A review of chaucer cameron’s pamphlet, ‘in an ideal world i’d not be murdered’

‘In An Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered’

Photograph by Louisa Campbell

Chaucer Cameron

Against the Grain Poetry Press   £6.00

Explorations of the sex trade are expected to include the sort of realism usually referred to by television critics as ‘gritty’ or ‘hard-hitting’, and there’s plenty of that in this newly published pamphlet by Chaucer Cameron: for example, in ‘Erotic’, the narrator says: ‘Sodomised/ they called it/ but I don’t/ remember details./ The papers said/ no underwear,/ reported every/ action/ as erotic’, while in ‘I Will Leave You For A Moment While I Trade’, the reader is given a glimpse of how the inconvenience of a period might be handled in a doorway while waiting for the next punter.

These details act as a foil for matter-of-fact and shocking lines, such as ‘I know the rules: no names, no dates, just numbers’ and ‘beneath this rose tattoo – a barcode – ’. Almost all the women and girls inhabiting these poems are identified by little more than their first name, speciality, and occasionally fate. This dispassionate approach reaches its apogee in the poem ‘Coup de Maître’, in which the dressing of a crab is used as a metaphor for the consumption of a sex worker, and is described from the point of view of methodical punter possessed of a cold, psychopathic detachment.

There’s also a strand of surrealism running through these poems, and this gives them a sudden depth, to the point where the reader, wrong-footed, finds themself frantically treading water. In the startling opening poem, ‘128 Farleigh Road’, a client, or maybe a pimp, is found dead at the foot of a staircase, and a strange, dislocated intimacy is engendered:

‘But here we are, just he and I gazing at each other

The way dead people do when caught together intimately.’

This sensation of being removed from an experience as it is happening is familiar to anyone who’s been trapped in an abusive situation, and a sustained incidence of dissociation is brilliantly captured in the poem ‘Cartoons’: 

‘It’s funny what you think of/ when you’re gagging/ for your life

when you hear the car doors/ click/ …

Tonight/ it was the Flintstones/ I watched them as a kid … ’

Often these forays into surrealism prevent the reader from being entirely sure of what’s happening. You think you know where a poem’s going, but there are layers of doubt and ambiguity, and it could all turn out a lot worse than you want to imagine. This reflects the situation the poems’ subjects find themselves in, with little to no control of what will happen next, or even whether they will survive their current job. In ‘Love’, one woman, Ash, holds off a stab wound with a laugh that becomes increasingly animalistic and dehumanised, while in the title poem, Crystal announces: ‘I refuse to compromise my safety,’, as she is in the process of ‘inviting strangers back to her room’ and, a line later, adds ‘there’s a safety in jeopardy, ain’t there?’ ‘She was lucky’, the narrator tells us, ‘never murdered, she understood erasure, turned it into/ artforms, pinned it to the walls’.

As this title suggests, there are moments of humour to be found in these poems too, although inevitably it’s dark. Much of it comes from Crystal, who ‘often throws in random facts’, is ‘always wanting the story’, and is one of the few women we become acquainted with, if passingly. Another woman, Trixie, declares:

            ‘I’m a work of art, I’m a sex magnet

            just look at these, she said

            as she pulled down her begonias

            from the shelf – ’

However, such interludes of apparent levity are always tempered by what comes next. Trixie, it turns out, is a child, not a woman, and in the following poem, a punter, who claims he adores her, unashamedly details the way he exploits and degrades her. 

In an interview with Abegail Morley of Against the Grain Press, Chaucer Cameron has said it took her thirty years to have sufficient emotional distance to write these poems. I, for one, am profoundly grateful she has, and that the song sung by Canary Wharf in the final poem of the collection is, for her at least, one of emphatic survival.  

Deborah Harvey

This review was first published in April 2021 by London Grip.

Chaucer Cameron was a member of one of the Leaping Word poetry groups, and we are delighted everyone now has the chance to read this important work.

critiquing poetry in a time of covid

It’s been nearly a year since we held our last monthly poetry group meeting in the light and airy music room in Bristol’s Folk House, before the first lockdown was implemented. I don’t believe even the most pessimistic of us there that day imagined that we would still be living and writing in varying degrees of isolation all this time later.

We’ve kept our poetry groups going by email and Facebook group, with the occasional Zoom meeting for good measure. When we first came up with the idea of weekly prompts and feedback for the duration of our exile, again I don’t think we anticipated the situation lasting to the point where we have now received and critiqued several hundred poems. But it has kept us and our poets busy and out of mischief.

In the summer I had a rush of blood to the head and have now embarked on an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Writing School, and one of the modules requires us to … yes, critique each other’s poems. And because you can never have too much practice, here’s one written just for fun.

Hi Bob

Thank you for sending us your poem, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’. We think this is a promising early draft.

You set the scene well. The narrator is making a journey, accompanied by a horse pulling a sleigh. It is evening and there is snow. Nearby there are woods, and at a distance a village. The narrator pauses and then considers continuing his journey.

You capture this opening scene with such precision that it is a surprise to the reader when the poem fails to progress beyond it. We wonder if you have been struck by writer’s block or had a particularly busy week? Have you considered having something happen in the poem? Maybe there could be an attack by a highwayman, or a chance encounter with a young man and his heavily pregnant girlfriend, who are from out of town and need a lift to a nearby inn? Who knows where the story could go from there.

We have a few specifics to draw to your attention.

First, the title. We don’t think it’s working hard enough for you. You could use it to locate your poem more precisely, as in ’Stopping by Michael Wood just outside Thornbury on the M5 northbound on a Snowy Evening’, or add an air of mystery by calling it ‘The Numinous Snow’.

In the opening line, the inversion feels very archaic to us. It would sound far more natural if it read ‘I think I know whose woods these are’. Of course, you would then have to alter the entire rhyme scheme of the poem, but it needs attention anyway, as ‘though’ at the end of the second line is clearly there just to rhyme with ‘know’. In fact, end rhymes are rather old-fashioned, as is the tum-ti-tum metre of the poem. You could really add interest by breaking the poem up with some enjambment and the addition of internal and half-rhymes.

In line 1, stanza 2, ‘queer’ is a somewhat problematic choice of word. At best, you risk wrong-footing your reader; at worst, it’s cultural appropriation. And of course, making assumptions about what the horse is or isn’t thinking is an example of anthropomorphism and best avoided.

Lines 3 and 4 of this stanza are superfluous. You have already mentioned the woods, and the frozen lake is irrelevant to the action of the poem as it stands currently.

It is frustrating that although you return to the horse in stanza 3, its potential is not fully explored. The harness bells add a picturesque, almost whimsical touch, but we know nothing of the animal itself. What colour is it? Does it have a name? There is so much more interest that could be added at this point.

In the final stanza, the repetition of the last two lines makes for a slightly weak finish. We suggest you substitute line 4 with something like ‘in a Berni Inn that’s clean and cheap’.

Finally, Bob, we hope you don’t mind if we point out that you’ve been writing rather a lot of these little New Englander poems lately. They can only ever be of local interest. Have you thought of writing something more culturally appealing, such as a riff on Love Island? Or a poem on a theme everyone can relate to, like picking up a prescription on a Saturday with the kids in tow when they’d rather be flying their kite? You could call it ‘Shopping in Boots on a Blowy Morning’.

All the best with it, Bob. We think you have the makings of an interesting poem here, and look forward to seeing a much later draft.

Warm regards

Colin and Deb

Anticipating ‘Earthworks’ by Stewart Carswell

We’re absolutely delighted that a collection by Stewart Carswell, who used to workshop his poems with The Leaping Word while studying for his PhD in Bristol, is to be published by Indigo Dreams Publishing in 2021.

Entitled ‘Earthworks’, the collection explores the connection between human relationships and British landscapes, and how these are influenced by a greater backdrop of history and politics. In particular, the poems draw upon locations and  heritage from across the West Country, including West Kennet long barrow in Wiltshire, Offa’s Dyke in Gloucestershire, and the industrial heritage of the poet’s native Forest of Dean. 

Stewart adds: “‘Earthworks’ features poems I have been working on over the last five years, since my first pamphlet ‘Knots and Branches’ (Eyewear publishing) appeared, such as ‘Silver Turn’, which is influenced by the Roman temple in Littledean, Gloucestershire, overlooking a large meander in the River Severn.”

‘Silver turn’ is available to read on Stewart’s website.

The Watching Place

Beetor cross

This is Beetor Cross on Dartmoor. It’s on the B3212 that crosses the moor from Moretonhampstead to Yelverton. It’s also known as The Watching Place, and there are several stories in circulation as to why this might be the case.

The first is that it was the haunt of a highwayman called John Fall, whose speciality was leaping out at his victims and taking them by surprise. Then there’s the theory that it marked the point beyond which French and American officers on parole from Dartmoor prison during the Napoleonic wars and living in Moretonhampstead were not permitted to proceed. Or that in mediaeval times it was the site of the gallows, where relatives or friends of the condemned person would watch and wait for permission from the Lord of the Manor to cut down the corpse.

My favourite story is that the name dates back to an outbreak of plague in 1626, which was spread by soldiers and sailors travelling between Barnstaple and Plymouth via the Mariner’s Way. Some of the inhabitants of a settlement called Puddaven, near Beetor Cross, were afflicted, and as they were no longer able to care for themselves, every evening neighbours placed provisions for them on a flattish stone at some distance from the house. They would then retreat to wait and watch. If the food was removed, fresh supplies would be left the following day. On the fifth day no one came and the food stayed where it was, so the neighbours understood that the last survivor had died. So, having approached the house, with no response to their shouts, the neighbours set fire to the thatch and burnt it down in the hope that this would stop the plague spreading further. From this time, it is said, the area became known as the Watching Place.

Something about this old story, the solidarity shown by neighbours during a time of great fear and uncertainty, lifted it above its rivals and prompted me to start writing a story of my own. As part of my research, I read all the folklore I could connected with the moor, and found several other stories associated with outbreaks of plague.

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Notably, there was the story told about Merrivale by the celebrated chronicler of Dartmoor, William Crossing, who recalls that the area of Bronze Age relics on Longash Common was once known as Plague Market, the tradition being that during outbreaks of plague at Tavistock, food would be left there by moor folk for townspeople to collect.

houndtor

And another that attaches itself to sites all over the country, but on Dartmoor to the ruins below Hound Tor: that the mediaeval village was abandoned during the Black Death. I visited and was moved not just by the deaths of the villagers but by the detail of their lives also, such as the fact they built their houses into the side of a hill, with livestock housed in the shippon at the lower end, and a gully cut to drain the slurry, and the step leading up into the cramped communal sleeping chamber.

And I read and wrote, and wrote and read, and after seven years there was a coming-of-age novel, and after a few more years, during which it sat on my laptop while I wrote poetry, and won a prize to have a collection published, it finally emerged into a largely oblivious world under my publishers’ Tamar Books imprint.

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I picked up a copy the other day and read the back. Swine flu … avian flu … SARS … We are frequently warned of imminent, drug-resistant pandemics. But what is it really like to wait for the end of the world? Then I opened it and flicked through. Social distancing. Self-isolation. It’s all in there, centuries before these practices were formally identified and their names coined.

There’s even a scene involving frenetic hand washing, though no emphasis on that as a way of avoiding infection, because my characters, stuck in 1349, wouldn’t have known that. And besides it’s fleas they should mostly have been avoiding.

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Every day on Twitter there are countless stories of selflessness, bravery and idiocy surrounding Covid-19, and I’m reminded again and again that while pandemics come and go, and technology and medical treatments improve, people are essentially the same as they’ve always been. We’re all in the Watching Place now, and I feel a renewed closeness to characters that were such a big part of my life for so long.

If you’d like to read an extract of ‘Dart’, please click on this link.

Cover illustration and map by Dru Marland

 

This blog was first published on The Red Dress of Poetry.

 

 

 

Writing Group Vacancies

 

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We still have a few vacancies in our new poetry writing group, the first meeting of which will be on Friday 22nd November 2019, from 10.00am – 1.00pm, upstairs in the Music Room of Bristol Folk House, 40a Park Street, Bristol, BS1 5JG.

The group will take place on the penultimate Friday of every month (bar October 2020), same time and venue, and the cost is £10 per session.

Dates booked for the first twelve months are as follows: 22nd November and 20th December 2019, and 24th January, 21st February, 20th March, 17th April, 22nd May, 19th June,  24th July, 21st August, 18th September, 16th October, and 20th November 2020.

We don’t require people attending to be at a specific level of expertise, although very inexperienced poets might be asked to submit a sample of their writing when they apply to join the group. What we do need from you is a willingness to improve, to write and read poetry widely, and to work towards getting your poems published.

If you’re interested and would like a further details, please contact us at admin@theleapingword.com.