From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body

From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body, John Latham: Comma Press, 2017

I was intrigued by this poetry collection, published, as it is, by Comma Press – the small press that has become synonymous with short form fiction. As they remarked in their canny advertising campaign: they don’t publish poetry, so when they do it must be special. I wanted to know what made Comma Press love a poetry collection so much that they wanted to publish it as their own.

From Professor Murasaki

Reading John Latham’s From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body I do get a sense of the richness of its language, the depth and scope of its range of subjects and the subtly intricate connections between them. As with a short fiction collection, there’s a tender intensity to every poem that’s complete within itself while also being open to repetitions and connections that make it part of the whole work. There’s a gentle but dynamic movement between poems and within the collection that enables the lines to speak to one another across the pages.

One prevalent motif that traces its electric presence through the work is of course that of lightning. Beginning with the staccato eponymous notes taken from marginalia translations of the various effects of lightning on the human body we read of lightning striking a young girl in July 1978:

‘lightning

conflaged cracked dead-bush 6m from stone,

surge entering body by left toe and knee-skins

scorched but hardly. …

Her memories of suction into light fibrillating

like new leaves.’

A further incident in 1997 came without warning, ‘No hailstones, no St. Elmo’s Fire, so foreboding invalid’, a school teacher’s fingers ‘badly cindered, fused, / yet still holding black stone for further play’; while his son, though ‘hurtled into the water, naked’, was ‘unscathed except for fern-prints on left heel’. Throughout the collection, lightning, leaves, hailstones and St. Elmo’s Fire will recur to play again, assuming new positions and bearing new significances as they ripple through the weave of the text.

In ‘From A Glossary of the Forms and Qualities of Ice’ we discover

Lightning Trigger: In the cloud a hailstone bristles, distorts

electric force-lines, compresses them until stressed-out air

breaks down, a spark leaps out of ice, becomes a filament

glowing on its wayward path to earth. The sky cracks open.’

The connection between hail and lightning made firm here.  Like the cover image, the traces of lightning weave themselves across the skin of this collection, touching deep nerves in places.

Words and phrases dance, echo and leave traces between found-text fragments and lyric poems, weaving a collection that feels alive with rhythmic desire. This, to me, is how the best collections of short fiction pulse, too, and it could be one reason Latham’s poetry has captured the heart of Comma.

Click here to buy From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body direct from Comma Press.

About the Publisher: 

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative which aims to promote new writing. It places a particular emphasis on the short story. The Press declares on its website that it is committed to “a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses”. Comma began life as an artist’s group in 2003 with a series of short story booklets in four cities across the North of England (distributed as free supplements with each of the cities’ listings magazines). This project then developed into a series of book-length anthologies. In 2007 Comma also launched a translation imprint (again specialising in short fiction) to bring new masters of the form to British readers. Comma also publishes poetry collections and the occasional novel.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

 

 

Republic of Consciousness Prize 2017

The Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses was founded last year by award-winning author Neil Griffiths to reward small presses supporting ‘hard-core literary fiction and gorgeous prose’.  Last year’s inaugural winner was Fitzcarraldo Editions for Counternarratives by John Keene.

Today it has been confirmed that The Times Literary Supplement has become the prize’s official media partner. Neil Griffiths says, ‘The partnership with the TLS takes the prize from the artisan fringe into the heart of literary life in UK and beyond. I’ve subscribed to the TLS for 20 odd years and cannot be more excited.’  Toby Lichtig, the TLS Fiction Editor says: ‘Hard-core literary fiction and gorgeous prose is what the TLS is all about, and as such we couldn’t think of a better prize for us to support. Small presses are currently publishing some of the most innovative and daring fiction in the UK, and by partnering with The Republic of Consciousness we hope to help to draw attention to important books that might otherwise be overlooked.’

‘Hard-core literary fiction and gorgeous prose is what the TLS is all about, and as such we couldn’t think of a better prize for us to support. Small presses are currently publishing some of the most innovative and daring fiction in the UK, and by partnering with The Republic of Consciousness we hope to help to draw attention to important books that might otherwise be overlooked.’

The Prize has recently been awarded Grant for the Arts funding from The Arts Council. This essential financial backing means, quite simply, another year is possible, and with increased spend on mainstream and digital marketing, and events beyond the capital we will reach more media, bookshops and readers.

The 2017 long list will be announced on the TLS website in late November; the short list will be discussed on the TLS podcast in February; and the winner will be excerpted in the TLS itself.

All short listed presses will all receive one thousand pounds and the winner will win a minimum of £5,000, to be announced at a ceremony in Central London in Spring 2018.

This year’s judges include booksellers from independent bookshops; Foyles, Birmingham; Waterstones, Manchester; plus a bloggers’ bloc, and a representative from the Contemporary Small Press Project from the University of Westminster (that’s us!).

Submissions close 31th October 2017. Novels, translated fiction, short stories are all eligible – the only requirement for submission is that the press is from the UK or ROI, and has no more than 5 full time staff.

Secrets Remain Untold

Swimming with Fishes by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm: Jacaranda Books, 2017

Having never read a Caribbean novel, I was intrigued by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm’s
Swimming with Fishes, especially after researching the author and the publisher, Jacaranda Books. In a ‘Question and Answer’ piece published on Jacaranda’s website, Malcolm claims that the inspiration to write her debut novel came from ‘listening to women across generations talking about the lack of genuine love’.  From this, the novel falls straight into the romance genre, however, it takes on interesting and realistic twists along the way.

The protagonists, Kat and Ben, fall passionately in love while Ben is on a business trip to Kat’s native home, Jamaica. Though Kat and Ben’s island love appears to fill Malcolm’s void of ‘genuine love’, as in true life, love is not that simple and their affair grows beyond either of their expectations. Malcolm’s development of realistic character is admirable as the novel unveils the significant secrets that Kat and Ben hide from each other, including Kat’s struggles with sickle cell anaemia and the fact that Ben is married. The character’s secrets may be complicated, but the plot is simple to follow and I like to think that the large number of chapters flipping back and forth from Ben’s life in London to the Meadows in Jamaica mirror Ben’s heart, confused and split between two women and two countries.

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Malcolm presents the reader with an interesting female perspective in Ben’s wife, Claire. By giving her such a large role in the novel, Claire’s character is well established and it is
impossible to ignore her position as the ‘right’ woman for Ben, no matter how much the
reader would like to route for Kat and Ben’s impulsive island love. Malcolm’s creative descriptions of the Meadows, including the sand, sea, the smell of flowers and even Jamaican foods, allows the reader to be pulled along with Kat and Ben’s island romance, even with the reality of London edging closer within the next chapter. This irresistible nature of love is put up for questioning multiple times throughout the novel and through characters such as Kat’s mother, Miss Ruthie and her relationship with Old Man Jaguar, and even the village gossip, Nellie Potato.

Overall, Malcolm’s debut novel is an enjoyable read, focusing on relatable and relevant issues within modern day romance.

Click here to buy Swimming with Fishes by Rasheda Ashanti Malcolm direct from Jacaranda Books.

Jacaranda Books Art Music is a new independent publishing house based in London
publishing adult fiction and non-fiction, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries, with an aim to represent the cultural and ethnic diversity and heritage that can be found in London, and a particular interest in works related to Africa, the Caribbean, and the experiences of those peoples in the Diaspora.

Review by Kelly Blewitt

Kelly is a recent graduate of English Literature from the University of Westminster and is
currently pursuing an MA. She loves literary fiction of most genres but prefers crime,
mystery, and romance fictions.

 

 

Women, Writing and Freedom

Linen Press in collaboration with The Contemporary Small Press 
Keynote talk by Maureen Freely, President of English PEN.

‘A word after a word after a word is power.’ Margaret Atwood

In a masculine centred literary tradition that values male over female voices, women refuse to be silenced and continue to tell the truth about their personal and political lives. Join us in exploring the politics of silence and in honouring the voices of women writers everywhere who, despite repression and invisibility, risk all to give voice to the need for liberation and freedom.

Thursday 19th October
17.30 – 19.30
University of Westminster
309 Regent Street
London
W1B 2HW
Freedom

Speakers:

Keynote speaker Maureen Freely on the crucial work done by English PEN and like-minded partners, with particular reference to women writers.

Hema Macherla on the plight of Indian women – fallen women, broken women and women shunned by society.

Avril Joy on working for over twenty-five years with women writers in HMP Low Newton.

Lynn Michell on publishing women writers. She is here to celebrate ten years of Linen Press and to launch The Red Beach Hut.

This event is hosted by Linen Press – a small, independent press run by women for women – and the Contemporary Small Press, which aims to promote, explore and facilitate the work of small press publishers of fiction and poetry.

Murder in Montego Bay

Murder in Montego Bay, Paula Lennon: Jacaranda Books

I was pleased to receive a copy of Murder In Montego Bay via The Contemporary Small Press because of its Jamaican authorship and setting. I have only previously read one Jamaican novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, and although this book also revolves around murder, it provides a very different perspective on island life. Lennon sets her tale within the grossly underfunded Jamaican police service. I appreciated that her team of detectives really are portrayed as a team. Their leader, Preddy, does have shades of the dysfunctional-older-detective-against-the-world crime fiction cliché, but at least he isn’t an alcoholic who never eats! There’s no random love interest forced into the plot either which made a refreshing change! Instead Lennon’s detectives realistically banter, support and rile each other in a patois dialogue. Their camaraderie reminded me of Sjowall and Wahloo’s Martin Beck series and I think fans of those books might also enjoy this tropical mystery.

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Lennon’s great strength I thought was in her evocation of Jamaican culture and people. She presents the poverty of the island alongside the vast wealth of some of its inhabitants, and shows how tourists are generally fenced into their own secure beach enclaves away from sights that might discourage them from visiting again. Details of police station disrepair are shocking. I liked that the lack of available high tech gadgets gave a classic crime fiction feel in keeping with the investigation’s style. This novel is certainly more of a character-driven mystery than an all-action thriller. The plot narrative isn’t particularly convoluted, but Lennon kept my interest throughout and I actually found myself being drawn deeper into her created world as the book progressed. I wasn’t immediately gripped by the early chapters, but struggled to lay the book aside by the end as I wanted to know how everything would turn out! Murder In Montego Bay is a nicely satisfying read and has the potential to continue into a strong series.

Click here to find Murder in Montego Bay at Jacaranda Books.

About the Publisher:

Jacaranda Books Art Music is an independent publishing house based in London publishing adult fiction and non-fiction, including illustrated books, which cross linguistic, racial, gender and cultural boundaries, with a particular interest in works related to Africa, the Caribbean, and the experiences of those peoples in the Diaspora.

Review by Stephanie Jane

Stephanie is a travelling blogger usually to be found in her caravan somewhere in Western Europe. She loves long country walks, theatre trips, second-hand shops, coffee and cake, and, of course, reading. She makes a point to read diverse authors from around the world as this allows her to experience countries and cultures that she may not get to visit in person. Literary fiction is her favourite genre, but she is happy to try niche reads across the board and enjoys supporting small publishing houses and indie authors.

Who Killed Emil Kreisler?

A malevolent gorilla in a zoological gardens is witness to the flaws and foibles of the keepers who care for him. A busload of limbless children are driven to school in a warzone, where they are taught about the innocent delights of ‘animals and flowers.’ A cherished collection of refined Japanese erotica conceals a far darker secret. These are just some of the vivid scenarios in Who Killed Emil Kreisler?; twenty stories that are eclectic, intriguing and often discomfiting. Nigel Jarrett reaches across continents and cultures; blending fact with fiction and challenging his readers’ belief in identity, memory and legacy.
‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’

Jarrett’s most successful stories, and the ones that burrow deepest under the skin, are those concerned with the ghostly traces we leave behind after we’re gone, like fingerprints on a windowpane. In Wish You Were Here, a haunting tale about mysterious messages from an unknown sender, the narrator shares this belief in spectral outlines; ‘You know when you take pictures off the wall after many years and they leave a ghost of where they’d been hanging?’ Since the death of his elderly neighbour, he has been the recipient of blank postcards, which follow him from place to place and always contain the ‘start of a written message, abandoned before it had got under way.’ Jarrett is deliberately ambiguous about the suggestion of anything supernatural, and even when he spots a woman with the same face as his dead neighbour staring at him on a train, the narrator is dismissive of his own instinctive fear (‘Having said that, I acknowledge how the mind plays tricks’). However, there is something undeniably eerie about the premise, especially as some of the postcards contain pictures of ‘unbearable desolation’. The creep of enveloping, elemental nature is palpable, with the figures in the pictures reduced to pixels in an indifferent landscape; ‘they are composed of dots, just like the surroundings that overwhelm them…the elements triumph; there is no-one to be found.’

In Images from the Floating World, there is a similar sense of gradual disintegration; ‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’. This story is typical of Jarrett’s style; seemingly about a charmingly eccentric butler-cum-valet and a set of wealthy grandparents who collect rare and valuable pornography, the dark heart of the narrative is only revealed in unsettling snapshots. The suggestion of abuse is always implied rather than explicit but this makes the confessional letter sent by the narrator’s sister before her death (‘At the end of the letter was an intriguing sentence: And then there were three – Diggory, Grandma and Lewis’) all the more disturbing for its suggestion of middle-class complicity. The narrator strains to understand the enormity of what befell his sister in the darkened corridors of their childhood home but finds the full picture of what happened is always ‘being spirited secretly out of reach’, although whether by delusion or deception is unclear.

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Although the scope of his stories is ambitious and free-wheeling, Jarrett is the master of understatement. He depicts momentous, and occasionally horrific, events with a journalist’s wry eye for detail and a detached curiosity. In Christ, Ronnie, Christ, a pensive tale of trauma, failing memory and disconnect, a disturbing act of accidental voyeurism is told with such minimal embellishment that it is bordering on indifference. The first sentence of the story is stark in its simplicity; ‘Merrett once saw a woman leap to her death from a high cliff.’ He goes on to describe the apparent calmness before the moment of impact; ‘she strode smartly like a high-diver, leant forward at an impossible angle and plunged towards the river head first, bouncing off some protruding rocks and falling into the water with a brief, visible commotion, but no sound.’ This act of self-destruction is seen from a distance, with no context other than that dreamlike high dive, but I found that the image of the falling woman was seared into my consciousness despite its superficial tranquility and bloodlessness.

‘Grandmother’s Polaroid shot of the missing piece, now faded almost to a white-out, seems the paradigm of slippery truth. The original is lost forever, the facsimile of the original is going the same way’

There are many other stories in the collection which convey Jarrett’s lightness of touch and ability to transcend genres; the lingering sense of cultural dislocation in El Cid, the gentle pathos of Ziggurat, or the utter immersion in a specific time and place that comes as a result of reading Rhapsodie, an epistolary saga which spans decades and continents. However it’s A Weissman Girl that contains the description of a style of writing uncannily reminiscent of Jarrett’s own. This evocative tale of a writer and his disturbed wife living in rural isolation, like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald without the urban glamour, includes a passage where the narrator describes the reclusive writer’s particular style of storytelling: ‘its imaginative kite flight reigned in and let out by almost deadpan reportage, at turns strolling and hurrying.’ This is such an accurate description of Jarrett’s own understated style of writing that it almost feels deliberate. The fictional writer profiled in A Weissman Girl ‘tells the tale yet…deepens what’s told’; perhaps a reminder that subtlety and suggestion, Jarrett’s modus operandi in this collection, is sometimes more powerful than shock value.

If there is an image which Jarrett’s stories bring to mind, it would be a faded photograph; muted, shadowy and slightly blurred around the edges but all the more enticing for it. Although some of his stories are overstuffed and rather dense, (Miss Mercedes Gleitze comes to mind) and his narratives tend to meander frustratingly towards anti-climatic conclusions, Jarrett’s devastating subtlety in Wish You Were Here, Christ, Ronnie, Christ and A Weissman Girl will haunt you long after the final page has been turned. One of his narrators asserts that ‘So much dies of us when we die’, but many of the characters in these stories leave indelible traces which reach out to warp and stain the lives of others, like watermarks on a page.

Click here to find Who Killed Emil Kreisler? on the Cultured Llama website

About the Publisher:

Cultured Llama, which was originally established by Maria McCarthy and her husband Bob Carling in a converted stable, publishes poetry, short fiction and cultural non-fiction or, as the website intriguingly describes it, ‘curious things.’

Review by Katie Witcombe

Katie Witcombe is a book-fiend and (very) occasional poet. She will quite happily read anything, including the backs of cereal boxes. Also a recent convert to long-distance running.

‘We bulwark our flesh from the effort’

Common Rest, Holly Pester: Test Centre Publications

By song we bulwark our flesh from the effort and flesh from our flesh from effort from them

– Care

Common Rest takes the form of the lullaby as a structural and thematic starting point for experimentation with poetry in its material manifestations.  A project in collaborative, improvisational sound-poetry accompanied by a book of written poems, both of which explore the languages of work and rest.  Holly Pester’s collaborative sound-work with accompanying book of poetry is available as a 10” vinyl LP in a gatefold sleeve from Test Centre in a limited edition of 250 copies. Pester is exceptionally talented in this field, and this collection features collaborations with Nat Raha and Verity Spott – both of whom are working experimentally with sound in innovative and exciting ways.  The record also features collaboration with poet Vahni Capildeo, as well as artists, musicians and sound artists: the result is a poetry project tangible and alive with shapes and shades and weathers.

tonight you might feel your feet multiply / you might lick or suck or clean ‘em / cos you’ve got a nighttime job 

– Burn

Common Rest

The juxtaposition between the poetry on the page and the sound poetry generates tangential layering and a satisfyingly physical sensation to roll around one’s tongue and cradle in one’s limbs. It’s tangible, tasty and textured.  The materiality of language in its verbal and visual forms is central to Common Rest’s project: the soundscapes feature improvised repetition based on sounds, words and phrases lifted out of sequence from the poetry; ad libs; riffs; vocal and instrumental atmospheric sounds; shifts in volume and pace; haunting, dream-like lullabies both sung and spoken… What the LP is NOT is a spoken word recitation of the poems in the book. There are counterpoints and variations, fissures and reimaginings, teasing and testing the limits of the poetry on the page. The book of poetry itself is equally aware of its material qualities: printed in teal-blue lettering on spacious, soft-white pages, the colour and layout create the sense of tranquility that each poem desires and yet which eludes the vocabulary of most.

These are objects that have been designed with materiality in mind. The poetry’s physical effect/affect on the listener’s body is central to its extended materiality: ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) artist Claire Tolan works with Pester on the track Brush to engender a soundscape that will soothe (and haunt) the listener physically as well as mentally and emotionally, perhaps as a lullaby traditionally might.

I am asleep


but my organs work on some image my heart

likes to look at in the rest space

– Glamour hallucinated love

Playing with the structural conventions of the lullaby and the vocabularies of work and rest, these poetic works explore the impacts of work and rest on human bodies and psychologies.  The two Untitled Lullabys highlight  both the song’s ability to ‘bulwark [the] flesh [against] effort’ and the exhaustive toll of that effort on the physical body. Pester suggests that, ‘While a lullaby sounds out the material labour of care, makes its flesh and breath felt, it also sounds out the radical obscuring of work. Therefore a lullaby might be a chorus for all bodies, affectively performing a different worksong, a kind of common rest.’  Physical Capabilities seems to take its vocabulary from a standard government document to assess a disabled person’s fitness for work.  Pester compounds the words ‘tell us how’, so that the verbal telling is conflated with the visual showing, highlighting the burden of proof as it increasingly falls on the vulnerable, as well as foregrounding the formal strategies employed within Common Rest as a project.

Tellus if you use


a stick tellushow it affects It varies Can you go up tellus more about steps Reaching

– Physical Capabilities

This poetry project locates the effects of the political within the physical bodies of the individual and collective workers and their rhythms of song and sound.  It is one of the most innovative and exciting new poetry projects currently available and it’s a perfect showcase for the publishing work of Test Centre.  Test Centre has an impressive back-catalogue of spoken-word vinyl LPs, books and pamphlets published since 2011, a regular magazine of poetry and fiction, and a forthcoming list of new works.  The combined sound-and-book production of Common Rest re-energises the publication and performance of poetry and demonstrates why Test Centre was nominated ‘Most Innovative Publisher’ at the 2015 Saboteur Awards.

In my opinion, ALL poetry should be presented like this, but I suspect that it just wouldn’t always work.  What Holly Pester and her collaborators have created, however, has found its most fitting expression in the publishing expertise at Test Centre.  This is a collection you should own.

Click here to find Holly Pester’s Common Rest at Test Centre.

Common Rest contributors:
Holly Pester is a poet, writer and cross-disciplinary researcher. hollypester.com
Emma Bennett is performance artist and stand-up comedy scholar. emmabennettperformance.wordpress.com
Vahni Capildeo is an award-winning poet, multi-disciplinary writer and Old Norse scholar. carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=1167
Jenny Moore is an artist, musician and drummer in a band. jennymoore.co
Nat Raha is a poet, trans activist and researcher in queer Marxism. sociopatheticsemaphores.blogspot.co.uk
Vera Rodriguez is a photographer, dancer and a sex worker support telephone line operator. ethicalstripper.com/site/the-collective/vera-rodriguez/
Verity Spott is a poet, cellist and mental health care worker. twotornhalves.blogspot.co.uk
Claire Tolan is a sound and ASMR artist. cst.yt
Yasmin Kuymizakis (sound editor) is a sound artist, sound designer and singer/songwriter. soundcloud.com/yasmin-kuymizakis
Mariana Simnett (album cover artist) is an artist. frieze.com/article/focus-marianna-simnett

About the Publisher:

Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @willowwriting