Summer Pamphlets Round-Up

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Glenrothes-based Happenstance are veterans of small press publishing, creating gorgeous, slender volumes both intimate and refined. Their most recent publication, Lydia Kennaway’s A History of Walking presents an idiosyncratic perambulation through various lyric modes, resting on the affection of ‘Walking Out Together’: ‘I pity those who do not walk arm-in-arm / and those who do because they do / not walk arm-in-arm with you.’

Stewart Sanderson’s An Offering and Samuel Tongue’s Stitch, from Aberdeenshire’s Tapsalteerie, are worth investigating: two pamphlets whose titles both suggest connections of some kind or another. In Tongue’s case, these are pitched somewhere among nature, religion and society and the increasingly fractured substance of each, while one gets the sense with Sanderson that his poems are ‘offerings’ to history both social and natural which, even as they dramatise doubt, do so with decisive manipulation of the ‘slightly / synthetic’ craft of verse-making.

In a more experimental mode (and often mischievously so) is the prolific output of Glasgow’s SPAM Press, self-described ‘post-internet poetry zine and pamphlet machine’. Their thrice-yearly zine, with past themes including astroturf and cruise liners, is always full of fun and surprises, and they’ve published seven pamphlets in 2019 already. Special mention is due to Helen Charman’s Daddy Poem, a surreptitiously biting and exhilarating satire of patriarchal pedagogy, and Audrey Lindemann’s surprising and delightful I Have Compiled 14 Gay Love Poems, found poems drawing on sources from Sappho to Harry Styles fan fiction.

Edinburgh’s Stewed Rhubarb, meanwhile, excel in giving textual permanence to the performative dynamics of poets such as Hannah Lavery. Her Finding Sea Glass, excerpted from stage show The Drift, explores questions of belonging through the intersecting lenses of race, nationhood and family, with an often body-blow immediacy that is humorous and heartrending by turns.

Last but not least is the long overdue The Tiny Talent: Selected Poems by Joan Ure from Orkney’s Brae Editions, a large format selection of Ure’s poems ‘unfairly neglected’ since her death in 1978 (as Alasdair Gray notes in his foreword). Ure’s poetry is direct and versatile, and often strikes a remarkably contemporary note in its depiction of the Scottish literary world. It’s a timely and valuable publication which proves the worth of pamphlets not just for describing our present literary landscape, but also for giving voice to the omissions of the past.

—Calum Rodger

This Script

Jenny Lindsay
Stewed Rhubarb

It’s an intimidating challenge for a performance poet to publish a collection. Our work doesn’t start with the page in mind. We haven’t been schooled in layout or how best to communicate meaning through line-break. It’s not our world, and it’s scary. The first poem in Jenny Linsday’s This Script admits as much

Cannae see the whites
of yer eyes—nor
your boredom

while serving as a smart indicator that this is a very different kind of collection. This Script is an ebullient, honest, at times fiery and always generous conversation with us readers, and one I keep coming back to. It’s rare to feel this much room in a collection for one’s response.

And there is much to respond to, with Lindsay addressing some of the most controversial, knee-jerk topics of our time—gender, feminism, the increasingly narrow pigeon-holes we all find ourselves forced into—with as much empathy as fire. If there is a central theme it is of searching for unity in the face of so many ways we are incited to attack and divide each other.

This Script is also a stage show, and several pieces are film poems. It’s a strength how differently these poems come across on the page; to craft a single piece that exists across genres is impressive; the craft in this collection is consistently clever. The titular poem is written using only one vowel, an inspired example of formal constraints mimicking the limiting constraints of the scripts we are bound by in life. There is no form for form’s sake in this collection; there is neither pretension, nor dross, nor enemies, just vulnerability and honesty and a call to arms—arms that embrace as much as fight.

There are too many stand-out poems to mention, but ‘Lighter’ is worthy of mention, and it is hard, but crucial to read ‘The Heart of The House’:

Let them call us barren
husks flushed tombs

I read this while working in America, and that poem in this political moment—if we could only get it broadcast over Senate loudspeakers…

This collection is a challenging call to show up to the table, ready to hash this all out. It’s vulnerable, hopeful, heart wrenching, sometimes a gut punch. I don’t agree with all of its politics, but I don’t have to. It’s too open for that. Most of all, this collection is courageous. It’ll stay with you. You’ll bring This Script up in conversation. Pass it on, make your pals read it. We all should.

—Sophia Walker

The Games

Harry Josephine Giles
Out-Spoken Press

The Games is invitation, accusation, invocation. A collection of poetry that will shake you, nurse you, heal you, it is a performance of––and a call for––poetic and human deviance. Poetic sequences (Fields, Rules, Translations, Erasures, Spells, Plays) are interspersed with AI-generated rain, intermittent breaks of white noise which provide a lulling, the half-time whistle, a leg-up to the playing field, whilst also questioning how work is generated, how voice is held. This is also examined in the first of two poems that frame the collection, both posing questions around tradition and canon: ‘Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ plays with an algorithm’s ability to learn Burns’ language through assessing his complete works and guessing the next letter; ‘Tae a Sex Toy’ takes the form of the ode and applies it, most delightfully, to a butt plug. The Games gives voice to the voiceless, whilst airing grievances that come from the fact that these entities are dismissed in the first place.

‘Strategic Plan for the Reintroduction of Agricultural Birdsong’ sees the imagined promotional language of such a plan disrupted by farmland birdsong. In doing so, the birds encroach on the strategic plan and the habitat of the poem, just as agricultural industries and monoculture have encroached on their habitats:

underpinning the capcapcapcap Acity for immediate rrrrrrrrrrrrrresponse and analysis
in cococollAAAborative interrrrracAKAKtion

Erasure poem ‘The Following Content is Acceptable’ performs the act of subversive listening as it picks out lines of liberation from regulations stipulated to ban certain acts in UK pornography; in ‘Long Game’, meanwhile, agency is given to the tree as the player is told to ask what is on its mind. The act of listening here becomes integral to the game, just as much as the taking part, the (inter)action.

‘Abolish the Police’ embraces the ‘Spells’ sequence, and so is split in two parts. The first is a breath-driven offering of ‘appeal’, ‘world’, ‘inspiration’, ‘witch’s work’ that dares the reader to imagine a different reality:

The genius of these poems lies in the torque between reality and possibility, a collection that playfully and devastatingly demonstrates systems of oppression, whilst offering its readers the space to imagine those systems gone. It is an antidote, a soothing balm for anyone entangled in the heaviness of hostile systems.

—Loll Juggenburth

To Live With What You Are

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Charlie Gracie
Postbox Press

When the reclusive and troubled James meets daring art student Maura, their connection is instant. Soon enough, they embark on a relationship which circles around one of life’s big questions: is it better to live well, or authentically? And more to the point, what if your authentic self is monstrous?

Gracie wastes no time with an answer. We meet them as they drown a young mother together, and the novel becomes a dark relay race up to this act and beyond. Familiar tropes of coming-of-age, the meet-cute, a married couple rediscovering the spark all make an appearance, but where you might expect love, Gracie substitutes a killing.

Contemporary Glasgow is their hunting ground. The affluent world of the West End and the city’s more neglected suburbs are sharply observed. Though many locations aren’t specifically named, I’d be confident locating the exact Lidl, art gallery, and hilltop residential area that appear in early chapters.

However, attention to detail spills over into the minutiae of James’s life, with much time given to everyday routine. There’s an edge of American Psycho’s perfectionist obsession but, rather than expose the lovebirds as monsters who camouflage their murderous desires with normality, the third-person perspective means it reads more as a deliberate effort to humanise their actions.

And this is a problem. As much as I wish I could recommend the book as a thrill ride, one very late fumble gives me pause. Given the effort Gracie spends subverting expectations of romance, the biggest shock comes in the form of a stereotype that goes completely unexamined: the gay child predator.

In two brief flashbacks, James is targeted: once in a truck, once in a public toilet, the latter met with retaliatory violence. The positioning of these sections comes across as an explanatory twist for his bloodlust, but if that’s not the case, they’re entirely gratuitous. Either way, while not every story requires queer representation, nameless predatory gays as a contextualisation of your protagonist’s murderous impulses is not the way to do it.

Overall, the book is a clever and compelling read. We’re given just enough insight to understand these characters could never bear to be inauthentic, adding up to a twisty psychological romance with flashes of intense violence, and a row of shallow graves taking the place of a good life’s milestones. But for a story which dances around the question of nature or nurture, many readers could find the final stretch disappointingly narrow in its worldview.

—Ryan Vance

We Were Always Here: A Queer Words Anthology

Edited by Ryan Vance
& Michael Richardson
404 Ink

In its introduction, Always Here celebrates a collection of writers ‘not drawn together to talk about queerness, but to talk queerly.’ This highlights what is so important about the book, that the queer identity of its authors is not in question. Gathered through the Queer Words Project, ‘where difference isn’t something to be overcome, but a quality to be celebrated’, Always Here is a carefully crafted collection of LGBTI+ writing from old hands and new, spanning period drama, theatre, punkish proclamations of ‘abolish the police’, post-apocalyptic survival, to toxic relationships, foxy transmutation, and sinister brushes with serial killers.

No two pieces share the same perspective or recount the same experiences, and yet there exists a tangible connection between them all. It’s emotional honesty and intensity of Etzali Hernández pining ‘my birthmarks ache for you and only you’. It’s proclivity toward raw reality, like Bibi June’s fierce reminder that ‘This normalcy is hard-fought. / Do not be complicit in its erasure.’ It’s imagined possibilities of queer futures, in which the world’s last hope rest upon the shoulders of those it once marginalised (Elva Hills: ‘The Landscaper’). Equally it’s imagined pasts in which folk like Margaret, the crash-landed pilot of Eris Young’s Meules, might have found their truths.

Always Here closes with the juxtaposition of two stories—one of married love faltering and failing, and one of married love scary and fresh, but full of promise and hope. The queer universe, painted by the brushstrokes of each piece here collected, is endlessly more nuanced than these two opposing tales. Yet they remind us of this nuance, and for those (like I) who for most of their lives were ignorant of complexity in queerness, it is an invaluable lesson.

Taken as a whole, the story of We Were Always Here is one of beauty, ugliness, tragedy, and success. It tells of a culture fought for on the bones and backs of endless generations of queers come before, yet with painful self-awareness warns of the fight still being waged. It is a story of love and heartbreak, acceptance and celebration, fear and fear overcome, raised middle fingers and open palms.

The intimacies of this greater queer narrative have, as the title declares, always been here. They are currently unfolding, and, armed with the ammunition of books such as this, will continue to unfold—bravely, boldly, proudly.

—Cal Bannerman

Animals Eat Each Other

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Elle Nash
404 Ink

Animals Eat Each Other by Elle Nash is less of a novel and more of a sensory explosion. Originally published by Dzanc in the US in 2018, the rights to Animals were acquired by 404 Ink and the novel was published in the UK in May 2019. Based on their track record, it is clear 404 Ink have a knack for publishing books which go on to become sensations in their own right and they seem set to continue riding the wave of success with Nash’s hurricane of a debut.

Animals follows a young woman without a name who becomes embroiled in an intense three-way relationship with Matt, a Satanist, and his girlfriend Frankie, a new mother. After a chance meeting in the shop where the protagonist works, an obsessive, highly sexual liaison of rigid parameters and emotional detachment ensues. Matt and Frankie nickname the protagonist ‘Lilith’, in reference to The Other Woman in the Garden of Eden. As Lilith weaves herself into the complex lives of Matt and Frankie, a web of jealousy, self-hatred, self-harm and deceit unfolds until she is forced to consider what she really wants and what she is willing to sacrifice to achieve it.

From the very first line, Animals grabs you by the shoulders, forces you into a chair and demands that you pay attention. Nash’s frank, pared-back prose is searing and honest, so much so that the entire novel has the aura of a friend baring their soul to you. And this is exactly what Lilith does. Damaged, distant and addicted to pain, Lilith pours her heart out to the reader, refusing to dress anything up for the sake of decency, but also refusing to invite pity or sympathy.

As a result, we are forced to view the beauty of the world through a twisted lens. We meet a newborn baby whose parents are first cousins. We are made to focus on the masochistic pain of Lilith getting a tattoo instead of the beauty of the tattoo itself. Indeed, Matt has two words tattooed onto his arms: ‘solve’ and ‘coagula’, dissolving and coming together, which serves as an apposite summation of the novel itself.

Animals is slim tome totalling only 150 pages, but what is lacks in length it makes up for in grit. This is a frank, open and unashamed exploration of desire, lust and obsession and how this can both influence and wreck the relationships we have with the people around us. The novel comes together beautifully, and by the end, both we as readers and Lilith herself are undone. Solve et coagula in a nutshell.

—Rachel Rankin