Category Archives: Chapbooks

Calling the Poem: 5. ‘Of Muses’

When thoughts, fantastic dreams, bright images,
invade you from inside without relief –
thoughts that aren’t yours, nor come from the outside –
then, heedless of the real world’s scrimmages,
you can’t ignore, forget, refute, refuse.
Forces not you, that ride you and bestride,
when viewed with self-delusion, self-belief,
must therefore be some spirit, god, or muse.

*****

This is the fifth of the 15 poems in the ‘Calling the Poem’ series, published as a Snakeskin e-chapbook. From the awareness of the creative mood to the valuing of an idea, to the attempt at expression, to the crafting and polishing of the item, there are several stages in the creation of a piece of art. I am trying to lay out my sense of this process, and of how any individual can choose to develop it, and produce more and better art.

It’s my belief that many, many people could be the most amazing poets or other creators, but they don’t go down that path because they choose not to pay attention to the stray thoughts and images that come their way. For those of us who try to follow and develop the images, there is always the question of where they come from: from within us, or from the outside? I think humanity’s self-understanding is very primitive so far, and that there are layers under layers still to be peeled back. All our answers are best guesses, working hypotheses, delusions… but they are all we have, and valid and valuable when seen in that light.

Most of the poems in this series are semi-formal – they have enough rhythm and rhyme to facilitate their recitation, but lack the formal structures, the appropriate patterns, that can be aspired to. To me the recitation is key, because poetry is auditory in nature, in its origin, at its heart. It is almost as old as singing, which is in turn almost as old as rhythmic babbling and drumming. The poem printed on the page is not the poem itself, it needs to be read (aloud, or in your mind’s voice) in order to become the poem.

So I don’t have strong opinions on whether to capitalise the first letter of each line of a poem: it doesn’t impact the sound. But if it can help with the reading and comprehension – by not capitalising and thereby showing the flow of the sentence, or by capitalising in order to differentiate from spillover part-lines and thereby retaining the metre or rhythm – then an appropriate choice should be made. The version of this work that I am using is all first-letter capitalised. I’ve modified that today because I felt the poem was more comprehensible when the individual sentences were more clearly marked; the issue isn’t otherwise important.

And, no, I’m not impressed with concrete poems or shape poems as verse, although they can be excellent as jokes and witticisms.

Photo of “Henri Matisse – Dance [1910]” by Gandalf’s Gallery is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Calling the Poem: 1. ‘Invocation’

O Odin,
Living outside me or within,
Share your mead of poetry you earned in night’s delight,
Spare me from the mead you shitted out in flight and fright.
By Thought and Memory, I swear
A poem needs your care,
For poems… magic poems… are nothing,
and come from your nowhere…

A poem comes in flurries:
A phrase that catches, sticks,
A rhyme that matches
With some thought that dog-worries,
And a verse that clicks.

*****

Just to be clear, I’m no more a believer in the Norse gods than I am in Yoruba, Hindu or Christian deities. Also, I’m not a white nationalist. But mythology has a couple of uses for me: pure enjoyment of the tangled tales; a way of looking at historical mindsets; and a tool for trying to communicate with the unconscious, i.e. to let the creative unconscious funnel ideas and images to the conscious mind.

What I do believe is that invoking the Muse, or a god, is a way of telling your unconscious that you are receptive to its comments… it is a fishing expedition, and you never know what you’re going to get. But I believe it is a system that works (sometimes), and I don’t practise another. (Various drugs are alleged to get results, too.)

So a few years ago I set out to describe the process that I follow to try to bring poetry to me. The result was a series of 15 poems, published by Snakeskin as an e-chapbook in January 2017. It was available as a free download from Snakeskin No. 236, and it should be again, when the Snakeskin archives are again operational. I named it ‘Calling the Poem’.

‘Calling the Poem’ starts by invoking the Muse – male, female, human, animal, I think the Muse can be however you choose to imagine it. But the Muse should be a dream-image, for the Muse, the unconscious, is as likely to communicate through dream as anywhere. Odin is a good figure, with his ravens of Thought and Memory who give him the news of the world, his eight-legged horse Sleipnir who can carry him through all the worlds, his ability to shapeshift and prophesy, the sacrifices he made to obtain wisdom such as gouging out an eye to put in Mimir’s well, and of course the mead of poetry that he stole and disburses as he feels.

And so the first poem – somewhat rough-hewn, semi-formal – is the invocation addressed to Odin.

Photo: “Odin on Sleipnir” by Hornbeam Arts is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Resources: Salt Publishing returns!

Begun in 1999 as a wide-ranging British literary publisher, Salt ran into difficulties with a declining market for poetry. In 2013 they posted in their blog that “after thirteen years and over 400 poetry collections, many by debut authors,” they were going to stop publishing poetry by individual poets and instead limit themselves to anthologies. For those who want to see how depressingly small the poetry market could be, here is a Guardian article on it and Salt from 2013.

By 2018 it looked as though Salt might be dissolving entirely, despite the wide praise and support they had from the literary community; and then came Covid and the halt to library and bookstore gatherings. Life got miserable for everyone (except, of course, Boris Johnson).

Happily, Salt hung on, focusing on fiction, and has now strengthened enough to once again be accepting submissions of poetry manuscripts. They may be very much a contemporary publisher, but can’t be completely averse to formal verse if their author list includes Christina Rossetti and Emily Brontë. From their Submissions page:

We are happy to consider full-length poetry collections by Welsh, Scottish, Irish or English poets of circa 64 pages. It will help if poets live in the British Isles to participate in publicity and promotion.
Please send your complete collection along with your magazine publication history and a biographical note.

Their blog even has a useful Guide to Poetry Submissions. Salt, distributed by Penguin Random House and with e-book distribution by Faber Factory, is a top-class independent publisher in the UK. It’s good to see them looking fully active again.

Launch: Potcake Chapbook 11, ‘Lost Love’

‘Lost Love – poems of what never happened, and of the end of things that did’… how bittersweet; but what a collection of poets, and what a diversity of stories and observations!

Seventeen poets are packed into this chapbook. Seven have appeared before: Marcus Bales, Melissa Balmain, Michael R. Burch, Vera Ignatowitsch, Martin Parker, Gail White and myself. Ten are new to the series, with wicked little pieces from Brooke Clark, Cody Walker and three from Wendy Cope, and with longer poems from N.S. Thompson, James B. Nicola, Mary Meriam, Helena Nelson, David Whippman, Richard Fleming and Vadim Kagan. Bios, photos and links to read more of their work can all be found on the Sampson Low site’s Potcake Poets page, while all the chapbooks in the series, showing which poets are in which, are here. Each of the 11 chapbooks is profusely illustrated (of course) by Alban Low, and can be yours (or sent to an ex) for the price of a coffee.

Heartbreak has never had a happier manifestation!

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Jerome Betts, ‘Morning Calls’

Though buds, light-headed, arrow to the sun,
Wood-pigeons cautiously descend to drink
As through the roof the first faint cheepings run
From half-fledged nestlings in some straw-warm chink,
While welling far and near − to float and sink
Like spidery fibre silvered on the lawn −
Mercurial lark song trails out link by link,
Rocking serrated-throated crows have drawn
Their broad indelible raw weals across the dawn.

Jerome Betts writes: “Have only tried the intricate patterning of the ‘Spenserian stanza‘ a couple of times. On the first occasion it seemed to suit a comment on the design of a 4th century Roman mosaic floor and on the second, in ‘Morning Calls’, appearing in Snakeskin, a memory of the rich dawn chorus in rural Herefordshire many years ago. The point of particular interest for me is the phrase ‘rocking serrated-throated crows’ in Line 8, unchanged from one jotted at the time. The words fitted a rocking or bobbing movement, but why ‘serrated-throated’?  This is appropriate for ravens with their ‘shaggy throat feathers’  (RSPB Handbook 2014) but not, I thought, crows. The words resisted attempts at tweaking and the stanza stalled. Some weeks later I saw a crow standing on top of a Devon street light rhythmically calling and rocking . . . and as it did so its neck feathers briefly parted on the upstroke of the movement. The line had preserved an exact observation made when young and then forgotten.”

Jerome Betts edits the quarterly verse webzine Lighten Up Online in Devon. His work has appeared in Amsterdam Quarterly, Angle, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Pennine Platform, Light, The Rotary Dial, and Snakeskin, other American, British and Canadian publications and two Iron Press anthologies.
www.lightenup-online.co.uk

Photo: “A Crow calling – gardenDSCN9711” by ianpreston is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Review: ’51 Poems’ by Marcus Bales

This is poetry as it is meant to be: evocative and word-for-word memorable. Fair disclosure: I am an online friend of Marcus Bales – and I am so because his poetry is evocative, memorable, witty… and it all rhymes and scans in the most natural and elegant way.

His collection of ‘51 Poems‘ contains sections with very different moods. The first ones recapture childhood and wartime experiences and then give way to my personal favourites, a series of poems of love, love that in one way or another is unattained, incomplete: Pre-Flight, “I called goodbye. By then she couldn’t hear.//I pulled the chocks away, and she was gone.” Broken Sunlight “streaming down his face.” Have You Forgotten “it all, and all so soon?” Me and the Moon. Dancing with Abandon. And Precipice: “and knowing everybody knows//I’m dancing on a cliff edge, unaware//of where the precipice gives way to air.”

Others of his poems are portraits of very diverse people, political or social commentary, and (most memorably) flawless parodies of Keats, Poe, W.S. Gilbert, Auden, Shakespeare, Kipling among others. It is in the parodies that he shows the greatest diversity of rhyme and metre, because his ear catches the rhythms of other poets as easily as it understands iambic pentameters.

Online you will find him knocking out sarcastic little quatrains almost daily in Facebook. He was a standard contributor in The Rotary Dial (now sadly defunct), and frequently appears in the Potcake Chapbooks. Read 51 Poems for the wit and the human insights, and you will be rewarded with memorable earworms of wordplay and verbal dexterity.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Michael R. Burch, ‘Neglect’

What good are tears?
Will they spare the dying their anguish?
What use, our concern
to a child sick of living, waiting to perish?

What good, the warm benevolence of tears
without action?
What help, the eloquence of prayers,
or a pleasant benediction?

Before this day is over,
how many more will die
with bellies swollen, emaciate limbs,
and eyes too parched to cry?

I fear for our souls
as I hear the faint lament
of theirs departing …
mournful, and distant.

How pitiful our “effort,”
yet how fatal its effect.
If they died, then surely we killed them,
if only with neglect.

Michael R. Burch writes: “This original poem has over 3,000 Google results, perhaps because it has been published by Daily Kos, Black Kos, Course Hero, Think Positive, Katutura (Namibia), Vanguard News (Nigeria), Best Naira News (Nigeria), The World News Platform, Darfur Awareness Shabbat, Genocide in Art, Genocide Awareness, and other human rights organizations including the UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency).”

Photo: “Carrying a lifeless and dying child (Famine Memorial)” by Can Pac Swire is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

My own comments: The statue in the photo is at House Quay, Dublin, and relates specifically to the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852 in which a million died and two million left the country then and in the next couple of years. The potato blight also impacted continental Europe, causing a further 100,000 deaths there and becoming a contributory cause of the widespread Revolutions of 1848.

So let us be clear: whether children are dying from famine, climate disaster, pandemics, government inaction, or warfare (all present in today’s world)–dying without in any conceivable way being culpable–there is not just a moral duty to help, there is self-interest in helping, self-interest in preventing civil unrest and floods of refugees. Refugees are the product of an intolerable domestic situation: all other things being equal, people would rather make their future in the place they were raised, with familiar friends, family, foods, festivals. It is the duty of all governments to make all places so pleasant that no adults or children feel forced to leave, that no one is left to die.

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Ramadan kareem.

Updated Call for Submissions: Potcake Chapbooks

I am always keen to read and consider rhymed and metered verse that has already been published. There are several chapbooks that are jostling in the queue for completion and publication:

City! Oh City! (urban life)
Just a Little Naughty
Portraits Unpleasant
Various Heresies (religion)
The Horror of Spring! (seasons)
a Christmas season chapbook, needs Hanukkah, Divali, Festivus, etc

and there are more; but a recent one, ‘Robots and Rockets’, wasn’t part of my original plans: I just ran across a bunch of Science Fiction poems that I liked, and they filled a chapbook nicely. So I’m an unashamed opportunist. I’ll modify my plans if I think something better is available. All the chapbooks listed above are nearly full already but, as with all of them, if I run across another poem I really like, I’ll include it. And if I receive enough good poems on an unplanned theme, that theme will get slotted in.

And if I receive more good poems than I can fit in a chapbook, there is a good chance of a second chapbook on the same theme. The most recent, ‘Travels and Travails’, is similar to the very first, ‘Tourists and Cannibals’; and the upcoming ‘Lost Love’ (which has gone to Alban Low for illustrating) is similar to the second chapbook, ‘Rogues and Roses’.

When there is enough good material on a single theme to fill 13 pages of a chapbook (still leaving room for Alban’s artwork, of course), then it may become the next project. But until a chapbook actually goes to print everything is subject to change. An even better poem may show up and displace one tentatively placed. A slew (or slough) of poems on a new theme may cause a reprioritisation of planned chapbooks.

This is one of the reasons that I prefer to consider only poems that have already been published–so that I don’t feel guilty about having a bunch of poems that will sit with me for months, years, and may or may not be included in the Potcake series. I have flagged a thousand poems that interest me; but I can only publish a dozen in a chapbook, and only a few chapbooks will get produced in a year.

Poems in the chapbooks run from two or three lines to some 40 lines in length–obviously, with space at a premium, poems over 20 lines and running over one page are less likely to be included… but it does happen. Other criteria: I’m looking for wit, elegance, a variety of traditional and nonce forms, a variety of voices and moods: happy, sad, angry, sardonic, meditative… anything interesting I can scrounge. If you have something you think I might like, on any topic, please send it along to robinhelweglarsen@gmail.com. Submit:

  • Formal, or traditional verse: rhymed and metrical
  • Previously published
  • Must be your own work, you must have the rights to it
  • Send 3 to 10 poems in a single attachment, or in the body of the email
  • In a covering note, include a link to where I can read more of your work

I can’t promise to use your work, but I will read it and reply!

Potcake Poet’s Choice: Mindy Watson, ‘(Under)worlds Collide – (an ovillejo chain)’

Makaría, my girl, though you’ve heard 
Every word 
Of this myth I’ve recounted before, 
I implore 
You—indulge me again. For at last 
You’ve surpassed
Fragile childhood’s constraints. Now hold fast 
And let fantasy shift into creed. 
You’re Persephone’s daughter; please heed
Every word, I implore. You’ve surpassed 

Expectations I set at your birth.
From my dearth 
You drew bountiful joy; from disgrace 
You forged grace.
And it’s clear that your eyes could induce 
Mighty Zeus
To devise an elaborate ruse 
That would send you careening unseen
Down to Hades, where I was once queen. 
From my dearth, you forged grace mighty Zeus—

Who, three decades ago sent me bound 
Underground
As a chthonian bride—would aspire 
To acquire. 
Once, Demeter’s stray heart, all aglow
For the beau
She’d just met, allowed Zeus to sow woe.
He pared back the earth’s crust, laying waste 
To her harvest and left me displaced 
Underground to acquire. For the beau

Who then claimed me, I burned seven years. 
Through her tears, 
Fair Demeter cursed Earth and repealed
Springtime’s yield,
Vowing Winter would linger ‘til I
Bid goodbye 
To the underworld. Hades complied, 
For the innocent girl he’d once craved 
Was no more. As I rose, Mother waved 
Through her tears. Springtime’s yield bid goodbye

To its seven-year drought. But although
Status quo 
Seemed to flourish again, when detained
I’d retained 
Hades’ seed. It entrenched its black song
For so long 
In my belly, no matter how wrong,
The abyss still enthralled me. When eight 
More years passed, I spit out the innate 
Status quo I’d retained for so long,

And descended at twenty to reign
Hell’s domain.
Disavowing my schooling to seek 
Dark’s mystique,
In the city, I stripped on a stage
To assuage 
What convention had trapped in a cage.
And I deemed each male patron a thrall
On whose worship I’d draw to recall
Hell’s domain—dark’s mystique. To assuage 

The lacuna lost innocence spread 
In its stead,
I sought lust, ‘til a man who’d paid much 
Dared to touch 
Me as Zeus had once touched. But his ploy
To destroy
My esteem served instead to deploy 
Comprehension. Mercurial youth
Had to forfeit illusion that truth,
In its stead, dared to touch—to destroy.

While these decades I’ve learned to delight
In the light,
I acknowledge I’ll always endure
Dark’s allure. 
For the Hades against which I strain 
Lives to reign.
Makaría, I’ll need not explain
When, from underworld’s embers you rise
And return to me, blinking your eyes 
In the light—dark’s allure lives to reign.

Originally appeared in Star*Line, Fall 2018

Mindy Watson writes: “‘(Under)worlds Collide,’ which originally appeared in Star*Line’s Fall 2018 issue, constitutes my most ambitious attempt at restructuring a prior creative nonfiction/memoir essay (the initial ‘Underworlds Apart: A Story for Ailie’ piece appeared in Adelaide Magazine’s online March 2017 edition) into poetic form—in this case, an 8-stanza string of linked ovillejos. While the poem follows the original memoir’s metaphorical trajectory and overarching narrative—that is, a mother leverages a well-known Greek myth’s parallels to her own coming of age story to relay a “moral” (of sorts) to her burgeoning young daughter—I wanted the compressed, verse form to read less like a dark bedtime story and more like a literary song… but without losing the original’s intensity. While in hindsight I concede that my chosen form’s line/length constraints hampered my ability to clearly align my real-world characters to their mythological counterparts (a far easier feat via prose), I believe the form’s stipulation that each terminal ovillejo line contain a convergence of previously distinct phrases conferred a sense of interconnectedness between one elapsed past and another possible future that no mere prose ever could. I applaud George Simmers for penning ‘Strip,’ which made me remember my prior manifesto, and Robin for posting it.”

Mindy Watson is a formal verse poet and federal writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her poetry has appeared in venues including Snakeskin, Think Journal, the Poetry Porch, Orchards Poetry Journal, Better Than Starbucks, Eastern Structures, the Quarterday Review, and Star*Line. She’s also appeared in Sampson Low’s Potcake Poets: Form in Formless Times chapbook series and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s 2019 Dwarf Stars Anthology. You may read her work at: 
https://mindywatson.wixsite.com/poetryprosesite.

Photo: “Persephone’s Rape at Uffizi -II” by Egisto Sani is marked with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Potcake Poet’s Choice: George Simmers, ‘Strip’

The pub’s old-fashioned, and is somewhat seedy.
The clientele, all male, look lumpish, needy,
And when the stripper comes, their eyes are greedy.

A smile fixed firm upon her painted face,
She starts gyrating with a teasing grace,
Smoothly undressing at a languorous pace.

She struts through routine choreography
Removes her bra, and lets her breasts go free
The silent men watch her impassively.

And still they stare unmoving as she slips
The golden panties from her mobile hips,
Pauses a sec, then sensually unzips

Her smooth pink skin, and flings it open wide, 
To show the flesh and beating heart inside.
Her audience observes all this, dead-eyed.

The flesh from bone she now expertly rends,
And now it’s just her skeleton bops and bends
Seductively until the music ends.

Silence. She picks up flesh and skin, and drawers
So often dropped before on grubby floors.
The men are stirred to offer mild applause.

She dresses quickly, picks up a pint glass,
And then begins the customary pass
Among the men, who goggle at her arse,

Say nothing, but poke fivers in the pot
Because that is expected. They do not
Even try to meet her eye, or speak of what

They’ve seen, but, weekly ritual complete,
Get up, and, bodies drooping with defeat,
They head out to the grey indifferent street.

George Simmers writes: “It must be thirty years ago that I was in a run-down district of some industrial city, looking for a pub that would sell me a pint and a sandwich. I passed one with a sign that said ‘Stripper: 1.30’ and I thought: ‘Why not?’
The audience was very much as described in the poem, though the performance was less extreme. It was a fairly melancholy occasion, and one that stayed in my memory. It was a long while ago, and the pot that day probably filled with £1 notes (maybe even ten bob) rather than fivers, but I thought £5 would be the appropriate donation today – if lunchtime pub strippers still exist. They’re an endangered species in the North of England, I gather, and lockdown has probably killed them off completely.
I wrote this in triplets because the first three lines came to me together, and I thought I’d see how well I could continue. I feel the form somehow suits the subject, or at any rate is better than couplets, which tend to be faster-moving. The triplets seem (to me at least) sluggish and a bit unusual.
I dimly remember years ago seeing an animated film in which a stripper goes on to unzip her skin, so to that extent the poem is not original. But it was the deliberately unimpressed audience I really wanted to write about, and making them still stolid even after watching the impossible made my point, I hoped.
This is one of a series of poems that I’ve written over the past couple of years, telling stories that are extreme or somewhat gothic. I may get some of them together into a short collection later in the year.”

George Simmers used to be a teacher; now he spends much of his time researching literature written during and after the First World War. He has edited Snakeskin since 1995. It is probably the oldest-established poetry zine on the Internet. His work appears in several Potcake Chapbooks.
https://greatwarfiction.wordpress.com/
http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/

Photo: “luchavavoom stripper” by ourcommon is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.