Hey there, it’s your favourite busiest post-internet poetry nerds! Continuing our annual tradition (check out last year’s), we’ve asked our SPAM-adjacent comrades, contributors, reviewers and editors to give us their Deep Cuts: aka favourite poetry books (pamphlets/collections/anthologies) of the year. If you feel like we’ve missed something out, why not drop us an email and suggest a review? We’re keen to hear from you!
Juana Adcock, Split (Blue Diode Press)
A collection of fragments, by fragments and poetic cadence felt through the varying shifting voices and remarkable inventive forms seen throughout. Juana’s meandering through different languages is seamless and adds so much breath mixed in with all its depth and humour. Split is truly a UK debut collection worth admiring. (SD)
Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, Brandy Nālani McDougall & Craig Santos Perez (ed. by) Effigies III (Salt)
Effigies III brings together four chapbook-length works by Pacific Islander poets. Kisha Borja-Quichocho-Calvo (Chamoru), Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio (Kanaka ‘Ōiwi), Tagi Qolouvaki (Fijian/Tongan), and No‘u Revilla (Kanaka ‘Ōiwi) collectively present poetry as a form of connection between people, land, Indigenous languages and ways of knowing. The anthology also shows the range and movement within as well as between the writers’ bodies of work, interweaving vernacular address, creation stories and stories, found text and lyric description for a glimpse into the multiplicity of contemporary Pacific Island poetry.
Body and environment are inseparable in this book; as Qolouvaki writes, ‘all flesh and fluid mouths / feed’ and ‘all rivers snake / rivulets in earth’s flesh to the ocean’s arms.’ However, all undergo trauma through colonisation and its after-effects – from the sugar plantations and gendered violences ‘shattering, shattering’ generations of women in Revilla’s poems to the ‘SPAM-crazed golden arches’ of Borja-Quichocho-Calvo’s militarised Guam.
Yet poetry is part of decolonial struggle across the anthology’s wide-ranging genealogies of resistance. In ‘Kaona’, co-written with Ittai Wong, Osorio writes: ‘Ua ola ka ‘ōlelo i ka ho‘oili ‘ana o nā pua’ or ‘Our language survived through the language of flowers.’ ‘Kaona’ means ‘hidden meaning’ and the lines refer to the way that Queen Lili‘uokalani, overthrown and imprisoned by white Americans in 1893, continued to communicate with the Hawaiian people through richly allusive poems, songs and stories in newspapers wrapped around flowers.
Since July 2019, Native Hawaiians have been protecting the dormant volcano and sacred mountain Maunakea against the construction of an astronomical observatory known as the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). Kia‘i (protectors) successfully blocked the TMT construction in 2015, and poems by Osorio and Revilla from that time and included in Effigies III echo forwards to the present moment and backwards to longer trajectories of resistance; as Osorio puts it, ‘new roots sprouting from old seeds’. (KLH)
Rachael Allen, Kingdomland (Faber)
Kickstarting the year with enticing orange and the kind of lyrics that sizzle off the end of your tongue, Rachael Allen’s debut collection is teeming with cortisol spikes of visceral imagery, weird ecology and gendered shame. This is anthropocene poetics put through the meat grinder and released in slices of elegance, myth and bittersweet longing. (MRS)
Sophia Al-Maria, Sad Sack (Book Works)
I received this as a birthday gift from a trusted poet friend, the best anthropocene thinker I know. Sad Sack is the collected writings of artist and writer Sophia Al-Maria, a compendium of performances, poems, conversations, letters and art criticism. Think Ursula Le Guin’s ‘carrier bag theory of fiction’, endocrine disruption, anime, Gulf Futurism, jpeg poetics and Alice Coltrane filtered through the astral planes of late capitalism, presented on delectably acid-green paper. (MRS)
Fiona Benson, Vertigo & Ghost (Jonathan Cape)
cn: trauma, sexual violence, r*pe
Fiona Benson’s unsettling collection Vertigo & Ghost reimagines the figure of Zeus as a serial rapist. Taking much from Anne Carson’s (anti-)translation of Sophocles, Antigonick, Benson ventriloquises mythical characters through a contemporary feminist lens. Through this practice, the poet gives voice to previously silenced characters, remoulding ancient narratives to explore the seeming unspeakability of sexual violence. Riddled with classical allusions and manifestations of ancient figures, alongside contemporary references to the bleak, Trump-era political climate, Benson’s verse turns from a devastatingly sensual account of the violence of patriarchy to a study of the natural world. Through a series of delicately observed images, she explores the guttural, gory, yet utterly joyous experience of birth and motherhood, as well as the sheer aliveness of the natural world around us. Vertigo & Ghost is an extraordinary collection, coupling almost unutterable trauma and despair with a hope that persists despite the raw, unflinching bleakness of the early poems. (MS)
Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart, The Hundreds (Duke University Press)
Maybe you’re technically not meant to say this but I do have a favourite book of this year and it is undoubtedly The Hundreds. Perhaps this is because I read this book in the last few weeks of this year, knowing it came out in January 2019 (and in its multitudes, it does seem to brilliantly reflect this year of confusion). Perhaps it’s because this is totally a book of collaboration and this in itself feels like a rebellion against isolated thinking and easy power structures. Or perhaps, it’s because the words/stories/thoughts/images just felt so real and familiar, with theory and prose and poetry coming together to explore the micro- the small tender thoughts, instances and conversations as the most expansive moments of thinking. I could go on and on about the ideas, excitement and energy generated by this book but I also might describe it as a constellation of prose poems on a diverse range of topics, that have been ascribed a specific rule: they must be written in units of a hundred and there are a hundred of them (side note: in a recent podcast interview with Lauren and Kathleen- go listen!- I found out that the word ‘hundred’ also pops up a hundred times!). The playfulness and satisfying quality of this rule-making by Lauren and Kathleen, combined with the fact we do not know if they wrote these small pieces together or separately, gives a sense of spontaneity to the words (I think this is captured beautifully in the opening piece ‘First Things’ which is a poetic exploration and interrogation of how we all encounter the world differently at the beginning of the day and the nakedness of this awakening). At the end of each short piece, there are references to other sources, which we guess must hint at what they were inspired by and/or reading at the time of writing; from theorists such as Freud, Deleuze, Sedgewick, Moten to more ambiguous concepts such as weak links, and quotidian ambitions (to give a very brief example- there are hundreds!). Lauren and Kathleen also asked other creative writers and thinkers- Fred Moten, Andrew Causey and C. Thresher, Susan Lepselter and Stephen Muecke – to provide their own creative indexes/interpretations of the book which are incredibly various in both form and ideas. They also wrote their own incredibly open ‘For Your Indexing Pleasure’; combined with their own collaborative creative pieces, this reaching out in the book brings a vastness to these micro pieces; it inspires you to go out, find these books, interrogate concepts that underpin Lauren and Kathleen’s words and just explore, explore, explore! It’s also a book that asks for more writing; this is part of the excitement of the reading experience. The Hundreds is asking you to set your own rules, to have more open discussions, embark on more collaborative projects and see what comes out of all that. It’s a conversation and the pages are filled with choice. I keep dipping back in, unable to resist the re-reading! (KD)
Jay Bernard, Surge (Penguin)
Recently, like many poets, I’ve been more and more vexed by the Lyric ‘I’. Part of the brilliance of Jay Bernard’s Surgeis their skilful reworking of this tradition. Rather than one speaker uttering an assumed universality, Surge’s beautiful, painful, celebratory ‘I’ slips effortlessly across bodies and histories. And this multiplicity continues with the inclusion of archive material and song alongside Bernard’s poetry, and of music, film and dance into their exceptional performance. Surge explores the events surrounding the New Cross Fire, before echoing these moments with the aftermath of Grenfell and today’s political climate. It is a collection that balances universal feelings of loss and love with the specific experiences of one black British community.
In a Q&A after their recent October performance of Surge in Glasgow, Bernard commented that in the ‘personal and political’ people often forget about the ‘and’. This is a collection filled with that ‘and’, which is questioning and complex and human. What results is a moving interrogation of the relationship ‘between public narration and private truths’. (EB)
James Byrne, The Caprices (Arc Publications)
A book of poetry that exists as a dialogical conduit and response between the 18th century Spanish artist and poet James Byrne, this collection consists entirely of ekphrasis poems situated alongside their corresponding picture. This book wonderfully bridges the gap of centuries by mirroring events, thoughts, politics and so much more that prevails in the impressions then, ‘Now that the state legitimises hate, / a wakeful trump of doom thunders / valley deep? (Where are the Blake’s/ and Miltons now?). Crises of mirrors / where my neighbour reasons only / with himself’, and now. The book drifts through the dark tones derived from Goyer’s uncertain life (explored in the preface) and how a contemporary poet is able to (or could?) respond to art to create more impressions from that same existing parallel space. (SD)
Vahni Capildeo, Skin Can Hold (Carcanet)
Among the major collections of Vahni Capildeo, I have to admit Skin Can Hold is my personal favourite. It is Vahni’s genius surfacing outright, in a solemn collection that left me wondering how some of the poetic measures were even achieved. Broken up into 6 segments, the 6 part poem ‘I am no Soldier: Syntax Poem’ resonates as a deep connection for me:
you fall I shall arise
there will I come
I am no soldier
I am my poem. I come to you.
It masterfully moves between so many forms that the brilliance for any voyager en-route is immediately palpable. (SD)
Tom Crompton’s bait-time (Distance No Object) and Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory (The 87 Press)
The two poetry books which have probably most fucked up and affirmed the way I think and write this year are Tom Crompton’s bait-time (Distance No Object) and Caspar Heinemann’s Novelty Theory (The 87 Press). Both books get things done on the fly very distinctly, hitting you in the lungs and stealing time, anti-work vernaculars extemporising far more wittily and with far weirder, scrappier resources and gestures than most poetry collections I’ve read recently. They make a lot of stuff look static, mannered, po-faced and weary: irradiated surpluses bursting from the undercommons right against the things we loaf among. (DH)
You can think of bait-time as poems of the hyperlocalised everywhere. These are fugitive sequences that take aim at ‘escapism from the need-chain’, instead relishing in imagining new urgencies, touching off everywhere, moving to and from all the ‘festering particulars’ of objects and attitudes woven deep into speech: it’s defo something / it’s all gonna be okay, lynx-clouds, dogrolls, canto grease, mini-motos, ash-crag, silk profiles. Bait-time is full of the thick matter of life lived in language, a rich rendering of the formations and deformations that happen in any type of collective work; even one as simple as just being together.
And as all this is happening, bait-time is more optimistic in poetry and ‘the ambient’ than anything else I read this year. It is aware that ‘vocal geometry is not / social geometry’, that alignments of sound, sense and occasion do not translate into prefiguration nor do they have to. Instead it gathers friends ‘called / to articulate nothing’ and delivers a reverie of pissing about, ludic and critical, a woodpecker or drill-bit. I’ve returned to bait-time, over and over, in the joy of its unfoldings and its attention—somewhere between documentary and free play. It is fieldnotes for catching voices and objects in interaction and never letting them sit idle, irreverently made against the powers that would compel quietude and contemplation. (MB)
Ellen Dillon, Sonnets to Malkmus (Sad Press)
A baroque paean to Pavement singer and indie hero Stephen Malkmus, Sonnets to Malkmus elicits a fabulous desire to indulge in one’s longest standing fandoms and make them into collaborations. It raises the possibility of taking in the world with all the idiosyncrasy and the impossible fun of co-habiting someone you love.
Ellen Dillon has produced a unique recombinatory sequence modelled after Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus and generated out of various acrostics of Stephen Malkmus’ name, lines and near-titles from Pavement songs. Churning out the palette of Pavement’s California surrealism into tender parataxis, the sonnets are endlessly imperative and present, with sound patterns that make them irresistible to read as you are led down into and back out from the underworld, accompanied by Malkmus, Dillon and all the singers who make of language something of a divine world for us to take part in.
Make it count quiet sound-booth
as both us smother a groan
leaving time to be marked a rest or pause
keeping beats & company bad
Teddy Duncan Jr, An Absolute Study (death of workers while building skyscrapers)
Lucy Wilkinson’s press death of workers while building skyscrapers is doing amazing things around intimacy, affect and the small press. One of their recent titles is Teddy Duncan Jr’s An Absolute Study, which is a heady kaleidoscopic slice of collaged realism. The language is intense, fudgy, even fishy: ‘the bank of justice is bankrupt’; ‘toilet flushes and the rank odor’d person groans’ ; ‘Orlando’s tallest buildings reach for the grey storm sky’. It’s punctuated by photos, forms, medication. In other words it’s all the pharmacy has to offer: sweet sour poison… it’s oh so good. (CH)
Cathy Galvin, Walking The Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva (Guillemot Press)
In my corner of the literary internet (read: echo chamber) 2019 has been the year of psychogeography, and Cathy Galvin’s Walking The Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva is a gorgeous trip through Coventry’s turbulent past. There’s a discipline to Galvin’s verse – her poems sit in nice, ordered forms, with a regular metre and rhyme that’s pleasing to speak aloud:
Beside me in the Cheylesmore underpass,
she took my hand and said: Abandon fear.
Sky Blues in red Doc Martens threw their cans
and punks in two-tone sang their ghost town near.
Lady Godiva guides the narrator in a circuit of the city, following ‘a road, a river, a prayer’. Coventry was bombed almost entirely to rubble in the Second World War, and ring road is as much littered with the ‘melted bodies’ of war dead as plastic bags and cans of K. As I say, I’ve been well on psychogeography this year and I like poetry that wants to dig up the past, shake it up, and show us the parts ‘where goddesses wielded canes.’ Galvin says her poems are dedicated ‘to the people of Coventry’, and I think it’s important to democratise history – make heritage accessible, not just something idiots can use to justify bad politics.
Also – referencing Dante’s Inferno and The Specials in the same stanza? Inject 👏 that 👏 into 👏 my 👏veins. (JP)
Colin Herd, You Name It (Dostoyevsky Wannabe)
I’ve said it once before and you know I’m going to say it again: I like to think of this collection as the luxurious bubble bath we all really do need right now. Released in late November by the brilliant Dostoyevsky Wannabe, this is the bubbling, overbrimming collection of poems that not only explores bubbles (of all kinds) but is capable of turning you into a bubble, into many bubbles; sending you flying, expanding and colliding across poems of queerness, soggy nightmares, yoghurt, fanciphobia, apples and Bubbles (the unforgettable character). Colin is one of the most giving poetic thinkers I know: a brilliant advocate of other writers’ work and a creative writing teacher and this collection reflects just that: these are generous, intimate poems that will make you want to spark up conversations with Colin about queer bubbles, foam, the Fancy, found poems, the embarrassing, the ridiculous, the surface and the depth, and the very real. These are micro, powerful bursts of warmth (also reflected beautifully in that orangey red combo on the cover). It’ll make you want to write your own bubbling words; it’s a poetry book for you, you and you. For a more detailed peek at Colin’s expansive imagination and thinking behind the book, have a wee read of our recent SPAM interview! (KD)
Wayne Holloway-Smith, Gravy (If a Leaf Falls)
Holloway-Smith’s Gravy is joyous. Its edible imagery weaves through the entire collection, from Yorkshire pudding, to cupcakes to the gelatinous love that is gravy. The poem comments on itself as it is being written and being read, creating the illusion of simultaneity and a glimpse inside the moving gears of the speaker’s mind. ‘Does this moment fully earn its place / within the rest of the collection’ the speaker asks, without the use of a question. The only punctuation Gravy allows is an occasionally used dash and this negation of a forced reading allows the words in each verse to flow from the initial capitalised letter, through to the end with nothing to impede their course—only the textured, guttural voice of the speaker remains. The speaker is uniquely impartial and self-flagellating in their anxiety over the perceived form of the very poem they are currently in the act of telling by the eventual reader. This collection is to be devoured quickly and then begun again to be devoured again and again, each reading bringing new texture and new tastes. ‘Yorkshire pudding are the best we / might hope for in this context’. (MGT)
Isaiah Hull, Nosebleeds (Wrecking Ball Press)
A brilliant, highly pressurised collection of poems that gush forth in what I think of as an otherworldly powers of horror sputter. Hull’s language pulls from all sorts of different discourses. There’s a poem called ‘Money’ in which is written: ‘sweating cross the table long / neutered of his colloquial / Alex the accountant winks / complimentary water boy’ – I just find this so weird and heady. At the start of the collection there’s a kind of invitation: ‘a nosebleed is the first time you feel alien to yourself.’ Well this poetry is language that makes you feel alien to yourself and that draws attention to the ways in which one gets alienated. The poetry is iron-rich, witty, precise, full of pathos and bathos to chew on and clot: ‘Isn’t there a solar eclipse due / never mind’. (CH)
Harry Josephine Giles, The Games (Outspoken Press)
Wow – brilliant, funny, wickedly intelligent. Deadly serious. Loved the dry humour, stopped in my tracks by the political acuity. The feel for mendacity, the lies of public life, the cover ups, the forked tongues (is anything else more ‘2019’?). The weirdness of agriculture makes this fantastic eco poetry (what is it that we are farming? Still ploughing for verse). ‘Thing-Prayer’ seems pure Jane Bennett. Feels Scottish in the very best way (echoes Morgan, Leonard) with its wry slants on the English language. Although often (literally) punchy in its imagery, these poems are careful, surprising, touching negotiations of human feeling in the twilight world between the representation and the real. A real possibility-expander for me, loved it. (RW)
Petero Kalulé, Kalimba (Guillemot Press)
Bright yellow and full of music, murmur(ation), and the ‘blue pressings of more-ear’, Kalimba takes playing and listening seriously, commoves you to expand y/our range.
Words break at the bent note of a phoneme, the overdetermination of a poem’s ‘sakura f / low’ until:
it’ll reak, lines
The poem as joy-noise and swung mood along wavelengths beyond the individualised body: ‘rain is a nectarous smirrle of petrichor, a giddyfizz of grass weeping, silent; bestilled .’
This is the kind of book you want to send to all your friends before you even get to the end. (KLH)
Ilya Kaminsky Deaf Republic (Faber and Faber)
In such times of political turmoil and insecurity, this collection stands as a collective symphony for those struggling to find a voice. What resonated with me in particular was the beautiful harmony between the tenderness of the characters against the backdrop of the tumultuous settings, mixing in varying crescendos hovering over different arcs. Literary activism at its staggering best, Deaf Republic reaches an operatic catharsis which left me motivated to not reside as just a silent bystander who simply ‘lived happily during the war’. (SD)
Katy Lewis Hood, SWATCH (glyph press)
The debut pamphlet from Midlands poet and critic Katy Lewis Hood (co-editor of amberflora) was a covetable hit, selling out in just a day or two. Lovingly stitched and bound in forest green, these patch-poems respond to Pantone colours while defiantly flying in the face of the company’s unfortunate decision to brand 2020 the year of tory ‘Classic Blue’. This is a tactile, thick, entangled poetics of care, harm, beauty, resilience, sense and elements. Although sold out, you can contact the poet or publisher for a pdf copy. (MRS)
Dorothea Lasky, Animal (Wave Books)
Whenever I’m feeling lethargic or jaded in life I listen to Dorothea Lasky give a lecture on poetry. She makes the act of intellectual delivery a participatory democracy of shimmer and strangeness and song. Animal is a compilation of Lasky’s poetry talks given as part of the Bagley Wright Lecture Series: encompassing topics such as ghosts, colours, animals and bees. It’ll make you feel wild and luminous in the middle of winter. (MRS)
Kirstie Millar, Curses, Curses (Takeaway Press)
Kirstie Millar’s pamphlet Curses, Curses features a series of poems that explore pain and the body, with illustrations by Alice Blackstock. From a utopian society where women evolve into centaurs, to a futuristic facility called The Institute For Secret Pain, where women unzip from their skins and meet their cures, the pamphlet situates women’s pain within a magical realist context, as a way of shedding light upon the lived experience of chronic illness.
However, it is the final poem ‘The Curse’ which I found to be the most striking. Reminiscent of the work of Carmen Maria Machado, and even Atwood’s Alias Grace, the poem comprises the diary entries of a young girl approaching menarche. One of the most nuanced explorations of menstruation I’ve read, the poem illustrates the conflict which arises when one’s body starts behaving against one’s will. (JH)
Iain Morrison, I’m a Pretty Circler (Vagabond Voices)
A beautiful gathering in of voices – Emily Dickinson, Belinda Carlisle, Frank O’Hara. Some short, but many chatty and meandering in the best way, explosions of words in my ears.. Such a firm but gentle feel for modern sensibility – its moments of swagger, its more usual second-guessing, going over, rehearsing, looking back. Great warmth and tenderness, and humour, so humane (‘It came out that that was about my father having nearly died | and the tears rolled down my cheeks and I felt woozy. | Maybe I should drink even more water.’) Brilliantly experimental poem generation, letting loose yet fantastically precise at the same time. Loved the skittish range of cultural references, and both the muffling and revelation of meaning. So glad I’ve read this! (RW)
Nisha Ramayya, States of the Body Produced By Love (Ignota Press)
Nisha Ramayya’s long-awaited debut is a startling collection that twists around poetry, notes, essay, image and song, by way of Tantric ritual and myth. Open it and you’ll release a jazzy, prismatic assemblage of goddesses, honey bees, Sanskrit, sound, infatuation and shame. Something to incant: a book of pleasure and the sacred, love and study. (MRS)
Ariana Reines, A Sand Book (Tin House Books)
The back blurb of Ariana Reines’ gilded slab of a collection reads simply, ‘Mind-blowing’– Kim Gordon. Gordon’s eloquent abrasions of noise rock is a fitting counterpoint to Reines’ luminous, uncompromising book of mourning, climate crisis, traumas of the state, gender violence, prophecy and love. Some of these lines bounce out of the sand like jewels. Give to your best friend; give, give, give. (MRS)
Roseanne Watt, Moder Dy | Mother Wave (Polygon New Poets)
Written in English and Shaetlan, the language spoken on the Shetland islands:
Really superb feel. Pared down, elegant, curious. I loved the sense of stone, of animal, of the land as sentient, of its agency – of its meeting with the poetic voice here (‘Out here | is where the dirt | is listening-in.’). Aching senses of loss, regret, grief, but moments of vivid life too (‘the doors of our house | all the rooms | they opened on’). Terrifying episodes of bodily possession – indeed, the sense of the body here is remarkable (‘a soft cling | of sinew at the absent body’s | join’) – and such a committed weighing of Shaetlan words in the mouth. Wonderful. (RW)
Jay G Ying, Wedding Beasts (Bitter Melon)
My favourite single pamphlet of the year, Wedding Beasts carries the reader on a journey through so much grief, conflict and finality, addressing personal and societal structures and spaces in attempts to find or make a semblance of meaning from it all. Sewn in with fantastic lines of clarity that prevails from the search:
‘I watched him unstitch every hole like an order from the
for the newly felled muslin threads’
‘All your ancient and future bodies crowded the unbuilt rooms in my dream’
This poem unravels itself like a beautifully woven tapestry. This pamphlet from Jay G Ying needs to be held and read (credit to the publishers for its stellar design and aesthetics) and held again that much closer. (SD)
Thank you to this year’s contributors, Mauricio Baiocco, Eloise Birtwhistle, Shehzar Doja, Kirsty Dunlop, Dom Hale, Jane Hartshorn, Colin Herd, Katy Lewis Hood, Jon Petre, Marina Scott, Maria Rose Sledmere, Meredith Grace Thompson, Rhian Williams. We’d also like to thank all the amazing publishers that keep making these pamphlets happen. Solidarity ❤
Illustration: Maria Sledmere