Thursday, 14 May 2015

"The Importance of Manners" (HG Watt) - novel review

We all know that poets spend most of their time alone, sobbing in the darkness. Sometimes they read poems too, whilst not begging people to take notice of them and their genius. On occasion, during particularly troubled times, they also read novels and other things like cereal boxes and shampoo instructions.

With that in mind (and because I occasionally write and read prose), here's a book review of something known, in the non-poetry world, as a Fiction Book. Enjoy it, you filthy mongrels. And dry up those tears, they're wetting up the place!

Book Review – The Importance of Manners
By H.G. Watt
Freight Books

The short: 4 helpless, xenophobic cruise passengers embark on a misadventure when their African tour goes off-piste. This novel is full of sharp insight into the way we all perceive the world and other people, with awkward laughs aplenty.

The long: What happens when a zealous nun, a hand model, a pompous toff and a man who hears a voice in his head, go on a cruise? Well, for a start: they don’t hold back, and they don’t get on. But at least they’re trying to be polite about it.

H.G. Watt’s “The Importance of Manners” explores the inner and outer worlds of four pretty unlikable characters as they move from luxury cruise liner, to dodgy canoe rides and snake infested pits in a pseudo-Conrad-esque Africa.

This is a quick read, but with surprising depth. Each character feels explored, and whilst their behaviour and monologues are sometimes extreme or shocking, they also ring true of the way that humans are quick to judge different cultures, not quite realising their own peculiarities. In tight confines, a simple meal turns into a cultural and racial espionage:

“’Who are you?’ Percy asked, thoroughly annoyed. He hated the very American tradition of bothering people during a meal. Even if he had been enjoying his food, the vulgar interruption by the yellowish-skinned waiter had definitely ruined it for him.”

If you find that offensive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The novel functions cleverly, switching between the various perspectives of the passengers as they fumble through events, with an omnipotent (and self-referential) narrator at the helm. There are literary allusions here too, though I’ll leave you to collect them for yourselves. We are made aware of the construct of the novel – as artefact rather than reality – and this effectually softens the blow of the various xenophobic, racist or otherwise-inappropriate responses of the passengers, as though Watt is laughing along with us, nudging us with her elbow, winking and whispering, “Hey, this isn’t real by the way.”

The switching of perspectives (whilst also seeing what ‘really’ happens from the narrator) also serves another purpose: it questions the nature of truth and perception. If I was chained to a radiator and forced to answer the question, “What is this book about?” I’d probably say: “The way we make our own realities” and then wet my pants. It would be too simple to look at “The Importance of Manners” on the surface alone, its verbose, pompous characters and xenophobic overtones. Beneath all that is a serious message about the way we treat other people and the way we interpret the world. Each of us is full of perceptual bias, some of it racist (like it or not), and Watt isn’t afraid to show us that.

This is a relatively quick read, partly because the book isn’t a long one but also because Watt’s language is fluid and approachable. Its depth comes from the presentation and exploration of its ideas. That isn’t to say the book is without its own poetry:


It wasn’t just ridiculous, it was a lie. The end wasn’t coming, it had arrived a long time ago. And the people who still walked the earth? They were all just clinging to the edge of the toilet bowl, like a particularly sticky s**t while the deluge fought to wash them away.”

Yes, there’s poetry in swearing and poo, I don’t care what you say.

“The Importance of Manners” encourages you to challenge your own pre-conceptions, pointing out the hypocrisy of us all. It’s also funny, and that’s not to be underestimated. A roar of a novel, with something serious to say. Go read it, now, you f***ing idiot. Love you long time, from Whitie.

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Poetry Review: The Devil's Tattoo (Brett Evans)

Poetry review
The Devil’s Tattoo
By Brett Evans
Published by Indigo Dreams, 2015
£6 (+ p/p), 30 pages

before taking another step,
look down. Look long and hard
at your reflection on the water,
then deeper to name
the fish that ripples through your core,
to spy what lies
half-buried in the shale.

And through all this, clenched in the fist
like a fretting butterfly, the desire
to be dry. 

-         From “Stepping Stone”

I read this collection in bed, curtains blotting out the spring light, and think there are probably few better places to read it other than, probably, sat in a pub. A dark pub at that, and hopefully next door to a grungy tattoo parlour. Brett Evans’ The Devil’s Tattoo must be one of the darkest, troubled and most honest collections of poetry I’ve read in recent years. I use the word “honest” with sufficient hesitation, because it’s one of those now-vacuous pop words used in poetry reviews, but here it is sincere.

This isn’t a collection to warm the cockles on a lonely night, but to send you reaching for the shot glass. This isn’t an elaborate collection full of experimentation or linguistic gymnastics; reading it can feel like taking a rough tumble and a crack to the ribs, though. It won’t let you off easily, and I like that.

I began this review with a quote from “Stepping Stones”, a poem which was at first seemingly innocuous , but which I feel encapsulates so much of the vavoom behind the collection as a whole. We are asked to be cautious (“before you take another step”) to look down at ourselves, beyond the surface (“look down. Look long and hard  / at your reflection on the water, / then deeper”) to face the startled, slithering beast within (“the fish that ripples through your core.”) Who can’t help but be set back and saddened by the final lines, as the narrator – as if in confessional – begs for release (in this case, I assume, from alcohol addiction) as so many have: “like a fretting butterfly, the desire / to be dry.”

We might be persuaded into thinking that this is a book about escape, a desire to get away. I wouldn’t be entirely against that notion. Certainly there are longings for change; physical, emotional, sexual, social and otherwise. The poems become a self portrait as the narrator project themselves onto the page, often in a less-than-flattering manner:

I dreamt I was in bed with Ma Rainey -
both of us being fat and ugly, glutted


she knew she was the most beautiful of ugly things.

-       -   From “In Bed with Ma Rainey”

And again in  “Anticipating Pints of Stout”:

The snow settles on my shoulders;

this long, dark coat hugging my corpulent carcass 

There’s something immediately disarming about a poem which sets out with a description so visceral and near-monstrous, and through that device (I think it acts as that, and it is used quite frequently) the poet/narrator arouses both compassion and understanding in the reader. We are on their side because they are ugly, imperfect, and all too human. The poet is therefore cast as fragile and worthwhile, rather than self-deluded in their tinfoil tower.

Poets also become the focus of The Devil’s Tattoo, and the choice of object becomes a mirror for the narrator’s ambition. In “Reading Sean O’Brien in the Bath” we see that same self-flagellation at play:

On the first floor of an ex-council house
this fat, pink alchie reads O'Brien in the bath.
At his shoulder the pint glass of cider mocks

his sweating face.

The poem is about the worry of wasted years, but also the feeling of inability which follows. Poetry embodies an attempt for self-renewal or improvement which the narrator cannot emotionally or physically attain as he is forced out of his reading to empty his bladder:

our hero wakes to the fact

that something is amiss; had he hauled his bulk
out from the tub just to take a piss?

But there’s uncertainty in that final question, as though to ask us: ‘Is this finally the day he’ll make that change? Perhaps he’s going for a jog and a smoothie.’ Hope, yes, but a hope that’s never verified. A similar pulling-short occurs in “Portrait of Dylan Thomas, oil on canvas by Augustus John”, which I encourage you to seek out (google will get the job done here!) In the portrait, Thomas’ expression is slightly gaunt, innocence and wisdom lurking in his off-side glare. The narrator in this poem feels his/her own sexual desire lurking, but also a desire to heal the writer’s pain:

Those two red, too red lips that had mothered vowels and spat
consonants;  those ‘hold that pose while the artist fucks
your wife-to-be’ eyes, of course, betray no surprise. 


And so it is those lips I wish to kiss to stop you cursing,

that face I’d slap to turn those brimming  eyes away. 

The end of the poem raises the question as to the usefulness of art and love. These serve no great ‘practical’ purpose, not like building a wall or planting a tree, and yet those disparate, ungraspable parts of life are what make it worth living, if we can get them:

Still, now’s far too late to curl a finger through one red ringlet,
pull you to my chest and whisper There, there, boy.

Lovers don’t matter anymore than artists. Or poets.

Sometimes art cannot quench pain, and this is all too apparent, yet language may act as an anaesthetic. The music of Evans’ verse is vibrant and alluring, though he might be writing about piss-filled back alleys or toilets laden with vomit. This is a realm of dark days and nights, smokeless pubs and half empty pint glasses, but the rhythm and rhyme of each verse is bouncy, bold and carefully crafted, reminiscent of blues music in which sorrow became voiced through beat and breath, music and the shared experiences it provides its never-to-meet listeners.  This is best seen in Evans’ sonnets, which use the traditional, often romanticised form, to explore darker elements. In “Teaching Jesus to Dance” the narrator gives Christ a few tips on how to fight dirty:

It’s hard, you said, when the Devil’s on your back;
you climb up his gnarled sequioa spine


sink your teeth into that toughest cut
of meat: the neck. He’ll writhe, so grasp your pint,
employ your weight till the bastard breaks; enough

of this should see his hooves are shorn, have bled.

Even the holiest is reduced to having to punch their way to victory in a world where “good” doesn’t mean “right” or “worthy”. Evans’ form is appropriate to the biblical ideology, however inverse, and yet completely modern and vibrant in approach. The rhythm of the sonnet purposefully undermines the more serious aspects of the verse, here and elsewhere, suggesting that life’s a bit of a game whilst also camouflaging the despair that’s inherited and inherent in life.

That’s what I mean when I sincerely say that this collection is honest. It’s not afraid of truth, or at least a version of truth, even if that honesty feels altogether too cruel. In “Like Louis Armstrong Practically Rewrote Stardust” (the poem which contains the book’s title line) Evans’ predicts my pseudo-psychoanalytic waffle, addressing the potential conclusion that ‘poetry is the release of the dark spirits’:

I'm grabbing the standard by the balls;
the familiar must become unfamiliar.
No wondering why I've spent the lonely nights
dreaming of a song: too many days conducted
beating the Devil’s tattoo on the bars. I'm taking

control of this tune now.

Like any construction, poetry is an attempt to regulate those things we cannot control. Too fat? Write a poem. Too drunk? Write a poem. Can’t get laid? Write a poem. It’s pointing the stick back at us and saying, ‘Hey, go hit yourself with it.’ The Devil’s Tattoo is, I believe, the curse of introspection and addiction. We are our own worst enemies, pitiable and worthwhile at the same time, in the same bag of blood and skin. Poetry might just be able to share that darkness, either to deepen it or wash it away with light, but for now the devil is in charge.  

Coming to the end of this review I realise I’ve not said a great deal about how “good” the poetry is. I hope this is self evident, but for those of you looking for a sound bite: it’s very good indeed. There were two or three poems which I felt were out of place, though strong in their own rights (namely, “Triolet to a Barmaid” and “Song for Swinging Drunkards”, and one of your imagining for good measure) and they fit thematically. There are poems about Wild West movies and those which blitz childhood with war, which I didn’t mention. These bookend the collection very well to invite a reading with regards to the nature of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as our trivialisation of pain and suffering as entertainment, and I would have been happy to read more of them. As is to be expected, I didn’t love every poem in this book. However, I massively enjoyed reading and rereading the vast majority.

This is Brett Evans’ debut collection, and I look forward to reading his next instalment. If you find yourself alone one night, glass in hand, you’d do a lot worse than to mark yourself with The Devil’s Tattoo.

Russell Jones

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Science fiction sound poem

Here's a poem to make your ears bleed. It's a science fiction sound poem (with concrete influences, yah yah don't ya know) from my collection Spaces of Their Own.

Hark! The birth and end of the universe, at once!

Listen to "Star" on youtube

Russell Jones

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Poems on Film

Here I am reading 3 of my poems, filmed by Stewart Ennis for Vagabond Voices, who published Be the First To Like This (a very grand collection of Scottish poetry, edited by Colin Waters of the Scottish Poetry Library). Enjoy.

After the Moons

Breathing Space

The Flat Opposite 

Russell Jones

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Caboodle Reviews

A little more than a month since its publication, Caboodle (a 6 poet, 6 pamphlet collection from Prole Books) has received a few reviews! 

It's an eclectic anthology, full of misery and life and hope and despair. Check out what a few reviewers have said, and buy a copy here:

"a collection of poets for everybody [...] gives you a hunger to read more poetry"
 Melanie Hayden-Williams, Black Hearted Love
Read the review here

"A rewarding anthology"
- Becky Varley Winter, Sabotage Reviews
Read the review here

"a first class introduction to some of the best English language poetry that is being written today"
- David Sabacchi

"desperate, desolate, disheartening, frightening."
- Dr Jacques Coulardeau
Read the review here

Russell Jones

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Happy International Women's Day

I've met some women before, once whilst trekking the mountains of Peru. They were interesting creatures, despite popular historic belief. Intelligent, funny, and great Sherpas. Another time I was in a shop, and I think there was a woman in there too, but it's hard to tell for sure. If you believe the rumours, they're already among us, living, working, giving birth, not giving birth. The mind boggles!

It's International Women's Day today, and it's about time you paid some proper attention and admiration for the XX chromosome humanoids (and XYs who feel a bit more XX) who live, work and thrive among us all. Gender inequality is rife in every culture, so shut your fat yap for a moment and read a little about this HUGE issue here. (I don't vouch for any of the statistics, but I hope you're shocked and sickened, really. It's one website of many.)

Aside from current inequalities, women have largely been forgotten and dismissed throughout history.  Times, they are a-changin', but not enough.

If you think feminism is unnecessary or that "it's all okay now", that gender inequality is some fusty old issue that's only relevant abroad, I'm sorry to report that you are a moron. But it's okay, because you can become a non-moron simply by finding out more, and supporting equality in all its guises. There are WAY too many avenues to discuss around feminism and gender issues, so I leave it in your soon-to-be capable hands.

With this in mind, I decided to read a little around some famous women scientists who have changed the world as we know it, and yet if you ask most people they'll have no idea who they are. Detestable species that we are. Women scientist have often been left out of the text books, even when I was a kiddy (which, believe it or not, wasn't that long ago). Frequently, their vital research has been omitted, or their names simply removed from their work to be replaced by white men with big beards.

These poems are pretty fresh from my fingers, but I will be reading them as part of the Dunbar Science Festival, since I'm taking part in Rally and Broad's multi-genre event: Celebrate Women in Science! 

Women around the world: thanks! You've been great.


Françoise Barré-Sinoussi – Virologist

Tonight, I hold the world to me,
that peppered babe. It is terminally sick,
one fist grinding against another,
two bullets cracking as they fly. Its skin
squirms at our acquired deficiencies.

Our only hope seems to be understanding,
to see the virus in all our blood, to catch it
and anesthetise. How many patients
does it take to screw in a light bulb?
How many volts does it take to stop the pulse?
Our sin drones on through the centuries
and we continue to whisper:  
we’re doing it for their own good.

The pillars of heaven have never stood
so slant, the gates have been bent out of shape,
and the holiest of us sit in white robes and hoods
like spermatozoa looking for the golden egg.

Virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (b1947) studied the role of retroviruses in cancer. In 1982 she identified HIV as the cause of AIDS, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize. In 2009 she took on Pope Benedict XVI, angered by his assertion that condoms are ineffective in tackling AIDS. She is hotly tipped to assume the role as the next president of the International AIDS Society.

Lise Meitner – The Atomic Woman

Quite the calculus! The energy it took

to break the atom and be forgotten.

No bell, no chime to wake the ghosts

of Japan’s mushroomed cities. We might say

it’s a charm not to be remembered

as midnight’s mother, a monster,

to let a committee pass you over.

You must have split; the atom

of any lifetime is never whole,

it cannot be halved without decay.

Now, on our screens, in our comic books

your work makes heroes and villains

of us, and we can’t help seeing

 – as if blinking through microscopes –

the smaller pictures.

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968): calculated the energy released when uranium atoms were split, and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb – won her male colleague Otto Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. In 1945 Meitner said: “You must not blame the scientists for the use to which war technicians have put their discoveries.”

Mary Anning – Fossil Hunter

They say that first bolt made you brighter, a crack
of the sky to whip you into shape, a flash
to bring you to life, like the bride of Frankenstein.

It couldn’t have been intuition or a searching mind,
but the will of God that made a woman work.
You brushed the charge aside, tore up the ground

with hammer and chisel, petticoat pulled up,
dug your feet wide in the Lyme Regis dirt
to find more than you came for. Mary, holiest

by name, whose hands excavated the earth
we saunter on, who showed us the very nature
of our fossilisation, who lightning never struck.

Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) -  The greatest fossil hunter ever known. Her discoveries were some of the most significant geological finds of all time, providing evidence that was central to the development of new ideas about the history of the Earth. Her genius was said to have come from being struck by lightning as a child.

Monday, 2 February 2015

The anti-hermit

I've spent a good few months whittling at my novels lately, in dark and lonely rooms. But here comes poetry to the rescue, pulling me out of the pits and into the public during February and March.

I'll be giving a few readings, so come join us for gin and verse...and more gin.

Until Only The Mountain Remains: Part 2
February 6th, Talbot Rice Gallery (Edinburgh) from 7pm (I think)
Following the success of a series of academic discussions, Part 2 consists of readings of creative works inspired by the art work of Christopher Orr. I'll be reading a short story about taxidermy. Other readers include Jane S. F. Angel, Beth Cochrane, J. C. Robertson, Daniel Shand, Joan Lennon, Petra Reid, Alexandra Gushurst-Moore, Nancy Somerville, Brian Bourner, Marianne MacRae, Carol Farrelly, Jane McKie, Simon Marshall, LesleyMay Miller, Aileen Robinson, Allyson Stack, Marjorie Lotfi Gill, Dilys Rose, Esteban Moreaux and David Simpson.

Caboodle Launch
February 19th, Fat Cat (Sheffield) from 7pm
A six-poet, six-pamphlet collection called Caboodle (from Prole Books) takes its first steps into the world. Come listen to some poems, featuring Karina Vidler, Angela Croft, Kate Garrett and me. There's also (all going well) going to be a Caboodle-themed gin for folks to try.

Blind Poetics
March 9th, Blind Poet (Edinburgh) from 8pm (I think)
A regular round-up of poetry in Edinburgh. Join us at The Blind Poet to hear poetry spewing from various mouths. Open mic to follow 'headliners', hosted by Alec Beattie and/or Roddie Shippin.

Rally & Broad at the Dunbar Science Festival
March 13th, Dunmuir Hotel (Dunbar) from 8:30pm
The talent duo, Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay, bring their ratpack of artists along, including singer - songwriter Kirsty Law; science writer and performer Emily Dodd, and the surreal musical
stylings of Zara Gladman (Dr) & the Wee Terrors. I shall be reading a bit of sci-fi poetry with these good people!

Russell Jones