#TheWombwellRainbow #PoeticFormChallenge #ACROSTIC was last week’s chosen form. Robert Frede Kenter, Alice Stainer, Tim Fellows, Jane Dougherty, Spriha Kant, Samantha Terrell and myself

cropped Acrostic

Acrostic 1 & 2


Head out
Ere the directions fail you
Run seek out a compass
Egrets and squirrels will lead you.


Turbine engines shedding updrafts
Urbane militia with neck scarves concealing waddles
Rest assured the show will go on
Beatific universes glide toward a monocle
UFO and unity figurines marching along a boulevard into the black hole of time
Lances in museums display the history of war and brutality
Enlisted while someone’s father falls drunk in an alleyway
Nothing better happens that night at home
Century of heroes caught up in the lizard brain of propaganda
Exit cardboard cut-outs, blowing from hoardings, spiraling into the hurricane

How Did It Go?

On Two Acrostics – I really love the Acrostic form; these two, to me, go together in an oblong fashion, a kind of lyrical diptych, one being very short, the other, a bit longer. I could imagine 2 or three more – to be added – perhaps one in a ladder form (acrostic diagonal), another with end word last letters spelling out – like a marquee – what is coming next. The 2nd piece required more time to fine-tune its rhythms, energy, and sense of humour. The first seemed a gift from a falling acorn – an aha moment. Ty again to Paul at Wombwell for this lovely opportunity – twisty form challenges.

-Robert Frede Kenter www.icefloepress.net

Naked Truths
They say that an apple was at its core,
Held intact a universe of good and
Evil. But Eve carries life’s meaning, and
Fruitfulness demands its revolution.
Apples will not remain small and green and,
Lit by a low, consoling sun, blushing
Leaves know it’s perfectly natural to fall.

How Did It Go?

I hadn’t written an acrostic since junior school (really!), so my impressions of them were informed by those early attempts – choppy lines and somewhat obvious illustrations of such phenomena as ‘autumn’. I returned to Armitage’s recent laureate poem to identify the elements I liked – in particular, an unforced fluidity that was certainly missing from my childhood efforts. He deploys a kind of volta between first and second stanzas: I feel that an acrostic needs such complication to avoid banality, so I tried to incorporate the turn as an integral part of my shorter form. In tribute to my younger poetic self, I decided to use autumn as the theme but add extra layers of association. I personally find that constrained poetry sparks rather than dampens my imagination, so it didn’t take me long to come up with the first words of the lines; but a subsequent challenge is that if you build the poem around those words and then decide that one of them is weak, you are either extremely restricted or have to rewrite a significant chunk. Another is that in privileging the first word of lines, one is inclined to neglect the line breaks: in a bid for that coveted fluidity, I have certainly overused ‘and’, something I will attempt to remedy in revision. I suppose the overarching challenge here was to see if I could turn a form that could be seen as gimmicky to my own ends. I am moderately happy with it – but you can judge for yourselves!

-Alice Stainer

Moving on

By night, you sit quiet in your chair
eschewing the limelight as you always did,
reading a book quietly. I tell you stories,
expecting your laughter, and hearing it.
All things considered, you’re looking healthy,
Vanishing Lady. No signs of your illness just yet.
Every night, we run out of time to catch up.
My life rumbles past like a freight train carrying
endless identical wagons full of God knows what.
Nothing moves on. The calendar spreads
time paper thin in small white padded cells.

How Did It Go?

The last time I attempted this form was in school, and that is the association most of us surely have with this form. I was going to try to avoid big abstract nouns for this poem, because it’s easy for it to become trite, but the subject chose itself, and in the end I like the idea that this ‘code’ poem which is ostensibly a way of hiding a message could reveal not so much a secret as a constant, unwanted state. And although I gave myself a ‘V’ to deal with, at least it doesn’t contain any “restrained zeal”.

-Hilary Otto

Blood Roar

Mouth that roars in blood,
Ignites a flame, burns slowly,
Gathers its own momentum.
Under the heel of the oppressor
Each must speak their own blood,
Light their own flame.

He spoke in blood and fire,
Expected nothing, hoped for more.
Raged like the wounded bull,
Never healed his wounds.
Armed himself with words.
Never held back his love.
Death crept slowly to his door,
Entered and stole his soul. Only
Zeal and love remained.


Assume, just once, that Autumn
U-turned at December’s lukewarm
Touch. No friendly bienvenu,
Unfeeling cold its only gift.
Maybe time could turn and say adieu;
Neverending, sweet and golden Autumn aura.

How Did It Go?

The first one is a tribute to the Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez. It is written somewhat in his style, with the first stanza being something he may have written, the second an elegy. As I’m sure Simon Armitage found, the Z was the tricky one and I also had to use ‘Zeal’. He had to do two of them, and I also considered ‘Zone’ (which he uses) and ‘Zip’. I sadly had to discount Zombie, Zoo and Zebra!  

The second was more difficult, firstly because of the series of words I wrote down as options, Autumn has been written about a million times before, including at least twice by me.Once I’d thought about how I like Autumn and dislike winter and what would happen if autumn refused to hand over the reins of time. I then decided to try a double reverse acrostic to symbolise autumn retreating back from winter. I also liked the challenge of finding two words that begin with U and two that end with U, although I did have to resort to imported French words.

-Tim Fellows

The one on his own at the bar

Gabble drips from your loose lips,
Offering opinions no one wants to hear.
Behind your effusions and hearty back-slaps,
Silence, as women roll eyes and sip their drinks.
Hands you try to shake, raise to catch the barman’s attention
Instead, backs turn, hoping you’ll go away.
There is a world of misogyny and arrogance in your
Eyes, that fondle what you will never have.

How Did It Go?

This is my first acrostic poem. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of gimmick, like the verse you used to find in Hallmark cards. Maybe it was in opposition to the Hallmark sugar that this word sprang to mind. Now I’ve done it, I can see the interest in using each line to add an extra detail to the picture, the only constraint being the initial letter, which isn’t so hard. Thanks again, Paul for the nudge in the right direction. I’ll be using this form again.

-Jane Dougherty


Rain is pounding;
And its pitter-pattering is pulsating,
I have always been a failure in counting the beats in her rhythms
Not only me, in fact, all the roads, trees and plants, gardens, and each window pane and roof in the city.
Storm has now accompanied her like a husband;
The invisible gusty smokes blown by him are whistling and knocking aggressively on the window panes.
On the streaks of lightning, his roars are riding from clouds to the ground
Roaring storm and pitter-pattering rain like a brawl between better halves
Mud, splashes, ripples, and puddles playing merrily like naughty kids in the whole metro city today

-©Spriha Kant

How Did It Go?

**** What challenges I faced while writing this piece and how I overcame them?

I have listened to the Acrostic form of poetry many times but have never tried to write it till Paul Brookes didn’t give everyone a challenge to write. The beginning was very tough as my style of writing is free verse so confining myself to even a single rule is very difficult. So, I opted for a beginner’s level. I typed “Rainstorm” vertically downward, each letter being capital, and then typed everything general that happens in a rainstorm by continuing the letters and words on the right-hand side of the vertically downward spelling “Rainstorm” using metaphors, similes, and personifications.

acrostic trinitas by Samantha Terrell

How Did It Go?

In the introduction to the acrostic challenge, Paul mentioned we could make it as simple or complex as we felt like doing. I was excited to do a bit of writing this evening, after a long week and had the idea to write about crows, as well as a heavy heart. Thus, my poem “Murder Slayed” was born, and although I hadn’t set out to write a trinitas, it ended up being a form that I believe suited the challenge well. I hope it resonates.

-Samantha Terrell

Bios and Links

-Hilary Otto

is an English poet based in Barcelona. Her work has featured in Ink, Sweat and TearsBlack Bough Poetry, The Alchemy Spoon and The Blue Nib, among other publications. She was longlisted for the Live Canon 2021 International Poetry Prize and won the Hastings Book Festival 2022 Poetry Competition. Her first pamphlet Zoetrope is forthcoming with Hedgehog Press. She tweets at @hilaryotto.

-Robert Frede Kenter

is a writer, editor,  visual artist & the publisher of Ice Floe Press. Work recently in journals incl: CutbowQ, Streetcake Magazine, Feral, WatchYrHead, Anthropocene, FeversOf, Anti-Heroin-Chic. Work appears in The Book of Penteract, an Anthology (Penteract Press, 2022), The Poets of 2020 (FeversOf Press), Pandemic Love and Other Affinities, an Anthology (Ice Floe Press). Their most recent book is EDEN (2021), a hybrid now available at Rare Swan Press.

-Alice Stainer

teaches English Literature and Creative Writing on a visiting student programme in Oxford. Her work particularly explores place, ecology, and human relationships through nature and art, and appears in Green Ink Poetry, 192 Magazine, Atrium, The Dawntreader, Feral Poetry, and The Storms, amongst other places. She is nervously putting together her first pamphlet and tweets poetically @AliceStainer.

-Jane Dougherty

lives and works in southwest France. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems and stories have been published in magazines and journals including Ogham Stone, the Ekphrastic Review, Black Bough Poetry, ink sweat and tears, Gleam, Nightingale & Sparrow, Green Ink and Brilliant Flash Fiction. She blogs at https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/ Her poetry chapbooks, thicker than waterand birds and other featherswere published in October and November 2020.

-Spriha Kant

developed an interest in reading and writing poetries at a very tender age. Her poetry “The Seashell” was first published online in the “Imaginary Land Stories” on August 8, 2020, by Sunmeet Singh. She has been a part of Stuart Matthew’s anthology “Sing, Do the birds of Spring” in the fourth series of books from #InstantEternal poetry prompts. She has been featured in the Bob Dylan-inspired anthology “Hard Rain Poetry: Forever Dylan” by the founder and editor of the website “Fevers of the Mind Poetry and Art” David L O’ Nan. Her poetries have been published in the anthology “Bare Bones Writing Issue 1: Fevers of the Mind”. Paul Brookes has featured her as the “Seventh Synergy” among those writers who are also photographers on his blog “Wombwell Rainbow”. She has been featured in the “Quick-9 interview” on feversofthemind.com by David L’O Nan. She has reviewed the poetry book “Silence From The Shadows” by Stuart Matthews.

-Samantha L. Terrell,

author of Vision, and Other Things We Hide From (Potter’s Grove Press); the chapbook Keeping Afloat (JC STUDIO Press); and, most recently, Simplicity, and Other Things We Overcomplicate, is an internationally published American poet whose books have received 5-star reviews. Terrell’s invented form – the poetic Trinitas – is featured in her forthcoming book, Things Worth Repeating? (Summer 2022). She and her family reside in upstate New York. We joke about the end of democracy; We marvel at others’ complacency. Laughter helps ease the pain. When reality seems insane, It helps to remember it’s all temporary.

-Tim Fellows

is a writer from Chesterfield in Derbyshire whose ideas are heavily influenced by his background in the local coalfields, where industry and nature lived side by side. His first pamphlet “Heritage” was published in 2019. His poetic influences range from Blake to Owen, Causley to Cooper-Clarke and more recently the idea of imagistic poetry and the work of Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez.

Review of ‘I call upon the witches’ by Chloe Hanks

Nigel Kent - Poet and Reviewer

Though this blog has only scratched the surface of the rich seam of poetic talent writing today, I hope it has helped promote some new writers that are worthy of readers’ attention.  We have much to thank the editors of small poetry presses for. They work tirelessly and often with little reward to discover and promote such poets’ work. In a significant number of cases, these poets’ development has also been supported by Higher Education institutions, which have a proud record of helping both novice and more experienced writers to hone their skills. A number of poets I have already reviewed openly acknowledge the beneficial impact of university creative writing courses. Add to that list, Chloe Hanks, author of the pamphlet,I Call Upon the Witches(Sunday Mornings at the River, 2022).

The title with its reference to witches might suggest that this is a collection that…

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#TheWombwellRainbow #PoeticFormChallenge. It is weekly. I will post the challenge to create a first draft of a poetic form by the following late Sunday. Please email your first draft to me, including an updated short, third person bio and a short prose piece about the challenges you faced and how you overcame them. Except when I’m working at the supermarket I am always ready to help those that get stuck. Already given some folk a headstart by saying the second #prompt is an #Acrostic . I will blog my progress throughout the week. Hopefully it may help the stumped. Also below please find links to helpful websites.

Acrostic buildings


Quick Overview (courtesy of Wikipedia)

An acrostic is a poem or other composition in which the first letter (or syllable, or word) of each line (or paragraph, or other recurring feature in the text) spells out a word, message or the alphabet.

 The word comes from the French acrostiche from post-classical Latin acrostichis, from Koine Greek ἀκροστιχίς, from Ancient Greek ἄκρος “highest, topmost” and στίχος “verse”.[2] 

As a form of constrained writing, an acrostic can be used as a mnemonic device to aid memory retrieval.

Acrostics are common in medieval literature, where they usually serve to highlight the name of the poet or his patron, or to make a prayer to a saint.

They are most frequent in verse works but can also appear in prose. The Middle High German poet Rudolf von Ems for example opens all his great works with an acrostic of his name, and his world chronicle marks the beginning of each age with an acrostic of the key figure (Moses, David, etc.). In chronicles, acrostics are common in German and English but rare in other languages.[3]

Acrostics can be more complex than just by making words from initials. A double acrostic, for example, may have words at the beginning and end of its lines, as this example, on the name of Stroud, by Paul Hansford:

 S et among hills in the midst of  five valley S,
 T his peaceful little   market town we inhabi T
 R efuses  (vociferously!) to  be  a  conforme R.
 O nce home  of  the cloth  it gave its name t O,
 U phill and down again its  streets  lead  yo U.
 D espite its faults it leaves  us all  charme D.

Helpful Links



Jane Dougherty Writes

Paul Brooke’s threw out a challenge last week, to write a sestina. He posted the results on his blog today. You can read them here, and possibly get an idea of why the sestina is not a popular form!

This is mine

The turning of years

This light too bright, too harsh to see
The turning of the year, the last
Of all the golden leaves. The bird
That sang so sweet, we see it fall
And lie in downy feathers, curled
In its dead grace and our deep sorrow.

Joy is ever cast with sorrow,
Shadows shape the forms we see,
Night-dark is the foil to stars that fall.
What was the first light’s now the last,
Time spins in timeless spirals curled
And teaches songs to each dumb bird.

So few springs of life, the bird
Has no time to spend on sorrow.
From soaring in the blue…

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#TheWombwellRainbow #PoeticFormChallenge started last Monday #SESTINA was the chosen form.

Sestina 7Rolihlahla
You took your long walk to freedom
inside your cell of twenty seven years.
Did you, alone in all your darkest nights
ever lose your will and give up hope?
Close your eyes and wish to never wake?
Or did you always know the dawn would come?
Rolihlahla, how did you come
to be the one to lead your land to freedom,
shake the branches of the tree and wake
the world that let you rot for all those years?
Become the one who gave us hope
that sunny days can follow darkest nights.
In your tiny room, alone at night,
did visions of a new land come
and go, new ideas, plans, and hopes?
Dreams of millions yearning freedom
after grinding years
of servitude and pain. Could you wake

the fervour that once kept you awake
when like a shadow in the night
you poked your rulers for so many years?
You knew that one day they might come
and smash your door, steal your freedom
for a final time, their cruel hope

would be to extinguish any hope;
hold no funeral, no wake,
just a fist to crush your freedom
so they could sleep at night
and when their morning came
their power would be safe for all their years.

But you knew better; twenty seven years
their game was up and hope
had won the day, you came
exultant from the open gates, no longer weak
or chained, the bravest knight
had slain a dragon, given back their freedom.

Freedom springs from hope
when years pass like nights
and our sun-filled morning comes

-Tim Fellows

How Did It Go?

The sestina was inspired by Nelson Mandela after my trip to Robben Island last week. His Xhosa birth name is Rolihlahla, which means “One who shakes the tree”, or “troublemaker”. Sestinas are very tricky and I don’t write them unless I’m challenged to. I may take the themes here and create a poem in a more comfortable format.

-Tim Fellows


Watching waiting
He has the overwhelming urge to act
as he stands in the supermarket line,
cradles the deadweight of a baked bean can.
But now his pocket feels a buzz of hope
he musters all his strength to answer.
He knows in that moment he wants to live.

On this dwindling ice raft where can I live?
This bold death will be my radical act.
My habitat cannot show me answers:
walruses squash in suffocating lines.
Where should we look for next year’s shrimp of hope?
I defend my basking spot while I can.

The Home Office say doing what they can
but we know not all of us can be saved.
We were told wait at the airport. We hope
the Government will step in soon to act.
Meantime, we know we can’t step out of line
they will reply with bullets, not answers.

We trust the inquiry will bring answers:
we will find the offenders if we can.
Of course the whips have towed the party line!
After all, they’ve got their own jobs to save.
The ministers have all kept up the act,
but we believe in justice. There is hope.

Until we hear, we continue to hope,
and we also hope to find the answer
to what really happened. This is our act
of defiance, it’s the difference we can
make, it’s our last attempt to try and save
our lost child, to understand the timeline.

The arbitration has reached our red lines.
At this point, we don’t hold out too much hope
strikes can still be avoided, or jobs saved.
We’re going to need to hear last-ditch answers
from the Board. But there’s still time if they can
find their courage: now’s their moment to act.

Struggling to act, struggling to save
someone. Lives on the line. Short of answers,
we do what we can, raise our heads and hope.

-Hilary Otto

How Did It Go?

Let me start by saying that I have tried several times to write a sestina and always abandoned them, and that I don’t think this draft is successful, either. The repetition and the length make it difficult for the poem not to be either annoying or ponderous, and the form really consumes the content, for me. I find it hard to think of any sestinas that I actually like as poems. Those end words always begin to jar by about half way through. The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus is perhaps one example I like, but he doesn’t maintain syllable length so it is possible for it to feel more conversational and natural.

I was actually going to write a sestina about the media reaction to the Queen’s death, and chose my end words accordingly, but the first image that came to me was the man in the first stanza and the idea changed my theme. I changed one of my end words from ‘force’ to ‘answer’ to fit the new theme of waiting. I wrote the envoi first, and then fleshed out the stanzas. I feel they get progressively worse through the poem, and maybe another edit could improve it, but I still would naturally want to cut 3 stanzas. Tritina, anyone?

-Hilary Otto



We went walking in a dreary dream wood, we stopped
to get our bearings and drink wine.
We came upon the old, abandoned skating rink.
Focus on the forces that strip the forest of light,
You said in the haze of science-fiction cinema miracle,
stars falling down a staircase into a mirage of water.

A guitar-shaped lake resonating, reflected in a cup of water.
Poured it out into the edge of night and then you stopped
to proclaim your vision of the future to come, A miracle!
It has something to do, nonetheless, with the dark red wine
of nothingness, how soon shall we be in the light?
We climbed over brambles and descended to the rink.

I held you close you pushed me to the floor of the rink.
Get off me you fool, it had rained, the surface covered in water.
What of the reflection, the immaculate positioning of a target in ontological light —
We were both overcome, by the pattern of stars against our clothing, and stopped
our argument in the close approaching dawn’s ferocious sky dotted with the colouring of wine.
Is God anything more or less than the bliss of such a miracle?

We would argue in school, in secular clothing, there is no miracle.
To be perceived is to discern the thought patterns of the galaxy inside a rink.
Always hidden in overcoats, our small furrier flasks full of wine.
How was that story of Jesus turning water, the simple story of water —
Our father taught us outside the pubs there is no metaphysic, we stopped
on the road between belief and the hollow concave cistern of the street’s light.

Pour me out the language that erased our names in the torch grain of wine.
Your presence is my absence, I am engulfed in the light.
This enervating glow an austere reminder in any situation there may occur a miracle.
You raised me up, soaking, patterns of skates, entangled vines, the discourse stopped.
Pompous fools wearing pom-pom trinkets to identify greatness, echoed in the rink.
Were we brother and sister or two close friends’ family or distant spectres in the vineyards of old wine?

Vinegar is acid is ice is radioactive in the hollows of hands cupped to the chalice of wine.
Hallucinations of professional self-important wheelwrights as light
as the service of the overflowing water.
Beyond the stem cells of a clustered geometric miracle,
we remembered we were always joined together thus, skating across this rink.
Until the night music and the carnivalesque sound of the organ and the skates stopped.

So much for water and its transmutation to wine.
When the world stopped there was a mesmeric light.
It was not a miracle it was the held embrace of downy moss along the neck of the rink.

-Robert Frede Kenter

How Did It Go?
This worked out quite well for me; I received the prompt from Paul Brookes a day before the Sunday to return. I had travelled to the forest where I often go, a retreat, a sanctuary – a place to regroup and to write and draw. To do this, I had to place the pattern of last word-word order before me and wrote a quasi-narrative in one straight draft, as if working quickly with knitting needles on a pattern of a descending day. I chose to work with whatever last line words (in stanza 1) emerged, intuitively – these no matter how awkward, I did not change. To finish, I had to change ‘stop’ twice to ‘stopped’; choose a few connecting words here and there, to polish the rhythms and the ties between wor(l)ds; like building new collagen in the form of a working poem, with otherworldly sci-fi elements, a poem formed from memory & relational dynamics, of family and early life and neighbourhood landscape, joined to the eco-apocalyptic. By draft 4, I realize—recognize the SESTINA as an excellent, elegant way to empty the mind of preconception and enable a weave and convergence to unravel a tangle of associations and juxtapositions through meaning and repetition succour.

-Robert Frede Kenter


The turning of years

This light too bright, too harsh to see
The turning of the year, the last
Of all the golden leaves. The bird
That sang so sweet, we see it fall
And lie in downy feathers, curled
In its dead grace and our deep sorrow.

Joy is ever cast with sorrow,
Shadows shape the forms we see,
Night-dark is the foil to stars that fall.
What was the first light’s now the last,
Time spins in timeless spirals curled
And teaches songs to each dumb bird.

So few springs of life, the bird
Has no time to spend on sorrow.
From soaring in the blue, to fall
And never rise, it cannot see
An end to flight, the place, the last
Nest where in death it will lie curled.

The gales and leaves of autumn curled
About the trees that shelter bird
And wild things ’gainst the cold. The last
Days, summer-mild, have gone, and sorrow
Hangs in bare black boughs that see,
Leafless, blind, how all their children fall.

Nothing is wasted, each windfall
Is taken home where cubs are curled,
For winter’s long, too far to see
The end and plenty, vole and bird
That spring breeds fat. Times of sorrow
Are still to come. With luck, we’ll last.

It comes to all of us at last,
However high we rise, we fall
And leave this life in grief and sorrow.
Look, in the leaves brown-curled,
Its head beneath a wing, the bird
Another spring will never see.

Joy and sorrow come, though neither last,
And we see red flames dance at each leaf fall,
Spring curled in the heart’s song of each bird.

-Jane Dougherty

How Did It Go?

The sestina began life in the head of a 12th century troubadour in the Occitan language. The first difficulty for me, as with all these old poetic forms, was finding a relevant way to use it. The world of the troubadours is long gone, and the sought after effect of poetry has changed.

Although the whole idea of ‘authenticity’ is redundant, I decided to stick to natural themes (life, death, nature) and kept an iambic meter. The words I chose were six of the twenty-five of a very short poem I’d just written. It might have been better to write a first stanza and recycle all the last words. At least the first stanza would have read in a completely natural way. Because that was the second difficulty, not the repetition of the words, but because they weren’t necessarily words I’d necessarily end a line with. Like ‘see’ or ‘curled’. Hence the enjambment.

The third difficulty was keeping up momentum, making a six-stanza poem without simply repeating the same phrases. Perhaps choosing words that have more ambiguous meanings would make that easier. Though, I suppose, a good poet can find a dozen meanings and uses for every word.

It was a challenge, like a puzzle, fitting pieces together to make them fit. Keeping more or less to a strict meter might seem like adding an extra difficulty, but I think it gives the piece coherence, smooths over some of the ‘stilts’ in the phrases. The result should probably be considered a first draft, and a true troubadour would have spent many hours, chewing his quill, to get a better effect. But there’s a sense of satisfaction in finishing a sestina at all, even if it does look and sound like something from another age.

-Jane Dougherty

“In the Morning”

To 400 degrees preheat the womb
In hills they’ll pay good money for young blood
Cratchits make the best out of their goose
Mosquitos proboscises spread fever
Humans service the department of health
Latchkey bags of kittens repay in kind

Animals are taught cruelty by men kind
The stone is rolled back, reveals barren womb
From Michigan tap, he drinks to their health
Rejects discharged, torrents tissue and blood
Stuck in first class feral, cabin fever
Different generation, excuse his goose

Depending on year, Wild Turkey/Grey Goose
In their game pairs trumped by four of a kind
Prime minister opts to starve the fever
Certain eggs fetch a good price — tomb to womb
Paltry pay for sweat, tears, plasma in blood
Premie is dealt in with compromised health

Where legal feel safer about hygiene, health
Migrating to mate, becomes a cooked goose
Pays a king’s ransom for that cruel blood
Some can take home, prefers the other kind
Misses birthplace, so often visits womb
Travels abroad to treat yellow fever

Friday’s black nightlife, the disco fever
Too late, eleventh hour trip for his health
Had disease since birth, contracted in womb
Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose
Bondage conception of being kind
Kids today paint town with innocent blood

The flier is printed in dirty blood
Record producer describes his fever
M&M’s in the dish must be one kind
Insomniac assesses smarts, worth, health
To protect child, into fray goes mongoose
Public pools mimic overcrowded womb

Prioritizing detrimental health
Good for the gander, is a Christmas goose
Crust trail has vanished, can’t return to womb

-Jerome Berglund

How Did It Go?

This second Sestina I have ever attempted made for a somewhat challenging proposition, but I powered through and enjoyed the resulting verses which materialized.  The six repeating line-ending words I chose proved a bit tricky too… I realized early on the possibility of weaving into a smooth self-contained, linear storyline would not generate a collective piece I was interested in pursuing, so instead I changed my tack and employed a variety of snapshotted images in an approach approximating that of an Eisenstein montage, with each verse adhering to a general theme, allowing the reader to piece together internal meanings of particular stanzas together and mull over how they come together in Frankenstein fashion to make one cohesive whole.  This form’s greatest difficulty is the groundwork, setting up the foundations and laying out the arrangement, then one can proceed filling things in (maintaining the chosen syllable counts for each line’s meter) with leisurely ease, almost in an automatic writing manner of the French dada practitioners.  The sestina form is almost a talk therapy exercise in word association not unlike a Jungian’s delivering of some Rorschach query to the patient become poet.  In that sense it’s quite interesting to scrape your unconscious for material, reel in a line from the mind’s dark depths and see what has been hooked.  Personally, with the building blocks I chose (at random, in homage to admired publishers including Wombwell Rainbow, BloodBathHate, Sad Goose Collective, Fevers of the Mind, HealthLineZine, It Takes All Kinds) I ultimately invoked and explored material and allusions mythological, literary, political, and ethic in themes.  Economic issues of inequality and their intersection with affordable family formation (and different institutions, correlated deviance) loomed ominously over my thoughts and concerns, as did generational slash and burning and the imperfect world our generation and the next to come must contend with inheriting.  But the process at least was a smooth one once I’d set out the parameters.  I completed this exercise slowly but surely while attending a virtual release party (a quarterly process they have long generously offered) for the most recent issue of glorious magazine Meat For Tea… Sestinas might similarly be fine fodder and mental practice for cognitive sharpening a person could attempt as distraction or wit strength lifting during a long commute, road trip, in the background of a dull workday, or any number of sundry places, truly benefits as a multi-tasking supplemental operation to pick away at instinctively without pressure or intensive focus.  By letting your conscious mind drift and giving your free associations the reigns, you will be quite amazed by the directions things proceed in,  and satisfied with the unexpected fruits reaped.  Immensely grateful to Paul Brookes and his fantastic journal for stimulating this process, and spurring us each to try something new and rewarding, which once we overcome the intimidation of venturing from our comfort zones, can be of great edification and full of intriguing surprises and unique configurations!
-Jerome Berglund

Sleep spiral

I came here, to this white garden,
where petals fall from the trees
and the air is heavy with honey –
I came here, aching to sleep,
to sleep deep and slow and long –
to drift. That’s all. Just to drift.

White blossom gathers in drifts
as if winter has come to the garden:
soft piles of petals, making me long
to curl cat-wise under the trees.
I might dream if I could only sleep,
of white bees collecting white honey.

I might dream of the scent of honey,
and the way bees hum and drift,
’til the air’s heavy with buzzing and sleep
floats like petals over the garden.
I might dream of white flowers on white trees,
white flowers that are drifting along

paths that wind, twisting along,
past white roses all scented with honey,
that spiral beneath moonlight trees.
Like a white blossom, I want to drift
past pale lilies that bloom in the garden,
past the place where the white doves all sleep.

I know where it is that they sleep,
nestled together. I long
to find them again, but this garden
twists me and turns me. Roses and honey
and lilies – a sweet drift
of perfume. The shade of the trees.

Don’t wake me. I’m dreaming of trees,
white barked and silvery leaved. Sleep
has softened me, set me adrift.
Days are long. Days are long
and I linger, with a sweet honey
taste on my lips. I dream of a garden.

I lie under the trees, and I long
to stop dreaming, to waken to honey
and white rolls. To drift all my days through the garden.

-Sarah Connor

How Did It Go?

Here is my sestina. Problems with it? I think it’s mostly a difficulty in coming to grips with the form. I felt like I was just circling round and round and not really going anywhere. I have done sestinas before, and found the same problem. I wonder if the key is to choose end words that can be nouns/verbs or have more than one meaning? And it’s so long. I don’t naturally write long poems – in fact I think I’m getting shorter and shorter – so such a long poem felt a bit daunting.

-Sarah Connor


I write. I brandish my pen, nib gleaming dark
And the words flow from my pen like swords
That deflect and slay and mock and laugh
As they paint a picture of love, of loss, of hope
I write and as I write the stories stand behind me
Like statues, faceless, the shapes of my memories

But I know that the endless fog of my memory
Causes me to wander incessantly, my face dark
As I seek and search the inner labyrinth of me
Seeking the truth in me, hunting my courage, a sword
That I need to find my way, to search for hope
Yet that impossibility raises in me a mocking laugh

I write beautiful statues that evoke tears and laughter
I caress faces and hopes and tears that live in memories
I sidle past sculptures in my mind that once held hope
But I know not if they are true, or if I created them in dark
I fall in love again with memories of knights with swords
But I wonder how I lived those tales, drawing them into me

I muse on it, on my statues, on the creation of beauty, on me
The endless pursuit for perfection, the race to live, love, laugh
That need for peace that I then disdain, I reach for my sword
To seek drama and adventure, to create deathbed memories
I do not wish to slide helplessly, so inexorably into the dark
I want to grow something, use my hands – but I have no hope

Can my statues, my creations, my beauty, lend me that hope?
Because once upon a time, in some form, they were part of me
I wielded them, I drew them out of me, juddering, into the dark
I could breathe life into them, they could show me how to laugh
And love and dream my way to life, I could make new memories
I could turn away from my tears, I could discard all my swords

But perhaps the statues are a false me, perhaps I am but swords
Some of us who are tainted with melancholy cannot hold hope
In their wasted palms, as the light falls through, leaving no memory
I am not my statues, the poetry that I made, and it is not of me
They are words fallen from my lips, from my tears and my laughs
But the events maketh not a person, nor their scars but the dark

Swords that clash and slice my soul in two, leaving me in dark
That poisons hope, the ragged sigh that trails into mocking laugh
The memories that swirl, that chafe and itch, that makes me, me.

-Eryn McConnell

How Did It Go?

Well this one was pretty tough to do!

I went for a muse image to consider, and I used the photography of Taylor Lashae when she stands with her sculptures, personifying them if you will. I wrote the first verse organically, making a note of which words fell at the end, and then began to repeat them. Some changed.

The original word sequence was A Wet, B Swords C Turn D Hope E Me F Memories. I changed A Wet to A Dark and C Turn to C Laugh.

-Eryn McConnell

Ask That Librarian of the Lost

1) Ask them if they can lose something you found,
a memory perhaps, a hanger on,
that thing that glues, sticks, grips, will not let go,
what you cannot forget, the wound, the hurt,
a betrayal that deepens in your skin.
an unseen wound that winds worries the nerve

2) twists the windlass, always tightens nagged nerve,
Ask official to get rid of what you found,
can they dig it out of your bones and skin,
can they lose it on this damned track your on,
how to accept the pain and wounded hurt,
how to free it up, loose its hold, let go.

3) The librarian unsorts what must go,
declassifies, takes pressure off ragged nerves
There is a high cost, demands for payment hurt
with menaces as happens to all found
Pending. They discuss alternatives on,
examining the wound under your skin.

4) Say the damage deepens under your skin,
everytime you refuse to let go,
to forgive the one who you dwell upon,
you are the one lost, who lacks the nerve,
to remove the glue, your grip on the found,
you encourage the pain, foster the hurt

5) you tighten the windlass, to speed your hurt,
injure your own bones beneath your skin,
cannot forgive gullibility found
there, a weakness you cannot accept, let go,
your better person would have the nerve,
to send pain on its way, let it go on

6) without you, take another path to go on,
the broken promiser wins all times you hurt.
This is not psychobabble, have you nerve?
I’m reclassifying your emotions skin.
Teaching how to heal yourself as you go.
You were lost and in pain, now you are found.

7) Librarian’s nerve, in goading me on
I don’t feel that found, I can still sense hurt
but it’s lifting skin healing, on I go.

-Paul Brookes

How Did It Go?

Bio and Links

-Tim Fellows

-Hilary Otto

is an English poet based in Barcelona. Her work has featured in Ink, Sweat and Tears, Black Bough Poetry, The Alchemy Spoon and The Blue Nib, among other publications. She was longlisted for the Live Canon 2021 International Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the Hastings Book Festival 2022 Poetry Competition. Her first pamphlet Zoetrope is forthcoming with Hedgehog Press. She tweets at @hilaryotto.

-Robert Frede Kenter

is a writer, editor, visual artist & the publisher of Ice Floe Press. Work recently in journals incl: CutbowQ, Streetcake Magazine, Feral, WatchYrHead, Anthropocene, FeversOf, Anti-Heroin-Chic. Work appears in The Book of Penteract, an Anthology (Penteract Press, 2022), The Poets of 2020 (FeversOf Press), Pandemic Love and Other Affinities, an Anthology (Ice Floe Press). Their most recent book is EDEN (2021), a hybrid now available at Rare Swan Press.

-Jane Dougherty

lives and works in southwest France. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her poems and stories have been published in magazines and journals including Ogham Stone, the Ekphrastic Review, Black Bough Poetry, ink sweat and tears, Gleam, Nightingale & Sparrow, Green Ink and Brilliant Flash Fiction. She blogs at https://janedougherty.wordpress.com/ Her poetry chapbooks, thicker than water and birds and other feathers were published in October and November 2020.

-Jerome Berglund

graduated from the University of Southern California’s Cinema-Television Production program and spent a picaresque decade in the entertainment industry before returning to the midwest where he was born and raised.  Since then he has worked as everything from dishwasher to paralegal, night watchman to assembler of heart valves.  Berglund has exhibited many poems employing a variety of forms online and in print, most recently in Vermillion, Hey I’m Alive Magazine, and Fauxmoir.  He is furthermore an established, award-winning fine art photographer, whose black and white pictures have been shown in galleries across New York, Minneapolis, and Santa Monica.  

-Eryn McConnell

is a poet originally from the UK who now lives in Germany. They published their debut of poetry, Of Swans and Stars, in July 2022, and is planning to release a collection called Love Lost and Found, towards the end of the year. When they are not writing poetry they are working on a dystopian novel or teaching English freelance.

What The House Taught Us by Anne Bailey (The Emma Press), This House by Rehema Njambi (The Emma Press)

Tears in the Fence

These chapbooks are substantial beyond their size. Both debuts, they consider thedomestic and explore women’s place in it from very different starting-points and with unique voices.

Rehema Njambi is a Kenyan-born, British-raised performance poet who celebrates the Black, mostly African women around her and from whom she is descended. She is acutely aware of home’s patriarchal context:’My mother’s joy is tied to the ground…Our fathers handed belonging to their sons,/gave away their daughters’ (‘A Piece of Land’).

The opening poem, ‘All These Truths You Never Set Free’, speaks to the guilt awriter/survivor feels towards her female ancestors: ‘I reach for the pen and I remember/that you wanted this for yourself./This selfishness of pen and paper and solitude’.Yetpoem after poem evokes how precarious a woman’s position has always been at the heart ofhome and family:

Every haven you have ever found

was only lent to you.

Even now you abide in…

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Drop in by Chloe Hanks

Nigel Kent - Poet and Reviewer

This week it’s my pleasure to welcome Chloe Hanks. When her unusual collection, I call upon the witches (Sunday Mornings at the River, 2022) arrived on my desk I immediately wanted to review it! I’m fascinated to hear what she has to say.

For my drop in, I will be discussing the poem The Four Witches. It is written in response to the engraving of the same name by Albrecht Durer.

My previous publication, May We All Be Artefacts, evolved through the practice of ekphrasis: writing in response to artwork. It is a technique I find especially innovative. I love the idea of intertextuality blending through different art forms as a dialogue or discourse between creatives. But more so, it is also an intertextual link between time periods and concepts/discussions. Using ekphrasis in I Call Upon theWitches helped me to build the links between how the Witch was being…

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Reviews: Autumn 2022

The High Window



Billy Collins: Whale DayMoniza Alvi: FairozVernon Scannell: Farewell PerformanceCaroline Bird: RookieMike Barlow: Hotel AnonymousTim Dooley: DiscoveriesRon Scowcroft: Second GlanceCaroline Maldonado: FaultlinesDoireann Ní Ghríofa: To Star The DarkAlan Price & Hervé Constant: BewildermentEstill Pollock : Time SignaturesRalph Culver : A Passable ManNeil Leadbeater and Monica Manolachi: Journeys in Europe/ Calatorii in EuropaMillicent Borges Accardi: Through a Grainy Landscape


Meg Barton: I’d still have been annoyed about the plumsHelen Reid: A Field Guide to Wedding Guests


Simon Armitage: The Owl and the Nightingale •Umberto Saba: 100 PoemsPietro de MarchiReports after the FireMario Martín Gijόn: Sur(rendering)Bijan Elahi: High…

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Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: “The Beautiful Open Sky” by Hannah Linden

-Hannah Linden

Hannah Linden lives in Devon and is published widely. Her most recent awards are 1st prize in the Cafe Writers Open Poetry Competition 2021 and Highly Commended in the Wales Poetry Award 2021. Her debut pamphlet The Beautiful Open Sky will be published by V. Press 19th Sept 2022 Twitter: @hannahl1n  

Her book page is now available on V. Press here: https://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/the-beautiful-open-sky.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR1fKkRQq5EpRN9-Z-go_orYCKiVZGSt9hGf2Km7NPyOsEQe0APm3ClP6nI

The Interview

1. How did you decide on the order of the poems in your book?

When I submitted the pamphlet, the basic pattern was the same, the opening and closing poems and most of the last few poems have stayed in the same order. But, after working with my editor at V. Press, Sarah Leavesley, she felt there was a choice to be made about exploring different aspects of motherhood or drawing out a narrative thread and the latter seemed a more accessible way to order the poems. So I changed some of the order to make sure there were no time inconsistencies, for example. There was one poem that had some copyright complications that would slow things down too much, so that one was replaced with another and we had to jiggle with the order to accommodate that one, too.

I was interested in the way ‘mother’ is both a role and a relationship, so I wanted to retain that aspect in the order, too. So The Shed, for example, explores the way ‘Mother’ is a term that children use when an emotional distance has been created (as they observe a mother who is struggling). This poem, though it ‘feels’ like it could be in the first half of the book, is a reminder that there isn’t a perfect ‘mother’. Being an ill-prepared child-mother or finding oneself in difficult circumstances, eg a marital breakup and its aftermath, can potentially derail a parent/child relationship. If The Shed had been in the earlier part of the pamphlet, it could have suggested a simplistic judgment to which I wanted to add some balance.

I also wanted the voice to change as the pamphlet progressed. The first poems are in the voice of the child of a child-mother (narrating from a distance), who then moves on to narrate her own experience of being a mother. By The Shed, she is saying what she thinks her children may be feeling and then she lets them start to speak for themselves whilst navigating the role of a single parent. As her children mature, the mother starts to relate to them more as independent people and, in the last poem, the adult daughter herself is speaking in the poem’s title as the mother comes to terms with letting go.

Like all poems, they speak to each other and, if there were in a different context, they would explore different dynamics and have a different conversation. Some of them, for example, are possibly in my collection Wolf Daughter which explores a father’s suicide where they would have different connotations. Some could be part of an exploration in a very different context and speak in the voice of a different ‘character’, too. Mindstrap, for example, is a voice that I’m sure many people brought up in the North of England, during a time when a leather strap was used as corporal punishment in schools, would recognise. How we pick up voices that then speak through us, interests me a great deal, especially when we import them into our closest relationships.

2. When and why did you start writing poetry?

It’s more how did I ever think I could write poetry?

I’m from a working class background. That means different things to different people: in my case, I was born into a Northern cotton mill town slum which was demolished when I was seven. Before then, we shared an outside toilet between three houses/families and had a tin bath. We knew other working class people had bathrooms but we were very poor! We didn’t have many books at home except Sunday School prizes and no poetry apart from at school. My nan, though, like many working class grandmas, could recite reams of Shakespeare and classic poets that she learnt by rote when she was at school!

But it didn’t seem like something one of us could write or think of as ‘ours’ until I, as a teenager, got drunk for the first time, at a party. I was very teary and overwhelmed about life and the host’s 80 year old father took me aside and read me Eliot’s The Wasteland. I didn’t understand a word but I was hooked. I understood the feeling he was communicating by some kind of osmosis and I wanted to understand how to do that kind of alchemy. I started writing poems on paper bags, during my Saturday supermarket job whilst other till-workers told people to come to their till instead because ‘can’t you see the poet is writing!’ They never saw a word I wrote but they cheered me on anyway and covered for me if a supervisor appeared. One of my teachers encouraged me to enter some of those poems into the creative writing addition to A Level English and those were entered into a prize which I won! But another teacher I admired said I was not a poet but a prose writer and I believed her.

As the first person in my family to do it, I went to university, I felt in awe of all writers, out of my depth and that I was kidding myself to think I could be ‘one of them’. I gave up until I was in my early 30s, when I’d moved from the North to Devon and I was lonely. I looked into Adult Education classes locally and the only one I felt drawn to was a poetry class. I joined and started writing again but the teacher told me that I wasn’t really a poet but someone who wrote puzzles and her voice was louder in my head than the small group of poets I’d joined to workshop and perform poems. So I went back to writing a novel. Around the same time, a random man I met in a pub asked what I did for fun and when I said ‘writing’, asked why I thought I’d have anything to say that anyone would want to hear? I thought deeply about that and couldn’t answer the question and felt paralysed by it.

Then I had children: for fourteen years I didn’t write anything or read poetry at all – until a random meeting at Sidmouth Folk Festival between my son and a boy who wanted to duel light sabres. Whilst they played, I talked to his dad who was Mike Sims, who had just started a job with the Poetry Society (I had no idea what that was!). He asked me to send him some of the poems I’d written. He was encouraging and suggested I write new ones. So someone thought I had something worth saying and, of course, everyone does (such a simple point but it took a long time for me to really accept this!) Meanwhile, this niggling disquiet in me, an underlying irritation or itch I’d had for years, eased! For a year we exchanged poems and then I joined Simon Williams’ Poem a Day group online, which led to the 52 project: a year-long intensive online workshop. The people in that group didn’t know I was a beginner and treated my poetry seriously. I didn’t know how established and respected many of these poets were (if I had known I would never have dared to share my work with them!). I forged deep friendships with many of them and they have sustained me through so much.

As I started writing regularly, the work helped me access feelings that were buried under depression and dissociation. I managed to learn how to write myself out of a damaging marriage and to learn how to transform trauma and everyday observations into art. That wasn’t something I’d expected poetry could do. I think the 80 year old man at that party was trying to show me this when I was a teenager but I didn’t know how to understand it at the time. I didn’t know that writing and reading poetry was how we learn to bear and celebrate life and how to share deeply with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences across time and space. Once I stopped trying to ‘do’ poetry and instead, focused on how to get out of the way of it coming through me, I realised that I’d always been around poetry. When I was little, the kids around me made up (and passed on) hundreds of old and new skipping game chants; people around me sang lyrics and old ballads; teachers read nursery rhymes and Edward Lear poems to us. My mum wrote a poem for each of us kids in our autograph books, as did lots of our friends. My dad invented versions of Red Riding Hood with a different coloured cape in crazily rhyming stories. It just took me many years to recognise that mine was a poetic tradition too and I had a place in it and that I could meld all of that together with poems from the canon, into my own work.

3. What is your daily  writing routine?

I don’t have a routine. I’ve tried it and then I feel I have to ‘write poetry’ which leads to horrible results! It’s much more organic than that.

During April and September, I join Simon Williams’ Poem A Day group (PAD) and then I write daily (often more than one poem each day). I go with the flow: read drafts other people are posting, read published poems, look at prompts people have shared ….and wait for a subtle itch which tells me I have something (which often comes in the middle of reading a line and stops me instantly). Then I open a word document and start writing.

I have no idea what I’m going to write, where it’s going, or when it is finished until it is there. I let myself be distracted too… I look up words to see if secondary definitions add texture, I answer messages and emails, I research topics, I talk to my family etc. When I come back to the poem, the next line is just there (I let my ‘backbrain’ do the work whilst I’ve been distracting the fact-finding ‘frontbrain’). Sometimes, I write uninterrupted too… if I’ve managed to get myself into a trance-like stillness. But some of my best poems were written whilst distracted and with no conscious awareness of what I’d written until I looked at it later to tidy it up. I often write very quickly, after idly thinking about getting around to it for hours whilst doing other busy-work instead.

If I can’t write anything more, I stop. If I’m stuck completely (usually because the poets who most inspire me haven’t posted anything), I trawl old notebooks or a notes file and see if there’s something I abandoned for which I can now sense the next line or stanza reorganisation etc. Or I’ll figure out where an old poem lost impetus or pick the one good image or line and start again from there. I often leave poems in a huge word file or in randomly organised books and forget about them for awhile, so there’s always something to re-discover and develop. Or I use Robert Peake’s poetry writing prompts random word generator to see what interesting contrasts there are between the words if I can pop one into a poem.

I don’t work at a particular time of day and during those PAD months, I like the pressure if I have not written something and midnight is approaching… I’ll get poems I don’t expect then that come out of nowhere. Or, if I’ve posted a poem and it’s not great, that pushes me to write another one. I like the feeling of being with a group of friends who are rapping on each others’ work and urging each other on. My poems are usually nothing like the poems that have inspired me but they have somehow unlocked something.

Outside April and September, it varies a lot. Sometimes I write often, other times, I don’t. I’ve no idea why. Whilst doing monthly submissions, I look at poems in my ‘poems to submit’ file and my recent poems file and edit some of them. When they come back declined, I edit them again and put them back into the submit file. When I wake up in the middle of the night with a line in my head or a solution to a poem problem I jot it down. For editing, I need to concentrate without distractions. But it’s still spontaneous and random and chaotic.

I know I ‘should’ be more organised and structured… but what I do, works for me. I’m prolific. I read early drafts with a poet friend regularly and that helps me to hear which ones to work on first. I have far more poems than I’ll ever be able to finish.

Which is perhaps why I’ve slowed down recently: I haven’t written a lot that is new, outside of PAD, since last December.  I’ve been working on editing A Beautiful Open Sky and compiling other pamphlets and working on my collection. I’ve been reading a lot of online journals and catching up on reading collections and magazines that friends have passed on to me.

Also, I did ModPo last autumn (a free online 10 week course in American Poetry run by the University of Pennsylvania). It was very immersive, thought-provoking and unsettling so I think I might be re-inventing my poetry practice in my backbrain. Whenever that happens, I trust the process and don’t worry too much about fallow time.

4. What is the significance of the birds and nests throughout your book?

Years ago, whilst watching Northern Exposure (which was based in Alaska), I came across the ‘shamanic’ idea that people who talk too much are really birds who talk to ground themselves (with both positive and negative consequences). I don’t know how to communicate what a profound effect that had on me — the use of a such a simple but powerful metaphor, or system of understanding, to express something that had deep resonance with me and became part of the window through which I looked at the/my world.

I’ve worked a lot with bird metaphor, and how that resonates with other animal metaphors, as a way to explore experiences which can lead to dissociation and feelings of ‘otherness’. My in-progress debut collection is called Wolf Daughter.  It explores a relationship with a father lost to suicide. There, the pull to be a bird is in conflict with the feelings of wanting to honour a father by being a wolf. I’ve also written a series of poems using birds as one way to explore the escape from domestic abuse.

One of my earliest deep connections was with a baby blackbird that had a damaged wing. As a family, we nursed it back to health. The bird visited us regularly and continued to do so, even when we moved to a new house over 8 miles away. How did it know where we’d moved? To be so honoured has stayed with me as an unexpected blessing.

In this pamphlet, the ‘beautiful open sky’ is a way of trying to see the world when a series of situations are weighing you down, oppressing or terrifying you. Different birds populate the book and its landscape. The first is a chicken leg that is being eaten by a mother who is stealing her child’s ‘dream coat’. Her child, in the next poem, makes the decision to try to keep a blackbird quiet so she can carry her song with her into a world where individuality is discouraged. Later, an eagle is evoked to ‘rip the lies open’ and be ready for the ‘open skies of first light’.

Re-visioning motherhood when you have had a difficult childhood yourself, inevitably brings the difficult patterns along with it. In the later part of the pamphlet, there is a poem called Bird where the grandchild of that first mother is having to deal with ‘the cough-up of bones/ and dismantled teeth’.  In Fear of the Sky, the daughter-mother is helping her son come to terms with his difficult emotions and looks ‘at birds moving in flocks, catching the last light of the day,/ the silver & gold play of their wings’. Here, birds are free and catching the beauty of the day. The pamphlet closes with a poem where owls  ‘call across the valley, hunt/ and flirt with each other’.

I wanted to explore the variety of bird species and activity that we can hold close to ourselves as inspiration and possible pathways out of a closing down of imagination that can be the result of early trauma.

It’s always hard to know how to encapsulate the complexities of psychological struggles and I think the precariousness of a bird’s nest is a good way to communicate the experience of learning how to be a mother yourself, especially when you haven’t been taught how to build a safe home by your own mother. Home seems such a stable and secure word compared to a nest and so it had the emotional resonance I wanted to convey: both its exposure to external influences/weather; and that it has to be re-built over and over again, in response to damage (being in unsuitable tree/family/marriage) and external threats (eg predators like unexpected tigers, for example!).

5. How important is the act of listening in your book?

There are lots of messages from people and from the wider world, in the poems. Identifying which you should listen to is part of the journey in the book: an exploration of the stories being told to you; the ones you tell yourself; and especially the ones you tell children and how we hear their responses (and do we facilitate or prevent them from telling their own stories, too?).

Alice Oswald once wrote that you should listen to the small, inner voice when you are writing and editing poetry because it is always truthful and will tell you when something isn’t right. I find that advice very useful, as a poet, generally, but especially if you are navigating a healing journey. The book shares the struggle of learning how to use active listening as a form of self-invention.

Lots of poems in the book explore listening and not listening; and how silence can be used coercively or as an act of acceptance (the book ends with an act of letting go into listening to an empty house). 

Poetry always encourages a listening to the sonic echoes, like internal rhyme, alliteration and assonance etc that form complex connections within and across poems. My two children are both musicians so the sounds of their practice sessions come into the poems, just as they are often the background landscape whilst I’m writing and editing. I was a drummer when I was younger, and I’m slowly going deaf, losing the ability to hear certain pitches. But my inner landscape is full of sound memory echoes.

There are lots of poems in the book where inner psychological process and observation are expressed as if they were a sound eg ‘the ripping shriek of morning’. One of the ways I learn about how I feel or how a character within a poem experiences something, is to observe what sound words I’ve chosen. I play around with those a lot until I feel they have the right emotional harmonic resonance. When you haven’t got music to accompany poems, you have to work at the musicality of the poem – the refrains, dissonance, rise and falls, just like you find in a piece of music. When it works, the tensions of the work find some kind of resolution or deliberate non-resolution. So I tried to listen for that when I was putting the book together and my editor was really good at picking up things I’d missed.

6. Why did you want include references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes in your poems?

I’d turn that question on its head: where there is a seam of common cultural identification, why wouldn’t a poet long to draw from it? For me, the common denominator in a culture is the fairy tales and nursery rhymes we hear as children at home, at school and dramatised through video games and TV. When you have a difficult childhood, sharing these are rare moments of stability and connection within your family and with the outside world. They are connotation rich and immediately accessible whatever your class origin.

As someone from a working class background (and as a woman, too), I’ve noticed a kind of hierarchy around which old stories are seen as clichéd or limited and which are seen as infinitely rich sources across all art forms.  So, part of my decision to allow fairy tales and nursery rhymes into my poetry is also political.

I took a course in romance, ballad and fairy tale as part of my degree and I was fascinated by the way an oral tradition keeps a story alive whilst also offering slight individual twists and additions with each new narrator. This was likened to the way a flock of birds operate… each bird takes turns to lead the flock until another suggests a new direction which the flock will choose to follow or not – in which case, the not-followed bird will rejoin the direction of the flock. It looks like the flock is in synch but actually it’s constantly improvising. Fairy tales and nursery rhymes are like that too and people are always re-engaging with and re-creating them in a way that feels open to everyone.

When I was a child, my escape was into these tales and rhymes. They were how I made sense of very difficult emotions that I didn’t know how to name, eg how to navigate feeling ugly, lonely or powerless. Not to get into Wolf Daughter too much (as it’s a different book and not published yet) but exploring Red Riding Hood as a motif for suicidal ideation, was very helpful for me in processing my father’s death, for example. I’ve allowed myself to sink much deeper into that kind of landscape in that book than I have in this pamphlet, where fairy tales references are restricted to a couple of poems and I’ve also referenced a couple of modern children’s books.

When you have your own children you’re brought into immediate contact with old tales on a daily basis, far more potently than bible stories (in our mostly secular culture). They’re more familiar than Greek myths etc too which seemed, to me growing up, to be more associated with people from a more privileged background (though Percy Jackson, Marvel films and video game landscapes are making those more relevant for Millennials/Gen Z, so are becoming more widely popular as source material for art as a consequence).

In the pamphlet, I also directly challenge the definition of ‘witch’. The oppression of women during the witch hunts, as a felt history, is still very much alive in many people, who reconfigure it into different forms of oppression and resistance. Parents find fairy tales and nursery rhymes so essential that, almost universally, they pass them on to their children so it feels important to unpack what we are communicating. Many people are researching and discussing their findings through Tumblr and TikTok, for example (just as film-makers are suggesting new directions in fairy tales, too). I think a poet can contribute to this in a unique way because we are condensing complex societal movements into a form that can be held like mantras or battle cries. For me, that can be very empowering.

7. Throughout the book are lots of references to mouths, swallowing and eating. What is the intention behind this?

I was often hungry as a child. Food is such an essential element of mothering and I wanted to incorporate that into the ‘home’ of the pamphlet. In the opening poem there are references to vinegar and ‘sherbets/ dipped bitter with liquorice’ and the pamphlet explores those acid, sweet and bitter tastes that are offered by a child-mother in their crudest form. How someone (or something) is fed is contrasted throughout the pamphlet and whether it satisfies a need or not.

Food is seen as a tool for manipulating, testing, abusing, placating, nurturing, healing, understanding and revisualising how to live a good life. Some of the poems show how horrific it is when someone is forced to swallow something they know isn’t food (sand in this case). Other poems are more playful: ‘Mummy Elephant of the Big Bang shooting cherry stones out/of her trunk’ where food is used to teach a child about space and time. Or: ‘outside children’s stories,/ who keeps a regular stockpile of tiger food?’ as a way of diverting attention away from external threats.

Mouths are open because they are hungry, terrified or singing. So mouths can be like doors: they are ‘sewn shut’ to stop someone fulfilling their potential. Finding ways to unpick this and sing again is as important as learning how to eat healthily. The pamphlet is looking at what we internalise: what feeds us, how what we swallow limits us or enables us to heal and grow: how we take the ‘trimmings’ of a damaged life and turn it into ‘a stew/to suit every one’.

8. Why did you call your book “The Beautiful Open Sky”?

It’s a quote from one of the poems in the pamphlet, The Whole Family Climbs Aboard the Wonky Future Machine, which is about how scary it is being a single mother but how you have to, rather than focusing on possible disasters, think of the beautiful open sky. I did consider calling the pamphlet the title of that poem because it’s unusual but I decided it would ill-prepare someone for the earlier poems which are so emotionally raw and challenging. But I wanted to let the reader know that when you’re down, you can look up, even if briefly, and the beautiful open sky is right above you, even if it’s scary sometimes (there’s a later poem called Fear of the Sky). The title is a signal and a promise that there is light at the end of the book.

9. How important is form in your writing?

I don’t work within traditional forms very often but there’s a terzanelle in this pamphlet. It’s about breaking patterns, so the formal aspect is tongue-in-cheek. There’s also an informal sonnet: it’s about not knowing what you’re doing as a mother (and failing to meet expectations) so the form is a nod to the idea of an imperfect love poem.

My concern with form is usually more about balance in poems, so I try a lot of different stanza patterns until I find one that feels balanced. Mostly, I’m working with carefully considered line breaks. I like to think of a line as an entity so that it can take on secondary meanings if viewed independently. So the last word may feed back to the beginning of the line, for example. This is true for where stanza breaks fall too. I find end rhymes restrict playing with this, so, if I use rhyme it tends to be internal or slant.

I like to think of poems as sculptural so that there are connections within and across stanzas both in terms of meaning and as a visual experience. For example, one of the poems has long lines interspersed with short lines as a way of mimicking a juddering vehicle, lurching forwards.

I often, also, look up secondary definitions of words which can then feed into the texturing of a poem on a meaning level, but also, visually.

I’ve written a lot of poems that are more experimental, but, for this pamphlet, the stanza forms I’ve used (couplets, tercets, quatrains etc) seemed more appropriate for what I was trying to express here.

10. Houses and sheds become their own characters in your work. What did you want to convey through this?

Back to when I seven: my whole neighbourhood was designated as a slum and targeted for demolition: about one square mile of houses where my ancestors had lived for about 300 years. We were one of the last families to leave and so, with other children, we played inside these houses as they were reduced to skeletons. We threw ropes up to the roof rafters and swung across the rubble of ceilings. We foraged among the scraps that people had left behind. It felt like these houses were dying and they each felt like they died differently. It mirrored what was happening to the people inside. My parents’ marriage was falling apart and we left Dad behind when Mum moved us into my Nan’s house. So I didn’t see what happened to my house and it carried on living in my imagination. When we moved back to a street close by, the whole neighbourhood had been grassed over but, for years, the paving stones where we’d played marbles remained, so I could work out where my house had been. All the people were scattered and most of them I never saw again.

As everyone there had been Auntie or Uncle to us as children, I didn’t know which I was actually  a blood relative; and as my parents were only briefly on and off until his death five years later, I lost my community and my family history too.

In the pamphlet, the ghost of that experience is still there. People and houses are interconnected and they play a part in the fabric of family: ‘one in four children/ is bound to be the insulation in the loft’; ‘there’s a blizzard of broken promises// to shovel into the shed’. But houses are deceptive and vulnerable like the gingerbread house in The Cottage in the Wood. The daughter-mother struggles to find a house that she can fit into as her child self overwhelms her. She’s more comfortable in a shed full of shadows where she retreats when it’s impossible to keep the world at bay. But, even there, her children observe that she’s opening and shutting the doors repeatedly. It takes until the last poem for her to find some kind of peace with how she interacts with the breathing of a house as the weather warms and cools its bones.

My dad was a builder. The last time I saw him, two days before his death, he showed me the plans for the houses he was working on. He was very upset by new identikit housing that he describes as little boxes for caged animals. He said no two houses should ever be the same or the people who live in them can’t truly be themselves: the house needed a character so they could become friends and that friendship would form the foundations for the family living inside. When you are poor, you have very little control over the way a house is designed and all that work to build suitable housing becomes internal ‘Maybe the pain is the walls moving’ as we work through difficult experiences.

I wanted the pamphlet to find some answer to the feeling the child has in the second poem ‘I wanted her to have that far-flung sky,// the view out of the door of the painting’. Children often see things very clearly but how to enact them can take a lifetime… in this case, how to find an ‘anywhere but here’ based on a view in a painting above the living room fire of a house that is about to be demolished. The child wants this for a fictional character in a painting but the pamphlet, of course, is exploring different kinds of mothering and as that patterning passes through the generations, the questions that need to be answered, if we are fortunate, change. For the granddaughter, her task is different: ‘she should be somewhere else. //It’s too safe for her here now’. For her, the ‘cooling house’ of her mother, with the creaks, the ghosts, the insects,  isn’t where she needs to be, now. She is becoming aware of the calls of different species of owls from across the valley.

11. In “Mindstrap” Lancashire dialect becomes a metaphor. Why did you decide to use dialect?

It’s the language of my childhood. When I was growing up, everyone around me spoke in dialect and we had to learn to ‘talk proper’ for school or we’d be incomprehensible to anyone ‘outside’. When I went to university, everyone expected me to lose my accent but that would have felt like a betrayal to me. In my twenties, when I moved to Devon, I lost touch with my roots because my immediate family moved away, too, so I rarely go back. I still have the accent but lots of the dialect I’ve forgotten because I’m not using it. I’m not sure that it still exists in the way it did, back there and then, when it was a tight-knit, insular and stable community. My nan and her contemporaries kept it alive but dialect was already being diluted and changed when I was a teenager.

Every now and again, though, a phase will resurface and I only realise it’s dialect when everyone around me looks confused. Mindstrap emerged when my ex said he’d looked up ‘mard’ in the dictionary and went on to tell me what it meant….! Anyone I meet from the North knows exactly what it means and there’s a visible shudder when I ask if they know the words ‘don’t be mard’? I can’t think of an equivalent phrase that has the same visceral impact on people.

It took me twenty years to finish this poem. It was painful and horrific to re-conjure that aspect of the culture I’m from. The strap was a piece of leather which teachers used when punishing children. In another poem I’ve written using dialect, there’s a girl who has the indentation mark of a stud in her thigh from where the headmaster hit her with his strap. Within that culture, this was normal and parents often used the belt too. I miss a lot about the community spirit where I grew up and I was worried about showing this shadow side but I’m not comfortable, either, with the nostalgic superficiality I so often see when Northern working class culture is portrayed.

I wanted to portray a real person but also let them stand for an aspect of the culture as a whole. So many people then were, in essence, like the character in Mindstrap and everyone was enacting some form of reaction to them! I wanted you to hear them loud and clear, so you could feel how it felt to be a child then. If you can’t hear people speak in their own way, you don’t hear them at all.

I find some of the words and ways of talking are so delicious to use, too. I don’t want to lose them. They’re not just home for me, they’re wonderful and I want to celebrate them. I have others that are so specific, obscure and hard for people to hear, that I’m still trying to find poem homes for them, too.

12. Who of todays writers do you admire, and why?

I admire far too many to list. Many, many writers are producing stunning work that’s innovative, tender, hard-hitting, taboo-breaking, inclusive and/or beautifully expressed. Some poems hit me immediately and some grow on me over time. I don’t have a hierarchy, in my way of thinking, about who is more admirable so it would be misleading to pick out a few of them and leave out the others.

Poetry, especially, writes itself out of an inner need to express something true, necessary, and/or idiosyncratic and when it succeeds, it’s like a small realignment that clicks somewhere deep inside you… as a writer and as a reader. Some of those realignments have become so embedded that they’re part of me now and others are so new I can still feel the wonkiness of them as I try to make sense of what else needs to shift as a result.

I did the free online ModPo course last autumn and a lot of the contemporary American poets I came across for the first time are having that effect on me at the moment. It’s wonderfully disconcerting.

13. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Accept it takes time and you have a lot to learn. Start writing!

Whenever I have an idea, I jot it down. I don’t kid myself that I’ll remember it. I get it down and if more comes, I carry on. I don’t worry about quality at all. I’ve found that if I ignore this, then everything dries up fairly quickly. If I haven’t been writing for awhile, I accept it’ll take a bit for this process to kick in again. It’s as if my writing self is sulking and needs encouragement that I’ll be listening now.

I read a lot – especially current writing. There’s a lot online now so it doesn’t have to cost a lot. I follow a lot of poets on Twitter so that I learn from them what to read and from other things they share. Order them from your library and join the online National Poetry Library for free access (request a PIN by email: poetry.library@southbankcentre.co.uk)

When I’d been writing again for about a couple of years, I realised that I was nowhere near as good and I was miles away from the people whose work I admired. A lot of people give up at that point but I came across something that said you have actually improved enough to be discerning so don’t stop, do the opposite: write like the devil is on your back. Don’t worry about quality as much as quantity; write like a potter who is learning to throw pots; accept that most will be discarded; for fun, copy other people’s styles. You have to write a lot of rubbish to get to the good stuff so the faster you do that, the better.

If you’re lucky enough to be in a poem a day group (or something similar as I was) or a workshopping group, this is where it helps to have support because people can cheer you on and you learn as much from helping them as from them helping you.

There are good books on writing, online prompts, courses (some have bursaries). I read a lot of ideas so that it can all contradict itself in my brain and then I let it settle into things that work for me. I accept that I will carry on learning. Forever!

Be kind to other writers. Accept you’re going to get far, far more rejections that you get acceptances (it really helped when I set a goal of getting 100 rejections a year because it made rejections into a game). Be kind to editors because they are usually unpaid and often have thousands of submissions. Get to know people because the poetry community, especially, is very supportive and inspiring.

14. How important is white space in your writing?

I think a lot about how a poem looks on the page. If a line is longer than the others, for example, then it will draw the eye and so if there is another longer line, there’s an immediate connection between those lines. So white space is acting as a canvas. Within a line, if there’s a white space, like in The Inner Dialogue, then there’s a hole/space/pause which takes on extra resonance and meaning. It slows the reader down, suggests hesitation and signals that there’s more going on below the surface reading of the poem. Leaving a lot of white space around a single word eg ‘eventually’ in The Start of the Fire, adds an implication of hanging in space/time for the inevitable shoe-drop.

If long lines are squeezing out the white space then that might suggest an overflowing of strong emotion, like in Oh Mother; or that there’s a lot to teach someone, like in The Stars Are Cherry Stones That Have Lost Their Colour, where a mother is packing in lots of seemingly unconnected ideas and tying them in with understanding that will soothe a young son’s fears.

You can communicate a lot of the emotional landscape by playing around with white space and it’s often the first thing I start looking at when I edit a poem. Or what I need to change if a poem is almost there but still isn’t working.

15. Once the reader has read the book what do you hope they will leave with?

Gosh that’s a hard question. I hope they make that satisfied poetry sigh because the journey of the book feels healing. Especially for people who’ve had difficult experiences with a parent and/or parenting themselves. If the reader has been blessed in that way, I hope they can empathise more with the friends around them who have been struggling. I hope it feels like a gift.

16. Tell me about writing projects(s) you are involved in at the moment.

I’m currently writing a collaborative poem with three other women: one from the UK, one from Melbourne, Australia and one from Kerala, India who I met through ModPo last autumn. We’re also slowly working on a book together.

I continue the ongoing editing of individual poems, other pamphlets (about climate change; and domestic abuse) and my collection (about the impact of parental suicide on children).

In September, I’ll be joining my Poem a Day group again and jump-starting my writing because I haven’t written many new poems recently and it’s good to re-connect with my support network.

And The Beautiful Open Sky will be published on 19th September so I’ll be promoting that and hoping people will buy it. If anyone wants a signed copy, contact me through Twitter DM: @hannahl1n

The book page is now available on V. Press here: https://vpresspoetry.blogspot.com/p/the-beautiful-open-sky.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR1fKkRQq5EpRN9-Z-go_orYCKiVZGSt9hGf2Km7NPyOsEQe0APm3ClP6nI

Featured Poet: Autumn: Neil Elder

The High Window

neil elder author photo


Neil Elder’s collection, The Space Between Us was published by Cinnamon Press in 2018, having won their debut collection prize. His pamphlet Codes of Conduct was shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. Other works include And The House Watches On and Being Present. His latest work is Like This was published by 4Word Press. Neil lives in Harrow, N.W. London.


Review • Poems


Like This by Neil Elder £5.99 4Word Press 9782490653119

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Neil Elder’s poems have a clarity and directness that’s sorely missing in much of today’s poetry. Yet that’s not to be confused with simplicity. The poet takes everyday moments and charges them with a uniquely reflective lyricism and subversive playfulness. Rarer still, he has an almost mystic-like inner eye: the ability to peer through the mundane and see the edges of the world. Many of the poems radiate a quiet melancholy, but almost…

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