We are delighted to announce the shortlists for the 2021 Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets
Winners will be revealed during an online broadcast event on Tuesday December 7th
Tickets must be pre-booked via the British Library website
Poetry Award Shortlist
Holly Singlehurst, The Sea Turned Thick as Honey, The Rialto
Matthew Hollis, Leaves, Hazel Press
Selima Hill, Fridge, The Rialto
Hugo Williams, Badlands, Mariscat Press
Gboyega Odubanjo, Aunty Uncle Poems, The Poetry Business
Leontia Flynn, Nina Simone is Singing, Mariscat Press
The Michael Marks Poetry Award Shortlist
Holly Singlehurst – THE SEA TURNED THICK AS HONEY (The Rialto)
To read The Sea Turned Thick as Honey by Holly Singlehurst is to meet so many startling, original and unforgettable images that it’s hard to imagine having not read it. From the first poem ‘Exoskeleton’ which imagines snails bumping together like teeth in a first kiss, to a later vision of the body as holding pain like copper coins, ‘sav[ing] it up and spend[ing] it/ never all at once’, there’s something corporeal and biting in these poems. Like the titular physio in the poem ‘My physio tells me a joint cracking looks like fireworks on an ultrasound’ or the speaker in the final poem, ‘Love Song from a Seaside Souvenir Shop’, Singlehurst is frantically searching for analogies, euphemisms, metaphors and objects capable of giving physical heft to big abstractions; to embodiment, to pain, to love. In her debut, no less, she pulls it off.
ODE AS YOU RUN ME A BATH
The pain bleeds from my jaw joint, curls itself
behind my eyes, blooms at my temples. I can’t
crawl out of my skin, and the pills don’t work.
When my body is aching, you make me soup.
You run me a bath with hot water, lavender soap;
the soft bubbles make a collar around my neck.
When I dip below the surface, I can hear my heart
beating in my ears. I am a bowl filled with blood.
The whole room sweats, the windows are steamed shut.
You take off your towel and step in. I ask if you know
how many litres of liquid there are in the human body.
You say nothing. You hold my face in your wet hands.
Matthew Hollis – Leaves (Hazel Press)
The shortest pamphlet on our list, and the only one with a single narrative line, Matthew Hollis’s Leaves is a moving meditation on the dynamics of a father/daughter relationship, set against the backdrop of autumn. In clear dialogue with Eliot’s Four Quartets, and laying bare the strange, mythic quality that lies under the surface of the everyday, it explores themes of departure and return, the loss and renewal of life, in musical sentences that pull us on mesmerically through to the pamphlet’s regenerative ending.
As the first snow blazed over Antrim
as London waited winter,
your mother locked in the unlit wards
of Isleworth, long beneath her landslide,
your father lost to the unmanned miles of corridor,
into this you came, furnace to flame:
deer, dear one, beloved, friend.
Frost shall freeze. Fire melt wood.
Earth grows, ice bridges, and water wears
a helmet of glass to shield its new-made life.
And a worn mind slips to a fire-pit in childhood:
wet lines looped on a cool lawn,
a wheelbarrow ferrying its deadwood and leaf-break –
those moss-run bones of broken branch
having no more and so more to give.
Cloak. Smoke. Barely blaze –
though flukes rose up through the copper beech leaves
as if they had somewhere to be.
Out with my dad in the scarfed cold
wondering where the burnt wood goes.
And ash is what cannot be taken:
potash, phosphate, calcium carbonate.
I don’t even know where your ashes are.
But all that they are is in everything.
All that they are I am.
And the embers were never an ending.
But the start of our investment in the chemical earth.
Selima Hill – Fridge (The Rialto)
Selima Hill’s Fridge is a compendium of jewel-like poems in which a dynamic accretion of objects – chinking tea-sets, mothers, rabbits, mealie-worms, gold Birkenstocks, grunting babies, morphine, cigarettes and, of course, the fridge in its various guises – is marshalled, with Hill’s trademark humour and with great tenderness, into the service of the book’s central themes: presence and absence, the suicides of friends, the dead and the problem of how we grieve for them.
STANDING IN THE PRESENCE OF MY FATHER
Standing in the presence of my father,
I feel as uneasy as a child
standing in a field full of fridges
with all the doors torn off
and I can see
all exactly the same,
lying on their sides,
with perfect ponytails.
Hugo Williams – Badlands (Mariscat Press)
Hugo Williams makes a virtue of emotionalism in these twenty-six sonnets of sorts, showing the poet hungry for human connection as he rides the Tube in London and walks “nut-strewn roads” on “hopeless football Saturdays” as he writes in ‘Frosted Glass Weather. Alternating between looking up old girlfriends and failing to make a good cup of Horlicks, Badlands is a compelling diary of creative lows (“nothing going on creatively”) and lustful highs (I don’t care who I make love with / so long as it is love we make”), placing the author’s elegant sense of humour fully on display.
Sol y Sombra
I think of the luminous skeletons
hanging outside the old Sol y Sombra
where we used to dance.
They jiggled their bones in the wind,
bumping their bodies together
in the Latin American way.
London was our dancefloor then.
We danced our danse macabre
on the head of a pin.
We danced in the street afterwards,
suspended for a moment in time.
We bumped our bodies together
in the Latin American way.
We jiggled our bones in the wind.
Gboyega Odubanjo – Aunty Uncle Poems (The Poetry Business)
There is a sense of constant displacement in these poems, the dialogical struggle between the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and then’, the real of apparent incommensurability of languages that ‘translate poorly’. This merges into a specific formal experimentation where Odubanjo’s own written words refuse to take the shape of capital letters, a kind of subversive statement. Kinship – as is clear from the very title of the pamphlet – becomes the scaffolding for the poems and a constant reference for the reader. A daring and delicate, bitter and yet funny touch in describing the ordinary, distinguishes this pamphlet as being a powerful achievement.
There Is Joy Breaking Here
and uncle is drunk already. uncle has his nephews
his special brew holding him up and happier
than the rest of us this bloodshot day of meat
and gisting. uncle grills burgers in knock-off birkenstocks.
plays coquet for aunty long since tired of his face
and fatuous self. uncle deep in meniscus. uncle cracks
the bone and swallows marrow. does not sweat or spill
a sip. uncle of independent means. clapping on the ones
and threes. jiving. got the old lady and the home office
and type 2 diabetes and maze and frankie beverly
clapping on behind him
Leontia Flynn – Nina Simone is Singing (Mariscat Press)
The judges were unanimously drawn to the felt emotions and witty humour of the skillfully-crafted lyrics in Nina Simone Is Singing. Leontia Flynn is one of the finest emotional chroniclers of our neurotic inner world during what Flynn has called the ‘Age of Interruption’, in other words our current way of life, replete with its psychic overloads and unrelenting connectivity, leaving Flynn to ponder exactly how our selfhood is assembled, and how far we wander from those constructs.
Now that the verdict’s in
Now that the verdict’s in,
the voices raised, the arguments advanced
and assets tabled
for a split, the city stops
seeming to ask: ‘What now?’
The streets are bare at noon
as though inhaled. A sense of locked rooms
and hasty consultation
and over the vacant lot
beyond my desk, three herring gulls reel up
protesting: high and white
like ticker tape reversed.
Airborne relief. ‘What now’
for words – or for the hate boils
and courses through nervous systems?
Look, I’m pushing back my chair and going home,
‘that once-bright casket
from which the jewels have been freshly
robbed’, by the river-road
which follows the curve of the earth
and where, left since the workers downed their tools,
the trees on either side
crowd in – weighed down
with both neglect and bounty.
The Michael Marks Publishers' Award Shortlist
A long-established press on the scene, Mariscat Press stood out to the judges for the bold clarity and explicit engagement of the pamphlets. These depict ‘a world of people and nature’, presenting a wide range of themes which ultimately conflate into the charming liveliness and formal vigour of every poem. The thoughtful choice of each cover image and of typefaces further shows Mariscat Press’s commitment to translating themes into images which can call out to the reader, further signalling this year’s entry as a remarkable accomplishment.
The judges unanimously praised Bad Betty Press for the wide range of topics addressed and sensibilities encompassed. Yet the invisible and the unspeakable take centre stage: shifting from the more intimate to political issues. These pamphlets drag the reader into a live journey, revealing an editorial attention to formally daring poets and poems and an ability to bring to the fore multi-layered and skilful voices. This is complemented by the press’s aesthetically recognisable cover style, marked by the consistency of white on black yet personalised cover designs.
Over the past few years, the publishing arm of London’s Exiled Writers Ink writing group has consistently issued pamphlets featuring poets of the highest quality drawn from all parts of the world, including Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Syria, Algeria and Afghanistan, supporting the urgent work of deracinated writers, migrants and refugees. Their mentorship scheme, pairing emerging poets with established tutors and editors makes for a list that brims with verve and vivacity.
In a year with such strong representation from established names, it’s remarkable that a press focused on emerging talent has made such a powerful impact on this years’ judges. More than half of ignition’s pamphlets this year were debuts and – from the emotional intensity of Kostya Tsolakis’ Athens adolescence in Ephebos to Zein Sa’dedin’s evocation of the neighbourhoods on the seven hills of Amman in Staircase – these pamphlets have a unity that belies their rich diversity. Whether it’s down to the iconic design which lends a seriousness to the pamphlet as a form, or the high level of dedication to developing and mentoring the emerging poets it publishes, the result is a press that publishes tight, well-worked and vital early collections that sit together as well as they stand apart.