Listen Softly London is a fledgling small press, publishing literary innovation and experimentation. They run monthly live literature events in London. Being With Me Will Help You Learn by Tom McColl is Listen Softly’s first attempt at publishing a collection of poetry and short stories in pamphlet form, and this has been supported by live lit events to launch the book.
We’re excited to watch LSL’s progress and growth as a small press, and we’re particularly interested to see what kind of direction their innovative and experimental works will take as they develop.
Here, our reviewer Mike James shares some thoughts on their first imprint.
The poet and short story writer, David Constantine, once remarked that ‘poetry helps us realise common things better’. It is not necessarily the poet’s role to make the old, new, but to make the ordinary and the familiar, current. The jacket for Thomas McColl’s Being With Me Will Help You Learn states that ‘McColl uses his experiences pounding the streets of today to show you what could be…’ This is something that McColl achieves throughout Being With Me, if not always as effectively as hoped. McColl’s book flits between poetry and short fiction, in a collection that is ambitious in its outlook, yet often frustratingly uneven in its execution.
It is in the short fiction pieces in the collection, as in ‘Takeaway Poetry Joint’, that McColl is at his strongest. “The ‘Full English’ we like to call it – everything from Alvarez to Zephaniah… which, when you think about it, takes you both from A to Z and from A to B – if you get my drift”. McColl’s prose pieces set up seemingly incongruously comic situations: takeaway restaurants selling poems (and poets); people being arrested for nose picking – ‘The Nose Picker: Public Enemy Number One’ – the sexual exploitation of fruit – ‘Fruit ‘n’ Veg’ – that conceal pertinent questions regarding commoditization and the role of the state. McColl’s day job, working in the House of Commons, no doubt giving him a particular insight when commenting on such matters.
A highlight of the poetry in McColl’s collection is ‘Funny Money’, which shows the same capacity for satire as McColl’s strongest prose:
For some reason,
the Bank of England Governor
decided it would be a good idea
to start printing jokes
on the back of banknotes.
In the poem, the Governor of the Bank of England hires a comedian to write jokes who promptly gets drunk and is unceremoniously fired by the Governor. Yet, after a ‘national outcry’ the Governor is forced to resign and the comedian releases a best-selling book on the back of the publicity created. McColl’s ability to skewer politics and notions of everyday life, through his injection of (concerningly plausible) farce, is to be admired.
However, as with the short fiction, many of the poems let themselves down when they stray towards the earnest. In ‘Robot’ the robot, whose ‘pain cartridge, flashing red / will not eject,’ and a husband from ‘Springtime in Soho’, who is ‘driven no longer by mutual love and respect / but by the single-mindedness of an insect’, highlight McColl’s propensity to ‘spell out’ his message.
There are numerous occasions, however, when McColl’s wit compensates for the more expository sections of his writing. In ‘Smile’, McColl has written a section of prose that has me mirroring the work’s title, days after reading it:
“Hey darling! Why the long face? Come over here and get a smile from my suitcase.”
Review by Michael James