Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics ed. by Chrissy Williams & Tom Humberstone

Reviewed by Steve Nash

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Over the Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics achieves precisely what it says on its aesthetically pleasing jacket – which is not easy, considering the diversity of the field. Sometimes introductions attempt the theoretical primer approach; others prefer a potted history; occasionally the anthology lets the art speak for itself. In Over the Line, Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone attempt all three in a concise volume. It’s a tricky line to walk, but they traverse it with energetic grace.

A succinct, quietly passionate preface presents poetry and comics as separate poles on the highbrow/lowbrow continuum – “Poetry got the perceived highbrow end of the stick, and comics the low” – before persuasively outlining the myriad reasons why these two distant (at least in the popular imagination) schools are in fact sibling forms. Of course, this makes sense: one only need think of the passionate antagonism shared between these mediums and their use of the blank space of the page. Opportunities for play, experimentation, non-linearity, and a rhizomatic approach are rarely so explicit elsewhere. In panel, image, text, and the gutters in between, every element of a page can serve a purpose.

Rhizomatic provides, if not a definition, then a useful byword for the book itself. That’s not to say it isn’t structured; it is a thoughtfully presented work that offers a useful overview of the medium, a discussion of key practitioners, and a selection of diverse and startling new work. The rhizomatic can  instead be discovered in the book’s refusal to rigidly define poetry comics in narrow terms. Instead, Williams and Humberstone present possibilities, celebrating a world of creativity that is continuing to gather momentum and ingenuity.

The passion that the editors have for the medium is nowhere more evident than in their willingness to sacrifice their own voices, filling the vast majority of the book with brand new work (over 70 pages of it). Any attempt to demonstrate the breadth and scope of Over the Line would prove inadequate without posting the contents of the book’s entire final section; suffice to say the examples that follow serve as the most perfunctory of toe-dips into a decidedly vibrant pool.

(From ‘Sea of Faces’ by Anna Saunders)

Sea of Faces p1Sea of Faces p2Sea of Faces p3 Sea of Faces p4

Monday Night Terror(From ‘Monday Night Terrors’ by John Canfied and Sean Azzopardi)

Whatever Happened to the Blue Whale_EXTRACT

(From ‘Whatever Happened to the Blue Whale in 2302 AD?’ by Russell Jones & Edward Ross)

Haunted_EXTRACT

(From ‘Haunted’ by Amy Key & Rob VonRamm)

These variations gesture toward a field of possibilities as limitless as the forms themselves. This book is a genuine achievement that pays as close attention to the gutters as it does to the words and images on each page. An inspiring glance through a keyhole into a room without walls.

Interval: Poems Based on Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” by Alice B. Fogel

– Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter 

It’s hard to grasp, least of all by any mental logic, how the mathematical manipulation of sound into a structure of combined and ordered pitches can break your heart.

Alice B. Fogel’s Interval opens with a preface on her poetic process, explaining how she went about creating a comparable ‘mathematical manipulation’: a translation, or re-imagining, of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in verse form. Fogel unpacks Bach’s structure:

The entire Aria is repeated at the end, and between these two presentations are 30 variations, making 32 parts in all. Symmetrically, each variation itself consists of 32 measures, divided into two parts of 16 measures each.

Her continuing analysis of the Variations‘ complex musical body impresses me with the focus required to mirror them in verse. Each of Fogel’s poems is made up of two 16-line sections, in which “the verbal variations reflect their corresponding musical variations in both direct and subtle ways, […] such as rhythm, temperament, tone of voice, mood, or phrasing.’ So far, so fascinating, although I wonder about poems with a preface: do we need instructions to access this work? Can these poems stand alone, or must you listen to Bach while you read them?

I find that I do want to listen along, and this changes the reading process. Fogel’s poems open up like a lyric sheet, as a soundtrack of Bach weaves around them; they do indeed correspond with each piece’s structure and pace. ‘Variation 1: Yhwh’ is full of twirling internal rhyme:

With my body like a brine spiraling I stirred
the silence till it echoed apart from me, and where I

was deafened I hummed their frequencies.
From a floating ground I fired off rounds of clouds

flaming and where they burned I brewed the rutilated
light until it refracted in the wells between comets rocketing.

This is womblike, as if a god – ‘Yhwh’, Yahweh, Jehovah – is gestating in deep space. The poems quickly begin to build landscape and mythology, each having a different speaker, indicated by the title. ‘Variation 3: Snapping turtle’ imagines an icy lake – ‘As if / by dreaming ice might cast its million limbs / over that surface above’ – then becomes a meditation on fertility, via the thawing of ice, as the turtle dreams: ‘To nest once in heat. To hatch and be born.’

‘Variation 4: Child’ features a shift in tone, shorter words, innocent-ish, while ‘Variation 7: Girl’ is irreverent, contrasting with the more romantically-lyrical voice at the start of the collection:

If I ever have a daughter here’s all I’m going to do:

say, That’s nice honey, or You go girl, or whatever
is hip when she’s 13 and let her pierce anything she wants.

Fogel successfully changes her poetic voice from one variation to the next, whereas many poets establish one dominant ‘voice’ and stick with it. It is refreshing to see this multiplicity at work; I could not predict, from the opening few poems, how the tone would shift.

‘Variation 28: Transplanted heart’ expresses swaggering pain, dividing a collective ‘we’ into more differentiated roles, as the speaking ‘heart’ is moved from a dead body to a live one, resurrected:

Didn’t I twice beat time? Now when I flow into myself her him, heart
and soul wave and undertow, we relive

every dream that died in his crushed head, and dreaming
she calls out his name, the one we know by heart.

So Interval moves from a meditation on music, to a meditation on different kinds of body – or parts of bodies – as if plucking out notes:

more puzzle than plan, more flight than counterweight,
the perfect grid of abiding piers upon which you

superimpose the moving force
of brilliant ephemera…

There’s a risk of over-abstraction in ‘the moving force / of brilliant ephemera’ – the awestruck gargle of transcendence – but that ‘grid of abiding piers’ is tangibly complex, suggesting musical staves, spinal columns, and passages out to sea. Interval is under great pressure to succeed within its prescribed structure, and at first I wondered if it would be more than a lucid commentary on Bach. Yet these poems stand in their own right. Some of Fogel’s voices or roles feel more fully convincing than others, but she creates these variations with exuberance. A versatile, ambitious book.

“the understory of the literary ecosystem”: in conversation with Douglas Reid Skinner and Patricia Schonstein

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien

Patricia-Schonstein-and-Douglas-Reid-Skinner

Douglas Reid Skinner and Patricia Schonstein are the editors of new South African quarterly Stanzas.

Claire Trévien: Tell me about the origin of Stanzas, what made you decide to start it? And once you had the idea, how did you make it become reality?

Douglas Skinner: Prior to Stanzas, a similar, small poetry magazine called Carapace was published in Cape Town by the writer, Gus Ferguson. He retired and, last year, decided that, after 104 issues, it was time to stop publishing. This left a gap in our literary world. There are very few outlets for writers in South Africa. It seemed obvious to us that some sort of magazine was required to plug the gap.

Patricia Schonstein: Both of us had experience in publishing poetry and, after a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing in London and Cape Town, we leaped in at the deep end. We’ve been joined by the graphic artist, Gaelen Pinnock, who takes care of design and layout. Stanzas is self-funding and relies on the donation of their time by the editors.

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CT: How do you feel poetry magazines fit into the larger literary ecosystem – is this something you think about when you edit issues?

Patricia: Small poetry magazines and journals are the understory of the literary ecosystem and play a vital role in keeping people writing. Stanzas itself is the understory of our other poetry projects. These are the Africa! anthologies of Africa Sun Press, of which there are already three fat volumes, and the McGregor Poetry Festival Anthology, which comes out once a year to coincide with the Festival. We work closely with the Festival, and also with Off the Wall, a weekly live-poetry event in Cape Town. We are now venturing into publishing slim collections and have one in our stable already.

Douglas: Stanzas showcases previously unpublished work, whereas the anthologies have no such restriction. The magazine has included poets from Zimbabwe and Kenya, and we hope to cast our net ever wider as time passes.

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CT: The magazine is very beautifully designed – how important are its aesthetics do you think?

Patricia: A consideration of aesthetics is integral. We decided on an elegant publication, with generous space and appealing covers.  Each issue features an established or emerging artist’s work and we like this blend of art and poetry. We feature reviews as well, and translations so as to make a broad aesthetic of expression.

CT: You live on opposite sides of the world, how do you share out editorial duties? I’m imagining a lot of Skype calls!

Douglas: Not that many Skype calls, but lots of emails. By and large, I assess the material coming in, and edited our first issues. Patricia handles the actual publication and is more focused on the anthologies. Both of us get involved in proofing and in writing the editorial. As the magazine develops, we hope to add ‘contributing editors’ to the masthead.

Patricia: We work very well together, with the same deep appreciation and respect for poetry, and are happy to be contributing towards its growth, particularly in Africa.

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CT: What are some of your favourite presses and publications, in South Africa and elsewhere?

Douglas: In South Africa, so many presses have come and gone… Ravan, Bateleur, Justified, Donker, Carrefour… the list goes on. Publishing poetry is always tricky because of the economics.

Overseas presses…New Directions in America and Angus & Robertson in Australia are emblematic, both crucial to the development of English poetry in those countries. Italy is full of small presses that make beautiful books.

Patricia: South African imprints and magazines… Deep South, Kwela, Modjaji, Incwadi, Litnet, New Coin, New Contrast, Prufrock… again, the list goes on.

CT: Your mission statement says that Stanzas publishes both established and aspirant poets; how easy is it to manage this balance?

Patricia: It’s vitally important that a small magazine reflects as wide a mix of voices as one can persuade to participate. ‘Established’ and ‘aspirant’ as tokens do not describe, necessarily, the quality of the poetry, nor is the process of learning a one-way street (or it shouldn’t be, or be seen to be). We feel that the established should never stop aspiring and the aspirant should never come to feel completely established.

Douglas: The new and the old always have something to tell one another. An unending humbleness before the whole tradition of the art, and the best poems of the English tradition, should always be uppermost in a writer’s mind. The great poems of the language are the established; everyone else is an aspirant.

Conduit by Sarah Frost

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien

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Some poetry collections feel like a series of poems arbitrarily assembled, others leave a sillage in your day. From the striking cover to the waving table of contents, opening Sarah Frost’s Conduit feels akin to being rapidly tipped down into a universe. Each poem is a cog in a greater whole, an episodic scene flashing before your eyes, until you turn the next page, an impression reinforced by the collection’s typesetting.

Yet there is very much a journey taking place, from abstraction to concreteness, beginning with the dreamlike ‘Seahorse’:

Once,
I curled like a seahorse
on a whispering floor;
clear careful script
filing a careful book –

Time, a numb wave
surged over me. Twenty-two
times I nearly drowned;
found myself
floating.

The collection ends on ‘Doppelganger’, whose final stanza reads:

Now, from far, I trace your faint presence
as a cardiac monitor might mimic a waning pulse
needle ready to mark a small final
end point on the spooling graph paper.

Pairing the two up in this way makes the trajectory more striking, from a passive experience of repeated near-drowning, to an almost predatory situation. As a summary, I rather like Kobus Moolman’s blurb for the collection, which states that Conduit is a collection ‘[o]f searching for a foothold in a world where all slides and changes’. The title poem brings this concept to the fore, which opens on a stagnant tunnel and ends on a woman, who stands ‘indeterminate / at the edge of the water, / waiting for the clear words to come.’

The greenness of the cover tinges the poems within, imbuing even those that seem surer-footed, such as ‘Doppelganger’ with a layer of loss, of opaqueness. Take ‘In her shoes’, a poem clearly anchored in a contemporary situation, a mother selling her house to her daughter for half-price, which ends:

Time, a child, tugged at my hand,
pulling me back, as still we moved forward,
across the road to the lawyer’s office.

Reducing Conduit to a collection searching for the right direction isn’t really doing it justice though. Frost has a gift for creating deliciously tactile urban imagery, such as:

The Southern Cross, like a spoon
dips into the city bowl
scoops up the harbour lights

(‘You stroked my face’)

Various places earn their own poems too, situating the collection specifically in South Africa rather than an untethered location. There’s a touch of the macabre in Frost’s description of Grahamstown, in the poem of the same name, where the town is ‘a pulse just visible in the soft hollows of a skull’. The Kwazulu-Natal region, in which Frost lives, is also present through the poem ‘Bellwood’ for example, in which the area’s flora and fauna are listed, with the unexpectedly sexual interjection of:

Earlier, in the open road, her car flanked a train
as it probed the landscape, like a man entering a woman.

A stanza that allows her to conjure the face of a man that refuses to quite fade from her consciousness (‘swimming up in her mind like insistent fish’).

Frequently, a poem is split across two pages, one positioned higher than the other, creating a slightly disconcerting break, a false end. It’s a design that works particularly well in ‘Imago’, a poem requiring a content warning. The first half feels almost detached in its description of a hotel’s international guests, slipping in quietly the story of a ‘radio journalist from Jozi’ and her rape. The second half is full of longing, and desire, but it is also ‘the wound of my history, one I cannot staunch’, in which a chaste goodbye kiss is like a ‘razor blade’. The two combined are a deliberately confusing blend of want and trauma. This subject is explored further later in ‘Every Day’, relating the gang rape of a fourteen year old girl reported in the news, with a ‘text a scar of muted grey’ and a ‘headline bleak as the Katlehong veld’.

Frost’s Conduit is essentially a highly sensual collection, where bodies explore and reject one another, where characters ghost each other’s bodies, or wander looking for a direction to theirs in… Although the collection is unified in its mood, individual poems, imbued with politics and sexual violence pull you up to the surface in unexpected ways. A powerful début collection.

The Poetry Archivist – 26/01/16

poetry archivist

– reviewed by Lettie McKie

at The Proud Archivist, Haggerston.

Brand Spanking Newbie
In my last review for Sabotage I lamented ‘Where have all the poetry nights gone? With Bang Said the Gun stopping for their summer break, Chill Pill yet to release more dates and stalwarts like The Word House and Come Rhyme with Me closing their doors for good, London’s poetry scene is a bit thin on the ground at the moment’.

So I was particularly pleased to discover that poet James Bunting has just started a new monthly night. Teaming up with his former Hammer & Tongue Bristol co-host Sally Jenkinson, they have chosen a fantastic venue, The Proud Archivist, which is gaining a well-deserved reputation for a whole host of interesting events (like feminist comedy festival Tiny Women Brains which looks ace).

Attention to Detail
Chatting to James before the show, I asked him about his plans for the year ahead. He explained that each month there will be two featured poets, one featured musician and 5 open mic slots available. He’s also including musicians in the line-up to break up the intensity of a whole evening of poetry, and to include a generous 10 minutes per open mic slot. Open Mic’ers have to sign up and pay in advance online to secure their spot, an excellent choice for hopeful poets as it will take out the familiar anxiety of not knowing whether a slot will be available. For those who find it difficult to get to nights early enough to sign up, this is a very welcome departure from the norm.

Cool quirky venue: tick.
Nice slick format; tick.
Impressive consideration of how to solve some irritating recurrent problems on the poetry scene: tick and tick.
So far so good.

The Open Mic…
The Poetry Archivist open mic rules are sweet and simple – 10 minutes or two poems, whichever comes first.

Daniel Bull – a smartly dressed cheeky chap with a penchant for rhyme. His first two poems about stage fright and performing to a crowd were fun, but I think he needs to dig a little deeper to find meatier subjects. Writing about performing and ‘wanting to be heard’ is less interesting than the stories he might be able to tell.

Kit Finny – A talented and poised performer whose poems took us on a kaleidoscopic journey, rooted in everyday family life and friendships. One small quibble: it was sometimes tricky to follow the narrative.

Math Jones’s hilariously and (I think) deliberately overblown poetry reminded me of Tennyson and the heights of Victorian melodrama. He has natural stage presence and his rollicking stories about lust, murder and betrayal were quite mesmerising.

Rick Dove – A softly spoken poet, his sensuous verse was a bit hit and miss. I thought the rhythm of his first poem veered into trite on occasion (and his mixed-up grammar didn’t help). His second poem was much better, perceptively describing the joy of silence in another’s arms.
The open mic was very well organised and supportive with poets able to take a more risks in this warm, relaxed environment.

The Music…
Monty Tom was an absolutely hilarious character, I kept thinking ‘this guy should try stand-up comedy’ as he prefaced every song with a witty comment and total charm! He was also an incredibly versatile song writer – my favourite was an upbeat love song, You Got Me Good, which he jokingly introduced saying ‘god that’s so American’. Well yes…but the searing, twangy notes coupled with an age old story of unrequited love definitely got me good. Real good.

The Features…
Having edited the fantastic spoken word poetry anthology Rhyming Thunder, it’s clear that James has an eye for picking out talent. This month’s features were Ben Norris and Vanessa Kisuule, whilst next month they will welcome Maria Ferguson fresh from her show Fat Girls Don’t Dance at Battersea Arts Centre) and Chill Pill’s Simon Mole.

A previous winner of the Ideastap Underbelly Award 2015 with his fringe hit, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Family, Ben shared some new material with us. Many were rooted in family life, such as Future Nan which was a funny-but-nuanced account of a close family member who is deeply loved but also deeply bigoted. His next poem London To-Do List was a great crowd-pleaser full of witty observations about moving to a huge city and greedily taking it all in. His poem about male mental health was more hard-hitting, with the repetition of ‘pull yourself together Lad’ a powerful reminder of the damage done by raising men to never show weakness. Ben carefully blended down-to-earth banter with serious intent, managing to challenge as well as entertain.

Vanessa Kisuule is a multiple slam winner and previous Saboteur Award winner who has just published a collection Joyriding the Storm. The poems she read were often about love, and her perceptive verse offers no easy platitudes but tries to get to the heart of the emotion, exploring how we often slip up between the idea and the reality.

Her knack for imagery particularly stood out in a poem about her Grandmother who she is unable to communicate with as they don’t speak the same language (‘trapped in my Britishness’). Wishing to describe ‘how snow falls like capricious cotton balls of bliss’ she laments ‘I’ve composed you of dress cotton, banana leaves and stories that I can’t understand’.

Another poem, Personal Malleable Manifesto, was a new piece that tried to capture in imperative statements some sort of truth by which to live. This was a perfect example of the way this poet blends intelligent, contemplative verse with fiery lyricism, reaching a rare height of accomplishment. As the rich images and wise reflections washed over me, I felt the kind of excited rush that only a performer at the top of their game can create.

The Hosts…
Both James and Sally also performed great poems on the night. Sally’s poem about not being in love anymore was full of perceptive phrases that stayed with me such as ‘I don’t want to use my body to show you that I love you anymore’. Similarly James’ headily romantic, optimistic verse stuck in my head ‘ Remember what I said about life, it’s in the city I grew up in’ / ‘I’m just a traveller, with dust upon my shoes’.
Oh and there’s a nice makeshift cash bar as well!

The next Poetry Archivist is on 23rd Feb. Tickets £6