C.L. Dallat et al, Divers: The Poetry Workshop Anthology (London, New Dehli, New York, Toronto: Aark Arts, 2008), 169 pps., £11.95 (pbk) ISBN-10: 1899179860 ISBN-13: 978-1899179862
Suman Bhuchar and Steven Barfield
Thirteen poets, one hundred and one poems: Divers is an anthology marking twenty-five successful years of the Poetry Workshop, a London group founded in 1983 that meets once or twice a month to discuss each other’s work critically and supportively and to give constructive feedback. Divers itself is published by Aark Arts, a London-based publishing house, founded by the poet Sudeep Sen, specialising in literature and the arts. However, as Sen explains in the preface, the ‘overall editorial content was decided democratically and collectively by the current active members of the Poetry Workshop’ (p. 13) whilst the poems and their style of presentation were selected by the poets themselves. Plurality is an important part of the book’s design too; the striking cover displays two women seen from behind wearing what seems to be partial niqab, with accoutrements such as a handbag and a backpack, who are on a boat, perhaps on the Thames. This is a fitting visual image for the pun in the title of the book: ‘Divers’ reflecting the diversity of contemporary London, yet also suggesting a dive into the water as an image of transformations, new beginnings or older continuations. The book is nicely produced with the beginning of each poet’s selection set off by different photographs of bicycles in the city.
It is easy to forget that while academics often focus on poets and other writers in terms of the ways they represent London through their texts, much of what constitutes London literature is (and always has been) an intricate web of informal and more formal relationships between writers engaged in a conversation about being writers. As Leona Medlin and Duncan McGibbon tell us in their useful introduction to the book, membership in the group has been through invitation and the group has remained with an average of about ten participants, although the actual composition has inevitably changed somewhat over the twenty-five years. Set up by McGibbon and Medlin, two of the poets whose work is featured in the book, the collection has no ‘in-house style’, which reflects the mechanism by which the group operates: instead the book offers a varied selection of contemporary poetry written in a range of styles. All the poets are technically accomplished and have had their work previously published. What unites them, however, is the desire to come together and belong to the ‘workshop’ as part of their creative practice.
first poet to be featured is C. L. Dallat, who joined the Poetry Workshop in 1987. His poetry displays strong imagery amid dealing with major themes from the point of view of ordinary individuals: ‘Abide With Me’ deals with the nuclear holocaust and is lilting and iambic in its rhythm while ‘City Love Songs’, written in a more free-flowing rhythm and as what appears to be one long sentence, conjures up a sense of a busy, fragmentary and diverse city. ‘Love on a Rock’, which originally won the Strokestown International Poetry competition prize, is another poem which combines leaping rhythms and strong imagery with a passionate attention to the mysterious lives of others:
And you’ll know then in truth for children
Of the rocks for they’ll have preset
The Xerox’s counter right up to the thousand
(‘Love on a Rock’)
Jane Draycott, who joined in 1999 and who also has an interest in audio compositions, offers several minimal, seemingly calm, but in fact rather intensely measured poems, sometimes with strong London settings (‘St Mary Overie’, ‘The Fair Miles’) and a certain visionary gleam in ‘Sky Man’ and ‘Wayzgoose’, for example:
Waist-high the wheat is talking, the great
Conversation. We motor past, foreheads
To the glass, and climb through hedgerows
Epstein, an experienced poet and ‘occasional’ reader at the Troubadour Café in London, has been part of the workshop since 1984. His poems are contemplative but also of robust and frequently relentless rhythm, engaged with the life of politics and the political life—considering what, if anything, poetry can do to assert value in such a world. ‘Still Life’, for example, imagines bluntly the trauma of war (‘stare of the dying child who held/an empty ration tin’) while ‘Voyages’ asks what poetry can say about all this:
What can complete
Their unfinished appeal?
Not lines of poetry, not
reflection, nor a life lived to some conclusion
‘Nothing to Tell’ draws on autobiographical themes about growing up in a socialist suburban household, ‘one sort of English childhood’, as Epstein locates this, with its own mantra (‘our dad’s stints selling the Daily Worker each / Saturday morning’) to be seemingly replaced by another as the economy improves, as the children have ‘chauffeured cars and trips to shows’.
The next poet featured is Chris Hedley-Dent, who was introduced to the workshop by Epstein in 1985. He is also a painter and his work has a strong narrative pulse and is visually focused, recounting a story or an incident sharpened through the concentration of poetry. ‘Buzzards’ is about the magnificence of sighting this mighty bird of prey while ‘Motorcyclist’ is about an accident of a biker, who miraculously escapes injury. ‘Ground Zero, St Paul’s Chapel’, for example, isolates at its end a moment of shock and awe:
and behind the fence,
the blackened cross of twisted girders
overshadows the two great voids, concealed BR>(‘Ground Zero, St Paul’s Chapel’)
Elizabeth James, who joined in 1984 and works in audio collaboration with Draycott, presents a diverse range of poems, from experimental poetry, such as ‘[Across Amsterdam]’ with its shards of arresting stanzas arranged on the page, to her untitled poetic conceit on the theory of perspective (64) and ‘Poem’ which can be described as a fast monologue, sometimes reminiscent of Winnie’s speeches in Beckett’s Not I, that everyone has perhaps experienced at least once in his or her life:
Home seeing nothing hearing nothing caring for nothing
But thinking perhaps that you could understand me
James is followed by founder Duncan McGibbon, who now lives in Switzerland. Here the classically elegant and cannily lyrical poems are redolent of people and places, often in continental Europe. ‘Jardin De Luxembourg’ catches the transitory nature of the famous park as a place of assignations, trysts and misplaced lives in an almost cinematographic fashion, but in the end leaves the position of the unnamed narrator elusive and perhaps contingent. ‘A Pastoral, Bath’ is a witty and ironic take on how to conduct ‘a ragged-edge life / In the perfect / symmetry of the past’. Effectively the speaker is living out our present-day in a historical city that appears to be preserved exclusively for use in period drama. McGibbon seems to ask if we too become textual figures within such a city, but perhaps that is as always, if not our heritage, then our inevitable destiny:
I leave heavy-hearted
Become an allegory,
Interpretation (‘A Pastoral, Bath’)
McGibbon’s selection is followed by that of Leona Medlin, co-founder of Poetry Workshop, who offers some new work: ‘The Adventures of Angie Weiss—Part One’. This is a contemporary invocation of the mock-heroic or mock-epic poem. Weiss, the female protagonist, seems like a latter-day Moll Flanders trying to make her way in a fallen world in rhythmical poetry that often reminds the reader of conversational and colloquial gambits. In contrast she also offers shorter, precise and lyrical poems here such as ‘Astrochemistry’ or ‘Thrown’, the former considering our physical origins in a cosmic frame that achieves a kind of materialist transcendence in a secular world, were that not a contradiction in terms:
star-stuff creatures we
chill molecules gas dust
The catalyst of birthing
stars and ultraviolet light
Kim Morrissey, a Canadian poet and playwright, who joined the workshop in 1993, is the only one in this anthology whose poetry deals mainly and distinctly with London: she presents several engaging odes, if not elegies, on the now lost pleasures of smoking in the capital with such poems as ‘Smokers’ and ‘London Bridge Platform—8:16; Smokers’. The latter explores smoking on train platforms while waiting for our typically unreliable public transport. ‘Official Photograph [Now Lost]’ is a witty ditty on the acts of archiving for future generations in which the poet recalls being photographed in the British Library standing near various famous people of our time, but fears that in a hundred years she will be the unidentifiable one. ‘Imagine Rose Dancing’ celebrates the life of famous Hampstead character Rose Hacker, socialist and feminist in an anthem-like poem with rousing rhythms that aspire to catch the beat of a dance and with a final exclamation that literally leaps across the imaginative space of the page:
imagine Rose dancing
to one-hundred-and one
imagine Rose dancing
dust and dance!
Richard Price, a published Scottish poet, who joined in 1989, has selected a long poem, ‘Rhyme nor Reason’, dealing with what we are tempted to call counter-cultural themes: contemporary politics, the art of protest, the uses of poetry. Like Wordsworth’s famous conversational poems, it is as if its parts are written directly to an unknown addressee or auditor:
My rhythm and rhyme change all the time –-
you’d like to help, if I only knew it.
And my views – they’re just as loose. Why
Do I overdo it?
(‘Rhyme nor Reason’)
Lesley Saunders is the newest entrant to the Workshop, joining in 2007, and her poems are both lyrical and engaging, as in ‘Museum Volunteer’, or perhaps slightly whimsical, as in the extended conceit of ‘The Night Bus’, which tries to catch a near-sleep sensation in its languorous iambs and trochees:
the night-bus coasts along
The windowpanes of would-be sleep
Mindful and slow as a galleon,
Heaving her cargo of pacific light’
(‘The Night Bus’)
It is good to see a new generation of poets emerging through the Poetry Workshop and more of Saunders’s poetry is due to be published in Atlas, an international paperback magazine about new writing and image, edited by Sudeep Sen, the next poet featured in Divers (and also the publisher of this anthology).
It is not revealed whether Sen is a member of this Workshop; however, his poems are romantic, expressive and sophisticated, often drawing on images and effects from the Indian classical tradition. ‘Flying Home’ and ‘A Blank Letter’ evoke and interrogate memories of ‘home’, wherever that is exactly, while ‘Bharatnatyam Dancer’, subtitled ‘For Leela Samson’, is an homage to the distinguished dancer and choreographer and cunningly tries to imitate an Indian classical dance rhythm pattern that one hears when reading the poem aloud. Although we were not sure if these complex effects always came off and sometimes thought the poems ran the risk of becoming stilted in their attempt to reach for analogues to and dialogue with the imagery and language of the Indian poetic tradition, there is no doubting the seriousness and richness of Sen’s distinctly hybridised poetry.
David Winzar, joined the Poetry Workshop in 1983, but died of cancer in 1988, aged 35. His poems have been published by his family and the selection here features a re-interpretation of Longfellow’s ‘The Quadroon Girl’ entitled ‘The Turn’. Several others, untitled, are self-reflective sombre meditations on a forthcoming death:
At 35, I found, I had to die – Immediately, they said, quite possibly,
Or soon, and all that I could think about
Was being old exactly like myself.
I’ve not known a stranger year, And waiting uncontentedly
To learn if I will live or die.
It is moving and commendable, as well as a testimony to how much the Poetry Workshop functions as a collective, that, while written a long time ago, these poems were included in the current anthology. At the launch party reading at Pentameters Theatre, several of the poets from the group who read either referred to Winzar by name or dedicated poems to him. A nice touch, we thought.
The final poet in this compilation is Richard Wright, who joined the Workshop in 2004 and is also a member of Lapidus, an organisation that believes words used creatively can be good for health and well being. He uses dry humour to re-write popular literary tales, including the fairy tale of Rapunzel in ‘Rapunzel Punk Wannabe’:
Unfortunately –- her hair was just too short.
Two metres left to go and she ran out
of hair, of luck and also any sort
of tool with an ability to cut.
Other poems are self-reflective and consider family relationships between parents, children and grandchildren. ‘Spoons’ and ‘Discipline’ both tell of father and daughter relationships and how to relate to grandchildren where the mothers are the speaker’s ‘own disobedient daughters’.
The collection brings together the works of many established and emerging contemporary poets writing in the English language and can be read chronologically (although they are grouped here alphabetically) or, better, selectively, as an anthology to dip into and enjoy, perhaps to read aloud, or to keep by the bedside to enjoy while settling down to sleep.
To Cite This Article:
Suman Bhuchar and Steven Barfield, ‘Review of C.L. Dallat et al, Divers: The Poetry Workshop Anthology (London, New Dehli, New York, Toronto: Aark Arts, 2008).’ Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2009/bhuchar.html. Accessed on [date of access]