Seeing things and seething

Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023)


Seeing is ambiguous. Less active than ‘watching’ or ‘looking’, it nevertheless involves some level of engagement with the world around us. A witness might proudly declare “I saw it all” when giving testimony; God (in various guises) is often described as all-seeing; when flicking through Twitter, we often see things we can’t help but click. Whether informants, deities or doom-scrollers, we are all seeing the Earth weep.

Some see with open eyes; others with a shifty sideways glance. Many are peeking through the gaps between their fingers. And too many are trying to keep their eyes shut. We are seeing one third of Pakistan submerged by floodwater. We are seeing more than 8 million tons of plastic end up in oceans every year. And we are seeing insect populations plunge, threatening 40% of species with extinction within decades.

Different types of observer fill the pages of Julian Bishop’s We Saw It All Happen. There are angry seers. Sad gazers. And detached viewers, who watch on, Gogglebox-style, as though the burning world were only on TV. At times, readers might themselves feel uncomfortably implicated: in a climate emergency, should we even be reading poetry?

The only riposte to such (legitimate) doubts about poetry’s utility comes from poetry itself. In one of the collection’s best, the poet alludes to ‘Four Forms of Denial’: ‘[idle]’, ‘[CARNIVORE]’, ‘[personal]’ and ‘[PRESIDENTIAL]’. In the final section, the deranged voice bellows,

YOU | DON’T NEED MONEY TO FIGHT WILD FIRES | WHAT YOU SEE AND READ IS NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING

With (wilful) climate change denial still staggeringly prevalent, the step from apathy to authoritarianism is dangerously narrow. Bishop’s catalogue of catastrophe is the perfect counterweight to the Orwellian ‘greenwashing’ (and outright lies) of Big Oil and the Meat Lobby. When ‘The Party’ tells us to reject the evidence of our eyes and ears – ‘their final, most essential command’ – more voices are needed to remind us that what we saw really did happen.


The starting point for We Saw It All Happen, as is often true of the most powerful poetry, is personal experience. Bishop, a former Environment Reporter for BBC Wales, uses poetry to turn the lens on himself. Reflecting on his career in the ‘Preface’, he writes that he used to hope that,

my reports might go some small way to change hearts and minds. I think it’s fair to say I failed which might explain some of the frustration and sadness expressed in many of the poems

Frustration permeates the whole collection. Humans are pirates, who ‘keelhauled the lot to give us more space’. In ‘Highlights of Mining for Gold in Indonesia’, the consumer is squarely held as culpable for the devastating effects of deforestation. ‘Look inside the lovely ring, at a gold chain, your piercing…’ the poet urges, and you will see ‘a gold vein threading | together diminishing jungle but an inconvenient gorilla | to the two men with chainsaws’.

From Cinnabar moths to dung beetles, the collection plays host to hundreds of tiny creatures that are too often overlooked. When you can’t see something, you can’t see that it is disappearing. ‘Strange that catastrophe should announce itself |on such small feet’ the poet muses.

In drawing attention to the extraordinary biodiversity that ‘make[s] the world go round’, the poet advocates for a new way of seeing: photographers fawning over tigers neglect the beetle in the same way that people, so wrapped up in the pursuit of personal goals, forget to nourish the Earth that ensures their survival.

To reinforce this need for visibility, the beautifully produced collection – published by (the aptly named) Fly on the Wall Press – features an illustrated flip book of beetles. Seeing is believing, which makes foregrounding something that is usually invisible a powerful act. Flipping the beetles away serves as a vivid visual reminder of the extinction that humans are inflicting upon the insect world.

Indeed, poetry itself encourages a different kind of seeing. Different perspectives compete; different voices compel attentive listening. Bishop’s collection is a graveyard of humanity’s errors. This graveyard is so huge and overwhelming that the best way to (try to) understand it is on the personal level. That is poetry’s place.


‘To All the Insects I Ever Squished’ is a deceptively poignant elegy to the vast range of insects the poet has killed – deliberately or otherwise. His apology to wasps (‘for prizing a sandwich more than your lives’) is especially telling. It is hard to read this poem without feeling a tidal wave of despair but its ending is too glibly defeatist. Pleading that the deaths were the result of a ‘congenital human urge to eliminate’ leaves no hope for redemption – and, more importantly, it undermines the sincerity of the poet’s apology. We can help it. We need to help. However hopeless the battle might seem, we cannot simply throw in the towel. Having made this mess, we owe it to every squished insect to at least try to clean up.

Bishop is right to focus on the worst perpetrators. Fossil fuel, meat and dairy, mining and aviation companies hold the keys to a liveable future for all. To Big Oil, he says, ‘You barrelled across the Earth like you owned it | and to a degree or two you did’. He satirises the politicians complicit in these ruinous activities in ‘Eton Mess’. His recipe involves mixing ‘No deep thought or application’ with a sprinkling of Latin, a perfect summary of the last decade of British politics. Naturally, the finishing touch is to ‘Dust conservatively with icing sugar (or cocaine)’.

When addressing Starbucks (proxy for big, immoral business), the consumer is also to blame: ‘we cradle the stain | of a disposable cup in our hands’. Indeed, amid the hopelessness of stopping the wealthy from taking short-haul domestic private jet jaunts, we need some reminders that individuals are not innocent bystanders.

This is most apparent in the title poem. The walrus scene in Our Planet is a tragic visualisation of the effects of climate change. Ice-free waters are forcing walruses to return to land to rest; exhausted and overcrowded, they then topple to their deaths. The poet uses this horrifying image – and the walruses’ helpless wails – to mirror humanity’s guilt and shame at having caused such suffering. The twin images of a family eating a fish feast on the sofa and the walruses plunging to their deaths create an excruciating echo:

now we’re all wailing
kill the sound

In a book centred on the power of sight, it is sound that has the most enduring effect. The poet heightens his message through exceptional command of white space. The page becomes a scene of failure, the meeting point of cause and effect, a space for the slow-motion playing out of something that could have been avoided.

The repetition of ‘I’ve got the zapper in my hand’, so rich with meaning, is a refrain for the age. We have the power to change the channel and pretend it isn’t happening; or we can stare in horror for a few long minutes, then go back to eating our takeaway. Or we can turn up the volume, take responsibility for our mistakes and do something to correct them. We Saw It All Happen is essential reading for the poetry world – and anyone who still cares and hopes. In ‘Ash’, the closing poem, Bishop makes clear that he does,

A desperate last gasp to save the planet,
I want the world to warm to my plan.


Julian Bishop, We Saw It All Happen (Fly on the Wall Press, 2023). Available here: https://www.flyonthewallpress.co.uk/product-page/we-saw-it-all-happen-by-julian-bishop

‘A Theme Song for Our Lives’: 98 Ways to Hope

in a world of disorder and chaos,
and rage,
we plant poems
on pages. Seeds of hope
as a way to cope.

Claire Thom

‘Hope is a Group Project’ is the debut anthology of The Wee Sparrow Poetry Press, featuring 98 international writers alongside original illustrations by Colin Thom. It is an inspiring and revealing compilation

Ebony Gilbert, writing in the ‘Foreword’, states that she has always loved it when a ‘heat wave brings people together’, noting that ‘shared difficulties almost force connection’. Although a grimly prescient message in a world of climate catastrophe, the statement reveals something fundamental about the anthology’s purpose and power. Hope is both personal and collective, and a poetry anthology that collates almost one hundred unique perspectives is a wonderful site for its many contradictions to play out.

Hope is often linked to faith. It exists as a substitute for certainty: ‘When we do not know | we must lean into hope’ suggests Kate Phipps in her contribution to the anthology. Serendipity brings together the tiniest of protagonists in Robert Edwards’ poem, ‘Two Grains of Sand’, with the poet describing the journeys of ‘Two fated to live a lifetime together’ out of ‘Countless gold grains, washing ashore’. These two grains will ‘go with the flow’; hope, perhaps, resides in relinquishing control.

But hope can be a decision too, as Emily Tee writes: ‘now I’ve reached a point of crossing’ from which she can choose to be led by the ‘embers of hope’. As well as divine, hope can be banal: it is ‘something stuck in between your teeth’, writes Jerome Coetzee.

Light is a recurring theme. ‘Hope is magic, | a light shining through the darkness’ writes Arjumand Rasiwala. ‘It’s a light so bright | Etched in eyes | Sparking the dull and lost’ adds Madeleine S Cargile. Or, for Satya Bosman, it is ‘the sun peeking over the | clouds’. In Agrene Bouwman’s ‘Icarus’, hope is strikingly described as ‘Elysian light through medieval glass’. With light comes lightness: Lisa O’Hare in ‘M. I. A.’ expresses hope as arriving ‘Out of nowhere | Radiating a lightness’.

Nature – and the promise of a better future more in tune with natural systems – is a common theme. Sarah Jeannine Booth vividly conjures ‘a forest wreathed in green’. Unsurprisingly, seeds recur too. ‘I keep planting hope’ says Emma Conally-Barklem. Emily Mew, meanwhile, portrays hope as ‘a hardy plant | flourishing in harsh terrain’ but also a bird with ‘gilded wings’ that carries her heart through the night.

Some expressions of hope, however, tip into lazy stereotype. Tim J Brennan contemplates geese, musing that they ‘think not of previous loved ones. | they don’t seem sad, | seem not to think about dying’. In fact, geese are sentient, emotional beings who mate for life and go through a prolonged mourning process, which includes withdrawing from their flock, when their partner dies. Elsewhere, Justin Farley vividly describes the suffering of salmon at the hands of humans (‘fiercely fighting, | desperately trying to snap your line | and swim downstream’) yet bizarrely tries to use this disturbing image as a reason for hope: ‘In the depths of suffering, | joy can still be tasted | by eating the fruits of hope’. Finding joy in the suffering of others seems a difficult message to swallow.

More engaging are the anthology’s more equivocal poems. Hope ‘lingers secretly’, writes Sarah Fawcett. It’s not an in-your-face emotion; it ‘dies so easily | But can never be killed’. Fittingly, the anthology’s subtler poems, those in which hope remains half-hidden, convey more powerfully its true essence. In ‘Capnomancy’, Danielle Gilmour connects burnt toast, a burning planet and President Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. In this blistering poem, hope is ambiguous and moveable.

Dynamism is also present in the soundscapes of many poems, which build musicality into their body. Hope is a ‘theme song for | Our lives’ writes Jane Hanson. One of the anthology’s best poems is ‘On a January Morning’ by John Birtwhistle. Sight and sound contrast and compel; ‘a leafless oak’ is the unimposing setting for the sonic spectacle: ‘A song thrush breaks into song […] And “I can see its little mouth.”’

The anthology reminds us that hope is powerful. It also reveals its danger. Indeed, hope can be a political tool – for good or evil. In the ‘Foreword’, Ebony Gilbert draws on the pandemic-era ‘clanging saucepans and banging bin lids on Thursday nights’, a symbol of the fleeting togetherness of communities but, more acutely, of the manipulative power of hope. Sadly, goodwill towards ‘key workers’ has not since been converted into a more equitable society.

The major achievement of this collection, then, is its meaningful thematic engagement with an emotion that is rarely treated with much depth. Hope – an overused word and under-developed concept – is central to all our lives. Its absence can be devastating; its presence can be euphoric. It is an ever-changing feeling – a feeling that is both cause and effect. Importantly, it is a deeply personal response to our collective existence, which makes this poetic jamboree all the more worthwhile.


Hope is a Group Project, ed. Claire Thom (The Wee Sparrow Poetry Press, 2022). Available here (all royalties donated to the NGO Project Hope).

Poetry Prize 2022 – Judges’ Notes

We were once again blown away by the quality and variety of the poems in this year’s Poetry Prize. Mark Strand sums up our feelings well:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

But now the poems have been read and re-read and re-read, the arguments had, the heart-breaking decisions made. And we wanted to share a bit about what brought us to the winning and shortlisted poems we were so excited to share with you.

What follows is, inevitably, a personal take and nothing we say is supposed to be a “rule”: these are just our thoughts and reflections. We tried to include things that we, as poets submitting to other competitions, would find useful to know, and to cast some light on what can at times feel like an opaque process.

***

Moons and origami

There were some common themes in the poems we read. Covid was still influencing many poets. Grief and joy competed for dominance, while new beginnings started to bloom. Lovesickness remains hard to overcome.

Certain images also recurred: origami is a popular choice, as are roses, stars and grass. The moon still refuses to wane.

Using popular (stereotypical) images does not disqualify a poem. But you’re going to have to do something special with it to stand out!

If you’re writing an ode to origami, make sure you’ve considered all the connotations of folded paper. If you want to use the moon as a symbol, think carefully about what this is adding to your poem.

Vivid imagery makes a poem stand out

When reading through lots of poems, we found those which centred on a vivid and unique image had an easier job standing out. Being grounded in a concrete image can really make a poem pop and bring it to life. If a poem stays entirely at the abstract level and refuses to engage with anything real life, it can be harder to grab the reader’s attention and imagination. This can be in the form of an interesting metaphor or specific (relevant) details.

Standing out is not just about making an immediate impact. The winning poems often emerged in the later stages as those ones which dug in their claws and didn’t let us go. The vital hook, in many cases, was a wonderful image which we couldn’t get out of our heads.

Punctuation can be powerful

Punctuation can often be forgotten by poets focused on the bigger picture. But small can be mighty and we found that impactful or sloppy use of punctuation had the power to make or break poems.

Use commas, which help the reader navigate your poem, making it easier to read. And use fullstops. They can add drama. And flow. And if you’re feeling creative, experiment with colons: a beautiful image can follow. And dashes – though be a bit careful with these – to bracket off different parts of a poem.

Don’t feel the need to go big

Another thing we found was that a good poem doesn’t always need to be about the Big Themes. Often those that did strive for grandeur slipped into generalisation. We don’t want to put anyone off writing about Truth or Life or The Meaning of It All. But don’t feel like you have to. And only write BIG if you have something to say, such as bringing your own personal angle to these well-trodden topics.

Get out your red pen and be brutal with the cuts

A number of poems came across rather waffly and padded out and felt, well, like they could do with a brutal edit. Don’t be scared to make big cuts. One good place to look for edits is often at the beginning and end of a poem. It is natural to feel the need to start by setting the scene. But when your poem is so short, you don’t want to waste your first few lines describing the misty morning and the songbird’s warbling if they are not going to make a reappearance later in the poem. Jump straight into the action. Equally, resist the urge to add a last line neatly summing everything up. You’re not writing a school essay which requires the obligatory ‘In conclusion…’ to finish. Trust your reader. They don’t need to be handheld all the way through the poem.

Top tip: Set up a new file where you keep all the lines which don’t make the final version of your poem – they might just make the perfect springboard into a new piece!

Re-read, re-read, re-read

We know it’s obvious but it really is important to re-read your poem before submitting. Remember that to get through to the shortlist, a poem needs to be able to withstand many rounds of judging. It’s on these re-readings that the annoying little typo we were willing to overlook initially really starts to grate, the lack of internal coherence is exposed and a hastily chosen word finds it suddenly has nowhere to hide.

***

Here are four things you can do right away to get your poems straight back out there:

(1) Re-read your poem

(2) Re-edit. Have another look and see if there are any (small) tweaks you would now make. Is every word contributing to the overall effect of the poem? Have you thought carefully about line breaks and form?

(3) Re-submit. Find somewhere else to send your poem! Don’t delay: send it straight back out there to another competition or journal.

Then, (4) Bookmark this page ready for next year! The Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2023 will open next May/June. It will be FREE to enter again… and we’d love to read another entry from you.


Weathering Words

Mandira Pattnaik, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople (Fahmidan Publishing, 2022)


‘Ιn eerily muddled prescient thoughts | of an eventual doom’ Mandira Pattnaik welcomes her reader to her debut poetry collection. Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople is, in the poet’s own words, a snapshot of ‘small-town India’ and ‘the changing dynamics of my country’.

In a climate crisis, catastrophe is never far from the poetic surface. In a recent interview with Fevers of the Mind, Mandira explained how climate-focused writing was her most meaningful. The fragility and necessity of climate writing quickly asserts itself on the collection. In the opening poem, the ‘lashing undue storm’ and ‘jingling leaves barely clinging to discordant branches’ give a sense of natural systems at tipping point.

Punctuation is thrown off course too: after the storm,

we’re praying

, praying again, for

an indulgent rain.

In a turbulent landscape, however, some pre-determined roles remain. ‘I scoop the soil in our backyard | as wives are expected to do’ the poet muses in ‘forever afternoon’. Yet even here, not everything is as it seems. When she plants seeds, she is ‘not dreaming of plucking fruits, | only a shade from the punishing sun’.

Motherhood is cleverly associated with climate breakdown in ‘Parturition’. The ‘three years of clinic visits | and three failed cycles’ bestow an ambiguity upon the miracle of new life. The hope of ‘a tiny fist in my palm, a heart | within ours’ is born of a broken cycle: as one reality ends so another begins.

Such interactions between different times and places are where Mandira is at her most perceptive. In ‘now and beyond’, she calls ‘the history of tomorrow’ the place where we ‘hang our wobbly world’. The present is constantly moving and the reader – disoriented, disturbed, delighted – must also adapt to a poetic landscape in constant flux.

Narrative heft intermingles seamlessly with lyrical flourishes. One minute, ‘Mum was struck | off the payroll’; the next ‘The beach was a cake, freshly baked’. Dreams are ‘scattered volcanic islands on placid lakes’. The poet revels in ‘lavender sky and candy clouds’. Abstract and concrete images team up in one of the collection’s best poems, ‘A River Name’: ‘While on a walk round the garden you | tended, I discover a tapestry of your thoughts…’.

Mandira’s keen descriptive eye and vivid imagery convert the twists and turns of doubt into an enriching journey. Navigating ‘the fog of | yesterday’ and ‘the palm of tomorrow’ could be a précis of the ongoing COP27 negotiations. Her climate warning is stark – and her poems are a reminder of the beauty and richness of life on our planet.


Mandira Pattnaik, Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople (Fahmidan Publishing, 2022). Available to pre-order here.

My Daughter Asks Me If I Was Happy

Sherre Vernon


Hinge of the fridge, fingernail. Trace
sand & a dancing dress. Hair up. Last
dance—burgundy crushed on velvet,
smiling. First dance—white at the mid-
night thighs, borrowed fit. My mouth
a row—clavicles bare, pins. Cat back
in. Thumbs tack in. Pebbles tracked
in. & grandmother curls—blue, black, silver.


Sherre Vernon (she/her/hers) is the author of two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings and The Name is Perilous. Sherre has been published in journals such as TAB and The Chestnut Review, nominated for Best of the Net, and anthologized in several collections including Fat & Queer and Best Small Fictions. Flame Nebula, Bright Nova, her full-length poetry collection, is available at Main Street Rag.

sapling

Laura Theis


this sprouting acorn is a little ragamuffin
who’s never been to nursery

she’s never met her mother
she raised herself in bitter rain-soaked earth

but one day she’ll grow up to be
an illustrious oak of renown

she will show them all
she will outgrow them all


Laura Theis‘ work is widely anthologised and appears in Poetry, Mslexia, Rattle, Aesthetica, etc. Her Elgin-Award-nominated debut ‘how to extricate yourself’, an Oxford Poetry Library Book-of-the-Month, won the Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize. A current Women Poets’ Prize finalist, she received the AM Heath Prize, Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize, Mogford Prize, Hammond House International Literary Award, and a 2022 Forward Prize nomination.

We, too, in summer sun

Tehnuka


Broken branches and tangled leaves strewn over the river
swirl at each eddy:
scattered passengers borne on shimmering water
In another time they might have been one tree
holding tight to one another –
but the storm is over and they can rest,
drifting slowly apart at the pull of the current.

We, too, could float downstream,
warming our faces in summer sun.


Tehnuka was shortlisted in the Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2022.

My Father Taught Me To Touch Fire

Suchita Senthil Kumar


My father taught me to touch fire
when I was younger as though
he knew I’d spend my whole life 
seeking something that would burn me.

He never taught me to heal
the charred and dead skin but always
reminded me to put the flame off –
the art of killing something that killed you.


Suchita Senthil Kumar is a writer creating chaos from Bangalore, India. Her work has been published in Live Wire India and Brave Voices Magazine, among others. She was a student of UNICEF’s Voices of Youth Mediathon ’21. She makes life decisions asking herself one question: Will Sirius Black be proud?

The Lost Girls

Halle George


at twelve
they tell Peter
fly
fly forever
take what you want boy

at twelve
they tell Wendy
be prepared to fall from the sky
you’re too old
take off your blue nightgown


Halle George is a writer who spends most of the day working in advertising. She’s previously been published in Midsummer’s Eve. She lives in Los Angeles with a ficus named Jim.

I, Having Been Bitten by an Angel

Beattie


I, having been bitten by an angel –
I am going through a lostness.

I am hoping to be done with it
before the mould on the window returns.

I am refusing everything. I am waiting for the room

to flood with trumpets. I am waiting for my hair
to grow and be grabbed by a man come to save me.

Fistfuls of nobody, parched and sweaty in the dark.


Beattie is a writer and lapsed drag queen from Merseyside. They were the winner of the Chester Cathedral Young Poets’ Competition and were longlisted for the Spelt Poetry Competition. Their work has appeared in Datableed and Travesties?!.