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I went to the launch of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain on Wednesday, a stunning collection edited by Heather Taylor Johnson, and the first of its kind in Australia from UWA Publishing.

Launched by Peter Goldsworthy, this is an exquisite book; to be absorbed, examined, shared and treasured.  In his foreword, Peter explores poetry as a cathartic process, the ‘cleansing of emotional wounds’, with ‘much hard-earned wisdom and hard-wrung poetry in the pages that follow.’

A plethora of diseases and conditions are represented – cancer, mental health, disability, postnatal depression, ageing and dementia.  Heather herself suffers from Ménière’s disease, an imbalance of the inner ear, and one she writes about here.  But what makes this anthology so special is its structure; three poems from each poet preceded by a narrative describing their illness and the impact it has.

And Heather has gathered together some fine Australian poets – the likes of Fiona Wright, Andy Jackson and Stuart Barnes alongside those who read at the Adelaide launch – Gareth Roi Jones, Ian Gibbins, Rachael Mead, Rob Walker and Steve Evans.

Gareth suffers from migraines, a debilitating condition painfully conveyed in his poem ‘aching’:

hours when simply standing up

is a pickaxe

when the growling dog

won’t let you through the gate.

Ian is a neuroscientist so knows about the body, how it works and how it doesn’t, demonstrated by his brilliant performance of ‘Cataplexy’, a poem which explores this rare condition where extremes of emotion trigger a switch from consciousness into a waking dream-like state.

Rachael was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, states eloquently expressed in ‘What lies beneath my skin’, which opens with:

The ringing telephone ratchets me into tension.

providing an insight into her daily management, when walking the dog offers some relief:

I put myself in the path of wildness

let it fill my long and hollow bones.

Rob’s condition is chronic osteoarthritis, a degenerative bone disease, where in his poem ‘radiology’ (composed with Magdalena Ball), ‘holding our future in nervous hands, we come with X-rays’, likening this process to ‘reading the stars within’, an ‘internal astrology’, a captivating image.

Steve suffers with temporal epilepsy, experiencing Alice-in-Wonderland-type moments of surreal forgetfulness.  In the ‘Body Electric’, he shares what it feels like:

My body is short-circuiting.

a tumultuous journey culminating in the final stunning lines:

And my words are brittle copies

Of what I used to do. My fingers fail.

I just can’t make a fist of this.

These snapshots are enough to tempt anyone living with chronic illness and pain to seek the bigger picture captured in this collection.  And they need not be a fan of poetry to be able to appreciate the unequivocal raw beauty of the afflicted self.

I went to the launch by Carol Lefevre of Jean Harley was here last night at Dymocks bookshop.

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This is Heather Taylor Johnson’s second novel, Pursuing Love and Death her first published in 2013 by Harper Collins, a domestically rich story with the protagonist suffering from Meniere’s disease, a debilitating condition of the inner ear causing vertigo and tinnitus, which Heather herself battles with. So Heather’s second novel has been hotly anticipated.

Published by the University of Queensland Press, it explores love, relationships and the impact of absence. Jean Harley – wife, mother, lover, dancer – is sunshine in the lives of those around her, but when tragedy strikes they are forced to continue without her. Despite a little unravelling and a few storms, Jean leaves a powerful legacy to abate them. I’ve heard it’s a tear-jerker

Heather is first and foremost a poet, with a number of sole and collaborative collections to her name, and her lyricism is reflected in her exquisite prose.  I recall Heather sharing an extract from the draft of this book last year at a reading with other poets, which has stayed with me, and Heather’s knack for scene-setting is like an intimacy shared, demonstrated by the excerpt she read yesterday from the chapter “Emotional Fishing”. Here’s a snapshot:

Charley sat as far back as he could, feeling out of place, though that was nothing new. His bald head shone under the fluoro lights and the back of his neck itched – an eczema problem that flared up when he was nervous. He kept smoothing his long beard to a point – another nervous tic. One might think he was made of tougher stuff because if this was an eye-for-eye world, here was a man who’d seen things that should’ve blinded him, a man who’d done the sort of things people don’t talk about at the dinner table but read about in newspapers over breakfast…”

Quoted as being “a book to savour” by Hannah Kent, it’s clear this will be another stunning read from an extraordinarily talented writer. A visceral narrative with complex, relatable characters, Heather offers us a world to get lost in, absorb, making us ponder our place in our own.

Last night I went to the launch of Heather Taylor Johnson’s new collection of poems, Meanwhile, the Oak, at The Mockingbird Lounge.  This is Heather’s fourth book of poetry, this time published by Five Islands Press, with the cover photo by Rachael Mead.

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The collection was launched by Alison Flett, another brilliant local poet, who spoke about some of the themes in these poems; family, pets and most noticeably the belly, a symbol of health and fertility.

Heather stepped up to share just two poems – ‘They said’ and ‘This old house’ – the first for her three children who did an excellent job of bookselling and the other for her husband, whose home brew proved very popular.

‘They said’ is an expertly crafted braided poem, weaving Heather’s thoughts with those of her children to give us a snapshot of their lives:

‘Crawling beside me, a tiny question mark

in uncertain darkness says

There was someone in a box

It was raining

It was in my dream

And then later, to reinforce the parent/child dynamic:

‘Because I hold fear in my teeth like old fillings, I listen when they say

It’s scary at night, so dark.

I wish the moon would sleep with me

‘This old house’ is essentially a love poem, but the kind that has thorns as well as the flower to really make you feel.  It’s bursting with passion, movement and heat:

‘In the living room / let’s rub together like carpet and shag.

Let’s read each other in the study.

On the woodpile / let’s aim for splinters.’

And the final lines are simply stunning:

‘On the veranda / let’s be stars and go oooo and ahhh as we shoot off in

every direction.’

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Heather’s work always draws a big crowd because it’s visceral, gritty, absorbing. Imagine gorging on a piece of fruit, the juices running down your chin, the tang in your mouth, the colours in your head.  For me, this is Heather’s poetry; in the moment, unabashed, full of life, sharing the very essence of herself and what it means to be human.

with a bang! And having missed last week’s readings, I was determined to make this week’s, the line-up simply too good to miss – Matt Hooton, Rebekah Clarkson, Heather Taylor Johnson and Andy Jackson.

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Hosted as ever by the highly entertaining Ken Bolton at the Dark Horsey Bookshop, Matt was first up with a series of questions for the audience – did Anne of Green Gables make it over here? Is Evel Knievel considered an icon here? And were we familiar with the concept of party lines? Setting the scene for an interesting read of his latest short story ‘Is this our inheritance our Lord and is that your voice we hear on the party line?’ We were presented with a scene in which two young boys are watching Evel Knievel perform his stunts on TV during his Korean tour, where ‘there is too much rocket, not enough bike’. What I particularly loved about this was the repetition of a raven image throughout the description of a seemingly ordinary suburban scene – ‘a prescription of ravens’ when the single mother knocks back a few painkillers in the bathroom; ‘an abandonment of ravens’ when Evel Knievel lands in North Korean airspace; culminating in the line ‘the inheritance of ravens goes quiet’. A thought-provoking piece.

Next to take the stage was Rebekah and it was her first time reading here. I knew of Rebekah, but was not familiar with her work. She read a piece of personal non-fiction called ‘Learning to swim’, which had been commissioned by an American journal. It pulled you in from the start, opening with ‘I don’t want to talk about the storm’ where after we learn her daughter was out at sea during it with the story also alluding to a meta-physical storm. And so we hear how Rebekah ‘fake swims’, which is considered an art form, a ‘careful construction of circumstance’, breathing out on the right side only. A memory is shared of her father trying to teach her to swim by literally throwing her in the deep, a somewhat traumatic experience, which ends in an apology from her father, the only time she ever hears one. To progress her ‘fake swimming’ Rebekah joins a swim class ‘full of pissed off women having done everything for everyone’ where she learns bilateral breathing and soon starts to ‘crave the silent underwater world’. Rebekah read well, thoroughly engaging her audience.

And then it was Heather, to whom I could listen for hours! Heather read a chapter from her forthcoming book from University of Queensland Press now in its final stages of editing. Here we find Orion, son of Jean who is in a coma in hospital having been diagnosed with cancer. In his bedroom ‘sunlight splashed the walls’ as he plays with a toy plane, which ‘has to follow the bottom racing stripe otherwise the world will blow up’. Death pervades this chapter, as we learn that Orion’s Nan also had cancer and often talks of dying, so he seeks out ‘Very Viv’, the ‘most fun of all the grown-ups’. When visiting his Mum in hospital, his friend, Juniper, tells Orion that his Mum is going to die (Juniper then gets scolded by her own for saying this). So Orion seeks release in the hospital playground, playing monsters with Juniper and a boy they befriend with an eye patch. Later, driving home with his Dad, Orion imagines they are ‘the only car in Adelaide on a conveyor belt’, pictures the danger and feels he has ‘died many times in his mind’. Big concepts for a little boy, can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

Andy closed the set reading the only poetry of the night. He shared a few from his collection the thin bridge, back in print again from Whitmore Press, and began with ‘Double helix’, which I remember from Heather’s poetry night, a poem about passing on genes with cleverly repetitive lines – ‘genetic screening is not an anagram for suicide’, ‘a disorder of connective tissue sewn into my own’, ‘you can be so lonely you don’t want to be touched’. Next came the poem ‘The platform’ about a young bird being placed out of harm’s way followed by ‘On being sculpted’ by his partner, in which he asks ‘will I ever be finished?’ and ‘who threw that yellow square across the floor; the moon, the streetlight or us?’ Andy then read from his next collection Immune systems, available from Transit Lounge, based on his visit to India, the first a string of statements connected by their strangeness. A ‘schoolgirl yawns’ with ‘henna snaking around her hands’ and ‘In the courtyard’ there is medical tourism as Andy is diagnosed by a man who ‘holds my wrist like a flute’. The last poem shared was about returning to Australia, to ‘wilting leaves and cobwebbed pegs’ and ‘a neighbour hammering a nail into a mortgage’, such vivid images.

It was a wonderful evening rich in literary ‘wowness’, which I know is not a word but I don’t care, it was fab.

 

I was invited to an exclusive gathering at Heather Taylor Johnson’s house last night to listen to the poetry of Andy Jackson, here from Victoria to complete his PhD at Adelaide University. I hadn’t read any of Andy’s work before the invite and once I did, was looking forward to hearing more.

Andy Jackson

Andy has performed widely, received awards for his work and been extensively published; his first full length collection, Among the regulars, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize for Poetry in 2010 and in 2013, his collection, the thin bridge, won the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize. Andy has Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder of connective tissue, and the impact of this on his life is explored in much of his work.

The thin bridge

Heather introduced Andy, who started with a new poem, ‘What I have under my shirt’, which he told us had been rejected by a few journals and after hearing it I thought, more fool them. The poem offered several ways to explain his ‘body shaped like a question mark’ to use Andy’s words, comparing it to ‘a speed hump your eyes slow down over on approach’, followed by other explanations such as a ‘backpack’, ‘nothing’ or ‘infinite shirts’. It was a thought-provoking piece, really quite profound.

Next came a poem about parenthood called ‘Double helix’ in which Andy used line repetition; ‘what looks like a pattern is composed of chaos’, ‘I didn’t think of having children until I met you’ and ‘you can be so lonely you don’t want to be touched’. Powerful stuff.

Andy then shared what he described as a kind of love poem for his partner Rachael, a poignant description of them taking a bath, with the beautiful line of ‘I slipped, bumped my thinking on your actual body’ as he is almost dumbfounded by what’s happening.

‘The elephant’ was a poem about the proverbial one in the room, literally, where ‘there isn’t much room for us’ and so they are forced to ‘inch along the wall’, culminating in the wonderful last line of ‘He reverently lifts my arm, as if it were a tusk, lifeless’.

Andy closed his first set with a poem about the decomposition of a bike in Coburg called ‘The bike itself’, telling us how pieces were taken away over time so he finds ‘beauty in absence’, leaving ‘memories not even lavender-patterned wallpaper can hold onto’.

Unfortunately I didn’t stay for the second half (more fool me!), but it was a delight meeting Andy albeit fleetingly and to hear him read. It was a gorgeous event, filled with candles, soft lights and bright stars, both above and of the SA poetry scene, with Jill Jones, Rachael Mead, Alison Flett, Kathryn Hummel, David Mortimer, Mike Hopkins, Pam Maitland, Aidan Coleman and Amelia Walker, who were also invited to share a poem or two.

But lets return to Andy. His work is achingly beautiful, haunting, conjuring images you just want to put your arms around or slip into your pocket to take home to keep. If you’re not familiar with Andy’s poetry, I would strongly encourage you to get familiar; his collections have already been ordered.

At the beginning of the year, I reviewed my subscriptions to journals and magazines to make sure I’m getting as broad a spectrum of contemporary poetry as possible. A new addition is Tincture Journal.

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The journal is edited by Daniel Young, also the founder, and is published quarterly as an e-book showcasing work of both established and new voices in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. Stuart Barnes is the poetry editor, who I was thrilled to hear from after he selected my poem ‘Bordertown’ to appear in the current issue.

It’s true what they say – read a copy of the publication you’re submitting to – and having purchased an issue and finding brilliant work from the likes of Kathryn Hummel and Heather Taylor Johnson, I wanted to join them. And have  🙂

I would recommend a subscription to Tincture. It offers a unique cost-effective way to read the journal, which delivers a wide range of thought-provoking work, a finger on the literary pulse of now.

Sunday evening was a divine mixture of fine food and company, as we devoured a three-course meal and the words of five Adelaide-based poets and novelists who shared a series of water-themed readings.

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Held in Sarah’s Sustainable Café in Semaphore as part of Adelaide’s Fringe-frenzy month, the line-up was impressive – Ray Tyndale, Mag Merrilees, Rachael Mead, Heather Taylor Johnson and Alison Flett – and Stuart Gifford, and his partner and co-chef Marian Prosser, did an amazing job of hosting and feeding!

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Ray was first up, a local poet living by the sea in Semaphore who writes a poem a day (impressive). Ray opened her set with a poem called ‘Dolphins’ written last July, describing how a mother and baby were ‘turning and surging in the shallows’, an image you could so clearly see.  Next up was a poem called ‘Menace’ where the sea ‘claims at least one to itself each year’ followed by ‘The kite-surfer’ where it ‘erupted into white horses’.  In ‘Winter on Semaphore beach’, there is ‘half a rainbow, a brilliant half’ and in ‘Blue seaweed’ ‘magic happened’.  Ray read well, was both warm and engaging, her work painting a picture of everyday events we could all relate to, as well as making reference to the highly variable temperatures in our state when ‘thunder rumbled like an upset stomach’.

Just before the main course was served, Mag started by explaining how she is primarily a novelist who dips into poetry. Mag began with an old poem, ‘The whales’, written 25 years ago about the time when these glorious mammals came back into Encounter Bay, watching as they were ‘rocked weightless by the waves’.  Next up was a poem about Kangaroo Island where she was ‘drawn homeward by moonlight’ followed by another short piece, ‘Flotsam’, which she later learnt was a Haibu (Haiku embedded in prose).  Mag’s last share was ‘Sea ground stones’, a much longer piece, both interesting and entertaining, which opened with the line ‘letters from my sister start mid-thought’ and then went onto explain Mag’s ‘digestion song’, and how she plans ‘to meet every pebble on the beach’ referring to them as ‘crumbs of mountain’.

Rachael was up next who confessed she had to trawl through the archives living in the hills, so began with a poem about a beach walk she took to calm down after a rather irritating visitor had left, where she ‘was the only one with untamed hair and sneakers’ and ‘the idea of day makes the hills blush’. Rachael then read a series of sonnets about her encounter with a great white shark while cage diving in Port Lincoln (on our to do list!) from her new chapbook, The Quiet Blue World and Other Poems, published by Garron Publishing and having heard them before, they were just as stunning.  ‘In the kayak’ followed, a very atmospheric piece likening the paddles to cutlery which ‘feast on platelets of silence’ and in ‘After crossing the bridge the first time’ to Hindmarsh Island, ‘an ant crawls across the page like punctuation gone wild’.  Rachael finished with a poem called ‘Lost on the coast road’ ‘in a car like a metaphor gone wrong’ through ‘a tangle of stars and streetlights’.

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As we were tucking into a delicious dessert, Heather began reading an excerpt from her new novel due out next year from University of Queensland Press, which focuses on a character called Jean Harley who is either dead or in a coma (Heather’s own words!). The passage was from a chapter called ‘The house of noise’ from the viewpoint of the mother-in-law Marion, who describes her daughter-in-law as ‘a sunken body in white sheets’ and tells of her own secret battle with cancer where ‘she lived on a lake, but today it sounded like an ocean’.  On a trip to West Beach with her son Stan and grandson Orion, Marion has a rare moment of contact with the former when ‘she cherished the linger, felt safe she could melt’ and then of Orion, ‘his smile as vast as the shoreline’.  The next passage was from the chapter ‘Very Viv’, where Viv is beach walking during that time of the month when ‘her uterus is emptying itself’ as she contemplates her affair with a professor who had had a fling with Jean before she married Stan.  What Heather shared was enough to make me want to buy the book and read more!  Heather finished with the poem ‘Gearing up’ about Adelaide’s Fringe season from her collection Thirsting for Lemonade published by Interactive Press, just perfect.

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Alison rounded off the readings who, having been in Australia now for five years from Scotland and a former resident poet in Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, began with a poem called ‘First creek’ in the shape of a creek on a scroll of paper. With ‘surfaces reflecting scraps of sky’, water that ‘petered into pools and puddles’ and the ‘sun repeatedly paddle-beating my skull’, we were there with Alison on her journey.  The creek is compared with her sweat and the water at lunch, as she notes how ‘magpies look the same but make the strangest of noises’ and what is brilliantly referred to as the ‘disappointment of crows’ (so true!).  Alison then read ‘Pittance’, a poem that talks of the primeval presence trailing them, the animal they once were, followed by ‘Five ways to hear the ocean’ which was just that.  Alison finished with a poem I’ve heard her read before and just love, ‘The map of belonging’, which will form part of the new collection she’s working on funded by an Arts SA grant, ‘where home is a paper folded and torn’ and ‘you find yourself landless’, beautiful.

And there endeth a wonderful evening! A fantastic experience I was thrilled to be a part of.  And if you’re ever in Semaphore check out the cafe, it’s well worth a visit.

A wonderful event hosted by the adorable East Avenue Books – a beautiful mix of poetry, champagne, friends and sunshine, what better way to spend a Sunday afternoon!

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Peter, the bookshop owner, MC’d the event and started by introducing talented local poet Jill Gower to officially launch eight of the 11 chapbooks in the Picaro Poets series published by Ginninderra Press (those from South Australian poets).

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Jill briefly spoke about each poet in the series, quoting specific lines and sharing snapshots of their work to convey the variety and depth the new line has to offer. Next up was Brenda Matthews, editor of the series, and who is a fine poet herself with a chapbook of her own in there (published under her maiden name Brenda Eldridge). Brenda paid special thanks to her partner Stephen, who was lurking in the corner and later, I discovered, prefers to stay in the background, for his advice and hard work in producing the new-look chapbooks. Brenda also made special mention of me, who was the first to be accepted in the new series and got pulled in by the first poem I found out after!

So I was first up and read three poems from Smashed glass at midnight – ‘Admission’, ‘Offspring’ and ‘Visiting hours’ – all of which some of the audience had heard before at my launch and there were a few familiar faces – Jules Leigh Koch, Heather Taylor Johnson and Rob Walker.

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Next up was a reading from Kate Deller-Evans’ collection Open Inspection, who unfortunately was not able to attend, quickly followed by Margo Poirier who read an entertaining poem about Centrelink from her chapbook Wellspring. Zenda Vecchio was up next reading from her collection Luminous, followed by Lyn Williams and Rosemary Winderlich reading from their collections Stray Thoughts and Suspended Lives respectively. Finally it was Brenda’s turn, who shared a delightful piece about how even the toughest nuts can have a soft centre from her chapbook Not what they might seem.

Jude Aquilina, an amazing local poet, was also not able to attend so I brought a copy of her chapbook, Ship Tree, to read at leisure when I have chance to breathe again. I have also been asked to be guest poet at a local poetry group, so watch this space for further details!

Now, I apologise in advance.  This should be a review of the Lee Marvin readings on Tuesday.  It is not.  It’s mainly about me.

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Keeping me company on the bill was Ken Bolton, host of the evening, Matt Hooton and Heather Taylor Johnson.  Ken was up first to read two poems.  I should say what they were about and had planned to make my usual notes but alas, found it difficult to concentrate (sorry Ken!).  Next up was Matt who read a piece of prose after setting the scene of being invited to look at a patch of ancient dirt (that much I remember and it really doesn’t do Matt’s work any justice, useless I am!).  And then there was me.

There were some big names in the crowd – my usual gang of Rachael Mead, Mike Hopkins, Alison Flett and Heather, and then Peter Goldsworthy, Shannon Burns, Mike Ladd and David Mortimer, one of whom told me beforehand they had come especially to hear me read so you know, no pressure.  And just like my launch, initially a bit nervous in the lead up but once up there, calm.  Strange.  I read 7 poems, two of which I had read at the launch, managed to get a few laughs in the right places and left the audience with thoughtful faces.  Result.  All after finding out that two of my poems had been published in the new Friendly Street Poets Anthology launched earlier in the evening at another venue, which was a real surprise and something I knew nothing about, one of which had been shortlisted by Mike Ladd for the Satura Prize (the best poem in the anthology) and then also discovered I’ve been shortlisted in the mindshare poetry awards, the winners of which will read at the Festival of Now in October.  So you could say my head was pretty spaced out, helped/hindered by the two glasses of wine I had had.  But again, apparently, I did good.  And again, really enjoyed it.  This may become a habit.  Why I’m writing in short sentences I don’t know.  Maybe I’m still slightly stunned.

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Now Heather’s set I remember (yay!) because I could relax.  Heather read two pieces of prose with a focus on her mother so emotive stuff, followed by a poem in three parts about coping with Meniere’s disease, a condition Heather herself suffers with which she projected onto Graham, the protagonist in her brilliant debut novel Pursuing Love and Death published by Harper Collins.  The poem was beautifully poignant brimming with sea imagery, with lines like ‘and with a body craving salt you are full of ocean’ to convey the debilitating giddiness associated with the disease.  I have no doubt this will feature in The Fractured Self Anthology Heather is currently pulling together.

So you know, back to me.  I managed to sell some more copies of my chapbook, with requests to sign from above famous poets(!) and left the Dark Horsey Bookshop stocked with a few aswell.  Definitely another night to remember – what a blast!

Wednesday saw a collaboration between wonderful local poets Mike Hopkins and Heather Taylor Johnson at the Halifax Café, reading a few poems written on their recent jaunt to the UK where they cycled, yes cycled, around the Yorkshire Dales.

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Introduced by Ian Gibbins, responsible for Friendly Street Poets communications, Mike was first up beginning with a poem ‘From Wensleydale’ (after Jen Hadfield), which was inspired by the place names they came across during their trip. A clever poem with a strong sense of the great outdoors followed by another called ‘Hills’ and ‘Walls, the latter closing with the gorgeous image of ‘the land’s flanks stitched with drystone ribs.’ Mike also read a piece called ‘Burning the Bartle’ about the annual tradition in a village they stayed in where an effigy of Bartle is burned – ‘Bartle the sheep stealer, Bartle the pig thief, Bartle the giant’ – and finished his travel poems with ‘The Fox and Hounds’, describing a typical British pub with its eclectic name and clientele. Mike is an entertaining poet, telling it how it is, wonderfully conveyed through the poems ‘I could yet turn into’ where he describes a recent eye test, ‘Taking off Tony Abbott’s clothes’ a hilarious commentary of just that, and finished with a piece about the kind of poems to avoid reading aloud, which left very little!

Heather opened with a poem called ‘Feet’, one of two poems written while away, which painted an almost surreal picture and yet was literally grounded. Using a theme of perceptions, Heather then read ‘How to identify an author at a reading’, a stunningly simple description, followed by poems about pregnancy with the fantastic line of ‘a belly that is feral with what it’s done’ and a three part poem that examined being pregnant from the outside, inside and bottom up, beautifully poignant. Heather has a lullaby voice, woos us into her world where ‘The kitchen floor’ gives us visceral images of home and heat and in ‘The cake is done, I am done’ a relationship is cooling. In ‘The sick room’ we watch as ‘he offers to feed you spoonfuls of himself’ and then takes us on a journey with poems about traveling through South America. Heather finished her set by advertising her ‘Fractured Self‘ anthology, a collection of poems that will focus on the different facets of human nature when impacted by illness, a brilliant concept and one I plan to contribute to.