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Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Guest Review: Paine on S/S/Y/K

Vicky Paine reviews
Stop Sharpening Your Knives (2) – Nine New Poets

The second anthology from the Stop Sharpening Your Knives collective is an attractive, glossy paperback with contributions from nine poets and three artists. A glowing foreword from Lavinia Greenlaw describing the anthology as a 'remarkable gathering of emerging poets', together with admiring back cover blurbs from Hugo Williams and George Szirtes, make this an impressively packaged anthology.

This is all to the good since the point of anthologies of new writers is exposure, a way of building up a poet's profile. A new poet may not be ready for a full-length collection but that isn't to say she's not deserving of a readership. Equally, a poet may be writing to a publishable standard but it is notoriously difficult to convince a reputable publisher to take on a first collection. Poets usually have to complete a sort of informal apprenticeship, publishing in magazines and perhaps in pamphlet form. Anthologies produced by collectives like SSYK, or by universities for creative writing students, are an increasingly common component of this apprenticeship.

The title of this anthology series, Stop Sharpening Your Knives, engages with this idea of exposure and publicity. It preempts a negative response and requests a space for the work to exist, sheltered, as it were, from the knives of the critic. Poets seem particularly prone to wrestling with questions regarding the quality and purpose of their art; you rarely hear a poet declaring themselves to be a genius or even much good. In the March 2008 edition of the online magazine The Roundtable Review, SSYK co-editor Sam Riviere suggests the title 'referred to the feeling that once in a while you can stop being witheringly self-critical and show people what you've been doing.'

Margot Douaihy's "Shorts" is a playful imagining of poems as characters: 'So what if your poem turns up in shorts [...] when the other poems don tuxes'. She combines a laidback humour with elegant imagery: 'Tell your poem it's ok to [...] see beauty everywhere, even in the barrel of a gun,/ hollow as a throat. Anything hollow can sing.' Douaihy's poems are beautifully controlled, but she might want to consider varying her tone as four of her six poems are in second-person and two are a series of commands.

Jack Underwood co-edits SSYK and was awarded an Eric Gregory Award in 2007. His poems show deft handling of both ideas and language: 'Your horse/ has arrived and is bending himself into the room,/ refolding his legs. I knuckle his nose,/ which reminds me of the arms of a chair.' The comparison of the horse's nose with the chair is gracefully handled and the gentle humour is tinged with sadness of love as a memory: 'We are crunching on polo mints together/ and remembering the way your body used to move.' It would be good to see his imagination tested by formal constraints, not necessarily strict poetic forms, but simply by writing more often in stanzas of equal length for example, to build up a sense of rhythm and control.

Robert Herbert's poems are concerned with location and communication and he uses the sounds of words to create pleasing aural effects. In his sonnet "Being in two places at once" repeated enjambment softens the impact of the end rhymes and these sounds resonate throughout the poem, emphasising the echoes between the two places in the speaker's mind. Just occasionally his lines are too much of a mouthful, for example, the first line in "The Solitude Suicides" which reads, 'One mid summer, the hot high noon light hit'.

Hayley Buckland makes use of a wide vocabulary, revelling in the sound of scientific words: 'in a circus/ of atriums, ventricles,/tricuspid valves,/ interventricular/ septums'. 'The Crèche' uses rather typical poetic subject matter - looking at old photos - but her language is fresh, describing spider plants as 'spilling their babies' and old furniture 'like ancient Victorian/ nannies'.

The sonnet's flexibility and brevity provide a structure that poets still find stimulating. Tim Cockburn's sonnet "A Rave in North Norfolk" uses sophisticated syntax - his final sentence stretches for nine lines – to slow the poem down and make detailed observations of the stragglers sleeping in the restored calm. In other poems he takes his time over images, for example: 'the redirected Anglepoise/rendering bluish that fridge-blank stare', but he uses such precise language that he avoids sounding overly descriptive and builds up a meticulous and emotionally-charged poetic landscape.

Matthew Gregory's poems consist of large blocks of text only sometimes broken into still chunky stanzas. This means it is easy to read his poems too quickly and miss the wonderful images which come thick and fast, for example, 'the yuccas in the lounge, crest-fallen', a mobile phone vibrating 'in your palm/ like a trapped moth,' or a body under a duvet as, 'mountainous/and foreign as the cloudscape/ under an airplane.' A little more space would let these images to linger and also allow the poet to see where a few judicious cuts could be made in order to focus the poems a little more.

Agnes Lehoczky pushes images until they become distorted and strange,starting with 'from the receiver sea gulls are pouring out' until she is 'stuff[ing] the gulls, my couriers, into the phone'. She declares that 'lips need to be elastic slugs in the act of androgynous love', a delightfully bold line, but at times her poems seem in need of paring down, of needing a choice between two or more images. She also needs to consider the musicality of her language and in some places work to push the rhythms further away from those of prose.

Co-editor Sam Riviere, commended in the 2005 New Writing ventures and awarded second prize in this year's Poetry London competition, gravitates towards narrative poetry. Some poems like "The Kiss" are rather too anecdotal but when he plays with language, for example his use of unexpected words - hookers 'aerobicize' and underarms are 'mallowy' – and uses grammatical concision - 'instead/ of a flowers he carried/ that thug's bald child' - his work is lifted from the anecdotal to poetry worth savouring.

Nathan Hamilton often seems to save his best lines for the last lines, for example, 'The absent speak louder,/ keep conversation short' and in the final poem, 'Another chapter closing too quickly/ on the fourth floor; brutal/ and miserably rigged.' Sometimes he can lean too heavily on description but when his images are simple, for example, 'road-stuck fur' or 'a sorry gob of junk' they are all the more powerful for their straightforwardness.

If the point of these anthologies is exposure for new poets then I hope this one does its job. The editors, commendable poets themselves, have selected contributors united by an interest in language and excited by its possibilities. Their subject matter is diverse but contemporary, mostly avoiding cliché and predictability. I for one am glad that the SSYK editors decided to 'show people what they've been doing'; I hope they don't find my critical knife too sharp.

Vicky Paine is a writer based in Scotland and recently won the McLellan Poetry Award.
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