Tuesday, March 29, 2016


I'm honoured to have my poem "Summer in Winter" selected for the longlist of the Remember Oluwale Writing Prize.

All the longlisted entries will appear in an anthology published by Valley Press.

The Remember Oluwale charity was formed in response to a call for a memorial in Leeds for David Oluwale by Caryl Phillips.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Page ant


The Masque of Curtis

“I’ve been told I need to open up” reads the narration above the image of a box doing precisely that over the following four of six panels on page one of Neal CurtisThe Talion Maker (Part One). In the final panel, the box is closed. The simplicity is striking. Page two introduces another metaphorical image: shards (glass?), which represent being told to “piece it all together”. The closed, empty box represents our protagonist, and the shards suggest we’re in for a fragmented narrative, but the effect is more like poetry than post-modernism. 

Over the course of Part One, the shards motif is repeated, urging us to remember that opening request to piece it all together, to work like the ants depicted infiltrating a crack in the wall on page 12, a device which works particularly well where panels don’t follow on sequentially. Then another image is introduced, a porthole in a cell door, its circularity echoed by a smiley face, loo roll, toilet bowl, moon, sun; the images build like “sediment” into a musicality in the same way sonic echoes develop in poetry. And although the title tells us this is a revenge tragedy, there’s a reference to Shelley’s Ozymandias on page five that hints at Romantic quest with a capital R.

As Ozymandias begins in ruins, so does our narrator and his narrative, but we are guided to piece together the fragments in what is redolent of another Shelley poem, The Masque of Anarchy. That poem arose from the Peterloo Massacre, as one of the first documented examples of peaceful protest, though peaceful protest seems unlikely for our narrator when he reveals a gun. 

Just as the allusions to poetry stack up, so do the references to conflicts: Che Guevara, Hitler, the Berlin Wall, 10 Downing Street, prisoners wearing jumpsuits and hood with their hands bound in the style of Isis captives, The Crucible (McCarthyism), Pop Idol. Yes, that’s right, Pop Idol. Because this isn’t just a story about large scale global issues, predominantly the refugee crisis, this is primarily a parable of British culture with a distinctly Brit-pop feel. It’s probably not accidental that the protagonist keeps his weapon in an Adidas shoe box. The latter detail and the panel lamenting “the last independent” bookshop tipping into bathos, but the contrasting levels, the small scale issues like bookshop closures intersected with globally recognised cultural threats, keeps the overall narrative’s feet on the ground and stops it becoming too far-fetched.

With Isis in mind, a reader interested in Shelley might now think of his poem “The Revolt of Islam” (1818). The epigraph on the first edition reads: “Hope is strong; Justice and Truth their winged child have found”. That poem followed the story of Laon and Cythna as they initiate a revolution against a despotic ruler. The reference may be a stretch, but thematically it’s a good fit. Both works are symbolic parables for revolutionary idealism. 

The Talion Maker is at the time of this review incomplete, so it’s not possible to come to any meaningful conclusion, though Part Two continues in a similar format. Considering the opening, I would hope to see the protagonist breaking out of those restrictive square panels, and for the various backstory pieces to be brought together in a manner that makes their purpose definitive so that the events alluded to in Curtis’ work are brought cohesion in a work that looks set to do what hasn’t been done for Peterloo, and stand as a tangible memorial to what Britain has lost during times of poor leadership.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Room to exercise

Introduction to Screenwriting: 2.6

An exercise to develop character outlines

For this exercise, I've stuck with the example of Emma Donoghue's Room that I've used in the previous units. I probably missed some important major actions, but I didn't over think the process. I was surprised how helpful the list was to outline Jack's character.

  • Jack revisits Room and says goodbye
    Jack plays soccer with a friend
    Jack leaves the upstairs landing to play with a dog
    plays with the toys strangers have sent him
    timid in hospital when breakfast is brought in on a tray
    shouts help
    runs away from Old Nick
    practices rolling up in rug
    pulls apart the toy car Old Nick brought for his birthday
    heating goes off
    eats birthday cake
    physical exercise
    Jack makes himself breakfast
    from inside Wardrobe, Jack looks through a crack to see Old Nick

    From the off, Jack's view is one of inside, looking out. He has a literal understanding, expressed by his personification of nouns: spoon, for eg, is called Meltedy Spoon, as though a proper noun; Room is a character, etc.

    Jack doesn't understand the concept of being able to go outside. He is curious and intelligent but also timid. 
    A casual observer might describe Jack as feminine and timid.

    Because of his mother's depression, Jack has learnt to be independent, making his own breakfast, occupying himself for en entire day and finally putting himself to bed during one of her episodes.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Memo random

I recently reviewed Vanessa Gebbie's Memorandum, poems for the fallen, published by Cultured Llama. I thought it would be memorable to write the review on memos and post to Twitter under the hashtag #Memorandum. I was thrilled to see Cultured Llama have gone to the trouble to write a lovely thank you for my efforts, including "This has to be the most unusual and beautiful review format of any of our books." and this. But just in case you have trouble reading my handwriting, here's a transcript:

poems for the fallen
Vanesa Gebbie
Rachel J Fenton
Memorandum (memo)
from the Latin memorandum
est, "to mention, call to mind,
recount, relate,"
"it must be remembered (that)
a document that helps the memory by recording events or
observations on a topic, such
as may be used in a
business office
The title evokes
Tennyson's requiem
for his friend
Hallam, "In Memoriam".
Like Tennyson's poem,
Memorandum is a
meditation on grief,
mortality and nature
in light of the
Cenotaph, the first
poem in the collection,
pays respects to its
literary heritage as it
sets down its themes.
"Under duress, " the poem
begins the process of
dissolving the elements of a
monument as though
describing the erosion of
crustaceans on the sea bed.
But these are "Veteran shells"
and the reader is presented with an
understated question about
the nature of war.
With Gebbie's guidance, the
reader undertakes an
imaginative journey into
the fabric of the memorial
itself. So subtle is the
transaction that the
realisation it has taken
place is as startling as
discovering the sea bed is
There's irony with this act
of disarmament. It's only
with "Transfiguration" the
reader becomes certain
they are where their
guide intended:
"accompaniment to
serious alchemy".
Then it's "us" in "The
Soldier's ragged choir,
St Pancras New Church",
and here Gebbie's short
story apprenticeship becomes
evident in the colloquial
narrative via which she
demonstrated her aptitude
for ventriloquism.
From St Pancras to
Euston Station, these
poems are crafted like
inter-linked short stories
and could feel contrived
were it not for the
obvious emotional investment
the author has with her
subject matter, and the very
real people who inhabit it.
Gebbie's sincerity is
palpable in the care
with which she details
the employees of
Waterloo Station, Smithfield
Market's meat porter, and
"The Quarryman and the
Fusilier" - ordinary people
paid heroes' respect.
It's in the second section
of the collection where
Gebbie's mimicry comes
into its own. There's
no longer the feeling
of participation here
but witness.
"Suppose / Alf Norman
wasn't really here?"
(Alf Norman
Grangetown Memorial, Cardiff
But he was. And the
reader is and must be.
This is necessary
Of the sixteen poems in "Other
Memorials" "Remembrance,
Sunday" stands out with
devastating singularity. Perhaps
it's an effect of "something
I wrote in blue biro", the
unpretentiousness of the fact -
for this is fact as opposed to
feigned inhabitation. Gebbie is
not imagining, she is
remembering her father, all
the more poignant as his own
long goodbye is revealed,
eleven poems in.
The final section of the
collection takes the reader
through "Western Front
Battlefields" and is more
in keeping with the war
poetry many readers may
be familiar with: Ivor
Gurney and Siegfried
Sassoon spring to mind.
A number of these poems
were previously published
in The Half-Life of Fathers
(Pighog Press) and are
familiar to this reviewer,
though it is a testament
to the richness of Gebbie's
writing that their placement
here channels new
It is in this final section
that the theme of cost
that has been steadily
building really begins to
weigh on the reader.
The book's central segment
now seems like a fulcrum.
Money is in one pan, in
the other the reader must
balance the cost.
There's a last echo to
"In Memoriam" in
"La Boisselle pastorale,
diversionary tactic,"
written in memorial of
Gebbie's "second father".
"A few short weeks and
Christmas will be here.
I'll miss my father's face at table
Again and again, Gebbie
catches the reader off
guard with the intimacy
and familiarity of these
memorials. The headstones
may be worn but the
names, in Gebbie's hands,
walk among us long
after the book has been
laid to rest.
Like "In Memoriam",
these observations
are not presented in
the order they were
written, but it is
hoped they offer
the reader comprehensive
Tennyson emerges
from "In Memoriam" with
his faith in God
What does
Memorandum leave the
reader with?
After so many wars,
its a challenge for a
poet to say something
new about this too
often tried subject. It is
credit to Gebbie that
she not only manages to
bring war's aftermath
into fresh relief but that
she does so with such
sharp focus as to make
the reader  reconsider the
fallen as if knocked-off-
their-feet with them.
This is a meditation
for those of us left
behind. For whom do
we grieve the most?
These are poems
for the fallen
but not forgotten.
They will be remembered.
Cultured Llama Publishing
ISBN 978-0-9932119-4-2

In her own (three) words

Massive thanks to Ellen Falconer for interviewing Indira Neville and me about Three Words for The Wireless: In her own (three) words.

You can read all about Three Words and see photographs of the Auckland launch here.