The Poetry Business International Book & Pamphlet Competition was the first of its kind in Britain. Now in its 36th year, it has launched the careers of many well-established and successful poets. Maggie Mackay looks at the four winning pamphlets of 2021 from Dean Browne, Jim McElroy, Maya C Popa and Anastasia Taylor-Lind, all published this month
The judges, Pascale Petit and Daljit Nagra, found shared qualities in these collections: powerful texture in the language, a sonic quality, big universal themes and a connection with the natural world. They identify a sense of magic and invention which thrill, shapeshifting which engages the reader. I discovered thrilling new worlds in these poems, each offering fresh and complementary perspectives. Sound and image work in harmony. Great finds.
Kitchens at Night by Dean Browne (Smith|Doorstop, 2022)
Dean Browne is a published Irish poet living in Cork City. Kitchens at Night is packed with surreal, surprising and liminal poems. I was refreshed and excited by the range of topics and slant approaches, and encouraged be more adventurous.
For me, the most striking poems in the pamphlet are two beautifully tender and moving pieces towards the end of the publication. ‘Fado with Garlic Crusher’ explores a huge moment in the narrator’s life. Fado music is profoundly expressive and melancholic. A fitting title, as pain is reflected though images of “swarming locusts” and bitten by “the tiniest gold-skinned bear.” He / she views the world differently, is sacked for being late. It’s a remorseless universe.
[…] I gazed at the clouds.
There was something they tried to communicate in their frayed,
Visiting the once shared apartment a garlic crusher takes on a significance beyond its value “and the sadness / overcame me in great waves.” The poem pulls us into an ever-increasing sense of loss. At the end, a slice of week-old melon is devoured as if to connect with the lost love.
The poem ‘Listening to Joni Mitchell’s Blue While Cooking Peposo’ melts a Tuscan recipe into the eponymous song. We are invited into a memory as the narrator “chopped tomatoes gorgeous as her mouth / that sea-lit evening.” It’s a beautiful invocation of the hazards to beginning a relationship. The clue is in the final line — “Will you take me as I am.”
Kitchens at Night is packed with surreal, surprising and liminal poems
Browne’s poems are a wonder. Like McElroy and Popa, he surprises us with slant approaches to big issues. We’re exposed to surreal contents of a wardrobe, to Rachel’s coat hanging in the corner of a forest and the singular experience of an émigré caught in an Alice in Wonderland universe.
Judges’ comments: “These poems are packed with exuberant images. They twist and turn in constantly surprising ways – line by line, I never know where they’ll take me next! The first read exhilarates; re-reads reveal hidden depths and subterranean passages to the magical adventures. I adored the furniture poems especially, but every poem thrills. This is gorgeous, exciting work and I’m in awe of its energy and vitality.” — Pascale Petit
“Quirky, kooky, dark, philosophical, absurd and always wonderful, often edged between outrageous humour and revelation, these richly imagistic poems are full of invention. Each poem treads slowly onwards inventing itself as it proceeds to celebrate the transforming powers of poetry. An original and thrilling poet whose every poem hit the mark!” — Daljit Nagra
We are the Weather by Jim McElroy (Smith|Doorstop, 2022)
Jim McElroy, from County Down and winner of the 2021 Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing as well as a range of nominations and short listings, displays his range of skills in We Are The Weather, exploring the rural environment in a personal testimony.
This first collection is an eloquent, powerful reflection on the poet’s childhood, his coming of age and the farming kith and kin who inhabit his environment. So many character pieces are brought to life with cinematic imagery and the craft of show, not tell. The words sing richly like a choir at its highest power and the reader is drawn into the urgent fragility of a livelihood dependent on the vagaries of the weather.
The opening poem ‘Hoor’ focuses on one individual’s view of other human beings in his community. It’s an intimate and conversational run of stanzas. “Hoor” is an Irish dialect term, suggesting slyness both in a derogatory way and affectionately as in “cute hoors.” The lines run a litany of such observations. This is managed with energy and pace. We hear the protagonist’s voice, see his mannerisms, behaviours until death. The poem is grounded by the vocabulary of “hobnail crunch,” “stubborn stones,” “granite belly,” “slumped over granite.”
Out on the moor,
neck veins bulging like baler twine
he’d scrum huge boulders into position
The poem ‘Bully’ is a short visceral piece centred on the annihilation of a bullfrog by a sadistic human named, appropriately, Killen. It builds the violence mercilessly, stanza by stanza, with language such as “arse, slobbering lips, slapped buttocks”. McElroy shows the abuser’s pleasure in the act. We feel the tension; the frog is “strung like a drum.” The creature bursts, “its blood clots hung like fuchsia.” A penetrating image, a film shot which should come with a warning.
This first collection is an eloquent, powerful reflection on the poet’s childhood, his coming of age and the farming kith and kin who inhabit his environment
In ‘Sheep Carcass’ a city girl like me watches the circle of life in action. Every detail is given us, step by step. The lines are peppered with anatomical language, “rump, hock, flank, sinew, cartilage, fetlock,” and economical in tone, “nothing wasted of her bloat”, as the sparrowhawk makes a meal of the sheep. In the midst of this the bird’s “gold irises” hold the narrator in its field. A compelling poem revealing the laws of nature, raw in tooth and claw which offers the counterbalance in the last line: “I think of built nests, gaping beaks, fledging life.”
The father is tenderly brought to life in ‘Weatherbeaten.’ A farmer, his life centres on the seasons and the weather patterns they bring. He’s at the mercy of ever-moving skies, chasing rain, enduring drought, wind and cold. We’re taken inside the protagonist’s head by the sonic power of the language; rain’s “tinny discussions beat the roof, spouts gush to gable barrels.” Sun “casts its width, swole blisters on road tar.” The man’s face is scarred by the aftermath of “Siberian easts.” The weather swoops, swirls and reels him in — it is a sensory experience from beginning to end and a tour de force of a poem.
The final poem ‘A Message from the Dead’ is a spine tingling, mystical piece, short and deep. The dead are telling the living that the actions of nature are not caused by weather but by the dead themselves; we “stir the air, / bend branches, / ripple waters / shake ground. / blow your hair.” A perfect piece of eco poetry, and echoed in the collection’s title.
Judges’ comments: “A harsh farmstead life is conjured with words the texture of mud and straw, blood and urine. I loved the sonic dance of vowels and consonants, as urgent as “my burst of curses rhyming the bucket.” Words for this poet are beings to roll around in. While the brutalities and charms of farm life thresh on the page, there are also tender moments, such as ‘Unmaking His Chair’ – a lyrical eco-poem told backwards. A linguistic delight!” — Pascale Petit
“We learn what it must feel like to be a rural child, to grow up amid the rigours of a demanding landscape with its hard-won pleasures. Occasionally we feel the power of Seamus Heaney in the way the natural world is excited through physical and sonorous language. At their best, the details are devoid of self and focus on particularising natural activity with impressive acuity.” — Daljit Nagra
Dear Life by Maya C Popa (Smith|Doorstop, 2022)
Maya C Popa is an accomplished American writer with an array of awards under her belt and is Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly. In this ambitious collection she reflects on key life experiences, and invokes big figures in the development of science and literature to do so: Galileo, Larkin, Milton. Her work reminds me of Wendell Berry or Derek Mahon in its spiritual voice and communion with nature.
In her philosophical title poem ‘Dear Life’ she uses a fishing metaphor to consider success and failure, pain and the quest for love. The narrator is injured, wounded, finds her tongue caught on metal. They seek a loosening of the line from the want of “all the world, its beauties and injuries.” It ends with a hopeful request that a benevolent life would grant that.
In ‘Margravine’ we visit a cemetery. This is something I do most days for the trees and the stories gravestones tell. It’s a moody piece, low in light, high with jokes. Youth and mortality meet at midnight. Yet, human desire lives “where the brush of your fingertips against my wrist could send me begging.” Being alive: “the only light, a bright sheen given off by everything.” Thomas Hardy sits in the centre, adding weight to the narrator’s vulnerability. Summer, flowers and the month of June remind us of possibility.
When Larkin makes an appearance, as he does in ‘In the Museum of Childhood,’ it heralds a melancholic, truth-laden poem which ends:
The museum makes converts
out of visitors — I lug youth’s
icons inside me and believe:
we bear that loss we caused
by our arriving. We were never
loved by anything
the way tomorrow loved us then.
Her work reminds me of Wendell Berry or Derek Mahon in its spiritual voice and communion with nature
I live in Fife, so my interest was heightened in the poem ‘Fife’, which begins:
The white sun has her way here,
raising a fog like an atomized star
and the heron standing on one leg.
I know several herons on the coastline. I recognise the fog. Here, Popa considers the beloved out of reach, “slipping through time” The fog gives off “a faint hiss like a stone’s lament” – poignant and lost. Ah, but that hiss is the sound of hope, perhaps, or “your own life now, hurrying / from one light into another.”
In the poem ‘The Owl’ the poet allows space for couplets to take off, to circle. It’s a contemplative piece where the narrator speaks with an unnamed other, as in previous poems. Both share the nocturnal traits sleeping in the in-between of an unknown place. Two owls, listening to one another. shapeshifting into a relationship: “nothing made sense / except the way I listened.”
Judges’ comments: “These meditations on life’s big themes are subtle, dreamy, sharp, and composed with great economy. They have a quiet power and gravitas. The poet achieves universality, which is a hard thing to do, and has a consistent gift for outstanding lines. The title poem is particularly moving and exquisite. This is a brand-new voice, like a Larkinseque Mary Oliver if that’s possible! But very much herself.” — Pascale Petit
“The clean poetic line dramatizes a coming-of-age narrative, alongside some lovely and moving poems about the natural world which question our experience of nature as well as describing it. What stood out persistently was the tenderness, the phrase making and occasional moments of humour.” — Daljit Nagra
One Language by Anastasia Taylor-Lind (Smith|Doorstop, 2022)
One Language is a stunning and revelatory collection by a primary source, Anastasia Taylor-Lind, an experienced photojournalist working for the National Geographic Magazine, present in arenas of war in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Ukraine. The poet deploys directness and compassion through her words and photography to record humanitarian issues and agonies both at home and abroad in a work which the judges, Daljit Nagra cite as a “gripping account of witness” and Pascale Petit calls presenting “the un-presentable with rigorous honesty.” Having read In Extremis, Lindsay Hilsum’s 2019 biography of the late war correspondent Marie Colvin, this is a fine companion piece.
The poem ‘Editing’ exposes the reader to the photographer at work, considering ten thousand images “before a grey soft-box dawn.” Suddenly, the lines expose a woman,
your figure caught in the catch-light of her cornea.
There she is – pastel pink shalwar kameez,
one fly resting on the embroidered trim.
In four short stanzas Taylor-Lind took me from a two-dimensional focus on a dead woman’s eyes to the universal tragedy of the refugee’s eight-day march to reach the border. This poem sets the tone for the testimonies which follow which are accompanied by diary notes and relevant photographs.
‘Field Notes’ is a series of nine poems and diary notes titled by hour and minute about one day of a journalistic trip to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. I gained tough insights into the plight of civilians as their world disintegrates around them. Hair salons close, at ‘09.05’ sons go missing, and “unrecognisable remains wait on DNA matches.” At ‘11.36’ Khanum and her husband leave in a hurry. At ‘14.15’ we read the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has bussed in journalists to witness the evacuating of the famous Dadivank monastery while “Russian peacekeepers pose / like cellphone celebrities.”
One Language is a stunning and revelatory collection
Taylor-Lind notes that “I don’t photograph anything that’s staged for the press but I can’t always tell what is real and what’s not.” By ‘16.57’ The bodies of grandparents are unearthed and packed for removal. The world is suffering. At ‘18.10’ “our tyre blows” and “Armenians loot the land for winter wood.” By ‘22.30’ “it’s a mess.“ In tandem the notes tell us of the potential dangers for female reporters: drunken men with guns, spiralling costs, lack of facilities, car crashes.
In the section titled ‘Stories’ Taylor-Lind pays homage to individuals through the action of taking photographs of the dead, the visceral damage to a human body. ‘Ajdabiya’ is a gracious reflection on the value of publishing the reality of conflict. In an immediate turn of form the prose poem. ‘Al Hikma Hospital’ recounts the chaotic scene of three journalists, one dead, two fighting to live. Again, this writing is remarkable, so lucid, so compelling. This is as close to war as I hope I’ll ever be.
Finally, we come closer to home in the extraordinary personal prose poems ‘Stories no one wants to hear.’ The poet explores family violence and its lasting damage in twelve short poems. An unnamed alcoholic, Dad is neglectful who beats the women in his family. Life is a caravan. Life is thick with fighting, punching. In ‘iv.’ a link is made between childhood toileting arrangements and those endured on Libyan, Ukrainian and Ugandan missions. The language is so sensory I can smell the pee and feel the “warm spray of splashback on my ankles, ricocheting off hot tarmac with velocity.” From personal experience the narrator develops a belief in pacifism, though also hangs on to something her father once said: “Anastasia, some people only understand one language.”
This writing is remarkable, so lucid, so compelling. This is as close to war as I hope I’ll ever be
This collection is thoroughly deserving of its success. It is a forensic dissection of the impact of war, whether it be foreign or domestic. I fully engaged in Taylor-Lind’s accounts, so graphic in the way they placed me as a woman into precarious narratives.
Judges’ comments: “These telegrammatic and compelling impressions from an Armenian war by a photojournalist are utterly authentic and original. The sudden, searing images and bald facts present the un-presentable with rigorous honesty. Each bulletin told me something I didn’t know, which is what a poem should do. The accompanying photographs are as strong as the texts. I admire how the poet transports us somewhere entirely different, but without the risk that she has had to take to acquire such hard-won insights.” — Pascale Petit
“An astonishing reportage of the first war during the pandemic which has a bricolage style of construction written from the perspective of a female photojournalist. The conventional verses sit alongside images and agonised questions that complicate the politics of war reporting. This is a dramatic narrative that is constantly disrupted to challenge itself, which makes for a gripping account of witness.” — Daljit Nagra
On Sunday February 27th there was a live-streamed launch event with all four 2021 Book & Pamphlet competition winners introducing and reading from their new collections for the first time — watch the launch here
Photo credit: Anastasia Taylor-Lind was photographed by Isabella De Maddalena
Maggie Mackay loves family history, winding it into lyrical poems in print and online journals such as Ink Sweat &Tears, Prole, Spelt, Southlight and in several anthologies, including ‘MeToo’ and ‘Bloody Amazing!’, both winners of Sabotage Awards. Her pamphlet The Heart of the Run was published by Picaroon Poetry in 2018 and her collection A West Coast Psalter, Kelsay Books in 2021. The Poetry Archive WordView 2020 awarded her poem ‘How to Distil a Guid Scotch Malt’ a place in the permanent collection. She is a MA poetry graduate of Manchester Metropolitan University and a reviewer for SphinxReview.