Awesome display of Penned in the Margins books at Selected Poems

As the Selected Poems at the V&A Reading Rooms series was drawing to a close, I was delighted to have the opportunity to  focus on the work of Penned in the Margins, a London based publisher of experimental poetry.

What I like about the press is that it presents a challenge to contemporary poetry; it celebrates unfamiliar poetic forms, subjects and images. On their website, books of sonnet sequences dedicated to Street Fighter II characters and plays about the London Docklands sit side by side comfortably. It’s the Brian Eno of the poetry publishing world, if you will (and I will).

The packed out Reading Rooms

These lovingly produced books have been a staple on my writing desk for months now. With the introduction of two new excellent books (an anthology of experimental poetry called Adventures in Form & Roddy Lumsden’s new collection The Bells of Hope) I was particularly excited to showcase the authors and editors of the press at Selected Poems.

And, as you can tell from the photo above,  it became one of the busiest and most popular nights we’ve had at the V&A Reading Rooms.

Siddhartha Bose

The first poet on the night was Siddhartha Bose, whose theatrical performances I had seen a lot of over the last year, and they’ve always had my interest. His debut book, Kalagora, explores different metropolises and showing how their fruits – drink, drugs and sex – play on the psyche and the way we perceive reality. It dips and delves between elation and degradation.

It was a joy to have Sid read selections of the book for us, which has been adapted for the stage on many occasions. He also read a new poem from a sequence he is writing, which I strong-armed him to record for us. You can listen to it below.

Ross Sutherland

Next up before the break was Ross Sutherland, who I had seen a few times at Homework – the night he puts on with Joe Dunthorne at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. What I like about Ross is that he’s a poet who continually changes and adapts his writing and the performance of his work. Like Sid, Ross has recently made a show out of his work Comedian Dies in the Middle of a Joke which toured Edinburgh.

What he read for us that evening was a mixture of new and old work from his new collection Emergency Window. His work is incredibly humorous one moment, but then filled with very delicate observation, all told with a frankness and direct nature as if you’re with Ross in the pub round the corner not at the wine bar of the Reading Rooms. An excellent reader, one who I had wanted to read at Selected Poems for a while.

Emily Critchley

After a break of wine and, frankly, admiring the Penned in the Margins book display, we started the second half with Emily Critchley. I first saw her read alongside Iain Sinclair at the London Word Festival and immediately thought it was some of the strangest and bewitching work I have ever heard. It had been in the back of my mind until I reached the point where I kept reading all I could get my hands on. So getting the opportunity to hear her read was a coup de bonheur.

Her work is hugely diverse, as was the collection of new work she read on the night. The pieces that she read were at turns fragmentary (much like her new work in the most recent copy of The White Review) and then like a stream of consciousness, enveloping everything she immediately experiences (much like the piece you can listen to below).  On the page, her poems are dynamic and nuanced: continually evolving and engaging the reader. On the ear, their drama and humor becomes more apparent.  It was great to hear more of her work – whenever she is reading next, I am there.

Roddy Lumsden

The final reader of the night was the aforementioned Roddy Lumsden, an already firm star in the poetry firmament. His new book is made entirely of ‘Kernel’ poems (a form Roddy invented), poems where truth and metaphor orbit each other over three lines. They’re short, yes, but the diarist nature of them and the imagery Roddy explores in these poems gives them a fascinating depth. The brevity just spurs you to read on – one of the reasons why I bloody love short poems.

Roddy read from the new book and some other poems he had recently written, and it was great to have him there on the night. Hearing him read from The Bells of Hope emphasized to me why I enjoy the output of Penned in the Margins as much as I do. It gives the opportunity and, more importantly, the space for poets to be experimental and to try new and exciting ideas that, perhaps, other publishers might be too cautious to try.

But, importantly, it doesn’t skimp on quality, and the night was proof of that. If you were unlucky enough to not make it in to the packed out Reading Rooms, I implore you to listen to the audio below and explore the books this important London publisher is putting out in our bookstores.

On the right of the laptop I am writing on, I’ve got a pile of perfume pens. Even after the few months when I sprayed them with at least a dozen independent perfumes in East London, they still hold an incredible aroma.

But I’m not always spraying perfume in basements in Old Street; I’m normally going to poetry readings. But that night, the two were fused (oh, perfume term) together, for the launch of Penning Perfumes, the first time that poets and perfumers have worked together to influence each other’s art form.

Like the pens beside me, the event has still lingered and held fast to my memory. In the first half, each poet would read their piece inspired by their chosen perfume, and the audience would be sniffing that same perfume.

This lead to a concentrated ‘experience’ of each poem; it is incredibly rare that the source material for the poem is right under your nose. Stimulating the sense of smell, a sense so rarely prodded at by poetry (yet often considered the sense that evoke the most of our memory), helped realise a lot of the abstract images in the work.

Tim Wells’ explaining his nasdat poem

Many of the writers followed their nose as it led them to the strongest image or memory that the perfume prompted: large bay windows overlooking the sea, robotic wooden men, learning French from a lover. But two particularly stayed with me.

Tim Wells’ piece, inspired by Burgess’s nadsat language of A Clockwork Orange, wrote a piece that hit on one of the reasons why people wear scents: to add something ‘other’ to their personality. Why all the boys in my school used to put on Lynx Africa after a game of football was because they wanted to appear grown up but also that playing football was, literally, ‘no sweat’. Wells’ characters donned scents to become something other than normal, something “real horror show”. Being a huge fan of A Clockwork Orange myself, and the namesake of the main character, I loved Tim’s playfulness on this. Also, who doesn’t want to be a droog?

Charlotte Newman’s piece, with it’s fragmentary dashing in between images, focused more on the sensation of perfume – effervescent and brief. Her piece made me think of walking through a crowd of people in London Bridge station, smelling each perfume and aftershave, each so distinct but transitory. It led to an incredibly vibrant and, at times, modernist piece. Having not bought my, ahem, scent for a while (guys, Givenchy Gentlemen), I’ve noticed those of the public more and, as you catch the smell of them, they lead you in to different images and memories, which I think Charlotte captured well.

l-r the host of the evening Odette, poet Emily Hasler and perfumer Steve Pearce

But I think that the real high point was the second half of the event: the perfumers talking about the poems they made perfumes around. Their frankness that they didn’t know about poetry, but the way they had drawn out the abstract concepts of each poem – lust, grief, confusion – was remarkable and showed the two art forms aren’t that disparate.

I was quite taken by the quality of the audience participation. For those who know about the idiosyncrasies of poetry audiences (for those who don’t, read “odd aunt/uncle two gins down”) the audience brought out the attributes of the scents and poetry that weren’t picked up by the professionals with accurate and concise observation.

It emphasized that poetry and perfumes are very particular to each person, but the night in that East London basement satisfied admirers of both. I’ve been thinking it over and, the event taking place in June, it’s been swimming around in my head ever since.

We rounded off March with a full to bursting reading at Selected Poems, this time hosting the wonderful poetry night and anthology series The Shuffle. This was particularly meaningful to me as The Shuffle invited me to read when I was only a young post-grad.

In a lot of ways, I think it was the start of me thinking more about contemporary poetry, out of my studies of poetry history at University.

Amy Key starting off the night

The night started with one of the editors, Amy Key, who explained a bit about The Shuffle and read some of her own work. Amy’s work reminds me a lot of a previous reader we had in Selected Poems, Lydia Macpherson – in the sense that both their work is very sumptuous and, at times, quite decadent and beautiful. What differs the two I think is that Amy’s work is often sweeter, where an innocence is confronted with the harshness of the real world. You can read more of Amy’s work on her tumblr blog here , which she regularly updates.

Jacqueline Saphra reading to a packed house

Following on from Amy was Jacqueline Saphra, one of the other editors of The Shuffle . I had never heard her read before, although I’ve seen her host many nights at the Poetry Cafe. She mainly read from her new book The Kitchen of Lovely Contraptions , but she also threw in some new and older work.

What I liked about her work was how deftly her work changed mood and style. You can tell by reading the poems up on Peony Moon that the reader is  quite unsure where they are a lot of the time. A poem like ‘The Pick Up’ shifts tone as it continues, something joyful and then quite unsettling. It was good to finally hear her read.

Declan Ryan reading new poetry (bringing a tear to Simon Barraclough’s eye)

Selected Poems favourite Declan Ryan, who co-hosted the Days of Roses night we had last year, was reading all new poems. I love Declan’s work, and you can really see the influence of Ian Hamilton & Hugo Williams in his work. His sensitive and concise work is always a pleasure to hear, with his excellent introductions to his work punctuating the reading.

He read probably the most experimental work I have ever heard him read, which was a poem constructed entirely of lines taken from Alan Lewis’ poetry. The re-ordering and selection process that was involved in this was really interesting, telling a lot about Declan’s work through another writer. You can hear the recording of the poem at the bottom of the page.

Simon Barraclough provoking the audience…with poems

The penultimate reader, here seen working his humour on the crowd, was Simon Barraclough. I spoke about him in the previous Selected Poems as writing one of my favourite poems of 2011, Examination at Doom’s Door, which is a play on Ted Hughes’ Crow poem with all the imagery of the Doom video games, which I used to play when I was younger. It’s very clever and playful, indicative of his other poems.

Simon largely read from his book Neptune Blue but I believe he also read some new work, which you can tell has influenced his collaborative work with poets Isobel Dixon & Chris McCabe for The Debris Field commissioned by the British Film Institute. I had been wanting Simon to read at Selected Poems for ages, and I was delighted that the editors picked him.

Angela Kirby ending the night

Throughout the year, we’ve had a handful of poets appearing on Selected Poems who have united the audience. Angela Kirby, the last reader of the night was one of them. I think I embarrassed her by listing all of her achievements, as well as the accolades given to her by Maurice Riordan and Christopher Reid (two former readers of Selected Poems).

I have never heard the room wrapped up in so much laughter before. Angela’s work was incredibly honest and witty for it, about the intricacies of relationships, friendships. Her work really was excellent, and it was brilliant way to end the night. My thanks go out to all the poets who read their work and the editors of The Shuffle who put together an excellent line-up.

There’s no denying Kenneth Goldsmith’s status in the modern poetry pantheon is firm. The man created Ubuweb, one of the best online resources for hard to find and out of print poetry and sound art and he also curates Pennsound, the best online compendium of 20th Century American poetry beyond comparison.

Even Cindy Crawford can’t get enough of Kenneth Goldsmith

These two feats alone would be enough for him to be considered one of the most influential historians & figures in 20th Century and modern poetry, but  I want to turn to his essays, which have been getting a lot of press & controversy at the moment from his book Uncreative Writing, published last year.

For those who haven’t got to grips with premise of the book, he neatly sums it up here, in front of Michelle Obama at the White House:

The idea of copying out pieces of writing, cut and pasting words, code as poetry are explored in the book Uncreative Writing – and I will be keeping a very sporadically updated diary of my thoughts reading the book over the next couple of months.

Now, I’m probably considered a fairly conservative poetry reader – my first poetry love was Larkin, I did my dissertation on Eliot, I’ve never even read any bloody Geoffrey Hill. But – as I’ve documented throughout the blog – I like to keep up with my contemporaries and new forms of poetry writing.

Geoffrey Hill – I like my portraits like my poems, uncompromising and joyless

After taking Chris McCabe’s course at the Poetry School on experimental poetry, I’ve been fascinated by poetry created from alternative means rather than grappling with the muse in the mind gym. Rules, constraints and games, as I’ve found out, can produce exciting new work.

But, and I don’t have any other way of putting this, I also have a very subjective ‘bullshit’ meter, as everyone does. On leafing through Uncreative Writing, said meter was whacked out of its gourd and going haywire. Not sure how much I agree with Kenneth, or Kenny G as he’s known, that code and MSDOS is poetry per se, but I want to use this space to bring to light what he states and criticise, challenge and agree with him.

Chapter 1: Revenge of the Text
The first chapter is a primer to what I imagine will be at times a contrary and controversial polemic on writing. It’s probably my first real encounter with the concept of paratextual analysis i.e. taking in to account other aspects of a text including the typography, book cover, design etc as having a direct effect on the reader & the appreciation of the text.

Text and it’s impending revenge, is all in this chapter, and he spends the majority of it discussing the ways in which data and text is treated, transported and manipulated through the wealth of I.T. – everything from a malfunctioning on-flight TV to the surrounding information that accompanies the body of an e-mail.

Text, and fashion, is all to Kenneth

He makes the good point that the fact we’re often writing on powerful laptops – with the opportunity to shape and edit text beyond what others could do in the 20th Century  – means that the possibilities should make us question our position as writers. But it should also make us question what we write and how contemporary ways of communicating are already changing not how we write, but what we write, too.

He demonstrates this by sending himself an e-mail with ‘Mary had a little lamb’ written in to the main body of the message. When it comes back it contains a wealth of complex data which he didn’t write at all – I.P. addresses, date received etc. This text is self perpetuating and runs behind everything we do and, in Kenneth’s mind, gives creative writing, and writers, a huge potential to change their work.

I couldn’t help but think of this (potentially contentious) quote below from Steve Roggenbuck’s video ‘Am I even a poet anymore?’ when reading through the first chapter of Kenny G’s book. The video & quote  is below:

Art is the creation of belief systems…how can you have a belief system if all you have is 80 page, black on white, 12 point font, serifs? God help me.

He argues a similar point which Uncreative Writing makes in its first chapter: everything can be considered literature.

The difference is here is that Steve looking through the other end of the Uncreative Writing telescope. When he says “My heart is like a thousand f’ing subdomains in the same f’ing website, you know what I’m talking about?” he’s using the intangible cavernous black space of the internet to exemplify the space in his heart.

Whereas Kenneth (first name terms) performs a close reading of the line of code for the W image on a Wikipedia page, he suggests that the tightly mapped letters and numbers that constitute the W could be read as having some linguistic, rhythmical and (possibly) emotional merit.

But here’s where I have a problem. He says that the code of the W is not poetry “nor was it meant to be”. Yet, before stating this, he highlights the work of Japanese poet Shigeru Matusi who writes ‘Pure Poems’ of 400 characters, which consists of 1s, 2s and 3s as Roman Numerals. When reading them, Kenneth states, they are hypnotic. And they are, for example, in the first two and a half minutes here:

The difference, I think, between the code and the numbers is very had to spot (bullshit meter’s batteries are foaming). Is it that Shigeru (I’ve carried it on, I’m continuing with first names) has chosen these numbers and they are meant to be read out that makes them different, even though, you could argue, that the material is largely the same?

It must be choice. This is a point Kenneth makes at the start of the above video, the fact that his students choose a certain text to copy and type up shows a lot about their personality and emotions without them creating anything original. But are we doing the same with words? Theres only so many times you’ll see the word iridescent in a poem without being able to think of petrol in the forecourt of a garage in Essex (or is that just me?)

In this way, coding and the surrounding text does offer new ways for the writer to express what he or she feels. The point Kenneth makes is that the writer can choose to instigate these elements in to their writing. Data i.e. numbers and codes is not information until the writer chooses to use them.

But does anyone really want to listen? I look forward to reading more.

Selected Poems at the V&A poster – deisgned by Shaz Madani: smadani.com

MAP TO THE VENUE: http://www.vandareadingrooms.co.uk/#Map

On Thursday 31st May at 7:30PM, the LAST Selected Poems at the V&A Reading Rooms will be celebrating thereaders of the new poetry anthology Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam. It will be co-hosted, and feature a short reading, by the editor Todd Swift.

The full line-up is as follows:

Inua Ellams,
Sandeep Parmar,
James Byrne,
Claire Trevien,
Kathryn Marie,
Jenna Butler
Todd Swift

***How to attend***

Due to the limited capacity of the V&A Reading Rooms – RSVP’s need to be logged by emailing info.selectedpoems@gmail.com

1 place per RSVP – A reply will confirm that your name will be on the guest list upon arrival.

PLEASE NOTE: Saying you will attend on Facebook doesn’t guarantee you a place in the night. So to avoid disappointment, please RSVP to the e-mail above ASAP

We now continue our Uncollected series, where contemporary poets write about their favourite writers which they think need more recognition. This month Caroline Crew, editor of poetry site ILK Journal, writes about one of her favourite American poets George Oppen (who is a recent favourite of mine, from reading an essay on him in Poetry Magazine).

Caroline Crew


It is strange to discover a poet who shares your obsessions.

With Oppen it seemed almost simple: a poet whose repeated fascination with light taps in to something that crops up in my own work. A similar fondness for the luminous image. Only, as any reader of Oppen will discover, this is a poet for whom no connection is simple.

This obsession with light is both image and concept. The recurrent image of the window becomes an epistemological mediation: to look out of the window, to look into the light is a way to know. More than this though, the light that pervades Oppen’s poetry works as an extended metaphor for the human condition. Or more specifically, the singular human’s condition within the larger context of humanity.

What began as the discovery of a sadly neglected later Modernist poet, ended in having nightmares that I must have been sleep-reading Oppen previously, and, later, a widened understanding of the paradoxes of writing a life.

George Oppen

I know that art should come before the artist, but Oppen’s incredible life seems ripe for the kind of movie treatment Ginsberg is currently receiving. The bare bones of it go like this: quit college to run away with his sweetheart, and later wife, Mary; join the Communist Party, fight on the front line of World War II, go into exile in Mexico, move back to the States and win a Pulitzer.

Incredible poetry, and incredible man. So why does Oppen fall into the underrated category? It’s too easy to blame the Atlantic divide: especially as it was a centenary conference in Edinburgh that put his work back into scholarly focus. More likely the under-appreciation of his work is Oppen’s own doing. The man maintained an almost thirty year silence—between his first collection Discrete Series in 1934 and The Materials in 1962. This silence was not only a withdrawal from literary life but a complete refusal to write. A refusal to involve art in politics, and perhaps more significantly, a lack of voice to navigate the crisis in humanity seen throughout World War II and the Viet Nam War.

George Oppen with his wife Mary, 1975

It is strange to discover a poet who shares your obsessions. Not just light, but the fondness for sparse shattered lines and found texts. A philosophical bent that is emerges from a genuine desire for understanding, not just to sound smart (cough cough, Ezra Pound).

Stranger still that this poet has quietly passed into the ranks of the past.

In the midst of a year when all I seem to do academically is write on dead white guys, Oppen has been a beacon. His illumination is one I beg you to embark upon.


Below are two examples of Oppen’s writing, both chosen by Selected Poems, as an example of his work which particularly struck me as something important when reading them for the first time.

The first, The Building of the Skyscraper, is wonderfully dissected in an essay by Tony Hoagland on the Poetry Foundation’s website. The second, Five Poems about Poetry, gives an insight in to Oppen’s thoughts about the craft of his own verse and the wider writing of poetry.

You can read much more of his work by following this link on the Poetry Foundation, which also has essays by and about Oppen.

The Building of the Skyscraper

The steel worker on the girder
Learned not to look down, and does his work
And there are words we have learned
Not to look at,
Not to look for substance
Below them. But we are on the verge
Of vertigo.

There are words that mean nothing
But there is something to mean.
Not a declaration which is truth
But a thing
Which is. It is the business of the poet
“To suffer the things of the world
And to speak them and himself out.”

O, the tree, growing from the sidewalk—
It has a little life, sprouting
Little green buds
Into the culture of the streets.
We look back
Three hundred years and see bare land.
And suffer vertigo.

Five Poems about Poetry

                               THE GESTURE
The question is: how does one hold an apple
Who likes apples
And how does one handle
Filth? The question is
How does one hold something
In the mind which he intends
To grasp and how does the salesman
Hold a bauble he intends
To sell? The question is
When will there not be a hundred
Poets who mistake that gesture
For a style.
                           THE LITTLE HOLE
The little hole in the eye
Williams called it, the little hole
Has exposed us naked
To the world
And will not close.
Blankly the world
Looks in
And we compose
And the sense
Of home
And there are those
In it so violent
And so alone
They cannot rest.
                                  THAT LAND
Sing like a bird at the open
Sky, but no bird
Is a man—
Like the grip
Of the Roman hand
On his shoulder, the certainties
Of place
And of time
Held him, I think
With the pain and the casual horror
Of the iron and may have left
No hope of doubt
Whereas we have won doubt
From the iron itself
And hope in death. So that
If a man lived forever he would outlive
Hope. I imagine open sky
Over Gethsemane,
Surely it was this sky.
Impossible to doubt the world: it can be seen
And because it is irrevocable
It cannot be understood, and I believe that fact is lethal
And man may find his catastrophe,
His Millennium of obsession.
                                            air moving,
a stone on a stone,
something balanced momentarily, in time might the lion
Lie down in the forest, less fierce
And solitary
Than the world, the walls
Of whose future may stand forever.
                               FROM VIRGIL
I, says the buzzard,
Has evolved
Too long
If ‘life is a search
For advantage.’
‘At whose behest
Does the mind think?’ Art
Also is not good
For us
Unless like the fool
In his folly
It may rescue us
As only the true
Might rescue us, gathered
In the smallest corners
Of man’s triumph. Parve puer . . . ‘Begin,
O small boy,
To be born;
On whom his parents have not smiled
No god thinks worthy of his table,
No goddess of her bed’

At the start of the year, we kicked off the newest round of Selected Poems events at the V&A Reading Rooms showcasing new work from Sidekick Books and Fuselit magazine.

Jon Stone starting the night off

Jon Stone started the night off, and we were quite lucky to hear him read from a wide range of his output. Jon’s work is both engaging & playful – whether he is collaging lines from Tom Jones’ songs, or writing poems with lines ending with an anagram of the word ‘mustard’. He also read out new work about manga characters, which you can hear in full below.

Following on from Jon we had M.P. Dean who, I later found out, had not read his work before in front of an audience – so I was really pleased to have his debut performance at Selected Poems. As you can hear from his work below, and through some of his work on the Red Ceiling Press website, his use of repetition and playing with turns of phrase creates a rhythm in his work, which suits his work when read aloud.

Ending the 1st half was Chrissy Williams, who had only recently recieved the copies of her new pamphlet ‘The Jam Trap’ (parts of which you can read on Silkworms Ink’s site). The new work from Chrissy, who has the envious job of working in the Poetry Library, is erudite and witty – it follows odd little idiosyncratic musings on video games, dripping beer in to friend’s trousers and debating whether or not a bedroom is filled up with foam.

Kirsten Irving's attentive audience

The second half started with the second editorial brain of Sidekick / Fuselit – Kirsten Irving. Similar to Jon, she read a wide range of work and also showed off a lot of different publications. Perhaps most striking of all were her bird poems she read, which will be part of the forthcoming Birdbook from Sidekick (you can find out more about the project here). These poems were very gentle – Egyptian Goose especially, which can be heard below, is remorseful – a brooding narrator remembering the previous glory of it’s ancestors. Great stuff.

Ian McLachlan was our final reader of the night, reading almost exclusively from his new pamphlet with Sidekick Books – Confronting the Danger of Art, a team-up with artist Phil Cooper. It plays on the public information film vibe, but not about the dangers of marsh lands or going for a roam around the tip, but on the danger of artists and poets. It is a very tongue-in-cheek book, poking fun of how seriously artists take themselves and their work, and it was great to hear him read from it.

The audience from the Reading Rooms

Jon Stone ended the night with reading somer of his favourite work from the Sidekick Books back catalogue. It was a great night and I was so pleased to be able to feature such a fresh & engaging publisher of contemporary UK poetry on the roster. An amazing way to start of the new season of Selected Poems.


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