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 hand of stars

We’re very proud to share a film made by one of our poets, Hazel Hammond, who is recovering from aphasia, following a stroke in 2019. (Aphasia is an impairment of language, which affects both active and passive language, as well as the ability to read and write, after an injury.)

Hazel says she’s no longer a poet as she struggles to find the words, but having worked with poets who use British Sign Language, we believe that poetry has a wider definition than many people think. We’re really looking forward to seeing Hazel progress along on this different poetry path, using her wonderful art.

Making something of the situation

Poets are natural hoarders. They understand the importance of memories to the process of writing, and stockpile them for when a future poem might demand the inclusion of, say, a complicit glance, an unexpected gift, or the fall of sunlight through a woodland glade thirty years earlier.

The restrictions placed upon outdoor activity by COVID-19 means that everyone will now be ransacking their reserves, falling back on memories of loved ones, favourite walks and landscapes, past holidays in distant places, to get through these lean times.

And once we’ve exhausted the highlights, it will be the mundane that sustains us. The memory of a bottle of glue in a Christmas stocking, the luxury of using it for sticking pictures in your scrapbook. Carefully stabbing open the slit on the red rubber top with the sharp point of a pair of scissors. Turning it upside down and dabbing it hard on a bit of paper to get the glue flowing. And when it was all used up, the disappointment of going back to the gloop of your mother’s homemade flour and water paste – its squidginess between the stuck down picture and the page, the inevitable damp wrinkles, the speed with which it congealed in its jam jar.

We all have the wherewithal to get through this time. It starts between our ears. It turns into words on a page, a drawing filling a blank piece of paper, the rise and fall of notes on suddenly cleaner, quieter air. Don’t say you can’t make something of this situation. You can.

A Perfect Circle

A Perfect Circle is from Deborah’s fourth poetry collection, The Shadow Factory. More poems from this collection can be read here on the Indigo Dreams website.

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