My 8 favourite small press poetry books of 2017 – Happy Small Press Week #SPWEEK17

For those who don’t know – this week is Small Press Week 2017. As a poet published by a small press (as most poets are!), I thought it would be fun to share my 8 favourite poetry books from 2017 (published by a small press… I’m not entirely sure what the definition of this is, so I have chosen the ones I consider to be a ‘small press’.)

Included with each title is a link to buy the book – it’s always good to support small press publishers – and a short overview of why I have chosen the book and what you can expect. The list is in alphabetical order by Author (not in order of preference!). To share the love I have also challenged myself to only choose 1 book from any single press (really struggled to pick just one book from Nine Arches Press, V. Press, and Indigo Dreams).

  1. Shrinking Ultraviolet – Rebecca Bird  (Eyewear Publishing) 
  2. The Happy Bus – Louisa Campbell (Picaroon Poetry) 
  3. Ticker-tape – Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press) 
  4. The sky is cracked – Sarah L Dixon (Half Moon Books)
  5. You’ve never seen a doomsday like it – Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing) 
  6. The Nagasaki Elder – Antony Owen (V. Press) 
  7. A Bargain with the Light, Poems after Lee Miller – Jacqueline Saphra (Hercules Editions) 
  8. The God Baby – Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press) 

1.  Shrinking Ultraviolet – Rebecca Bird  (Eyewear Publishing) https://store.eyewearpublishing.com/products/shrinking-ultraviolet

What the press say: “Shrinking Ultraviolet is the manifesto of one of nature’s wallflowers. Often out of her comfort zone in this fast-paced urban world, forced to navigate private and public issues of gender identity, mental health and depression, this earnest narrative still manages to keep a sense of humour. Punning and poignant, this is a modern book of hope for those who feel inadequate in their lives.”

I am going to focus on the last part of that statement – “those who feel inadequate in their lives” – so that would be most of us! I have written a lot of poetry recently about identity, and I think it is one of the biggest societal issues we currently face – I am fascinated and horrified at the current status of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and why we all care so much about these labels.

Rebecca’s pamphlet navigates transgender issues with a soft and inviting approach – but is never swerving from tackling subjects directly. Her use of imagery is surprising and impacting and I enjoyed reading it immensely. You can read one of my favourite poems from the book (Moment Magnitude) on Rebecca’s website http://www.rebeccabird.co.uk/#poems

2. The Happy Bus – Louisa Campbell (Picaroon Poetry) http://www.lulu.com/shop/louisa-campbell/the-happy-bus/paperback/product-23332966.html

What the press say: “Louisa Campbell, a former mental health nurse, grew up coping with her childhood by dissociating: splitting off difficult experiences into different parts of her personality. She writes as adult and child, therapist and patient, and even as a dog, as she charts the bumpy ride from dissociation, through anger, depression and anxiety to clarity, peace and joy. She hopes anyone who has had to lock away painful emotions might find something useful within the lines of her poems.”

For full disclosure – I am very good friends with Louisa – but I like to think I am writing and thinking about this objectively. I approached this pamphlet with excitement, because I love Louisa’s poetry, but also a healthy sense of worry, I knew these were going to be tough poems dealing with harrowing subject matter. What surprised me most, is that the pamphlet never felt overly heavy, it was always clear that these were not the best of times. But throughout the pamphlet are moments of light, of hope, of actual joy! (I don’t think it is often we feel that sense of joy in poetry – the tougher subjects nearly always make for more interesting reading).

This pamphlet left me feeling happy to be alive, I felt positive that the bad things can be overcome and that joy can be found even after the darkest journeys. One of my favourite poems from the pamphlet can be found on the Three Drops from a Cauldron site https://threedropspoetry.co.uk/2016/09/18/three-drops-from-a-cauldron-issue-three/ it is called The Sleeping Beauty Poem (Seven years on amitriptyline*).

3. Ticker-tape – Rishi Dastidar (Nine Arches Press) http://ninearchespress.com/publications/poetry-collections/ticker-tape.html

What the press say: “From politics to pop, from the UK to California, wherever digital heartbeats flutter and stutter, Ticker-tape is a maximalist take on 21st century living. Rishi Dastidar’s first full collection showcases one of contemporary poetry’s most distinctive voices, delivering effervescence with equal servings of panache and whiplash-quick wit.”

One of the things I value most in poetry is originality and Rishi’s debut collection is originality concentrated. When I introduced Rishi at this year’s Swindon Poetry Festival, I said that his writing reminded me of the beat poets – I am not referring necessarily to its content but rather to the way it made me feel. This is exciting writing, poetry that takes you on a journey to a destination unknown.

It is unpredictable in the best possible way and that sense of adventure adds to the sense of surprise and delight when you discover these things that you didn’t know were missing in your life! Two of Rishi’s poems from Ticker-tape “The anniversary issue” and “The last neon sign maker in Hong Kong” can be found on the And Other Poems site https://andotherpoems.com/2014/08/05/two-poems-by-rishi-dastidar/

4. The sky is cracked – Sarah L Dixon (Half Moon Books) http://www.halfmoonbooks.co.uk/index.php/product/the-sky-is-cracked/

What Clare Shaw says: “These are beautifully crafted poems which will speak to everyone. Telling the story of the loss of love – and a return to life –  “The Sky is Cracked” is as beautiful as it is sad, as delicate as it is plainspoken. Sarah Dixon’s poetry holds the reader close, and then offers up its rich layers of meaning. Like good whisky, I could taste this short collection long after I’d read it – and I wanted more.  ”

This pamphlet is full of small poems. Gentle poems that pack a punch. I was blown away by Sarah’s poetry, I spent the first week of owning it, dipping in and out. I enjoyed the poems but eventually I took the time to read it from start to finish and that I think is where its real power resides. These are poems that talk to each other, that tell a story of love breaking – it is so tender and honest, and the imagery is so disarming and arresting all at the same time.

Despite the short length of the poems, they are full of skillful wordplay, gut-wrenching line-breaks, and rich subtext. My favourite poem in the pamphlet is ‘Burnt’ – so very clever and oh so sad. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be online, but you can hear a slightly earlier version of the poem performed on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=17kCsRdoxbA

5. You’ve never seen a doomsday like it – Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing) http://www.indigodreams.co.uk/kate-garrett-doomsday/4593922000

What the press say: “These are poems about surviving doomsdays. People use the word doomsday to describe the apocalypse, and apocalypse simply means ‘an uncovering of knowledge’. Every life has its share of apocalyptic moments—not only great catastrophes, but also small secret revelations, and surprise twists of good fortune as well. They leave you with lessons learned, and stories to tell.”

This is possibly the best title I have seen this year! It is also from a poet I have long admired. As you may have picked out at this point, I am a fan of darkness. I love it when tales get under your skin and leave you feeling vulnerable and this is what Kate’s poetry does in abundance. This pamphlet guides you through the everyday doomsday, the doomsday we are all going through and it offers no sweet solution. And I love that it doesn’t.

The skill within these poems is that they don’t need to offer you a neatly wrapped up ending, just like all the best horror films. The poems are challenging and acutely observed – they discuss pop-culture (or maybe geek culture), they challenge existence and above all, they take you on this journey with them. I found this pamphlet restless, and relentless, it is about how we live our lives and maybe how our lives end… It reminded me of one of my favourite quotes:

‘The happiness of most people is not ruined by great catastrophes or fatal errors, but by the repetition of slowly destructive little things’ – Ernest Dimnet

The title poem and two others can be read at the Atrium poetry site https://atriumpoetry.com/2017/09/03/featured-publication-youve-never-seen-a-doomsday-like-it-by-kate-garrett/

6. The Nagasaki Elder – Antony Owen (V. Press) http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.co.uk/p/the-nagasaki-elder.html

What Helen Ivory says: “Antony Owen closely examines the human toll and the indiscriminate effects of chemical warfare in this new and affecting collection. Owen’s exploration is both tender and melancholic, and his imagery of flesh transmuted is as beautiful as it is horrific. This book sings and weeps of loss; it is a testimony to the survivors and the wounds that they carry; to the dead and the shadows they leave on the earth.”

The moment I heard about this collection I wanted to read it, at the same time I didn’t want to. I am not a fan of war poems… I dislike the way they often make you feel complicit in the acts or have strong moral leaning – as a person with a very strong anti-war stance – this always left me cold. Despite my hesitance, I went ahead and started reading it, and I am so glad I did. The poems are brutal and beautifully realised.

To be absolutely clear, this is something I hope never happens again to anyone. But Antony’s poems helped me understand, with his delicate storytelling, how it might have felt. The kind of scars it left behind and how the world moves on but doesn’t forget. The poem “To feed a Nagasaki starling” can be read on the V. Press website http://vpresspoetry.blogspot.co.uk/p/the-nagasaki-elder.html

7. A Bargain with the Light, Poems after Lee Miller – Jacqueline Saphra (Hercules Editions) https://herculeseditions.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/a-bargain-with-light-poems-after-lee.html

What the press say: “A Bargain with the Light is a tribute to one of the most extraordinary figures of the 20th century. At its heart is a heroic crown of sonnets, accompanied by an introduction by the art historian Patricia Allmer, an essay by Jacqueline Saphra charting her journey through Miller’s story to the writing of the poems, and iconic photographs by and of Miller, courtesy of the Lee Miller Archives.”

This small square pamphlet is a finely crafted selection of 15 sonnets based on the photos that are shown alongside them. I heard these poems read aloud at the Swindon Poetry Festival 2017 and they worked very well without the photographs, but the images definitely add tone to the experience when reading the poems. The poems use the curious device of starting each poem with the last line of the previous poem – it works at taking you on Lee Miller’s journey each time the lines presenting a different resonance to the poem. I didn’t know anything about Lee Miller when I first heard the poems, but the pamphlet comes with an essay and introduction and they help contextualise just how incredible a figure Lee Miller was. I found myself referring back to the images and re-reading the poems, but also often shocked at the story (the true story), I was being presented with. I can heartily recommend all of Jacqueline’s poetry (I haven’t finished ‘All My Mad Mothers’ yet, but I am sure it will be amazing!), her poetry has a universal quality to it, and as someone who has had an awkward upbringing, I often find her poetry says something to me as a reader. I know this is a book I will revisit regularly.

8. The God Baby – Hilda Sheehan (dancing girl press) https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/the-god-baby-hilda-sheehan-jill-carter

What Jacqueline Saphra says: “Sheehan’s is a unique voice, a hallucinogenic mix of colour-clashing syntax and formal innovation. Every time you think you know what to expect, Sheehan’s poetry charabanc swerves onto a track you never knew existed, leaving you breathless and exhilarated. Supported by Carter’s anarchic illustrations, these poems surprise and amaze by turns, ambushing the reader with tenderness, humour and political rage. A truly unmissable ride.”

Another very short moment of disclosure… I am very good friends with Hilda. But I am not going to let that get in the way of saying just how much I adore everything Hilda has ever written, and specifically how much I love this book. It is an odd book – which if you know Hilda’s poetry won’t surprise you. When you hold it, the ink comes off the surface of the black inked book… there is no need to create a metaphor, this is poetry that leaves a mark. The short 14 poem pamphlet includes brilliant artwork from Jill Carter and wow do they work together well. Jill also created the artwork for Hilda’s previous pamphlet ‘Frances and Martine’ (as a very short aside – Frances and Martine make a cameo appearance in the pamphlet!).

The artwork and the poetry blend perfectly to present a very special, damaged account of parenthood, and childhood – in lots of ways the two are intertwined. Hilda uses her fantastic surreal style to bring humour and surprise to the poetry, but it is never far from feeling very real and painful. This pamphlet carries greater weight than many collections I have read this year and I recommend everyone read Hilda’s poetry, she is truly unique and wonderful, making the world a better place through her askew poetry! The title poem from the pamphlet can be read on the dancing girl press website https://dulcetshop.myshopify.com/products/the-god-baby-hilda-sheehan-jill-carter

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