Verve Poetry Festival, 16-19th February 2017

-Reviewed by Nina Lewis

I love poetry festivals, this new one promised a marked difference. One of the leading principles of Verve was combining Spoken Word and Poetry, they proved it can be done. The team wanted to encourage new audience, break down the barriers and expose both art forms to each other’s stage. They succeeded in achieving these objectives.

Amazing that an achievement on this scale could have started with an innocent tweet. Full credit to the team: Stuart Bartholomew, Cynthia Miller, Emma Press (Emma Wright & Richard O’Brien) Bohdan Piasecki (Apples & Snakes), with support from Roz Goddard and Jonathan Davidson.

The festival included up and coming poets, internationally acclaimed talent and undiscovered local artists. They attracted poets including: Mona Arshi, Dean Atta, Clive Birnie, Isobel Dixon, Jess Green, Sarah Howe, Luke Kennard, Kim Moore, Helen Mort, Daljit Nagra, Katrina Naomi and Hannah Silva.

It was great to see so many events sell out and audience attending as well as those already on the circuit. 39 Poets and 36 events over the 4 days and lots of diversity in the programme. Visitors came from all over the UK, many didn’t realise this was the inaugural year for VERVE.


The event which created the most buzz was The Outspoken Press Showcase with Anthony Anaxagorou, Sabrina Mahfouz, Fran Lock, Hibaq Osman and Raymond Antrobus. I was in Sarah Howe’s ‘The Heart’s Archaeology’ workshop and missed the knock-out readings and one of the biggest hits of the festival.

My highlights include: Poetry Parlour, a regular event at Waterstones. The Festival Special hosted by Jane Commane (Nine Arches Press), featured Daljit Nagra. A magical evening of poetry to kick-start Verve. Daljit’s reading mesmerised the audience and Jane Commane provided insightful Q&A.

Friday night’s reading with Kim Moore, Mona Arshi & Katrina Naomi. All three read from their collections and chose to share immensely personal poems. Powerful performances followed by a Q&A with Jonathan Davidson (Writing West Midlands). It was particularly interesting to hear how they felt about poetry and their access into writing. An exceptionally insightful reading to attend.

Saturday’s reading with Sarah Howe, Kayo Chingonyi and Helen Mort was a brilliant showcase. This event was sponsored by Wolverhampton University and was a pleasure to watch. It was the first time I had seen Helen Mort in action, despite her being on my radar for years and I had not discovered the work of Kayo Chingonyi before this event.  ‘No Map Could Show Them’, Helen Mort’s second collection and ‘Some Bright Elegance’ by Kayo Chingonyi now sit on my bookshelf next to Sarah Howe’s ‘Loop of Jade’. Proof of a good show when you souvenir yourself every book. (I bought Sarah’s last year.)

Saturday night’s headline spoken word event Come Rhyme with Me Special with Dean Atta and Deanna Rodger. Deanna announced that the Caribbean food mentioned on the programme was not metaphoric and we were treated to a feast of food and words. Their energy was on fire and no-one in that room would have guessed Dean Atta had attended 6 hours of workshops, fuelled by poetry. The Appetisers were Open Mics, the Starter Bethany Slinn, the Main course was Dean Atta who treated us to one of his Kim Moore workshop poems, the winner of the Verve Poetry Competition, Susannah Dickie also performed, followed by the dessert, Deanna Rodger. Although a fair few of us had mentioned cake by then. Cake was a highlight for many at Verve: Guinness Cake and Earl Grey cake were best-sellers in the café.

My final highlight has to be the Dice Slam. A wonderful concept pioneered by Bernhard Christianssen in the Netherlands. Until Verve only one competition of its kind had happened in the UK. It was hosted by Apples & Snakes, Amerah Saleh and the dice were rolled by Bohdan Piasecki. The judges, Luke Kennard, Dan Simpson and Anna Freeman had to perform first to ‘humanise themselves’, then in two halves the contestants Toby Campion, Vanessa Kisuule, Skye Hawkins, Charley Genever and Kareem Parkins-Brown slammed for a brow raising 12 minutes. The dice decided the scores and judges had to justify the numbers with hilarious consequences. Dan Simpson used a book and audience participation to comment on each performance. The whole night had high voltage excitement and was great fun.


Things that stood out: the sheer organisation of an eight storey working bookshop hosting a festival across four levels. The team of volunteers and staff were incredibly helpful. The staff continued to sell books throughout the weekend. Whether it was part of the plan or not, the poetry section remained open.

The urban setting is perfect for transport links, just minutes from three main train stations. It is also ideal to have all the events in one place. Especially as the programming was back to back. No chance of getting lost either.

The ethos of bringing Spoken Word and Poetry together and attracting a new audience for both. The sense of barrier breaking throughout the weekend and the pleasure of this achievement was evident. Verve certainly captured the city’s spirit and energy and harvested a real sense of community.

The amazing National and International talent the festival was able to book and top quality events and workshops on offer, including an entire programme dedicated to young writers and children.

Another objective was accessibility and this was managed with very reasonably priced tickets. My festival pass meant I attended readings that I may have otherwise missed. A whole new world was opened up for many this weekend. People are already booking next year off work.


There were plenty of questionnaires handed out and I know the team have analysed the response. I suggest keeping the branding, especially the hot pink, keep the reasonably priced tickets and festival passes, keep the amazing blend of spoken word and poetry. Lose the uncomfortable folding chairs (unless this impacts too much on ticket prices) and schedule some breaks for people who are attempting to squeeze as much participation out of the festival programme as possible.

I would also suggest workshops not clash with major events. However, I have never come across a poetry festival where clashes do not occur. At least they have stopped clashing with each other.


The Emma Press Anthology of Age edited by Sarah Hesketh

Reviewed by Angela Topping

The Emma Press Anthology of Age is not so much about the problems of being old as the whole process of ageing, which we are all doing, all the time. So it has a very broad sweep, and is not just aimed at the elderly, though I find the silver cover amusing. A good range of poets is represented, and the quirky illustrations by Emma Wright are a delight. The book is not divided into sections, but flows from one poem to another, giving a sense of unity and journey. It’s always tricky to review an anthology with so many poets in it; singling some out feels a little unfair, when it’s all of the poets who make a book work. Apologies to everyone whose poems I do not mention. It doesn’t mean I didn’t like them, but I have to give a flavour of this anthology as best I can.

I love the sensuality of ‘Holding a Stranger’s Hand’ by Doreen Ní Ghríofa. She describes foxgloves so beautifully: ‘their lips pursed, like a sigh stifled, like a mother’s blush’. The poem moves subtly, using repetition, through different ages. I wish I had written it. Amy McAuley’s poem ‘I’ve heard of age: how it gobbles the time’ has a wonderful skitting motion across the page. Robert Hamberger’s accomplished sonnet ‘Saying my Name’ bandages tightly the wound of a mother not knowing her son, something which is becoming all too familiar at the moment, but saying it so well:

Nothing this time. I name my sons and daughter,
say her sisters’ names, tell her all our news
to ease the silence, darkening like a bruise.

Bridget Mackenzie’s poem ‘Kennings’ tackles the same issue, forgetfulness. Here, the loved elder’s language is vanishing, who could once translate from Old English, Dutch and knew all the Latin names of plants. Broken lines act out the hesitancy, and the ending has a lift of hope, as the visitor reads poetry aloud, getting some reaction: ‘she whispers along some words / moth-swallowed’. The last phrase is a reference to one of the Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter riddle book, which I wouldn’t have spotted without the modest end note.

As one might expect, nursing homes feature in quite a few of these poems, and all find something new to say about an eventual destination many of us dread, or have to visit to see loved ones. Hilaire’s ‘Christmas Lunch at the Nursing Home’ has a kind of bleak humour, contrasting a girl and her mother, visiting their grandmother and mother respectively. After witnessing her mother spooning pureed Christmas dinner into the mouth of the old woman, the young one will not return. The mother does not have the choice. The young have a horror of the old, perhaps. Too much mortality does not sit well with the exuberance of youth. I had much the same feeling going along with my mother to visit aunts in institutions.

Another thread in this anthology is the journey of life. Susan Taylor’s ‘All Change’ is one such. It is an apparently simple, beautiful lyric. I particularly like the fourth and final stanza:

I am a changeling
aware of the silver
in my hair – quickening
me – no pause.

There is something like John Clare in Julia Bird’s ‘Lethe and the Nightingale’, though of course it is more ostensibly a reference to Keats’ Ode. Again, apparent simplicity casts a dream-like spell:

Oh I save the bird rhyme
by Some Fret
no, by Warm Quite…
Oh I save the bird rhyme
by Song Sweet
in my heart,
and I fancy
that I will have this
word-music there
when my brain
is all full blown.

Anja Konig, always an original poet, uses the idea of being in a tower which is under attack, and the aggressor is age. The only way through the siege is to allow the attacker in. The details in this poem make it so vivid, such as ‘winter horses’ and ‘horn buttons’. Aileen Ballantyne’s love poem ‘In the Garden’ is a delicious and sad poem about lovers who have grown old together until only one of them is left singing in the dark. This poem refers very subtly to assisted suicide. Lynn Hoffman’s poem ‘Last Lights’ is another tender loving poem, tackling with delicacy some of the great disasters of our time, Hiroshima, Treblinka, Omaha Beach, as she imagines each death is a little candle flame. Something about this reminds me of Billy Collins, with the same relaxed and gentle tone as he uses in some of his best poems.

I’ve admired Hugh Dunkerley’s work in previous Emma Press anthologies, and his ‘Waltz’ is one of my favourite poems in this book. He keeps waltz time in seven immaculate quatrains, and there isn’t a single word that does not earn its keep. I’d love to quote the whole thing because it’s hard to single out any of it, it’s so seamless. It’s about a daughter, visiting her father, who is being cared for at home. He does not know who she is, but his feet remember the waltz steps as she leads him, a beautiful metaphor of how the father becomes the child, the led one. Another poem I wish I had written.

This book also celebrates the old. Jane Burn writes movingly of her grandmother in ‘Watching’, richly interweaving luscious details and warm wit: ‘all her flesh / in cockled swags’, ‘her bolstered tits – two zeppelins’, ‘crackle-flung coal’. Oliver Comins’ ‘Swan Song’ is another such poem, shorter and sparer but full of a vanished way of life, a loved person. Isobel Dixon compares her father in his old age to a ‘vervet monkey’ in her poem ‘Survivor’, while Emma-Jane Hughes in ‘My Camel’ takes her grandmother to the toilet and sees her as a camel.

There are poems of illness, diagnosis and last rites, acceptance and denial, endnotes and last flourishes, timpani and harmony, ‘shadow-play through hearth-smoke’, as Jed Myers puts it in ‘Wood I Gather’. The Emma Press is going from strength to strength, and this is my favourite anthology of theirs so far.

Slow Things ed. by Rachel Piercey & Emma Wright

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

Even on opening the postal package, I was certain I was going to like Slow Things. The Emma Press’ bitesized anthology is as appealing as any well-pitched children’s book; the cover’s enticing maroon and Quentin Blake-esque sloth illustration suggests another, less complicated world of the sort in which I would like to dwell. An initial flick through the pages revealed intriguing little sketches I immediately wanted to colour in. My gauge was set to ‘childlike enthusiasm’ from the start.

‘Poems about Slow Things’ explains the inner blurb, simply: but this is more gnomic and mysterious than it might first seem. Poems themselves – and these poems are no exception – are not that easy. Emma Wright, in her foreword, explains that selection for the anthology required the poems to be ones we can ‘sink into’.

This is a good strategy to get you in the contemplative mood. By poem one, I felt calm. By poem ten, I was blissed out. In foregrounding poems’ essential luxury – yes, they can (and should) be moving, provocative, startling; but they are also a past-time – the editors have made of this little book an invitation to cosiness.

Isobel Dixon starts with the lazy, contented question: “What are we to do with all this sky?” But her answering lines are taut rather than sloppy: “Here even the breeze / has water in” blends economical syntax with apt imagery. This is undermined a little by the page turn to the (to my mind) unnecessary closing tercet: I was so satisfied by “The grass tufts nod” as the closing image that to find an unexpected coda on the next page undid some of the good work.

In general, though, this is a collection of unusually fulfilling poems. The opening poem aside, they have excellent endings; I felt changed a little by each one. Rob Walton’s ‘dining’ is otherworldly but avoids the fey: slow things round the table (sloth, snail, tortoise) wait for their slow meal (will it ever come? It doesn’t matter) and consider, at some point, fixing the grandfather clock: “we wouldn’t regret it”. Alexandra Davis’ ‘Weekend’ is thick with internal rhyme: “We arrive, the working week a smear / of rush, a comet’s dust, / streaking out behind us.” Tell me more! “Like too-stretched bubblegum it sags[…], dead skin in the space of yesterday”. Yes, that’s the stuff.

Little pictures also serve to slow the very process of reading. Charlotte Buckley’s creepy archaeology in ‘Ice Well’ (“In darkness for years, / there is a sense of it coming to light”) is separated from (or linked to) Juana Adcock’s mysterious ‘Waking up the Stones’ by a careful line drawing of a tiny broken nugget, its lines assured. More books should be accompanied by visuals – these surely enhance the reading experience.

Other poets’ lines I would especially like to single out: Sara Nesbitt Gibbons‘ “patient as rust or a barnacle”; Di Slaney‘s “the colour of my jelly shoes shrieking fun- / time red”; Cameron Brady Turner‘s “all this way just to / slowdance a wardrobe up the stairs”. These are tiny word-gems, and there are lots of them.

In fact, there are really no weak links; I was able to explore the collection safe in the knowledge of its quality, so that if poems didn’t grab me it was a quirk of my taste rather than failure of their craft. More like this, please, Emma Press – you’ve convinced me to take it slow.

Bare Fiction Magazine #2

-Reviewed by Cath Barton-

Bare Fiction is a literary magazine available in print and digital formats, but the magazine is only one part of what Bare Fiction represents. Its founding and managing editor, Robert Harper, is an actor and a producer and director of theatre and TV as well as a poet, and these preoccupations are reflected in the way he has established Bare Fiction. He describes it as being set up ‘to promote new writing in all forms through performance, digital representation and publication’. It seems to me, having read Issue 2 and material available on the website, that it is the interweaving of these three elements which makes this magazine stand out and gives it an archival value which magazines that are only made up of the written word cannot replicate.


There is nothing new or exceptional about a launch event for a magazine, but Bare Fiction is going further. As well as having authors read their work, it is making recordings of some of these readings available as Podcasts. Using both Soundcloud and its own YouTube channel, it is cleverly doing two things – giving people who have bought the magazine a chance to hear some of the work read aloud, and, by making the audio work freely available, encouraging those who hear it through visiting the Bare Fiction website to buy the publication and so read more. So, for example, there are Podcasts available of two short stories from Issue 2 – Tania Hershman’s flash ‘Missing My Liar’, deep beyond its word-length, and Carly Holmes’ story of fanciful childhood imaginings ‘Eating the Moon’, in which at night the moon:

…crept through the worn cloth and scattered across the girl’s bed. It slithered inside her ears and tangled in her eyelashes, and she dreamt dreams that were star-shot and bumpy.

Going further still, there is a Podcast available of Rachel Trezise reading. She too has a story in Issue 2, ‘Say Porthcawl’, not the sort of tale you expect from beyond the grave, and the reading gives us more of her vibrant work – an extract from her collection Cosmic Latte.

The three writers I’ve mentioned are all already widely-published and respected, and have no doubt been included in this early issue of Bare Fiction Magazine quite deliberately to give both readers and those submitting work for consideration for future issues a clear message about the standards being set. But, in fairness, the editors have included work from less-known writers, and in the fiction section I particularly enjoyed the very different contributions of J L Boganschneider’s experimentally-structured tale of everything coming down, ‘Caliban Taciturn’, and Thomas McColl’s wry look at one of the unfortunate but inescapable realities of publishing in the digital age, ‘The Plagiarist’.

More than a quarter of this issue is poetry, an eclectic mix. I’m someone who needs a helping hand with poetry, and hearing Bethany W. Pope’s Podcast in which she not only reads her poem ‘The Quality of Mercy’ (included in the magazine) but also explains the background to writing it – when she was working in a drive-in restaurant – and also that its form is a double acrostic sonnet, made the poem mean so much more to me than it would have done otherwise. I would have appreciated it if all the poets had included a sentence or two to introduce their poems.

A couple of the poets have links to visual art – Bethany Rivers’ poem ‘Barred’ is described as being inspired by Sian Rhys James’ painting The Black Cot, and Isobel Dixon’s delightful word pictures of crab – ‘River Mother’ – and ‘gog-eyed alien’ bug – ‘A Missionary in Neon Green’ – are part of a collaboration with artist Douglas Robertson. I was able to find links to images by the artists by searching on-line but I was sorry that there weren’t illustrations in the magazine to illuminate the poems.

Plays are under-represented in literary magazines, and Robert Harper’s inclusion of short theatre pieces in Bare Fiction is a welcome addition to the usual mix of poems and short stories. Each of the four pieces included in this issue is a gem in its own way and I hope there may be Podcasts of some of these available in the future. I especially relished the musical flow of Niki Orfanou’s mini domestic drama ‘Knock-Knock’, an updated ‘I’m okay, You’re okay’ tussle, and welcomed the inclusion of a piece from the early days of Wales-based Dirty Protest Theatre Company, Othniel Smith’s ‘The Naked Major’. Such small-scale experimental theatre pieces often easily disappear without trace and Bare Fiction is here potentially helping to create an important archive.

Finally, the magazine included a couple of reviews and an interview. Far be it from me to review reviews of work I haven’t read, but I particularly welcomed the inclusion of Adam Horowitz’s thoughtfully poetic reflections on poetry – as, for instance, where he says of Lisa Panepinto’s collection:

On this Borrowed Bike has an alluvial feel to it – ideas and images silt up as the poems rush past… a book best read in snatches, aloud, with the scent of outdoors in your hair.

There is much scope for cross-fertilisation in Bare Fiction – a competition promises to attract new voices, Podcasts are being released weekly with readings from the launch event for Issue 3 undoubtedly coming soon, and I look forward to reading and listening to much more from this stable.

The Sabotage Reviews top 10 of (published) poetry this year

-Compiled by Claire Trévien

Tis the seasons for lists and we don’t like feeling left out. So, as is our custom, here is our top ten most viewed reviews of (published) poetry this year, rendered more difficult by us updating our website this year and having two sets of data to look at.

1. Kim Kardashian’s Mariage by Sam Riviere reviewed by Charles Whalley.

2. Sculpted: Poetry of the North West (ed. L. Holland and A. Topping) reviewed by Laura Seymour

3. i wrote a poem dedicated to god that i considered to be extremely disrespectful by Diane Marie reviewed by Charles Whalley

4. Lune by Sarah Hymas reviewed by Billy Mills

5. Estuary: a Confluence of Art and Poetry (ed. H. Lawler and A. Marton) reviewed by Ananya S. Guha

6. Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (ed. by M. Burnhope, S. Crewe, and S. Mayer) reviewed by Harry Giles

7. Rising #58 and Poetry Weekly #1 reviewed by Jennifer Edgecombe

8. Rhyming Thunder (ed. J. Bunting and J. Dean) reviewed by Billy Mills

9. The Son of a Shoemaker by Linda Black reviewed by Billy Mills

10. The Ophelia Letters by Rebecca Tamás and The Burning by Anna Selby reviewed by Paul McMenemy .

As you can see, it’s been a good year for Billy Mills’ reviews! The presence of four anthologies is predictable, but it’s pleasantly surprising to see pamphlets by individual authors (if one counts Sam Riviere’s project as such) making up half of the list. Three out of ten are self-published (possibly more if you count anthologies created independently from a press such as Estuary and Catechism). Magazines only have one place (though it is a review of two for the price of one), which reflects a decline in magazine reviews this year – something I’d like to rectify. What magazines do you think we should give coverage to?

In the meantime, here is My Alternative Top Ten of reviews/publications that should have attracted more views than they did – my small way of redressing the balance. In no particular order: