Friday, 19 October 2018

Review of "Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary": A poetry workshop with Cathy Grindrod

At the beginning of the workshop (an Everybody's Reading event) we were asked what image came to mind when we heard the word ‘change’, and each participant described something different. The exercise was to demonstrate that the image that comes to mind is the place to start a poem, to be ourselves in our writing, and to use our experiences in our own way.

Working in pairs, we generated answers to a selection of ‘What is …?’ questions (for example, the moon, a bat, a seed). This encouraged us to think beyond the obvious and focus on the precision of words to create fresh descriptions. To illustrate this further, we read ‘Refrigerator, 1957’ by Thomas Lux, and discussed the phrases that made an impact and brought the poem alive. Maraschino cherries were ‘fiery globes, / like strippers at a church social’ in contrast to a ‘childhood of dull dinners – bald meat, / pocked peas’.

Fruit and vegetables provided the prompt for one of the longer writing activities. We were invited to combine close observation with associations and life experiences to create a poem of eight lines. Cathy Grindrod encouraged us to look at everyday objects with fresh eyes, to enjoy the words in our writing, and to subvert the norm to surprise the reader. After fifteen minutes, we had produced a wide variety of ideas in our first drafts: plums inspired childhood memories and reflections on regional accents; and an orange prompted a poem about a child’s hope to grow their own tree.

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary included all the essential elements of a successful poetry workshop: a small number of participants; analysis of poems by published poets; a combination of short and longer writing activities; time to give and receive feedback on each other’s writing; and ideas for further development.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Interview with Carrie Etter

American writer Carrie Etter has lived in England since 2001 and taught Creative Writing at Bath Spa University since 2004. She has published four collections of poetry: The Tethers (Seren, 2009), winner of the London New Poetry Prize, Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011), Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry by The Poetry Society, and The Weather in Normal (Seren, 2018), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation for Winter 2018. Her individual poems have appeared in The New Republic, The New Statesman, Poetry Review, The Times Literary Supplement, and many other journals worldwide, and her short stories have appeared in several anthologies as well as numerous journals, and a collection of stories Hometown was published in 2016. Carrie's website is

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: What made you want to write?

CE: I started writing poetry and stories regularly from the age of eleven, and I suppose some of the motivations are the same: the pleasure of working with words, of creating stories and poems others can inhabit; the intellectual challenge in grappling with different ideas, forms, etc.; the drive to understand myself and my world better through language ....

LW: Is minimalism important to fiction?

CE: Minimalism is one stylistic approach, and there are many minimalist writers I admire, but I've read much fiction I enjoyed that defies its suggested boundaries. I'm a pluralist when it comes to both fiction and poetry in that I appreciate a wide range of styles.

LW: Raymond Carver once said that the reason he wrote short stories and poetry was because he liked to “Get in, get out. Not linger.” Does that apply to your own work?

CE: I suppose these shorter forms mean I'm not lingering in the way one would in writing a novel, but I have no eagerness to get out! I love the work of a poem or story, the creative challenges of each new work, and always want more time to write. 

LW: What importance do you attach to dialogue in your stories?

CE: I'm fascinated by the way we interact with one another in speech – the things half said, the abrupt confessions, the negotiations, so I tend to use a fair amount of dialogue. I used to love teaching Raymond Carver's slim collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, for the discussions that would arise around the perceptiveness of his dialogue. 

LW: How do you bring your poems and stories to a close?

CE: That really varies with the individual piece. I certainly don't want the endings to try to point the reader toward a definitive meaning. In a story, it's partly about fulfilling the piece's arc, the protagonist's journey in that moment in time, which gives a story a sense of wholeness or completeness. In a poem I suppose I'm usually more instinctively pursuing a motive, an idea, and have a strong sense of when that has been fulfilled. 

LW: You were born in Illinois and later lived in California, before moving to the UK in 2001. Has living in England influenced or changed your writing?

CE: Living in England has definitely affected my writing in numerous ways. One, I read a far higher percentage of British and Commonwealth authors than I did before I moved here – that exposure has been really nourishing, though I should add that I try to keep up with other Anglophone writers as well. Two, the smaller size of the UK gives me a stronger sense of community, a greater sense of engagement and involvement.  

LW: What next?

CE: My next fiction project is to complete a full collection of short stories of varying lengths (and so flash fiction will feature, but there will be longer stories as well) and hope to get started this autumn. Responding to these questions has made me all the more eager to begin!

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Review by Andrew Doubt of "Waiting for the Nightingale" by Miles Burrows

Miles Burrows was born in Leicester in the 1930s. Last year he published his second book of poetry after a gap of fifty years. These eighty poems are a joy, shot through with humour; they weave big themes of love, death, memories and poetry from life’s experience.

The first verse of the eponymous opening poem considers birdsong on the Indian subcontinent; the second imagines ‘the wandering major in the foothills’ thinking about ‘his own wife back in Hazelmere / With that awful car salesman type’; the third asks whether John Keats is any use to the birdwatcher in the field, illustrating his irreverent approach both to colonial history and to poetry.

He leads us to believe that he has loved many and often. In 'It’s Eight O’Clock', he cannot
remember which one of five women he shared an experience with twenty years earlier; he reports her saying, ‘It’s not love it’s like margarine.’ 'Pussycats' starts: ‘They used to leave their stilettoes by the door / As I recall, coming in barefoot to my study / In nothing but deerstalkers‘ but, ’Now, splitting up is cool … / I’m let go … / Like an old retainer locked accidentally in a home up for sale.’ In 'The Second Affair': ‘At twenty-five, Mutus thought that embarking on a second affair - / …Would be like having a second slice of cake.’

Death is treated in a similar way. In 'Letter to an Elderly Poet': ‘Relax, your rivals are dead.’; in 'Four Last Things' he suggests learning a foreign language, not to keep the brain active, but ‘You could surprise people / By speaking words in German as you die.’; and in 'Junk Mail', ‘I appreciate that you are dead, but even so… / …that intimate sigh / Into the ear, that wakes me at midnight - / Is it really from the orthopaedic mattress?’. 'Should Catullus be Read by Old People?' sees the funny side of living in an old people’s home.

His classical and literary allusions are fun to search out, though sometimes he does it for you: ‘I googled frottage yesterday’ he says in 'Cold Calling'.

Many of the poems deal with memories of home and schooldays, of his time studying classics and medicine at Oxford, and working as a doctor and psychiatrist in Britain and Asia. There are references to the Little Theatre, Leicester Mercury, London Road and tennis on Carisbrooke Road. In 'A Faulty Connection' he says: ‘- If I can get away with [saying, switch it] orf / People may think my parents don’t live in Leicester / But in Eaton Square.’

Although most of the poems are written in spare, conversational free verse, there are poems in sonnet form, poems that alternate just two rhymes throughout, as in 'Trouble at the Nunnery', and poems that half-rhyme, for example, ‘Imogen’, ‘imagine’ and ‘Sanatogen’ in 'Across the Road'. In 'English Provincial Poetry' he writes ‘Rhyme is no more needed than a two-tone doorbell.’ 

The book’s a many-toned delight.

About the reviewer
Andrew Doubt is a former physicist, engineering analyst and marketeer. He has spent half his life in Leicester, after working in mainland Europe. His interests range through literature and philosophy, science and the arts, long-distance walking and the environment, to family, friends and grandchildren. Currently, he’s writing sketches of close relatives from childhood memories, as well as occasional short stories.

Review by Victoria Pickup of "sometime we are heroes" by Reuben Woolley

Reuben Woolley’s some time we are heroes invites and almost forces a new way of reading. His style breaks rules and defies convention, not as an act of rebellion but with intent and conviction at its core. Just as the continuing theme of water ebbs and flows throughout this collection, the reader is encouraged to forego the need to explain or even entirely comprehend the verse, instead letting the poetry wash over them with its beauty, eloquence and dramatic form. In '& mary is the name of her today,' the poet skilfully lays out the lines to complement their meaning: ‘where she walks / on wet sand / & all the fury / waits /a wave / a sliding land’, as the poem itself takes the form of a lapping tide. 

A powerful ambience runs throughout Woolley’s poetry, with many dazzling phrases - ‘we look for small / whispers / they’re darkly gold & almost / shining’ ('exits & hiding places') -  amidst the stutters and stops of the line breaks and apparently disordered poetic form ('taking stock/the old gallows'):


leaves crackle
                        in cold
                        ground & winter’s
a place to sleep in

As shown here, Woolley’s poetry gives us a fractured moment created from the deliberately haphazard presentation. This style adds life and spontaneity to the verse, whilst also using the line breaks and scattered format to present the reader with multiple ways of reading or relating to each poem. Without the clutter of punctuation and confinements of grammar, arguably, experimental verse results in a deeper, more profound meaning being exposed. 

I felt that Woolley’s style requires me to enter a state of poetic mindfulness, letting go of convention to savour and share in the immediate moment with the main characters in this collection, John and Mary: their love, their sadness, their bitterness, and ultimately, their longing – for each other and for a distant past.  

The couple’s romance is beautifully depicted in this stanza from '& once one': ‘two step / quick / & a kiss in the dark.i’ll / blow the flame and leave / just the glow / of old/ coals / to light a breast’. There is much to lament too; the broken verses hinting at a lapse in memory and loss of time, as in 'old bows breaking over': ‘Fold up time / & pack it away’.

Amidst these lingering, soulful verses come embittered and sinister poems, which arise out of the ashes of what is often portrayed as a tired and at times resentful relationship. In 'storms are not lead.they stink': ‘I learnt to keep my mouth / closed / said mary / breathe / through my nose.sometimes / he’s minnows/sometimes the shark’. The fear Mary feels is palpable in the darkly atmospheric 'behind the trees are shadows': ‘it’s wild / this wood / we’re walking through / john / I’m catching on briars.they’re / scratching my eyes / red / liquor / to fill a cup’. 

The threat turns to violence in 'no fine butchery no': ‘between / your nerve & nerve / I cut / thin / & twist / am no / ordinary / torturer / I’ll stay & / dig / further’. There are many references to bleeding, although Woolley also touches on pain as a symbol of humanity in 'cutting out & sewing': ‘i wear my cuts / with pride / she says … touch me here / & here my love / pain / is just a reminder / i bear / a daughter / john’. 

The brutality is frequently juxtaposed with slow, reflective verses in this collection. The bitterness is washed away by the frequent references to water, which seems to provide soothing qualities as well representing surrender. In 'shadows of whales.passing', which is itself a beautiful title, ‘& / he said / come mary … it is my water / memory / where rain takes / everything … we’re here in simple confusion’. Comfort is found in the metaphor, and again in stories of dry water: ‘john says she steps / in silence / keeps me in seas / I only sail inside.’ Although whether John feels comfort or claustrophobia is subject to the reader’s interpretation.

As a relative newcomer to experimental poetry such as Woolley’s, I leave this collection with my thoughts fully outside of the box. Playing with the rules is a risky business, but with reflective, concentrated reading, there is so much to be gained, and indeed, so much to admire.

About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the CafĂ© Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: ‘The Chicken that Saved my Children.’ She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

Review of “Independent Publishing: the joys and tribulations” – a talk by Karin Koller

Karin Koller began her talk by stating that she was an enthusiast rather than an expert in the world of independent publishing.

Soundswrite Press was set up in 2005 with the aim of publishing occasional anthologies of poetry written by members of Soundswrite, a women’s poetry group. Since then, a total of four anthologies, three collections and four pamphlets of poetry have been published. Careful attention has been paid to the aesthetic aspects of the books, and I'm delighted that three of my poems are included in the 2015 anthology.

Outlining the processes involved, Karin Koller made everything sound quite straightforward, and offered advice for anyone considering setting up their own press. She recommended using a print-on-demand service and stressed the importance of investing in a proof copy. She also suggested looking at publications by other presses for design ideas.

Quirky Press, as its name suggests, was established to publish unconventional books and pamphlets. The first publication in 2015, was Somali Lullabies featuring illustrations, English translations of the lullabies, and a CD. This was followed by A Handful of Hungarian Earth - one family’s story of the 1956 Hungarian uprising told in letters written by Anna Koller Eady.

The latest Quirky Press publication is Leonie Orton’s memoir, I had it in me. Leonie Orton is the youngest sister of Leicester-born playwright Joe Orton. Part of the publishing process involved dealing with challenges relating to copyright in order to include quotes from letters written by Peggy Ramsey, Joe Orton's agent. Quirky Press also experienced problems with the print run, and future independent publishers were advised to allow plenty of time to check for, and resolve, any errors before the launch date! Approximately seven hundred copies of the memoir have been sold, and there is now a Kindle edition. Extracts of the book are also available on the British Library website.

Karin Koller is clearly enthusiastic and, after publishing fourteen books, has a great deal of expertise. Once again, she is taking on a new challenge: Take Three will be published in 2019 by Soundswrite Press, and will showcase debut collections of poetry by three women poets.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Please Hear What I’m Not Saying" edited by Isabelle Kenyon

Words are powerful and these words are more powerful than most. They burst through the gaps and silences surrounding mental health with brutal and searing honesty.

It is sometimes said that creativity comes from a dark place, forged from an intense sensitivity to the highs and lows of what it is to be human. It is certainly true of these poets, who write from direct experience of their own or loved ones’ mental illness.

Images are surprising, sometimes shocking. Grief is a ‘cruel handbag - / its catch snaps shut like jaws’ burying ‘an old compact, / hankie embroidered with an M.’ Clothes are ‘a pile of ugly cocoons’ provoking unwelcome memories of childhood. When ‘Baby Blues / were cover for the hopeless days,’ a baby boy is strapped to his mother’s chest, hidden under a blue raincoat as his mother contemplates suicide. Another baby is ‘kicking out sweet baby legs - / his fat oaf of a mother crawling, hands and knees, walrusing the floor / in search of filth.' Dementia is ‘a sleeping sickness / that makes a drought / of memory.' Anxiety is to ‘walk on the needles / of all my worries, / nettling and biting.’

In ‘My Father’s Paranoia’ Jonathan Taylor writes movingly about  how he once said he would cut the hedge when he was ‘less busy’ and then seeing his father, ‘in a sweat, trembling, / falling over, fitting, minor-stroking ... and all I know now / is how un-busy I actually was / that hot Sunday.’

In my own poem I try to convey the visceral jolt of a sudden descent into depression, the  ‘hangman’s drop to Hades.’ But there is also hope, that ‘streaks of sunlight / will diminish the dark.’

There are moments of beauty, of appreciation of small moments, of survival in these poems which are accessible and engaging but also profound. Those who have felt isolated by mental illness may respond with a sense of recognition, and for others there are opportunities for new insights and understanding.  Crass comments about ‘having an OCD day‘ or patronising ‘jokes’ about ‘schizophrenia’ are challenged here in a way that is courageous and empowering.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell ‘s poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War. 

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Review of Everybody’s Reading event – Poetry workshop with John Hegley

John Hegley’s poetry workshop was attended by approximately twenty-five people spanning a wide-range of ages and levels of writing experience.

We began by reading Hegley’s poem, ‘Guillemot’, for inspiration. The poem opens with the following lines: 'I am a guillemot / I use my bill a lot. / I get the fish out of the wet, I eat my fill a lot.'

The group drew up a list of three-syllable words as a starting point for writing. Our list included loveliness, fellowship, anarchy, animals and parallel. We were asked to choose one or more words and to play with language in our writing as Hegley had in ‘Guillemot’. Invited to share our work, without any pressure to do so, we read out our acrostic poems, and poems which incorporated several of the listed words.

Our next challenge was to tear out a leaf shape from a sheet of paper (more difficult than it sounds) and ‘fill it with leafiness’! We continued to write short pieces about elephants, dogs and peanuts on small pieces of paper. Thankfully we didn’t have to create paper shapes of elephants or dogs, just peanut shells! Words and/or drawings were encouraged and appreciated when shared with the very supportive group.

The prompt ‘mistaken identity’ generated a variety of responses: political, surreal, poignant, and humorous. Our last writing topics were hands and footsteps: our words contained within outlines of our hands and feet.

The two-hour workshop was very lively, with lots of humour and music. At the end of the session, our leaves, peanuts, elephants and dogs all came together to create a poetree. In case you are wondering, the elephants were for the trunk and the dogs were for the bark!

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Dirty Laundry" by Deborah Alma

These vivid and sensual poems sing of women’s strength and survival, sexuality and subversiveness. Deborah Alma offers readers an invitation to share her story, perhaps with '...some smoky tea / and two china cups / laid out with a silver spoon / on an embroidered table cloth.' The power of female friendship shines through and creates a space in which women’s voices are heard. The opening poem is dedicated to Jo Cox, silenced by murder, and in ‘Still Life’ an abusive partner ‘pulls the words from under her feet / as he stamps and stamps and stamps.’

Perhaps the implied question underlying these poems is ‘How did I get here from there', the '1950’s baby overwrapped in a perambulator / with its bouncing chassis?' There are ‘a silver of bangles on a wrist, round mirror chips embroidered / in the the hem of my clothes, my white skin seen tiny times over, / sequins sown into my childhood.’  The sense of difference and exclusion is disturbing, the ‘mix up family half caste council estate bastard.’ In the North London school ‘Miss Minchin says I must show the children / my clothes from Pakistan’ ... ’as I turn round and round up on teachers’ tables / to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit / like a little blonde doll.'

Shifting roles are charted sensitively. In ‘I am My Own Parent’ there is no longer any need for ‘My Dad’ to pick up beloved red shoes ‘by the scuffs of their dirty necks / and leave them shining in the morning.’ A neat piece of magic realism has sisters swapping eyes, ‘left with little chance of rejection / each looking into our own eyes.’ A broken mug, thrown into the sink by a mother who ‘Moves into Adolescence’ cannot be replaced and it is ‘Suddenly, / terribly, unbearably sad / that there is no Woolworths, / I tell her to go and never come back.’

Sexual experimentation and erotic possibilities are celebrated.’To start with I tried sex with a space hopper’, curiosity leading on to a pencil, a swingers group who ‘drank tea in the intermission / in a Llandrindod Wells hotel’ and a lustful encounter in a cattle lorry on the A49. There is pride in the strength of thighs which could ‘wrestle attacking Picts’, but there are the inevitable judgements and condemnation. The priest’s book ‘open at Revelation’ is countered, bizarrely, with images of dead popes’ penises ‘pickled and preserved’, a practice so weird it is probably true. (I wasn’t going to google ‘popes and penises’ to find out!)

Dark humour is used to painfully excise the wounds of failed and abusive relationships. ‘Only God or his grandmother / could love him the way he wants to be loved.’ Nursery rhymes and fairy stories take on disturbing resonances – ‘After the bird the spider the fly / ... perhaps I’ll die.’ The brutality of the natural world is evoked, a cuckoo ejecting fledglings, ‘and so, in my own kind of pain / push the big baby over the edge, / see it fall on the concrete.’ ‘Dissociation’ is chilling in its listing of strategies developed to cope with abuse. And there is poignant acknowledgement of the price of escape, no one but the AA man to call after a car accident, a ‘yellow striped dress / with deep pockets,' in which 'there is string, a pin, / garden wire and three sweet pea seeds’ but no money.  But there is also the growth of power and strength, the expression of rage – ‘Do you walk on eggshells asked the therapist? No I crunch through / them in my Doc Marten boots.’

There is pleasure and solace in ‘making things tidy’ as my Welsh mother used to say. In the title poem, ‘I hang up a rough white linen sheet / some pretty skirts / a raspberry nightie / and lemon-yellow pants. / I am wiser than Canute / against a tide of grey.’ There is gentle recall of past homes ‘here is the mountain ash I planted / come tall now.’ But there are also ‘plastic soldiers taking aim, / still kneeling steadfast in the dirt.’ Taken for granted, the ‘Angel in the House’ can turn nasty as ‘She hangs up her wings / in the understairs cupboard. / She takes up the three pronged fork.’

The narrative of the poems conveys a strong sense of the passage of time, from the confidence of ‘I will shake off this man I am wise enough / witch enough to know that I can cast again’ to ‘We heal more slowly as we age / don’t quite recover our old selves,’ become fearful, like the chicken, ‘not sure anymore / that we want to cross the road.’ But perhaps there is also wisdom gained, a fantasy not acted upon, a ‘Co-op carrier bag-for-life full of regret and relief, / I found green sequins scattered in the street.’  A magic spell which enchants men ‘Sewn into a tiny felt pocket, pinned into my knickers’ is passed on to a younger woman, ’A gift or curse, I cannot tell.’ There is sympathy for a young woman with ‘naive city eyes ‘I could see me in her bit, / twenty years ago, before babies, divorce, / Guardian soulmates, other shit.’

There is anxiety about ageing, ‘When I am old’... 'Will a lover recognise me / from more than 200 yards / across a car boot sale?’ and in a disturbing dream, ‘... here she is, the crone in her feathered nest,’ who passes her a folded fan with ‘ japanned panels, / a white lily, lavender, a dandelion, a rose.' ‘Oh but  I cannot make it neat again. / I cannot get it back to how it was before.’

But there is also a sense of contentment and peace, in ‘Morning Song', ‘the women I have been no longer fight their corners ...They stay and stare, these women, across the hazy / sunstrewn wooden floor of my dreams / and my ageing; the mirror crazed / and hung with beads, the pink and the red.’ The joy of a warm and trusting relationship is evoked in ‘The Dog Knows its Mistress,’ ‘scratch my back where the bra strap is too tight and release the clasp / let my breasts sag and sigh out / with a wonder of release.’ There is also anticipation, a sense of excitement at what is to come, ‘I still choose the window seat on buses, / trains and planes, and ‘Fortune lives in a hut / in the garden...’ It is to write poems in / to please Fortune.’ Something for us all to look forward to.

About the reviewer
Sue Mackrell‘s poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War. 

Friday, 5 October 2018

Review of "Shakespeare for the Terrified (or Rusty)" - a talk by Julia Pritchard

Having avoided Shakespeare since secondary school, I was both terrified and rusty when I arrived for this Everybody’s Reading event.

At the beginning of her talk, Julia Pritchard assured us that we are already familiar with Shakespeare’s writing by pointing out that many phrases from his work that are still in common use today. ‘It’s Greek to me’, ‘a fool’s paradise’, and ‘the long and the short of it’ are a few examples. We were also reminded that Shakespeare’s plays continue to be relevant today because they deal with universal themes, and include the ever-appealing elements of magic, sex, and violence.

The next step in our gentle introduction to was to learn a little about the theatre. In Shakespeare’s day theatres were not considered respectable places and so were situated outside of the City of London along with bull-baiting arenas and brothels. Day-time performances, standing audiences, the lack of toilets, and the sale of fruit and ale made the theatre a noisy and foul-smelling place. Perhaps it’s just as well that both The Globe and The Rose theatres were open-air!

Moving on to his plays, those new to Shakespeare were advised to start by a reading a summary and perhaps watching a film or stage version before reading one act of a play at a time. Books with the playscript and explanatory notes on opposite pages are particularly helpful. 

We read the original prologue to Romeo and Juliet along with a modern version, and this provided a brief outline of the play, the characters and the setting. Although the play is set in Verona, there is no evidence that Shakespeare travelled to Italy. During such a turbulent period of history, it was less controversial, and safer, for writers to set their plays in the past or overseas. 

We then watched two very different versions of the opening scene: the 1968 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli, and the 1996 interpretation set in contemporary America with Leonardo DiCaprio cast as Romeo. I expected to prefer the 1996 version but, based on the scene we watched, the earlier film was more appealing. I think that means I’m a little less terrified now!

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Review of 'Brand New Beat: Inspired by the Sixties' - a reading by Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Deborah Tyler-Bennett read from Brand New Beat, a collection of short stories. The characters she created in Turned Out Nice Again and Mice That Roared are followed into the 1960s with Brand New Beat but the book can be read as a stand-alone collection.

Within a few lines of ‘Mr Stringer’s Favourite Dance’, we are whisked back to the sixties with a description of the characters dancing to ‘Hoots Mon’. Tyler-Bennett’s extensive research is evident in the details of the setting: a formica table, a sunburst mirror and a Murano glass fish on the sideboard. 

The social issues of the 1960s form the backdrop of the stories. Beryl must deal with the stigma of being an unmarried mother and the loss of her career. Double act Cooper and Bean face a crisis with the closure of music halls and rise of new entertainers. 

The changes in fashions create clashes between the young women wearing mini-skirts and the older women who continue to dress as they had done during the 1940s. The white patent shoes and matching handbag belonging to one of the characters reinforce the spirit of the decade, as do the turban and rollers of the grandmother in ‘Dominoes’.

There is a lot of humour in the dialogue which makes use of the dialect of the time and place – 1960s Mansfield. We know exactly where we are with phrases such as ‘of a Saturday night’ and ‘the babby’. The line that stands out in ‘Mr Illuminator’ is ‘You could’ve heard a Spangle being sucked!’ - a wonderful reference to a sadly-missed brand of sweets.

The reading was clearly enjoyed by everyone in the audience, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person to leave the event humming the tune to ‘Hoots Mon’!

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her poetry has been published in various anthologies and magazines including Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The Interpreter’s House and Silver Birch Press.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Review by Sue Mackrell of "Diversifly: Poetry and Art on Britain's Urban Birds" edited by Nadia Kingsley

This is a book of delights, a rich gem to be cherished and returned to again and again. Poems and images contribute to the wonderful evocation of birds in urban spaces.  Each page is worthy of framing. The richness of colour and diversity of the beautifully reproduced artwork is striking - there are stunning pictures of birds produced in digital art, oil paintings and watercolours, woodcuts, line drawings, screen printing, mosaics and photographs.

Imagery in the poems is closely observed and make the ordinary extraordinary. Starlings, with their ‘goth eyeliner, [are] raucous and rucking over territory.’ Their murmuration is ‘A cloud of iron filings / pulled across a November sky / by an invisible magnetic force.’
Watched from a bus, crows are ‘black slicksters / swaggering quick footed.’ They are ‘a squawk of anarchy / among the ordered tubs of town council flowers.’ ‘Daring breakfast pigeons [are] dodging cars for white breadcrumbs between traffic and trains.’ Others are shoplifting at ‘Smith’s in Market Street’ and in a disturbing inversion a pigeon watches a homeless man ‘lucky dipping in litter bins for gold and glittered things’ and later, ‘He’s outside M & S/ in his sleeping bag nest.'

'A heron is unexpected as royalty / on this riverless estate’ while Long-tailed Tits are ‘launching themselves over / tarmac oceans to the next unnamed green island.’ An unwary pedestrian is swooped on by a seagull, ’Your face a furious paper cut out, / you plummeted earthwards.’

Use of specific location gives resonance – ‘The Coventry wagtail/two tone, wily, /combs car parks / quick with a pied flick.’ The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster perch on the gargoyles and grotesques. In my own poem a ’flypast of swallows’ entertain festival goers in Hyde Park before being ‘drawn / to the warmth of the south.’ And here I have to declare an interest – I am honoured to have a poem included in this beautiful collection. Jayne Stanton, another Leicester poet, is also represented in ‘Mistle-thrush nest,’ worth quoting in full – Suspending disbelief / as we wait on a red light – five unhinged heads, poised / between top and base heat / of amber/green.

About the reviewer

Sue Mackrell's poems and short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Agenda and Fairacre Press. She has an MA from Loughborough University, and taught creative writing there for several years. She enjoys working on local history projects, giving a voice to those who have been silenced, such as local witches and Leicester Conscientious Objectors of the First World War. 

Monday, 1 October 2018

Review of Pirates of New Walk Museum

Ruth Fraser

A band of pirates took over New Walk Museum at the weekend to present a great family event.

Armed with a skull and crossbones flag, we began by following the trail to Treasure Island. We solved clues about pirates around the world, and pirate-related fiction. My grandchildren, aged 9 and 7, were fascinated to learn about Mary Read and Anne Bonny - they'd previously believed that all pirates were men. On reaching Treasure Island we found our next challenge was to build a pirate ship to take home or to launch in the ‘sea’ around Treasure Island. Lots of experts were on hand to help with any construction problems. After all that hard work, we enjoyed some quiet time in the reading area where there were plenty of pirate books to share.  

A highlight of our visit was the storytelling session with Ruth Fraser. Ruth told stories about real-life pirate, Grace O’Malley. We heard how Grace, aged 9, dressed as a boy and secretly joined her father’s ship. Once her father realised how skilful and hardworking she was, he allowed her to continue to sail with his ship until she was sixteen. In later years, as queen of the O’Malley clan, Grace was granted a private meeting with Elizabeth I at the Palace of Greenwich. Grace successfully negotiated the release of her son and the return of her lands in return for supporting England in battles abroad.

This was a lovely family event, and has inspired my grandchildren to find out more about real-life pirates.

About the reviewer
Karen Powell is a grandmother of two, an ex-primary teacher, and is studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Review by Evie Doyle of "Sabriel" by Garth Nix

Garth Nix is a talented and well-known author but his Old Kingdom series is definitely one of my favourites. Sabriel combines magic, adventure and death in a completely original way. The story follows Sabriel, a young necromancer who has spent her whole life outside the Old Kingdom, where free magic and death roam. On the disappearance of her father, however, Sabriel is forced to cross the Wall and embark on a quest to find him.

This book begins with a beautiful prologue which thrusts you into the Old Kingdom, inspiring so many questions about the realm that are not answered straight away, forcing you to turn that extra page before putting the book down. There are countless enchanting descriptions of the Old Kingdom and every explanation of its rules and features is written in a way that is neither tedious nor expository. 

The magic in this series takes on an entirely new form in the charter, an ordered power which has rules and limits. Formed of charter marks that can be spoken, whistled or drawn, your power is as great as your knowledge when delving into the unending sea of the charter. These rules ground the charter and the story as a whole as every action has a purpose and it means that not every problem is solved by magic. As well as the charter, the seven bells of a necromancer are unique and are wonderfully described. Their chilling properties add an even greater sense of danger to the plot and I cannot imagine the book without them. 

Sabriel’s characters are just as intriguing as its locations. The namesake of the book is instantly likeable, and charmingly realistic. She is mature and clever but made more interesting by her own desires. Her flaws only make her more compelling; I found myself hoping again and again that her confidence and knowledge would be enough to save her from the dangers that lie north of the Wall.

One of the other most intriguing characters within the book, interestingly enough, takes the form of a cat. Mogget is by far the biggest mystery in the book. A servant bound to serve the Abhorsen, a powerful necromancer, we know that Mogget is not to be trusted, and yet he proves to be a true companion to Sabriel. His quips and sarcastic nature making you forget the potentially bloodthirsty creature that is kept at bay by the collar round his neck.

I would seriously recommend this book for anyone who loves fantasy, adventure and strong female role models who can do amazing feats of magic.

About the reviewer
Evie Doyle is currently studying Psychology, Biology and Performing Arts at Charnwood College. She is an avid reader in her spare time as well as a scout and guide. She is also part of an amateur theatre group.

Review by Peter Flack of "A Monster's Tale" by Kelso Simon

Kelso Simon left his Leicester school school without any qualifications. Not the ideal start for a novelist, but despite this his first book, A Monster's Tale, came out in August. It isn't a horror story - unless the harsh, brutal realities of working class life in communities raddled with drugs counts as horror. In essence it is a return to the 'kitchen sink' novels of the 1950s, and one which is upfront about the effects of inequality and poverty on people. It grinds them down, dehumanises them and, in Simon's book, brutalises them to the point where, with nothing to lose, they become all-too-like the monsters strutting around them, buoyed up by fear, violence and money. 

That the novel has a moral core is undoubted. None of the violence in the story is gratuitous. It leads us inexorably to the inevitable outcome at the end of the book. It also contributes towards the main theme: that caring, looking after your community and gentleness ought to be more valued in our society than the Thatcherite values of status, power and money. Well worth a read.

About the reviewer

Peter Flack is a former teacher and member of the  National Union of Teachers. He is co-founder of the Whatever it Takes literacy project and chair of Everybody's Reading Festival in Leicester.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "margerykempething" by Pattie McCarthy

Autobiography in English was invented by a woman – a fourteenth- and fifteenth-century mystic called Margery Kempe. As Pattie McCarthy writes, in her remarkable and highly original pamphlet of sonnets, margerykempething: ‘margery kempe invents the autobi- / ography &     vernacular tell-all.’ Kempe founded the autobiographical tradition, which – despite its associations more recently with patrilinearity – is hence, at heart, about ‘ladies [who] write history concerning ladies.’ 

For McCarthy, this autobiographical tradition clearly does not just consist of individual ‘ladies’ writing for and about themselves; rather, these writers are also writing ‘histories’ for and about other ‘ladies’ plural. Unlike, say, the more solipsistic tradition of post-Romantic male autobiographers, this is a matrilinear tradition where women write their histories for other women – where autobiography is a collective form, which might encompass or speak to the experiences of other women across history. Certainly, there are moments in margerkempething where Kempe’s experiences speak to twenty-first century experiences – and, conversely, there are also moments where the twenty-first century speaks back to Kempe. 

Kempe – who bore fourteen children, then renounced sex, experienced visions, and who was, on multiple occasions, imprisoned, accused of heresy – was apparently ‘no good wife’ or ‘wifthing.’ She was not even a ‘good saint,’ because ‘a really good [female] saint does nothing,’ and is ‘smaller & duller’ than a male saint. Instead of doing nothing, she went on pilgrimages, preached in public, made noisy displays of her ecstatic faith, and threatened ‘to lure / … [other] wifthings [away] from’ their husbands. She was, in short, a fifteenth-century proto-feminist, and what a certain president might now call a ‘nasty woman.’ McCarthy’s pamphlet shows that only the sexist terms of reference have changed over time, not necessarily the attitudes behind them. In the twenty-first century, rather than being called a bad ‘wifthing,’ Kempe is accused, by various modern critics, of being ‘petty    neurotic    vain / illiterate’ with a ‘mental banality.’ 

Faced with all these accusations, new and old, Kempe is ‘churched postpartum’, and ‘is arrested & is arrested / & is arrested & is arrested / … & she is … questioned / … & then … / is threatened with rape & prison.’ The threat is at once individual and collective, persisting across history. Despite having lived ‘thirty-eight years … with … [her] husband, / when … not on pilgrimages,’ despite having given birth to fourteen children, Kempe is still seen as a ‘strumpet,’ ‘no good wife,’ and is hence threatened with rape, violence, imprisonment. As a woman, it seems impossible for her either to be a good wife or good saint – the society sets up impossible (and paradoxical) ideals, and threatens her with extreme violence for failing to live up to them. This, as one particularly powerful sonnet makes clear, is a failure and threat shared by women across history:

we heretics we wolves we birth we birth
we winterward we cluster we blister we quire
we escape the fire we lucky creatures
we latin we goodwives we daughterthings
we patience figures we soft unforgiving …
inordinate love we hairshirt we lapse
we churched we bloody we slide we between
we margery kempe we gentle bedtime

Here is a powerful statement of a shared, collective, almost transhistorical female identity and lineage; here, in this poem and the pamphlet as a whole, is a statement which is timely – given current conservative rhetoric about women – and which is perhaps always timely: ‘we swive we margery me marry we burn’. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's most recent books are the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018), and the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Review by Robert Richardson of "The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending, winner of the Man Booker Prize for 2011, is divided into two parts, both narrated by Tony Webster. In part one, Tony recalls significant moments as a sixth former and subsequently a student at Bristol University in the 1960s.

In the second part, it is clear Tony’s vantage point is this century’s first decade. He has a settled life: retired and divorced, though still on good terms with his ex-wife (they have a grown up daughter whose life, in turn, is steady).

Tony’s smooth, if somewhat boring, progress through time is disrupted, and in effect the book’s second part becomes an interrogation of those memories, and their veracity, of his years in late adolescence and as a young adult. This includes an emotionally and sexually frustrated relationship with Veronica, his girlfriend at university. Tony has a humiliating experience when accompanying her on a visit to her parents. On a later occasion, he introduces her to his three close friends from the sixth form. One of them, Adrian, the most intellectually gifted of the group and now a student at Cambridge, is pivotal to the novel. Tony does not take it well when after breaking up with Veronica he receives a letter from Adrian: it lets him know that Adrian is now going out with Veronica. After university, Tony travels in America and returns home to the news that Adrian has committed suicide.

The beginning of the second part has the older Tony receiving, through a solicitor, five hundred pounds and a brief, vague letter as part of the will of Veronica’s mother, who he met only once during that awkward weekend many years before. She has also left him Adrian’s diary, and there follows his attempts to acquire it from Veronica, who is refusing to give it up. Uneasy meetings with Veronica only serve his failure to obtain it.

Adrian, even when dead, has the capacity to grip Tony’s consciousness: his friend’s greater intelligence and heroic existential rejection of life (Adrian was a devotee of Camus) are offset against his own unexceptional personal history. Nevertheless, he discovers Adrian’s suicide was partly grounded in a disturbing reality. I will avoid the detail of this because it would be a “spoiler.” A recent film adaptation also means there is now a choice: to read the novel first and have the “spoiler” for the film, or vice versa.

Barnes’s control of a tight plot and, more especially, of tone are exemplary. Tony is a genuinely decent person, but Barnes makes his narrative voice at times annoying with its trite observations. He becomes a more bearable character when his complacency is undermined, as with the outcome of a meeting with Veronica about the diary. It ends with her handing over a copy of a letter he sent to Adrian about the two of them (Adrian and Veronica) getting together. Through it, Tony has to come to terms with his younger self as peevish and malicious. He had suppressed the memory of this letter, and selectively remembered another he had sent to Adrian, which though bitter was also not as horrible.

Of course there are descriptions of characters, places and situations, but much of the novel is the presentation of relationships, inevitably from Tony’s point of view and, towards the end, his growing appreciation of the problems of others. It might easily have led to a tedious narrative, but this is prevented by the form Barnes adopts: not chapters but a succession of short sections separated by spaces, and he achieves quite a fast moving pace for the unfolding of surprising realisations.

About the reviewer
Robert Richardson is a visual artist and writer. His work is included in Artists’ Postcards: A Compendium (Reaktion Books, London) and Leeds Postcards (Four Corners Books, London). He has recently had a solo exhibition of photographs at the Museu Municipal in Faro, Portugal, and is a member of the Biennale Austria association of contemporary artists.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Interview with Dustin Illingworth

Dustin Illingworth’s writing has appeared in a variety of outlets including The Atlantic, Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is the managing editor of The Scofield, and a contributing editor at Literary Hub. Dustin lives in Newport Beach, California and is currently finishing a debut novel. 

You can also read a list of Dustin Illingworth's Top Reads of 2016 here

Interviewed by Lee Wright

LW: What motivates your writing? 

DI: It is something I try not to look at too closely. If the motivations behind one’s obsessions become fully intelligible, their power is somehow weakened. If pressed, I would say I write fiction to rescue time. Even if what I reclaim isn’t completely satisfying, the effort represents a stand against the loss we are always in the midst of.  

LW: You are in the process of finishing a debut novel. Have you kept to a strict writing schedule? 

DI: I believe a writer is someone who finds a way to write every day. Ideas are cheap and plentiful, and inspiration pales in comparison to work ethic. My own schedule is very well-defined due to my having a day job. I write every evening after work from six to ten, and much longer on weekends.

LW: In a piece about the Journals of John Cheever, you wrote that Cheever was “a natural miniaturist, a collector of set pieces.” How effective is this style of writing? 

DI: I think writers possess natural capacities, and the best writing arises from an artist discovering the ideal formal vehicle for their vision. Cheever’s digressive richness makes for some of the greatest short fiction ever written, whereas I always feel like his novels are threatening to dissolve into fragmented incident. He can’t help but meander.

LW: What makes for a good piece of creative non-fiction? 

DI: As someone who loathes the personal essay, my favourite non-fiction situates art as existing in conversation with other art rather than (strictly) with oneself. Elizabeth Hardwick is my ideal essayist, a writer whose work moves beyond mere analysis into a kind of luxurious intuition. It is beautiful, often ambiguous, and possessed of a tensile strength.

LW: Is fiction harder to write?      

DI: Infinitely so. An essay or review is a discrete, self-contained piece of writing—if you’ve written enough of them, you begin to have a feeling for pacing, transition, where to include the offhand flourish or coup de grace, etc. A novel, though, is a torment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Fiction rubs your nose in your own ineptitude day after day. Again, it is as much an act of endurance as a work of inspiration.

LW: How did you develop your writing in the early days? 

DI: I read (and continue to read) writers who are vastly superior to me. Writing daily and reading those who have achieved an authoritative style are the only ways I know how to improve as a writer. Reading Shirley Hazzard or Mavis Gallant or John Hawkes or Malcolm Lowry impresses upon me how poor of a writer I am, and how far I need to go.

LW: What has been the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?  

DI: “Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.” AndrĂ© Gide wrote this, and James Salter memorably condensed it: “Save nothing.”

About the interviewer
Lee Wright was born in Nuneaton, Warwickshire in 1980 and has been writing both fiction and non-fiction since 2008. He is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester in 2017.