Sabotage Reviews’ End of Year Critic’s Choice 2016

It’s that time of year again when reviewers and editors look back on this year’s publications and performances and share their favourites:


Becky Varley-Winter, Poetry Reviews Editor, shares her favourites:

Among pamphlets, I’ve been impressed by Richard Scott‘s Wound (Rialto), pamphlets by Clinic (Edwina Attlee‘s The Cream and Chloe Stopa-Hunt‘s White Hills), and Primers: Volume 1 from Nine Arches Press (Geraldine Clarkson, Maureen Cullen, Katie Griffiths & Lucy Ingrams). Among magazines, I’ve especially liked the poems in Tinderbox Poetry Journal and Poetry London. Among full collections, some of my favourites have been Denise Riley‘s Say Something BackA. K. Blakemore‘s Humbert SummerJohn McCullough‘s Spacecraft, Sarah Howe‘s A Loop of Jade, Vahni Capildeo‘s Measures of Expatriation, and I loved Warsan Shire‘s poetry appearing in Beyonce’s LEMONADE. Among non-contemporary poets, I’ve been reading/re-reading Gwendolyn Brooks, Emily Dickinson, Stevie Smith, Stéphane Mallarmé, Jules Laforgue, T. S. Eliot, Mina Loy and William Blake.

Richard T. Watson, Fiction Editor, says:

One highlight of Sabotage’s Fiction year came early on, with a new addition to the ever-popular Unthology series: Unthology 8. Somewhat the opposite of an anthology, each edition has showcased a variety of styles and subjects that might not ordinarily sit together in the same book. Our reviewer, Charley Barnes, described the eighth instalment as a ‘tremendous whirlwind of emotions encased in neatly composed literary nuggets’, and went on to state that Unthology 8 succeeded in the publisher’s aim of producing work that broke out of the boxes usually surrounding short fiction.

Another popular review from this year was that of Melissa Reddish‘s Girl and Flame, a novella telling the story of a girl and her growing relationship with an ember from the fire that killed her closest relatives. Daisy English, our reviewer, described it as a ‘daunting but dazzling bled of harsh reality and an eerie fantasy’.

Once again the Saboteur Awards proved a highlight of the year, and gave us plenty of high-quality publications to consider. Several of the votes were, as our regular MC Webster likes to say, right down to the wire. Once again, we were glad to enjoy the hospitality of Vout-O-Renees in London as our host venue, and this year we had gin to award to the prize-winners, courtesy of Sacred Gin.

Most of the nominees for Best Anthology were fiction anthologies, and the eventual winner was Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood. It is, as the name suggests, a collection of stories about fatherhood, by writers who are all fathers themselves. One voter described it as ‘insightful, thought-provoking yet humorous – a brilliant collection of parental reflection’. It certainly provides a reminder that parenthood isn’t all about motherhood, and at least one story actively asks why an attentive father is praised when he’s doing just the same – if not less – than the child’s mother, who is only doing what’s expected of her. You might think the last thing the world needs is another book, written by men, about men being men, but this mitigates that by showing these men in a care-giver role that seems at once less traditional but absolutely right and admirable.

James Webster, Spoken Word editor for London and the South East, shares his highlights:

Phew. As Spoken Word Editor for London and the South East, I can only apologise that things have been a bit quiet from us this year, reviews-wise.
But we’ve still been out seeing shows and here are a few of our faves from the last year:
  • The return of Bang Said the Gun – early this year, after a much-deserved break, London’s most raucously popular regular event returned to the new venue of the Bloomsbury Theatre. A more formal venue, but our very own Lettie McKie assured us that “It’s clear the bang gang have lost none of their energy and ability to put on a good show.” Bang like a party in poetry form and it’s lovely to see them selling out that venue on a regular basis.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Family Ben Norris is just a really lovely man. In a genre where so much comes down to making an audience like you and getting them on your side, I’ve rarely seen anyone do it better. If I’m going to be honest, I went into this show with a little trepidation, as there seems to be an over-abundance of poets talking about their tricky relationships with their dads, but I emerged thoroughly won over by the original concept, the thoroughly wonderful way with words, and the one-man charm offensive that is Mr Norris.
  • The Hammer & Tongue National Final – a mammoth weekend of poetry. With two full days of performances from both individuals and groups, it would be very easy for the audience to get worn out. Thankfully, this event at the Royal Albert Hall was perfectly put together, interspersed with performances from some of the UKs best performers (particulars highlights were Hollie McNish and Vanessa Kisuule). The event built up to a truly frenetic final between four of the most electric performers I’ve seen. Soloman O.B was a worthy winner, bringing a breathless energy to his performance which left the audience stunned, but I’d like to give a special mention to Caleb Femi, whose turns of phrase gave me goosebumps that have still yet to fade.
  • Melody by Jemima Foxtrot – after having heard a huge amount of buzz surrounding this performer, I was thrilled to finally catch them in action. Foxtrot is a truly creative voice, her poems are playful, surprising and fiery and she keeps the audience in the palm of her hand.
  • Other Voices Spoken Word Cabareta regular treat at the Edinburgh Fringe, Other Voices continues to provide a vital platform for voices and subjects that society finds all too easy to ignore. Organiser Fay Roberts’ response is simply to make their words louder, better and more beautiful.
  • Stitch by Dan Holloway – a modern-day take on The Monkey’s Paw that was utterly arresting, genuinely spooky and may or may not have had digital age vampires in it (who knows? Dan does. Maybe he’ll tell us). He’s performed it at Oxford’s Burton Taylor Studio and the Ashmolean Museum and we dearly hope that he takes it further.
  • The Bifrost Incident by The MechanismsI’m a sucker for a good twist on a myth or fairy tale. And, once more, The Mechanisms’ brand of musical storytelling was so good that it utterly broke me, leaving me a pitiful (but very happy) wreck of a human.
  • The Sleeping Princess by Hel Gurneydid I mention I’m a sucker for a good fairy tale? Hel Gurney mixed together various tales in a way that made them totally new, full of rich language and an eye-watering emotional payoff. This is the show that Once Upon a Time would be if it grew up and learned how to metaphor.”

Here were Sally Jack’s highlights, our Spoken Word editor for the Midlands:

Moved by the theatricality of Maria Ferguson‘s Fat Girls Don’t Dance – brave pauses throughout enabled the power of her words to register. Jemima Foxtrot’s show Melody was quirky but accurate, including beautifully evocative depictions of children playing at the beach.
Also, delighted to see that following the collection’s launch in 2015, Leicester-based poet Lydia Towsey is now taking The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books) out on tour; a fusion of art, words and music.

Reviewer Cath Barton shares her favourites:

If I could go to only one publisher for new fiction it would be the Norwich-based indie Galley Beggar Press. Co-founders Sam Jordison and Eloise Millar home in on the keenest writing talent around, not least in their Singles, substantial short stories published and sold individually as ebooks. As a member of the GBP Singles Club I get one of these in my in-box every month and I relish them as much as if they were one of those chocolate tasting-boxes to which you can subscribe. The tastes are sometimes unexpected but there are always rich layers of flavour.

From 2016 my highlights from the GBP Singles include James Clammer’s Loving Kindness. In this story a man who, on his own admission, is affected by “certain chemical imbalances as well as various childhood events crowding in” comes across a hand-scribbled note about a found penknife. He daydreams, he fantasizes and at the end I shivered in a horrible combination of delight and dread. James Clammer is a writer who is able to drill into the human psyche with uncanny accuracy. Remember the name.

What all GBP stories do is showcase writers of today who are amongst the most skilful at using the subtleties of the English language to convey the vast panoply of human experience. At the beginning of this year Backburn, with which Ríona Judge McCormack, an Irish-born writer currently living in South Africa, won the inaugural GBP Short Story Prize, was made available as a GBP Single. It is an achingly good story about how people relate to one another and the land, and the images evoked, of burning the brush on a farm and the unintended consequences of that, have stayed with me strongly. Re-reading it now I loved it still, and at a deeper level.

And finally, here are Claire Trévien’s (founder of Sabotage Reviews) choices:

It’s difficult, as always, to narrow down your favourites to a particular year. I read a lot of South African poetry in 2016, as part of a Sabotage Reviews focus on the country, and not all of it was published this year. I would like to highlight in particular Genna Gardini‘s Matric Rage published by young press uHlanga, which is fierce and fresh.

In terms of pamphlets, I want to mention Otmoor by Andrew Walton and the late David Attwooll, which, like their previous collaboration Ground Work is a daring and inventive épuisement of a specific place. Other highlights include Leah Umansky’s theatrical post-apocalyptic Straight away the emptied world (Kattywompus Press), and Tania Hershman’s Nothing Here is Wild, Everything is Open (Southword Editions), which upends you in the best way. 2016 seems to be the year of long titles!

I’ve been a fan of Helen Ivory‘s witty art and word contraptions on Facebook for a while, so it’s a joy to have them all in one place in the form of Hear what the moon told me (Knives Forks and Spoons Press). I also adored playing and experimenting with Abi Palmer‘s Alchemy, a poetry object I wouldn’t have discovered without the Saboteur Awards.

Finally, I want to mention The Good Imigrant, a collection of essays by BAME UK writers, edited by Nikesh Shukla, which has deservedly been crowned Britain’s favourite book.

Matric Rage by Genna Gardini

-Reviewed by Claire Trévien


Matric Rage is Genna Gardini’s powerful and strange debut collection, published by the new South African press uHlanga. I was befuddled by the title ‘Matric Rage’ for a while. Thanks to Robyn Cohen’s write up of her launch, I now know that it is the name of a South African student tradition to party on the beach for a week after matriculation. In line with that, the book is separated into four sections: ‘Junior’ ‘Senior’ ‘High’ and ‘Matric’, and are built from poems Gardini wrote from the ages of 19 to 28.

That description is probably going to give you the wrong impression about the collection. Matric Rage is more than your standard bildungsroman, the rage of the title translates into powerful poems on queerness, body-shaming, disability, and more. This scope is matched by the variety of forms and formats chosen by Gardini. While some of the poems are akin to watching two people speak in a private language and trying to find some commonality, particularly in the ‘Junior’ section, there is something about the panache of her style that makes you not care too much about understanding everything.

I’ve not encountered many poems about body-shaming, let alone many successful ones, so it’s a joy to see Gardini tackle this subject in many of her poems. In ‘Whale Watching’, she is almost scientific in her observations – repositioning a fat-shaming comment into a different context:

The concept of size can never exist for a whale
because the sea will always scale to accommodate it


This is why when you say, “Don’t you think – hey!
Don’t you think so-and-so looks like a beached whale?”
what you’re actually blurting out isn’t blubber
burnt to bone, but a lament against context:

recognizing that something larger than you,
and outside of your language, rose in tandem
without tongue, an absence used as if a blade
in a suicidal pact against place.

Not so in the later poem ‘Fat’ which begins strongly with ‘You cannot be liked’ before laying on hurtful after hurtful expression (all heard by Gardini at some point). It ends in this storm:

You cannot fit into this skin I made for
You cannot wear that swimsuit because
You cannot cut your hair so short, what will distract them from
You cannot have a problem that is not caused by
You cannot understand that you’d be much happier if you’d just lose
You cannot still be so unhappy, after all that, maybe you just need to
You cannot talk about the things you thought you couldn’t have and couldn’t do like it was such a big deal You managed to work your way through (you are the big deal, literally), like it took you till now, from when You were only a kid to realize I was the weight you needed to be rid of. Honestly.
You cannot be so sensitive when we all know that this isn’t what I mean everytime I call you


List poems of this type can sometimes feel lazy, but here, the incisions made by Gardini add to their power. You feel the interruption viscerally – the half of the sentence made more powerful by its absence. The relentless chant of ‘You cannot’ takes these examples of everyday fat-shaming and shows them for what they are: another example of policing women’s bodies.

Anger appears elsewhere too, in ‘Angry Girl’, where Gardini lays claim to her right to anger. The control of the itch/glitch rime and the capitalization of each line makes it feel solid and potent:

But actually:

My anger doesn’t irritate or itch.
Because it’s a fact you see, not a glitch.
Comforting, it folds and separates,
Like sheets, like a duvet,
And in it I stuff each dismissal away.

Gardini’s gift for a simile can be seen in several of the poems, and on the theme of women being policed, see: ‘I think of the fish’s mouth / as that of a woman in a portrait, / resigned’ (“Sharks Board). Elsewhere a wife ‘tipped into him as stiff and iceless / as the drink he couldn’t buy her then’, eschewing a more expected ‘icy’. The same poem, ‘Goodbye to Rosie’ is full of these:

He thought she would open up
as if an elevator in the building of conversation,
a device he could ride from across to sides
without ever having to construct a scaffold himself.
(I’d say ‘lift.’) He was wrong.
She divorced him a year before.
Now his problems are like his hair, parted.

From these extracts it’s hopefully clear that Gardini’s poetry is funny. There is pain, there is heartbreak, but her mordant humour is never far, applying a critic’s eye to her life. This brings a meta quality to her poem ‘Art Critic at the Beach’, in which the narrator gives an awkward running commentary on the sea:

This seaweed is just spool.

It’s green and long as a projector’s tongue. And the rock it’s on seems platic-knifed. Disembowled like an old VHS. It doesn’t work for me.

But then, suddenly, the sea arrives and edits the scene out, awkwardly
washing towards, replacing. I have my suspicions about the whole thing

Humour comes to the rescue too in ‘Performance Scale’, Gardini’s longest poem, which features in the final section. The poem comes from Gardini’s experience of being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, and it’s hard not to be moved at her depiction of humour as a defence mechanism:

which is why I am plugged into a wall like a faulty Blackberry on charge
which is why I am connected to wet metal that looks like a clothes horse,
which is why I am making so many Joan Crawford wire hanger jokes.
This means help me

The final poem, ‘Recycling’ in which Gardini confronts the fact that she might not be alive by 2030 head on:

My death came for me when I turned twenty-eight.
It said, “Look, I read all your poems,”
then apologized for being late.

Matric Rage is full of these robust, eloquent poems that wade through the detritus of life’s lemons with gusto. It’s poetry that makes you want to fist punch the air saying ‘Fuck Yeah!’ It merits an audience beyond South Africa where, in the words of her publisher, she has ‘an amazing readership already’. Go buy it.

‘Liminal spaces’: an interview with Nick Mulgrew

-In Conversation with Claire Trévien


Nick Mulgrew, the brains behind new poetry publisher uHlanga, is determined to inject some vitality into the South African scene. ‘I was speaking to someone at a friend’s house yesterday’, he tells me, ‘who was telling me that South African poetry was getting tired, it’s the same writers, the same pandering, not as direct an engagement with politics.’ Mulgrew arrived on the scene co-founding the magazine Prufrock in 2013, and followed suit in 2014 when he founded uHlanga.

uHlanga was initially dreamed up as a magazine focusing on poetry inspired by or from the Kwazulu-Natal province, which is often ignored in South African poetry. ‘If you’re not in Cape Town or Johannesburg, that’s a real handicap’, Mulgrew says, ‘all the publishers, all the agents are in Johannesburg or Cape Town, if you don’t live in either you’re fucked. You need to get chummy with publishers to get them to read your manuscript. There’s a real problem in terms of readers, in terms of books sold, in terms of how books are sold. How do you make poetry accessible, more open, how do you make something for a south African context without imitating a British context?’


The launch for the inaugural issue of the magazine was upstaged by ‘a whole bunch of slam poets, freestyling near the stage’, which made Mulgrew rethink his strategy, and decide to concentrate on single author collections, under the same name. In 2015, uHlanga published three collections, Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage, Thabo Jijana, Failing Maths and My Other Crimes, and Mulgrew’s The Myth of This is That We’re All In This Together. All three are handsomely designed with strong typographical covers. He came across Jijana and Gardini’s work through editing magazines, and intends to continue curating his poetry list this way.This hasn’t stopped Mulgrew from receiving hundreds of manuscripts, ‘you can tell who is not reading local poetry because it’s as if they were writing from Mars. If someone was writing from Mars that would actually be more interesting, a different perspective.’

My death came for me when I turned twenty-eight.
It said “Look, I read all your poems,”
then apologized for being late.

From ‘Recycling’ in Genna Gardini’s Matric Rage

All three are first collections, an approach Mulgrew thinks is effective, particularly as, unlike the UK, there isn’t a strong emphasis on promoting new writers on the South African scene. On the positives of working with first collections, Mulgrew says ‘there’s a lot of hype around them, their friends are interested, their families aren’t jaded yet by the prospect of yet another book, and you’re able to tap into that useful energy. I mean, Genna Gardini had an amazing readership already and that’s extraordinary for any poet.’ He thinks her success is in part due to the energy she puts into promoting her work, but mostly, ‘it’s because people can really tap into what she’s saying, and her aesthetic and her ideas. She has a lot of very cutting things to say about queerness and disability’. Jijana’s collection was more of a challenge to promote in that his initial readership was smaller, due to the fact that he lives on the Eastern Cape.


It’s always interesting to hear how poetry publishers manage to fund their ventures. Mulgrew succesfully ‘applied to the South African version of Arts Council [ed: Arts & Culture Trust], but this one’s a private one, it’s paired with a bank [ed: Nedbank Arts Affinity]’. It’s unusual for this funding body to support publishing, and Mulgrew hopes that getting funding for first collections will help to fund second ones. uHlanga is very much a one-man operation, with Mulgrew taking care of the editing, designing, typesetting, supervising the printing and so forth. He sees this as an advantage, ‘I don’t have to make any money, I just have to break even’. The poets receive 50% after the books have broken even, making this publishing venture more of a partnership between author and publisher.


‘We’re kind of in love with this 1960s idea that people can live off of being a poet, or a writer’, Mulgrew says, ‘when that’s demonstrably untrue. I know of three people who make a living from poetry here (so writing, teaching editing,…) and one of them died last year. So now there’s two I know personally.’

I pray I never take to poetry
as some people go to church
to run away from the things
                      on the street:
the loud music played from the boots
of the trendy cars
at the gumba-gumba everyone
will talk about
                      on Sunday morning
when morning service is over and a story
spreads through the township

From ‘Spilling Blood’ in Thabo Jijana’s Failings Maths and My Other Crimes

It’s clear that Mulgrew wants to broaden the scope of poetry publishing locally, so I was intrigued to hear about the next new poet he is wanting to publish. ‘This is going to sound contradictory’, he tells me, ‘because she is in her seventies, but she’s never published a collection before, and she writes in Xhosa. She basically wrote poems and put them in a kist at the foot of her bed forever. Her daughter became friends with a friend of mine, and he convinced her to get hold of those poems and send them to us. They turned out to be urgent and wonderful, so with any luck we’re going to publish a collection of that, so uHlanga isn’t just English language collections. That’s another way I wanted to widen the scope of commercial and accessible poetry in South Africa: to publish in African languages, which have been neglected by most presses.’

‘With this book we will likely publish the poems side-by-side with translations, as a lot of these poems are riffs on Xhosa folk tales which have not yet been translated, so that would be a double benefit. We might not do that with future collections: people who don’t speak English in South Africa have had to deal for decades with things not being translated for them, so it’s OK to have something that has not been translated into English.’

There are famously 11 official languages in South Africa, which of these is Mulgrew familiar with? ‘I grew up learning Zulu, I speak very conversational Xhosa, I speak ok Afrikaans and ok French. A lot of people speak French here, you could probably do a decent living out of running a second-hand francophone bookshop here.’

things stolen: iMac with un-backed up work;
gold crucifix and chain, worn since sixteen;
two watches; hand-me down iPad, iPhone printed
with a photo of my ear so it played a trompe-l’oeil
whenever I spoke on it; miniature icon of Our Lady
from a small Provençal village, cast in silver, bras
en repose, engraved with the legend PROTEGEZ NOUS –
which obviously didn’t help. that, or
God doesn’t speak French.

From ‘First Readers’ in Nick Mulgrew’s The Myth of This is That We’re All in This Together

The biggest challenge, Mulgrew says, is finding a way to fit between the very European tradition of print, and South Africa’s oral tradition (including praise singers). He says that ‘in their reception and the literary imaginary within South Africa, print is privileged and print is prestigious; oral poetry is far more recited and widely received. You have these two disparate forms and it’s like, how do I do this.’

His aim then, is to ‘publish what’s important to publish right now, what’s missing in the literary landscape. Things in African languages, things from liminal spaces, things from the subaltern.’