a background in the arts, my work probably wasn’t up to much. It wasn’t until I went on a poetry course and another participant said, ‘isn’t it wonderful, you have a second language.’ I realised that being a vet may actually have its advantages.

As a vet I had a rich variety of experiences and emotions to draw on. I’ve seen cases of cruelty and neglect but also moments of extreme tenderness and dedication, I’ve known people go without food so they can afford medication for their pets and I’ve known people whose only reason for getting up in the morning is their animals. The consulting room is a privileged place and consulting effectively is an art as well as a science. The ability to draw out the back story and to get to the heart of the matter is a skill that is learnt over time. Farms are also unique; they are places of rough practicality and particular language; there is a bluntness there but also a gentleness.

We vets spend a lot of our time reading and writing clinical notes. They are our observations of patients and although factual, these notes are far from ‘clinical’, they are a record of what we’ve seen, felt, heard or smelt. Medical language is full of colour and dimension, it is muscular and vital. We observe our patients closely and we record what we feel about them. I found not only did I did have a whole other language to draw on but I had a scientist’s eye for detail and precision.

I feel so incredibly privileged to be a vet; animals have an honesty and in the case of animals like horses and cattle, a majesty too. They love and trust unconditionally and I am constantly inspired by them. If I can capture any of this in my poems, I will feel I have truly become a poet.

Ilse Pedler

Ilse Pedler’s debut collection Auscultation is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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Katrina Naomi – Wild Persistence, A Year On

A year on from publication of her collection Wild Persistence, poet Katrina Naomi reflects on her experience of publishing a book during the pandemic.

A year ago, when I realised I couldn’t hold the launches for Wild Persistence that we’d planned in Cornwall and London, I’ll admit to having a few tears. Daft but I felt that Wild Persistence was the best book I’d written and I really wanted to get it out there. Book shops were closed, as was pretty much everything else. How the hell was this new collection going to find its audience?

Katrina Naomi with a copy of Wild Persistence

I remember talking to Amy, my editor, about possibly shifting the launch back from June 2020 to September 2020. I’m glad we didn’t; with hindsight, nothing would have changed.

Seren said: ‘How about a virtual launch?’. I’d never done anything on zoom before, I barely knew what it was. In short, I was terrified of it. How would I get any connection with people via a cold screen; there’d be no feedback, and no drinks (and no cake), and no nattering afterwards? Can you tell that I hated the idea? But it was all that was possible.

I did a trial run with Seren, tried to pretend Zoom was where it was at, and that I was looking forward to the launch. I didn’t trust or understand the technology. The morning of the launch, I practised my poems in the park, in the mizzle, reading to a friend, us both sitting well away from each other, as though we’d had an argument. That evening, to try to get over my terror, I wore one of my favourite outfits, a red and white ‘40s suit, wore the new shoes I’d bought for the original launches – even though no one could see them. But I knew I’d got them on. I dabbed cologne on my neck and wrists, and put a flower in my hair. I was as ready as I could be.

I remember how sick I felt, I hadn’t been able to eat, until I saw that over 100 people were waiting to be admitted to the launch. People attended from France, Canada, the US, as well as friends from up my street. It gave me a wider audience than I could have imagined. I really, really enjoyed it.

Since then, I’ve been doing readings at events across the UK, and in the US. All from my little room, with a glimpse of Penzance harbour between my neighbours’ roofs. It still feels slightly unreal but I’ve come to love performing into my screen, remembering to prop the laptop on two dictionaries and to speak into the camera, marked by two lion stickers either side of the camera’s wonky dot.

Katrina Naomi signing copies of Wild Persistence in The Edge of the World bookshop

But I didn’t get to go to Mexico to work on a project, (environmentally, this might not be a bad thing), and it seems people don’t buy as many books at online launches and readings. Still, I’ve been doing lots of radio and podcasts, which has been great. Seren say the book’s been doing well. And I’ve been selling signed copies of Wild Persistence via my website all year, reusing recycled envelopes so I’ve only a handful of copies (and envelopes) left. I recall one woman buying a copy of Wild Persistence, then ordering another 30, ‘to give to my friends’. My local bookshop, The Edge of the World, has been reordering and I’ve signed three or four batches there, since they’ve reopened.  I haven’t been further than Cornwall, I’d love to know that my collection’s in other bookshops in other towns and cities. But I don’t know if that’s true. What’s been great has been people (particularly people I don’t know) posting photos of Wild Persistence on Twitter; I’ve seen my book propped up on garden steps, or next to a mug of tea with breakfast, or in an artist’s studio, and, once, on the end of an Essex pier. I’ve loved that.

Wild Persistence on the shelf in The Edge of the World bookshop

But I’ve missed seeing people. I haven’t been able to do a single reading, live, in public, in a room, with people. I miss seeing people’s reactions – whether they’re bored or excited by a particular poem. It’s harder to gauge which poems work online, you don’t hear the collective hush or the poetry ahhh, or get a laugh or an intake of breath when a poem hits home.

A year on and I’ve just had my first festival ask if I’m willing to read live, in a room, with people. I hesitated for a moment, and smiled. Though they couldn’t see that. But I’ve said yes. Yes. Yes. And I’ll probably wear my new shoes.

Katrina Naomi

Wild Persistence by Katrina Naomi is a confident and persuasive collection of poems. Written following her move from London to Cornwall, it considers distance and closeness, and questions how to live. She dissects ‘dualism’ and arrival, sex and dance, a trip to Japan. The collection also includes a moving sequence of poems about the aftermath of an attempted rape.

“Funny, moving, surprising, unflinching and, above all else… joyous.” – Helen Mort

Wild Persistence is available on the Seren website: £9.99

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