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

The Shadow Factory


The arrival and ritual opening of a box of newly published books is always an exciting moment. And this time we were especially pleased to see that the printers had padded the cargo with paper rather than bubble wrap.

The Shadow Factory is our Deb’s fourth poetry collection from Indigo Dreams Publishing, and its evocative title is straight out of her childhood in 1960s Bristol. ‘As a young girl I was fascinated by the rollsign of the 98 bus that gave its destination as The Shadow Factory,’ she explains, ‘but as the stop we had to get off at came before the terminus, I never got to see it, and an intimation of certain disappointment prevented me from asking what was made there. As a result, The Shadow Factory became a warehouse of wishes and unrealised dreams, a metaphor for life and death, and eventually this collection of poems that explore childhood, memory and the twilight of those household gods we call parents.’

Other poets have had complimentary things to say about our new addition.

Pascale Petit, who awarded the poem Oystercatchers 1st prize in the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem competition says: Every word is weighted. Although nothing is explicit, something important is being enacted, and the epigraph by Camus adds an anchor, so that we guess his are the words being taken to the sea and released from the heart. I kept coming back to this and getting more from it.’

And in her sensitive review, poetry film maker and novelist Lucy English says ‘The desire to find a place which is ‘not a leisurely stroll from the ice cream van,’ is a strong theme in this collection. [Harvey] comments on the natural world as if this, and not human life is the greater force … Landscape, animals and birds have an intrinsic beauty which she describes with care.’

To read a selection of the poems from The Shadow Factory, please click here.

No photo description available.

Tracy K Smith at the Bristol Festival of Ideas

In these days of sweeping funding cuts, the chance to see top poets reading locally come along only a couple of times a year, yet I can think of no more valuable a way for poets to learn and be inspired than to listen to the best of their peers reading their work in person. So when I learnt that Tracy K Smith, the US poet laureate, was coming to Waterstones in Bristol as part of the Festival of Ideas, I seized the opportunity of seeing her.

Tracy K Smith

Most poets tend to write about a corner of their own experience or a particular interest – for example, you might think of yourself as  an eco-poet, or someone who is especially good at capturing what it means to be a survivor, or a poet suited to political declamation. Smith herself is known for poems about the body, focusing on intimacy, love, and sexuality, but her work also encompasses, apparently effortlessly, political poems of enormous sensibility and empathy, such as the sequence she read from her second collection, ‘Duende’, which gives voice to Ugandan women kidnapped by rebel commanders, and such vast subjects as … well, the universe.

‘I don’t have a great brain for science,’ she claimed, to a frankly disbelieving audience during her reading of her sequence ‘My God, it’s full of stars’ from her 2011 Pulitzer-prize winning collection, ‘Life on Mars’. But in case you’re starting to think her work might be altogether too rarified, the quote about stars is from Arthur C Clarke’s novel, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, proving that Tracy isn’t afraid to tangle with pop culture either. She even writes affectingly about that ultimate starman, David Bowie.

And as you wing out across the universe of Tracy’s poems, you are being lifted on the most perfectly pitched reading of them. I would urge any poet who wants to improve their delivery of their work to listen to her read. There are lots of videos on line, or you can buy a CD of Duende. Better still, go and hear her read in the flesh … though now her book tour has ended, you might have to fly to America for that.


‘Getting’ Poetry

‘I don’t get poetry.’

It’s something every poet hears on a regular basis, generally just after they’ve confessed that yes, writing the stuff really is how they spend much of their time, and it’s pretty depressing. In fact, it’s right up there with the ‘my three-year-old could paint that’ response to modern art.

My stock response is ‘But there’s nothing to get’, and if the non-poetry reader is still listening, I might add ‘A poem’s like a room the poet’s built especially for you. You just have to walk in with all your baggage, put it down and make yourself at home’.

By then their eyes are probably glazing over, but if they’re still paying attention, I’ll urge them to wander around the room a bit. Move the chair so they can see through the window. Plump up the cushions on the settee, lie back, close their eyes and see what happens in their head. Give it time. Allow the alchemy to start.

This approach will only work, of course, if a poet has left space in the room-that-is-a-poem for the reader to bring their own hopes and experiences. Not every poet does. Poems like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ or Pam Ayres’ ‘Oh I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth’ are successful because they have an immediate, unamiguous impact. But if you’re a poet who wants their work to resonate over days or even years with a reader, or a reader who’s decided they absolutely are going to ‘get’ poetry, then this space is vital.

This last week, lots of people have asked to read my poem ‘Oystercatchers’, fresh from its triumph in the 2018 Plough Prize Short Poem Competition, and they’ve said kind things about it. The most pleasing response I’ve had is from a friend of a friend, who told me that for her it was about her friend who died recently.  From my 10-line poem, she’d extrapolated her friend’s death; the power and speed of estuarine tides; a small boat sailing over the waves, as if in a Viking funeral ceremony; Aboriginal creation tales; patterns in sculpted river banks and the answers hidden in them; also, a mother’s song of children leaving. ‘The knicker elastic in my eyes is broken and the tears keep falling down,’ she added. ‘And I’m not even on drugs or had a drink – just a cup of tea and a ginger biscuit.’

Of course, for me it means something completely different, but her words allowed me to go back to the poem and look at it in a new light. And I love this. I love it when my poems go out into the world and acquire new layers of meaning, and become something far more interesting than anything I could come up with by myself. A poem only really comes into its own when it’s in the head and heart of someone else.

the giantess
The Giantess by Leonora Carrington



A review of ‘A Book of Hours’ by Lucy English

book of hours


‘The Book of Hours’ by Lucy English

It’s often noted how rare it is for a poet to straddle the gap between page and performance poetry successfully. Lucy English has managed to keep a foot firmly in both camps for many years, and with her new project The Book of Hours (Burning Eye books), she has added an extra genre, that of poetry film.

It’s an ingenious idea – a calendar of poems that re-imagine the illustrated psalter of mediaeval literature for a secular, 21st century readership/audience. Lucy is supported in this endeavour by her extensive knowledge of the both fields, coupled with a poetic voice that is especially well suited to the demands of poetry film.

For all that there are references to stained glass, doom paintings, sun dials and psalmicly panting sheep, the subject-matter of the poems is resolutely secular. Churches are places to be visited in a spirit of curiosity rather than devotion, saints are grey and made of lead, and no miracles happen at wells that are simply oozy patches in stony holes. Similarly, the lives encapsulated in the poems are not ones of monastic contemplation. The poems accommodate a sizeable cast of friends, ex-lovers, family members, former inhabitants of holiday cottages, personifications of the seasons, and animals, and include arrivals from, and departures for, destinations far beyond an anchorite’s cell.

And yet the sacred is here, in the poet’s tender attention to moments snagged in the memory, rendering them dream-like, and magnified by their lifting up as an offering to the reader. This is the poetry of non sequiturs, missed opportunity, small losses that loom large, the lives we don’t lead:

The shadow of our little car against the land

touched the winter grass but did not bend it


‘That’s the only mark we should make on earth’ he said.

You would expect poems that are also the grist for film to have a strong visual element, and this is the case. We are often told, for example, what the narrator of the poem is wearing; similarly, the month of June dons a rucksack, boots and a long green dress, and even the sky wears its best shirt, all pink patterned with aubergine, / silks and satins with a new tie of rainbow. This layering of detail, building in short statements, extends to the other senses, to the point where they spill into synaesthesia: I catch a sound in my hands./ The sparrow song. Sip sip sip.

For a full appreciation of the poems, I strongly recommend a visit to the website, where you can view all the accompanying films. There’s some beautiful work here. I particularly loved Helen Dewbery’s mesmeric film for the poem, Drive Through The Night, about the destination for which we’re all ultimately headed.