Editor’s Choices at the Saboteur Awards 2018: Why We Picked What We Picked

Now that the results of the Saboteur Awards have long been released, we think it’s safe to let you know why each editor picked the works that they did to join the shortlist of the Saboteur Awards. We introduced ‘Editor’s Choice’ last year for the first time as a way of making sure a work, or person, that might not otherwise make the shortlist, does so. It seems that this year, voters were glad that we did this, as two of the Editor’s Choices, Jade Cuttle (Best Reviewer) and Jackie Hagan (Best Spoken Word Show) ended up winning!

Without further ado, here’s why each editor made their choices!

Karen Goodwin, Poetry Editor

Best Reviewer  – Jade Cuttle

As soon as I read Jade’s review I knew I was onto a winner. She has an incredibly compelling voice and her reviews are so cleanly written, they require the lightest of edits. What I most like about Jade’s reviewing is she cares deeply about the poetry she reviews, engaging with the poet’s psyche, staying true to the source, so that poets regularly tell me ‘she really gets it!’

Best Magazine – Riggwelter

I immediately liked the feel of Riggwelter, a free online journal of creative arts featuring quality poetry, visual art and essays. Inclusive, relevant, with a sense of humour – it’s a stylishly produced magazine which deserves more exposure.

Becky Varley-Winter, Poetry Editor

Best Pamphlet – Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley

It’s a privilege and a challenge to have a say in the Saboteur nominations. Every poetry pamphlet I read had something to recommend it, and I read as many as I could get my hands on, through review copies, pamphlets I had bought, and the Poetry Library. While I still can’t claim to have read every pamphlet out there, I did read a wide range of work. Certain pamphlets, like Jennifer Copley’s Some Couples, impressed me with their narrative range. Others stuck in my mind because the poets achieved a rhythmic or imagistic style that felt absolutely ‘their own’, even when I could trace some influences on them. Here Birds Are by Art Allen, Frit by Eley Williams, Understudies for Air by Daisy Lafarge, Pamper Me To Hell And Back by Hera Lindsay Bird, and All This Is Implied by Will Harris were all especially striking in this respect, each achieving a style that was distinctive in a way that felt ultimately uncalculated. To me this reinforced the fact that poets are best-served by reading widely and enthusiastically, but they should feel free to pursue their own rhythms and image-worlds beyond imitation, and publishers should avoid dampening what makes individual poets unique. I finally settled on Rakhshan Rizwan’s Paisley as my Editor’s Pick, because as well as having an assured style, she embraced perhaps the largest subjective scope of any poet I read, explicitly tackling themes of nationality, gender politics and migration. I returned to the pamphlet several times, and her formal craft (featuring ghazals most prominently) impressed me, but the unsophisticated reason for my nomination was that Paisley made me cry. It is hard to write anger as effectively as Rizwan does here.

Most Innovative Publisher – Sidekick Books

The ‘Most Innovative Publisher’ nomination was also a challenge. I was tempted by Laudanum Press, Sad Press, Singing Apple Press, MINERVA Platform, and zarf, who all publish beautiful and innovative work in various senses of the word. I kept the idea of ‘innovation’ uppermost, rather than simply looking or a publisher whose work I liked (in which case many more publishers would have been contenders). It was also important to me that my final choice had an open submissions policy, rather than commissioning work only from poets they already knew, and that they paid their poets. Ultimately, Sidekick Books were the most obvious choice: their large, diverse anthologies and collaborations, combining experimental and mainstream styles, illustration and poetry and interactive work, made them a frontrunner for Editor’s Pick, and I thought they deserved to be on the shortlist.

Richard T. Watson, Fiction Editor

Best Short Story Collection – Malcolm Devlin’s You Will Grow Into Them:

Malcolm Devlin’s collection has a slow start, but then it really takes off as dark, weird/sci-fi collection. Honestly, the span of worlds and subgenres is so wide it’s hard to pin You Will Grow Into Them down into one genre. It’s the third story (‘Breadcrumbs’) that really got me – you might say Devlin had been growing into the stories up to that point – with a unexpected turn of events that takes the story from the first few pages of relative normality out into a sci-fi twist on Rapunzel and something darker, that would be a spoiler to reveal. Beyond that, there’s the classic sci-fi ‘Her First Harvest’, set on a remote space colony, alongside a story like ‘Songs Like They Used To Play’, which deserves more space than I have here; it’s a poignant story about how we perceive history, with hints of time travel sublimated through the ways in which the past rubs against the present, and throughout there’s an undercurrent of dangerous nostalgia that finally erupts at the end. Throw in a marketing exec werewolf, Soviet-style dictatorships and demonic possession, and Devlin has covered a wide enough range of topics to make me very happy to nominate his collection for an Saboteur Award: we’re dedicated to reviewing that which defies easy categorisation. Plus, it’s deliciously dark.

Best Novella – Joanna Walsh’s Seed:

Sabotage Reviews has always been interested in the ephemeral and the small-scale, in the quirky little publications that won’t necessarily be noticed by a lot of people and certainly won’t get much publicity because they’re somehow odd or strange or hard to categorise. We’ve welcomed the poetry and the stories that won’t fit into easy pigeonholes. Let the big beasts deal with the novels and the blockbusters, we’ll shine a little light on the ones that might otherwise get missed altogether. Such a story is Joanna Walsh’s Seed. For one thing, the novella exists online, not in physical form, and the reader navigates the story using a smartphone browser. Though not quite a choose-your-own-adventure, this format does allow for a certain degree of reader interactivity, and you’re able to see your potential journey (or journeys) mapped out on the screen. Each narrative segment, accompanied by a plant image, adds another shoot to the ever-growing fictional world. Although the reader starts at the centre of a beautifully presented and illustrated web of plants, different branches of story end only to flower into new ones on the map, which seems to extend on and on in all directions. It’s hardly a traditional narrative, and it’s hardly a traditional format – and that’s what makes it so perfect to be nominated for this year’s Saboteur Awards.

James Webster, Spoken Word Editor (South East)

Best Spoken Word Performer – Tyrone Lewis

Tyrone Lewis – I came later than most to the phenomenon that is Tyrone Lewis. I first saw him perform at Hammer & Tongue this year and gosh was I keen to make up for lost time. After hoovering up a bunch of his videos, what became clear is that he is a poet with a rare way with words, a fierce and playful sense of humour, and a commanding presence. His writing also gives a real sense of telling a story, even in pieces without a narrative, his ideas are always woven together with a strong structure and journey – which is a surprisingly rare skill. He also seems to be a real champion of the scene, promoting others’ creative projects with love and energy.

A little while back, a friend asked for recommendations of contemporary poets to share with her secondary school students. This happens occasionally and I have a handy list of spoken word performers (and accompanying videos) that I can share on such occasions. Tyrone has become one of the first names on my list, alongside Kate Tempest, Dizraeli, Vanessa Kisuule and Guante. And that’s one of the best compliments I can give: when I think about poets who will make new people fall in love with spoken word, I think about Tyrone.

Best Wildcard – Afflecks’ Creative Space

Affleck’s Creative Space – I visited Affleck’s Palace for the first time last year and was blown away by what a charming, alternative hub it was. It has all the subculture cred of old school Camden Market, with a whole bunch more creativity and community. Most notable of these, for me, was Affleck’s Creative Space: an area anyone can use, containing all the tools to encourage your artistic endeavours. Or y’know, you can just *be* in it.

I had a pretty privileged upbringing, but still struggled a lot to find ‘my tribe’ and find spaces where I felt I belonged. I wish I’d had a place like Affleck’s Creative Space – so many people can benefit from it. It’s an invaluable resource for the community, as the many heartfelt comments from those who voted for it make abundantly clear. Comments like “Joy France took an empty space and encouraged a wide range of diverse people to be creative by providing practical tools, enthusiasm and encouragement“, or “Joy has made a little haven in the middle of Manchester open to everyone, where no one is turned away. Lots of people rely on this special place” and “It’s where magic happens.

I was really heartened this year to see the number of shortlisted projects that are engaging with the world and trying to make it a braver, more loving and more equal space. Affleck’s Creative Space does that in a clear, vital and wonderful way – it makes its little corner of Manchester a better place. And, as the comments said, it also makes more than its fair share of magic happen.

Sally Jack, Spoken Word Editor (Midlands)

Best Spoken Word Show – This is Not a Safe Space by Jackie Hagan

Giving a defiant finger to the PIP, and written as an antidote to TV programmes such as Benefits Street and The Undateables, Jackie applies her colourful, upfront approach to challenging the negative stereotyping of the working class and the disabled in her latest solo show.

With her trademark tough, tender and quirky performance style, she includes the voices of people “living on the fringes and the spaces in between”, negotiating the bureaucratic nightmare that is our current benefits system.

This is Not a Safe Space features poetry, puppetry, audience participation, comedy and crisps with heart and humour, and redefines how disability should be viewed on a tick box form: “awesome, awesome wonky and wonky with strains of awesomeness”.

Best Regular Spoken Word Night – Fire and Dust (Coventry)

Fire and Dust has been a big part of Coventry’s spoken word scene for several years now, and is held in the outrageously appealing The Big Comfy Book Shop.  This is the perfect setting – regulars and new voices are all welcomed into the comfy armchair arms of this encouraging and inclusive event.  Run by the magazine Here Comes Everyone, I’ve been impressed by the team’s relentless dedication to making this event as accessible as possible (with virtually no funding), and their commitment to and encouragement of local writers.

Fire and Dust extends a warm and free welcome to all ages on the first Thursday of the month to share poetry, performance poetry, slam and flash fiction. Open mics get up to 5 minutes, and special guests have included Anthony Owen, Alice Short, Roy McFarlane and Josephine Allen.

Claire Trévien, Founder and General Manager

Best Anthology – Aquanauts (Sidekick Books)

The best anthology category always attracts very strong contenders every year and this year was no different. The point of the Editor’s Choices in many ways is to add to the shortlist a work that might not otherwise make it there, so when it looked like my first choice, Stairs and Whispers was a sure top 4 in terms of nominations, I shifted my attention to Aquanauts. I’m a long-time fan of Sidekick Books and I think they’re doing something very unusual and wonderful with their Headbooks series. They’re anthologies, yes, of playful, innovative, beautiful and sometimes silly work, but they’re also interactive creatures and I defy anyone not to be filled by glee when leafing through them (and defacing them!). Aquanauts exemplifies this, and I hope that by bringing attention to it, more people have been filled by the same delight I felt when originally leafing through its pages.

Best Collaborative Work – Black Flamingo by Dean Atta and Ben Connors

Best Collaborative Work is one of my favourite categories and the nominations were full this year of exciting cross-genre collaborations, including Natalie Teitler’s Dancing Words, a series of filmed poetry and dance collaborations, or Penned in the Margins’ epic and site-responsive retelling of Piers Plowman, Fair Field. Ultimately, I chose Dean Atta and Ben Connors’ Black Flamingo, which was an organic and audience-participative exploration of queer identity at Tate Britain. As well as performances and community engagement, the project also resulted in an excellent collaborative zine. There were so many reasons to pick Black Flamingo, but the strongest for me is that it just felt like the perfect antidote to our times at that precise moment.

Three Happenstance Pamphlets by Jennifer Copley, Will Harris & Lois Williams

Jennifer Copley, Some Couples
Will Harris, All This Is Implied
Lois Williams, Like Other Animals

Reviewed by Becky Varley–Winter

These three pamphlets from Happenstance share a simple-but-satisfying design of cream covers with coloured linings, and a distinct, clean quality in their style, like stones from a riverbed. Other than this, their subjects are very different: Jennifer Copley’s Some Couples contains a series of poems on relationships, variously and vividly imagined; Will Harris’ All This Is Implied explores a variety of subjects, including his Chinese–Indonesian and English heritage, in poems of quiet complexity; and Lois Williams’ Like Other Animals explores the natural world, the body, and place.

The cover of Some Couples features a man and a woman twirling with their backs to each other, looking outwards. The opening poems are attuned to the dysfunctional edges of close relationships, beginning with a self-destructive couple, ‘The Drowners’, who are swept away by love: “Where did you go, you drowners, / unwilling to catch hold of anything that could save you?”

The sequence that gives its name to the pamphlet, ‘Some Couples’, evokes relationships as an environment of their own, whether they’re a garden or a wilderness:

He loved the smell of pears.
When they began to fall
he made her lie with him all night
under the tree.

The four couples here each negotiate power dynamics through compromise and conflict, often using surreal fairytale imagery. ‘Emma and Albert’ remind me of Leonora Carrington’s short stories:

To keep her tall
he hung her on the washing line
when she came home wet with rain.
Under her dripping feet, he said,
the marigolds grew extra lush.

Many of the poems in this pamphlet feel like short stories re-imagined through dreams, evoking whole narratives through scenes and glimpses. In ‘Night Worker’, I wondered whether the protagonist was too stereotyped as a ‘down-to-earth’ working class character, but most of Copley’s couples felt completely realised, expertly conjured up.

‘Fleswick Bay’ contrasts with this more detached narrative approach, adopting the lyric ‘I’ in a way that is (use of the name ‘Jennifer’ suggests) identified with the poet themselves, as if the tide suddenly comes in. Walking on the beach, she watches her partner:

Now you’re heaping up pebbles
shining wet from the tide,
inky-blue, freezing cold.
I watch your searching fingers
with no idea what you’re looking for.

Whether they’re being surreal, playful, or direct, Copley’s poems have a kernel of dramatic power inside them that is difficult to convey without quoting them in full. The ending of ‘Long Distance’ swoops adventurously, in part a love letter to privacy in the internet age (“I want to talk to you in invisible words / that no one can see but you”):

[…] I will weave my words
into the carved curls of a figurehead
on the prow of some great sailing ship
bound for wherever you are

and one morning in the future
when you wake in your loft apartment
they will sweep through your open window like rain..

Copley captures the tenderness of frailty and imperfection, messages vulnerable to time. The final poem imagines heaven as a place in which the habits of love become unsatisfying: without small problems to fix, what is there to do?

My mother still irons my father’s shirts
though they never need washing
and my father fiddles with things that aren’t broken.
How he wishes they were!

Some Couples is deeply curious about and in love with love, in all its forms: subtle, sexy, damaging, sustaining, mysterious, compromising, romantic, nostalgic, abandoned and heady. She even finds space for a small sweet poem about friendship. This pamphlet is impressively various, bedding a great deal of feeling into its pages. It’s a whirlwind tour of the heart.

Will Harris’ All This Is Implied impresses me with its reticent intensity. It reckons with selfhood and identity, with an edge of alienation. ‘Halo 2’ concludes:

playing Halo 2, I saw myself in what
I saw on screen and, from Beaver Creek
to Uplift, shot everything that moved:
the birds singing in the artificial trees;
the true self nothing more than the self as seen.

This description of playing Halo 2 is preceded by “paintings of a young Christ […] / his hairless body pricked with blood, aglow” in the first stanza of the poem. Aside from the fact that Christ has a different kind of ‘halo’, I’m not immediately sure why Harris is drawing these two things together. One link may be to do with colonialism: in Halo 2, the aim of the game is to colonise space, alien life-forms being the enemy to the colonising humans, so the poem comments on the shifting perspectives of colonising and colonised. It also comments on the feeling of being identified only through visible signs, such as race. The paintings of Christ show wounds on the skin in order to “advertise his suffering”, as if suffering is only recognised when it is marked outwardly. The speaker of the poem then attacks the alien life that they identify with, as if to expel what they see of themselves, and become invisible. This is, at least, what I think the poem is doing: as the title of the pamphlet states, All This Is Implied, and the opening poems feel like complex puzzles of shy, half-seen shapes.

One of the most powerful poems is ‘Justine’, about a young trans girl:

not knowing who to trust, our eyes
barely meet in the playground. Justine
won’t talk or eat. Her dad has gone
abroad. At lunch I see her pour

a full salt-shaker in her water, drink
and retch, cry heavy adult tears.
I try to hold her but she weighs
too much. I’m so angry at Justine.

The anger at the end of the poem is completely startling and vulnerable: All This Is Implied expresses emotions more powerfully by being softly-spoken. Harris refers to Wordsworth in ‘Naming’, and seems to follow his dictum that poetry is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” In ‘From The Other Side of Shooter’s Hill’, he writes “though / I could see you were in distress it was like the ambulance you saw / moving slowly, silently across the other side of Shooter’s Hill”, and, in ‘Something’:

Please, let the something
unsaid between us be as pure and
forgiving as the flow of water
from a bathroom tap.

At first glance, the poems in this pamphlet seem as serene as this cool water, then you see that they are not serene at all. At times their restraint risks sealing itself up, but in ‘Allegory’, the poet’s voice seems to fan out, flexing like swan wings. It’s a dream poem in which the speaker dives into water, and emerges changed on waking: “They’re calling me to eat.”

Finally, Lois Williams’ Like Other Animals meditates movingly on place, crossing between England and the United States. ‘In England After Years Away’ describes craneflies that fly through opened doors in the evening, their legs unfolding “like the legs of old porch furniture”:

and because I am the sort of person

who ascribes motive
easily to things

I think they are persistent
although it is instinct

fluttering back into the house,

my luminous house
where I flick off lights

and smooch the cool
cheek of the wall

back to my desk in the now-dark

This poem is truly luminous in its details. ‘Noticeboard in Johnson, Vermont’ is also moving, drawing on the experience of war at a distance:

The pronoun makes me stop:
Hang a yellow ribbon for your soldier 

as if I have one too, an empty seat
laid up with knife & fork at dinner,

The speaker is in a grocery store, and, paying the checkout girl, sees “the your in her eyes”, somehow intuiting anxiety or loss from her expression, the effects of the war spreading outwards, across continents.

As well as this global landscape, Williams draws in to the body’s intimate territory, and several poems explore infertility and illness. ‘On The Occasion Of Not Having Gone To The Same Physician As Angelina Jolie’ is acidic and funny, responding to an insensitive doctor who refers to ovaries as ‘gonads’ and seems to like the word ‘castrated’:

I look at him: goatee like a tiny pubis,

gym rat’s pecs under his white coat, a medical hipster
with the bedside manner of a parking meter.

It’s not what you’d say, surely, in introducing your sister
or aunt or mother: Meet N, she’s castrated.

While several poems on this subject are wistful, Williams doesn’t romanticise birth, motherhood, or youth. In ‘At Dodd’s Hill’, the speaker finds a lamb’s docked tail in the grass:

For a moment I’m one with the lamb,

then the farm lad whose chore it was
to dock the tail. I feel the wince
of his innocence leave my body.

Nature poetry is often assumed to be automatically consoling, or somehow painless. As this poem shows, that is not necessarily the case. Like Other Animals takes its place among other living beings with versatility, resilience, and empathy.

Ten: Poets of the New Generation ed. by Karen McCarthy Woolf

Reviewed by Deirdre Hines

Ten: Poets of the New Generation does not just offer new voices to the reader, it also gifts fresh and exciting juxtapositions of form and content. If the poets and many of their accompanying mentors feel a hybrid communal identity, it is to be expected that namings, and the process of naming, are of central concern. Raymond Antrobus (mentored by Hannah Lowe) addresses the liminal spaces of naming in his poem “Jamaican British”. Written in couplets until the final broken line, which breaks apart the two titular adjectives, Antrobus shows the frustration attending dual identity:

In school I fought a boy in the lunch hall-Jamaican.
At home, told Dad I hate dem, all dem Jamaicans-I’m British.

The poet’s father answers his son’s self-hate with:

you cannot love sugar and hate your sweetness,
took me straight to Jamaica-passport, British.

Degna Stone (mentored by Liz Berry) echoes this trope in “The River Gods”:

We try to reconcile ourselves
with reflections distorted in thick currents

Will Harris (mentored by Sarah Howe) is told to “fuck off back home” after a barman refuses to accept his name as ‘Will Harris’ in the prose poem “Self Portrait in front of a small mirror”. His last line “But I must, and will, put aside the mirror” is almost a manifesto.

If hybrid identity is a wound these poets are trying to salve, nowhere is that scar more tellingly evoked than in Omikemi Natacha Bryan‘s poems, mentored by Pascale Petit. The rituals of combat in the movement practice Capoeira Angola are reflected in her poems’ segueing surrealist imagery, as Elsie Lacks escapes the Crownsville Home for the Negro Insane with her imaginary/delusionary friend Lucas, using the moon as an anchor and the chain from the sink. Her mother, Henrietta Lacks, left her there with these magical words:

Hennie said the mouth was the key of life

In mouth after mouth, this incantatory mythic spell speaks, acting as an alternative to the white patriarchal god who is rebirthed in “The Warner” as “a mouth of hooks and mesh”, who roams “like a gully through highways/ to preach inside the marketplace.” Stunning similes, such as “The people’s mouths hung like udders”, remind us that our world-views are fed to us.

Pascale Petit also mentors Momtaza Mehri. Unlike Bryan, who is of Jamaican ancestry, Mehri’s background is East African, and her training in biomedical science brings a new focus into play. The study of cells, organs and systems in the human body can help us address the treatment of diseases, like the disease of killing. “Grief in HTML” uses hypertext codes to describe the aftermath of a bomb. “Death is an ellipsis…” and the dead man that haunts this poem is alive on Facebook as a “life undeleted.” The poet wakes “daily to a world that is romantically invested/ in splitting me apart./ Don’t let me collude against myself./Don’t let me believe I am what I am not.” (Dis-rupture). The poem begins with lists that have a distancing effect, until the lines above reel me into a shared commonality.

Victoria Adukwei Bulley (mentored by Catherine Smith) is a British Ghanaian writer whose poem “About Ana” explores the work of Ana Mendieta, a Cuban American performance artist, who arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1961. She died on September 8th 1985 in a fall from her 34th apartment floor [ed: the circumstances of her death are still debated]. Mendieta’s dialogues between the landscape and the female body are echoed in the last lines of Bulley’s poem:

[…] I myself am
bored by fig leaves
and shames I did not choose.

In ‘Why can’t a K be beautiful and magick?’ Bulley ends with:

don’t say her name, it has a K in it
that doesn’t belong to you

Both Bulley and Yomi Sode (mentored by W. N. Herbert) address the artifice of form in the jumbled sequencing of their poems “Retreat” and “After Life”. The final line of “After Life” is also the first:

“1. Some believe that death resurrects in many forms”.

In many ways this anthology is a rebirth, entering Jennifer Lee Tsai‘s prose poem “New Territories”:

return to the idea of nothingness, start again somehow

The place of this rebirth may be on the isle of Skye, where Ian Humphrey‘s “Skye and Sea” has “Nosferatu shadows” uncoil, or in Hieronymus Bosch’s colours, which Leonardo Boix calls “Pigments alla prima”. This anthology is loaded with so many consummate poets. I’m an avid fan.

Mimic Octopus: an anthology of poetic imitation (ed. Will Harris & Richard Osmond)

-Reviewed by Ira Lightman


A “mimic octopus” isn’t a chameleon, a mere canvas. It mimes its whole body to act like another creature: either unpalatable prey or a fearsome predator. The main weakness of The Mimic Octopus is that almost no poet here takes such a steer from a source poem. The poets’ poems would fit better in their own collections than in an anthology of the art of translation and imitation – and such anthologies usually think harder about whether derivation should sit next to the original or work in its own right. In an anthology of imitation, we should ask is the imitation working as a poem for any poetry community or any time, or as a poem by that particular poet?

The website gives the list of imitatees the poets are imitating. The chapbook doesn’t. Neither give the titles of actual poems worked from, as an anthology would. Instead there is room for tangentially related and at best pleasantly diverting scans of drawings and collage art around the poems. The only poetry anthologies I know (usually four times the length of this chapbook) with ubiquitous artwork are Grandchildren of Albion (1991), in which the artwork works well, and anthologies of children’s poetry and established classics. One picture in The Mimic Octopus is of an ambulance parked in the corner of an empty urban car park, between one male poet’s poem to a naked woman in the bath and another male poet’s poem to a naked woman’s naked arse.

Some of the sources are presented in this review, and perhaps have not been asked for or seen by the editors wanting to enter the heavyweight debates as they say they do. We need more answers than a gosh-gee aphorism like

What separates a painting by one Dutch master from another in his school? The texture of a fur cap or an embroidered cloak, perhaps… Only through craft can we hope to discover such brilliant anonymity.

– (in this chapbook, it certainly is “his school”). The risk of generic anonymity is becoming Rupert Pupkin, with studied imported passion, and professionalism to ward off feet-shuffling embarrassment. Is The Mimic Octopus a book all the poets named on the website, including the passionate ones, could enter? If not, then it’s not about craft. Previous ages of English poetry have held Latin as a model of compression and stony form. William Wycherley, while he would have enjoyed the (to me, also, fun) smut of Andrew Zurcher’s ‘Upon his lover’s backside’ would never have written

Rain down, kind heavens, easing lubricants
to slip the sphincter of my eloquence.

because it’s a mess. The 20th century poet Douglas Oliver once explored the etymology and feel of the word “kind” while using it – here it’s waffle like Peter Cook improvising cod Shakespearean pentameter. How does rain ease? If there is a lubricant, “easing” is a superfluous word. Doesn’t “slip” mean “escape”, not, again, lubricate? (A Freudian slip of wanting out, perhaps?)

Some of the poets here imitate poems by each other – sadly, the imitated poems by the also-writing poets are not in the book. Paul Muldoon has a poem to ‘Alvaro de Campos: Belfast 1922’ and a poem ‘Sushi’emulated loosely by Mina Gorji:

But they don’t have a heart,
you said.
We moved on to dessert-
further apart-
your thoughts soon turned
to horseshoe crab.
Manoeuvre past
its unimpressive claws,
the armament
of oval shell…

…Along the coast
the horseshoe crab
scuttles away-
alone in the Creation.

The pattern from Muldoon is (as with many of the poems here) taken at arm’s length and myopically. Here is some of ‘Sushi’

“Why do we waste so much time in arguing?”
We were sitting at the sushi-bar
drinking Kirin beer
and watching the Master chef
fastidiously shave
salmon, tune and yellowtail…

I saw, when the steam
cleared, how this apprentice
had scrimshandered a rose’
exquisite petals…

Is it not the height of arrogance
to propose that God’s no more arcane
than the smack of oregano,
the inner organs
of beasts and fowls, the mines of Arigna,
the poems of Louis Aragon?…
the Master so gravely weighed
from hand to hand
with the look of a man unlikely to confound
Duns Scotus, say, with Scotus Eriugena.

Glory is not borrowed for Gorji without uncomfortable comparison coming too. She lacks scrimshandering in her vocabulary. Muldoon puts his opening line in speech marks. Gorji italicizes, both there and in the middle of her poem, and in the middle it is no longer with the advantage of surprise or a clear graphic design on the page (a problem with this chapbook generally). She has a shuffling non-committal waffly ending line, and too little detail. The poem feels addressed to others who go on restaurant dates far more than I or Muldoon’s old childhood pals do. There is an assumed, narrow audience.

One can be grateful that Gorji does not wallow in Muldoon’s trademark echoing cognates. His oregano, organs, and orgone; Duns Scotus and Scotus Eriugena. As with Hill, it’s not so much a unique style as having bought up all the puns in the lexicon. If imitations could free this up, then good.Muldoon in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry dwells on possible associations, echoing cognates, that any one word in a de Campos poem may throw up in the subtle reader’s mind. His poem here names Barrow-in-Furness but is set in and about the 1922 Belfast shipyards. Pessoa imagined de Campos was an engineer working in another country at the same time, in Barrow-in-Furness (where Pessoa never visited). The website says de Campos is Muldoon’s imitatee, but Muldoon seems to be doing no more than imagining a place (of the past) he has never visited, as Pessoa did.

Consider de Campos’s poem to Barrow-in-Furness. It’s not like this one. Muldoon has the line “…the dun in dunnock/ doesn’t allow for the dash/of silver in its head and throat feathers”. All very nice, less taut than in ‘Sushi’, Muldoon imitating himself, and not escaping this by working on de Campos.

…the dunchered shipyard men are no less peaceable
than those of Barrow-in-Furness.
Souped-up, staid, swerveless, supple,
they hold in equal reverence

the penny whistle and the plenilunar
pigskin of a Lambeg drum…

This isn’t de Campos. Pessoa saw de Campos as his Whitmanesque self, and slapped exclamation marks all over him:

…Corre, raio de rio, e leva ao mar
A minha indiferença subjetiva!
Qual “leva ao mar”! Tua presença esquiva
Que tem comigo e com o meu pensar?

(from Barrow-in-Furness, a sonnet sequence by de Campos)

Roughly this translates

…Run, damned river, and lead to the ocean,
my indifference’s subjectivity
which “leads to the ocean”! Your presence, slippery,
holding in me, in my inner thinking..

Muldoon has a lovely implication here that the Belfast shipyard men, “souped-up, staid, swerveless, supple”, are like the Furness river as de Campos writes about it (without having seen it, so it could be any river). This is a generosity towards other humans not easily found in de Campos, moodily and narcissistically brooding on existential questions and elemental forces. If one knows de Campos, one sees Muldoon’s clever repurposing. One questions, though, why Muldoon is idealising the unthinking brute workmen. Why is he flattering them for being swerveless when they were both unstinting and did swerve, not to die of heavy moving metal ship parts, and probably didn’t have long retirements after all that stress? Pessoa leaves the better aftertaste with his more openly sad and more brusquely comic poetry (at his own expense).

For me, Sarah Howe’s riffing against the tone of the Cathay poems of Ezra Pound is the only triumph in the chapbook. The tone is well chosen and languid. The self-reflexive fascination with penmanship to describe the insects buzzing by the river and all the movement isn’t narcissistic but effective. No audience is assumed, and the background of the Jesuits landing at Canton is informative for all. If we are told new things, we are put into the poem from all our communities and see each other thinking there. Howe’s poem is hard to quote because it flows so well part to part.

And then I come back to carping. The Andrew Motion poem in the book seems to show the poet having learned little from his public run-in with the World War 1 historians whose work he used in found poems a few years ago. Admitted, the tone of his poem is refreshing as one turns to it from the other poems in the chapbook

When the time came to see them off-the-cuff
I dressed laboriously in a wool vest and long drawers.
a shirt and two sweaters,
comfortable knickerbockers made of windproof gabardine,
a pair of soft elastic Kashmir putties,
ankle-boots soled with English leather
and nailed with Alpine nails,
a fur-lined cycling helmet,
and a leather mask covering every part of my face
not protected by my beard.
A thick grey hand-knitted muffler completed the costume.

The chapbook gives no context. The website says Motion’s imitatee is Wade Davis. But these lines are by Edward Norton, from an account of the 1924 Everest climb in which men died, quoted by Davis in his Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest:

Personally I wore thick woolen vest and drawers, a thick flannel shirt and two sweaters under a lightish knickerbocker suit of windproof gaberdine the knickers of which were lined with light flannel, a pair of soft elastic Kashmir putties, and a pair of boots of felt bound and soled with leather and lightly nailed with the usual Alpine nails. Over all I wore a very light pajama suit of Messrs Burberry’s “Shackleton” windproof gabardine. On my hands I wore a pair of long fingerless woolen mits inside a similar pair made of gaberdine. On my head I wore a fur-lined motor-cycling helmet, and my eyes and nose were protected by a pair of goggles of Crooke’s glass, which were sewn into a leather mask that came well over the nose and covered any part of my face which was not naturally protected by my beard. A huge woolen muffler completed my costume.

I don’t know if Motion naturally corrected “gabardine” in his poem, as it is spelled with e and a in Davis. He certainly has corrected to add lightness, and the word “goggles” by itself on a line is lovely, and well-quarried from the original. My joy, though, at skimming Motion’s poem settled into unease and a bad taste in the mouth. In his poem Motion retells Wade’s retelling (from journals of different men on the expedition) of how Mallory and Irvine were lost but one member of the party thought he saw two dots like Mallory and Irvine ahead on the ascent, in a setting so mesmerizing the writer could believe that he had had a vision of how Mallory could have been bewitched by it and not turned back, despite the likelihood he would die, which he did. Many dispute that it could have been Mallory in this (perhaps) vision. Mallory wasn’t found until 1999.

Motion has reshaped Norton’s paragraph into very pleasant verse. More Lowell-like than the Robert Lowell tribute in The Mimic Octopus by André Naffis-Sahely (spelt “Naffs” on the website). Indigestibilities remain, and translations and imitations less effective than the original or existing translations.

A poet who works from historical sources like Ezra Pound would never have flattened the distance between then and now in the name of a giggly frisson of mocking a dandy (who wasn’t a dandy). Pound would have been fascinated by the sources, and have let their quiddity come through. Again, the octopus has swum into view, and had nothing but a few pictures projected onto him. Motion seems himself too present.

Worse, it wasn’t Norton who had the vision of Mallory (probably already dead) at the end of Motion’s poem. It was Odell, another member of the expedition, whose words are also used by Motion as part of the borrowed words of the same one narrator. If this “Norton-Odell” compound is meant to convey a rollicking ghost story in the generalised tone of the time, it’s at most a limited success, and ghoulish. They’re dead, when am I going to be? it seems to say, up to the final two lines

It was the beginning of their mystery and no mystery at all.

There is no other reason that explains why they chose to stay.

Which aren’t in Davis, from what I can see.

Finally, I was glad that Anthony Adler’s poem ‘Near Extremes, after Jon Stone’ led me to Jon Stone’s cluster of poems all called ‘Near Extremes’. Stone’s four poems (not included in The Mimic Octopus) all begin “Where I come from it’s the other way round” and then do some nice topsy-turvy work with expected tropes. They’re better than Adler’s pleasant enough homage of first drafty lines.

Stone’s imitation in The Mimic Octopus, though, is a prose poem based on Alan Jenkins. Jenkins shared the late 80s slightly porny tendency of Craig Raine when Raine ran out of similes, the big shot literary magazine editing bad boy. Unusually for The Mimic Octopus, Stone works sardonically on his source. But it doesn’t quite come off. As one would guess, many of Stone’s lines are quotes from Jenkins, though it’s interesting to observe which aren’t. Stone’s frames his quotes with hackneyed coy stage legalese. Stone stands against something sleazy. But vocalising for the Jenkins’ mentioned cat is unsuccessful. Adding “pliant whip”, making soap thin itself when it washes the beloved’s “nether parts” (Stone’s locution) and “traitor breast” (Stone) is awkward and clumsy. No narrative clues of setting, or progress over time, are in the Stone imitation, and not a lot of true daring with taste. One takes the overall point, that Jenkins’ poem is making exclusionary gestures, and Hugo Williams (quoted by Stone) on Jenkins is adding to the exclusion by calling it “daring”. Where though is the way forward, the actual new erotic poem in one’s hands?