Masterful new collection from Carolyn Jess-Cooke

Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s new poetry collection, We have to Leave the Earth (Seren), is a skillful collection that suggests the reader be present in the moment and vividly experience our world as it is now, both domestic and political. The poems are those moments in dreams where the dreamer becomes lucid and sees things as they really are, like the slap of ice-cold air in the Arctic poems awakens the reader and defines the whole collection.

In this collection Jess-Cooke is intrepid in her descriptions and choices of subjects, like an archivist piecing together fragmented remains to find clarity and understanding.
Jess-Cooke conjures (and there is a sense of enchantment or spellcasting present in the sensual figurative language utilised) precise, evocative imagery to discuss wide-ranging subjects, such as disability, feminism, the environment and motherhood, and creates a sense of travelling through experiences and environments. There is an explorer at work here, one who views the world, in all its vast complexities, as no different to a child needing nurture from its caregivers.

Jess-Cooke opens with an enveloping poem that combines both stillness and movement, about that most intimate of places, the family bed. Filled with folds of fabric, a sleeping child and a, ‘fox-red in the lunar TV light’ snoozing dog, Jess-Cooke layers images as tenderly and quietly as snow falling and builds a drift of thoughts to consider this precise moment that is being observed, now, reflecting on, ‘ how many nows make up a life.’ This philosophical poem is crafted as a stream of thoughts and images, without a solid pause until the end point, an appropriate form to examine life as a series of fluid fragments pinned together, and made sense of, by love. Placing this poem at the beginning of the collection indicates a poet at a point of mastery over their own work, as the thematic work that follows seems askance at first to this domestic setting, being the radiant-white landscapes of the arctic and Viking history, however, as Jess-Cooke moves from the interior space to exterior enormity she retains this sense of closeness, of being tenderly present in the ‘now’ of our current world, a poetic and persistent mindfulness that does not flinch from raw truths.

Do not embrace me until I am Viola…

To celebrate the launch of Viola, the Virgin Queen please join us at our event on 18th August, 7.30pm. To get the link for the event please email me:

To hear some poems from the pamphlet just clink on the YouTube link above.

‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, And all the brothers too—and yet I know not.’

Actors Emma Keaveney-Roys and Adam Fuller embody the twins, Viola and Sebastian, from Twelfth Night as they ponder poems and images about Elizabeth I.

Viola, the Virgin Queen‘ is an illustrated poetry pamphlet about Elizabeth I as seen through the characters of Olivia and Viola in Twelfth Night. Follow the drama where a woman has to rule the household after the death of her brother and another woman has to act in a male role to survive. Much like Elizabeth Tudor had to do…

Published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. Edited by Alec Newman. Buy the book here: Knives, Forks and Spoons Press

Words by Ruth Stacey, illustrations by Desdemona McCannon.

The Low Passions: review

I heard of the American poet Anders Carlson- Wee because of an article about a poem he had written, which caused some controversy. I was interested because he was writing in another voice, something I do frequently in my work and a subject I am writing about at the moment. The discussion around his poem centred on the poet assuming a selection of radically different voices to create a layering of statements highlighting homelessness.

Some readers found this unsettling and it generated questions about this kind of writing being a cultural appropriation of voice, that resulted in racist and ableist language being used.  Is it appropriate to write in an invented voice, or the voice of another person? I have written in the voice of queens, artist’s muses and rock star’s muses. My current manuscript is an imagined memoir of Pamela Colman Smith (there is an interesting article about who PCS was by Dr Elizabeth O’Connor here), so you can see my interest in all the ethical and creative considerations when writing in another ‘voice’.

My impression on reading Carlson-Wee’s poem was that it was more like a chorus in a play; many voices presented by the author to create a scene. An attempt to render passing voices that had been overheard. This may not have been successful for some readers, but I didn’t believe it was intentionally appropriating, rather it was theatrical and observant. It was an interesting discussion though and the poem was useful for my research about utilising other voices/identities to create a new piece of work, and I was glad the controversy had brought me to the poet.

Image result for the low passions

This brings me to the poet’s latest work, The Low Passions, which is a remarkable book.

There is an immediate sense of  the journey, both literal, as a travel memoir and something more spiritual. Wondering and wandering could describe the concern of the book. 

The first poem sets the scene for the whole book. The poem’s narrator marvels about, ‘all the hazards we pass through/in amazement.’ That ‘we’ is important because there is an echo in this collection, not only the people inhabited in the persona poems or observed, but a brother, who skirts in and around the narrative. That sense of brotherhood is reflected on, both in the sense of the relationship between personal family, but in the larger sense of a human family.

But this personal brother is challenging within the various imagined narratives; there is a truth in the observations that speaks of memoir. It is compelling. The poet returns to this often bloody and dramatic relationship like a painful scab that needs to be touched. Carlson-Wee is an excellent observer, both of voice and detail. He captures the competitive and painful reality of siblings, in the poems Dynamite or Polaroid, then in  contrast in the poem titled The Raft, he describes fishing with his sibling, checking cooked fish for tenderness, when it is the poem itself that aches with tenderness.

There is a feeling of Biblical incantation in the opening poem, Riding The Owl’s Eye, that also echoes Whitman’s ‘Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.’

‘Out of all the dumpsters […] Out of all the hazards.’

In Carlson-Wee’s book the landscape and people are carefully observed and recorded so that they seem fully realised on the page, which reminded me of Frank Stanford’s poems. Reading these poems is a visceral experience. Carlson-Wee swaps persona and dialect from poem to poem, and they all combine to create the feeling of a dramatic assembly. Unlike Stanford, Carlson-Wee does not reflect epic, brutal reflections to the reader, rather the poems have quieter, contemplative stories to tell.

However, the poet is both amazed and angry contemplating the magnificent-horror of life and there is lament and prophesy in these poems; questioning the meaning of life in relation to faith. For example, the character of Cousin Josh is brilliantly realised and ultimately tragic, forcing the reader to question why these things happen to a person. Carlson-Wee elevates other voices, the disenfranchised and lost.

Movement, travel and a sense of motion is constant within the book, but also, in contrast, profound stillness. Again in the opening poem, Carlson-Wee demonstrates his skill that continues throughout the collection, of moving from the large landscape of a poem, to hyper-focus on a small detail that he describes in a way to show its equal enormity.

[…]Some say the world is broken,/some say the Good Lord has forsaken our dreams,/ but I say it our own throat that grows/the cancer, our own asthma that blackens our breath/to a wheeze. And the truth is, the mile-long train/ will always crawl past. The socket-fixed gaze/of the owl’s skull will always turn perfectly/backwards. […]

To me, it felt like Carlson-Wee was asking a big question about place and belonging. What is the meaning in this life? Is it a series of roads one must travel down to find meaning? If you want to understand the landscape and people, you can’t sit back as a mute observer. You must actually live that lifestyle and experience a true sense of place, and the endless question of belonging to that place. However, it doesn’t feel like poverty tourism, rather a renouncing of materialism; a humble shape for the poet to inhabit so they can see.  There is a sense of deliberate vulnerability within the narrative that unfolds; turning away from comfort and stripping down to bare living. What this does is uncover precious time for contemplation.

My favourite poem in the collection is called, Primer. It is a written as a lesson in how to survive if lost in the forest. I read it as a child receiving the lesson from a relative. Carlson-Wee does what he does best in the collection, writes something that seems like an observation of place and nature, or the interplay of voices. Or perhaps it is about the tenderness of relationships and the gift of knowledge, but then he elevates it into something much larger; a lesson in having faith. Faith in God. Faith in a human voice being heard in the unfathomable place that is beyond observation:

And what do you listen for?

Sounds that shouldn’t be there. Yes

Sounds that shouldn’t be there but aren’t.

Yes. And what have you heard

since we started? A bird? Yes. Another bird

far away. Yes. A gust in the trees.

Yes. Your voice, if your voice counts.

Yes, my voice counts.



Link to Primer poem on YouTube






Iseult Gonne

Image result for iseult gonne

Iseult Gonne was conceived by her parents when they were full of grief for her brother, who had died aged one year. Maud Gonne (revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann – Daughters of Ireland), and Lucien Millevoye created her in the mausoleum where her brother lay.  Yeats wrote in his autobiography that “The idea came to her [Gonne] that the lost child might be reborn, and she had gone back to Millevoye, in the vault under the memorial chapel. A girl child was born, now two years old” (Memoirs 133).

Yeats wrote many poems about Maud:

No Second Troy

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Image result for iseult gonne

Maud Gonne

Maud hid Iseult’s illegitimate status by saying she was a niece or child she adopted, but everyone knew she was her natural born child.  Maud married John MacBride, and Yeats would later accuse him of having molested Iseult.

Yeats, desperately in love with Maud Gonne, who was his muse and obsession, watched Iseult grow up and wrote poems inspired by her beauty, grace and innocence.

To a Child dancing in the Wind


Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?

Image result for iseult gonne

Both Maud and Yeats encouraged Iseult to write and tried to motivate her into greatness, but she didn’t show the passionate dedication to literature they desired to see in her, considering her aimless. In 1917 Yeats, rebuffed as a lover by Maud, decided marriage was what he needed to be able to write and he needed a new muse. He sought permission to court Iseult, which Maud agreed to, albeit with a warning he would be rejected. Iseult was 22, and described as a Pre-Rapehlite beauty, when he repeatedly asked her to marry him. If she took him seriously and considered it, or if she saw it as a joke, is contested between Yeats and her future husband Francis Stuart, who wrote different versions of what happened. Certainly she prevaricated, not wanting to disappoint her literary mentor (and one of the only constant, kindly paternal figures in her life). She declined in the end, and Yeats quickly married another.

Image result for iseult gonne

Iseult would drift through life not ever really fulfilling the great destiny placed upon her, unsurprisingly, considering the dubious abusive positions her step-father MacBride may have put her in, and terrible, confusing situation created when Yeats proposed to her.

She wrote and translated, had an affair with Ezra Pound, and married the writer Francis Stuart. She had three children. The first died as an infant and Iseult was left to raise her son and daughter with her mother-in-law after Stuart abandoned them. Iseult smoked constantly and appeared idle, although she channelled her mother’s rebellious spirit when she harboured a German parachutist/ spy during the war, falling in love with him and going on trial for her treason.

My poem about Iseult considers how it felt to have Yeats position her as his muse/wife and the weight of expectation Iseult must have experienced, needing to fulfil her destiny of replacing the much-adored dead brother. You can find information about my new poetry book: I, Ursula HERE on the V.Press Poetry website.

Image result for w b yeats

More information on Iseult HERE by Amanda French

Image result for iseult and tristan

Painting depicting the lovers in the tragic story Tristan and Iseult by John William Waterhouse

Jeanne Hébuterne

6 April 1898 – 26 January 1920

In my new collection I consider the role of a muse in an artist’s life by obsessively focusing on my own muse and contrasting this with a series of poems about famous muses. The poems offer a different perspective on the role of muse. How it feels to be put in that position, or how the muse herself had her own strength and talent that was eclipsed by their lover. It’s discomforting to think I place my muse in this objectified position. The collection tries to explore this intense focus/desire for a person who does, whether it is comfortable or not, inspire new art.

For my book launch I have invited eight women to read the muse poems before I read some of the other poems from the collection. I’m excited to hear them voice these women and hear my poems performed by another person.

I’m going to post some information about the muses over the next few days. The first person I’m going to talk about is Jeanne Hébuterne, the muse of Amedeo Modigliani.

I first saw Modigliani’s work when I was at art college 25 years ago and I loved it immediately, particularly his pictures of one young woman with auburn hair: Jeanne. As soon as I read about their life together and saw some pictures of them, I was half in love with him and fascinated by her.

Image result for modigliani photo

12 July 1884 – 24 January 1920

Modigliani lived a bohemian life as a painter in Paris, hanging out with Picasso, causing trouble in cafes and drawing constantly. He created daring nudes and impressive sculptures that were original and exciting. He was sadly suffering from TB, which he hid with his drinking, smoking and love affairs with beautiful women. This included one of my favourite poets Anna Akhmatova. You can read Anna’s memories of Modigliani HERE. Modigliani loved poetry, and would recite it all the time. He carried poetry books in his pockets.

‘I do not think I have ever met a painter who loved poetry so much.Ilya Ehrenburg

‘He had the head of an Antinous and eyes with sparks of gold— in appearance he was absolutely unlike anyone else. His voice remains engraved on my memory for ever. I knew he was poor, and no one knew what he lived on. As an artist, not a shadow of recognition.’ Anna Akhmatova

Related image

Anna Akhmatova

Image result for anna akhmatova modigliani

Anna Akhmatova sketch by Modigliani


Image result for jeanne hébuterne

Jeanne painted by Modigliani

In the spring of 1917, the Russian sculptor Chana Orloff introduced Modi to a beautiful, long haired art student named Jeanne Hébuterne. She was 19 and Modi was 33, but he gave up his English mistress Beatrice Hastings to be with Jeanne, who is said to have been gentle, shy and delicate.

From a conservative bourgeois background, Hébuterne was disowned by her devout Roman Catholic family for her love affair with Modigliani, as they thought he was a debauched derelict. Despite her family’s objections, Jeanne and Modi were passionately in love and moved in together.

In the spring of 1918, the couple moved to the warmer climate of Nice where Modigliani’s agent hoped he would sell his art work to wealthy folk who were on holiday there. While they were in Nice, their daughter, Jeanne Modigliani was born.

In springtime, they returned to Paris and Jeanne became pregnant again. Modi was getting progressively more unwell from his TB and wild lifestyle. He passed away in January 1920. Jeanne’s parents brought her home to them, but she stepped out of the fifth floor window to her death. She was eight months pregnant. Their surviving daughter was brought up not knowing about her parents until she was an adult herself. At first Jeanne was buried away from Modi, but after ten years her parents relented and she was interred with him. Her gravestone epitaph, ‘Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice.’ Modi’s reads, ‘Struck down by death at the moment of glory.’

Image result for jeanne hebuterne gravestone

However, despite her role as devoted muse to the final extreme, Jeanne was a brilliant painter in her own right and deserved a share of the artistic glory. My poem has Jeanne’s voice detailing their shared act of painting: Modi painting her and Jeanne painting her self-portrait.

Below are four self-portraits painted by Jeanne.

Image result for jeanne hebuterne self portrait

Image result for jeanne hébuterne

Image result for jeanne hebuterne self portrait

Image result for jeanne hebuterne self portrait


foto 3 Modigliani’s Women. Jeanne Hebuterne





“What does it mean to die in a movie scene? To exist on the peripheries? James Trevelyan takes twelve cult action films of the 1980s and 90s and gives life where it was extinguished too early.” The Emma Press £5


It’s difficult to not love these poems just because of the subject matter, irrelevant of the quality. I mean, my husband and I talk to each in Aliens quotes  (for example, this is how I wake the kids up…drives them mad) and we know and love all the movies in this pamphlet, so I was enthusiastic before I even read it.

Luckily my enthusiasm was not misplaced, they are excellent poems that demonstrate attention to detail, humour and an exhilarating look at the minor characters in these films.  Doing this allows Trevelyan to examine cinematic tropes and offer different perspectives on these big, action filled films (populated by larger than life personalities like Cruise, Gibson, Schwarzenegger).

In the opening poem, Lloyd, the character states, ‘They gave me a name/and does that not give me life?’ and he goes on to list characters that were known by their clothes or job, highlighting his significance. Lloyd is not just a redshirt, he was important enough to name and was allowed to live by the Terminator who took his sunglasses. This poem makes you consider the single-line characters, and the ones who stand in the back ground as nameless extras.

The poems bounce from one form to another, the form echoing how the characters are slipping from one voice to a distinctive other. The poet gives them personality, brings them to life on the page in a way they never had the chance in the movie.

I could discuss each poem but I will leave it for the reader to discover when they get this slim but packed pamphlet, and just talk about my favourite: Timmy.

There are twelve poems but it has the weight of all that back story behind each one. The illustrations really enrich the different characters as well. I do think you will enjoy this collection more if you know the movies, it just brings out the inner fan enthusiasm.

In Timmy, a character from Aliens, Trevelyan uses a fragmented poem form, with long lines that use the landscape space on the page. The white space and lack of punctuation makes the poem feel distant, like the far reaches of space perhaps! Sorry, I can’t help bringing in the movie lingo as I think about the poems.

The trope of an innocent child dying is used to emphaise the horror of the aliens in the movie. The battle to save the sister of the murdered brother is the main action of the plot. The brother died off-screen and never developed much character; his job was to be young, innocent and die. In the poem, Timmy has a dark edge to his voice, appropriate for his ending, and the imagery plays with his sister’s nickname, Newt. He talks about her ‘bugeyes and cold blood’ placing her as one with the alien invaders. The brutal image of a newt leg being torn off and regrown echoes the grotesque ability of the Alien species to stay alive and regrow inside human hosts.  Timmy says, ‘i bet you dont remember a star that warms you up,’ reminding the reader of the remoteness of the colonists, how they have left civilization far behind and have been rewarded with the most horrific death. Although this is an imagined world, it highlights how powerless children are when parents decide to move to a new world, a new country (especially ones desperate to risk a hostile environment to make a new life for the family).

Trevelyan brings sibling jealousy, as insidious as the alien reproduction, into the narrative. It unsettles the reader and is an entirely human characteristic, once again highlighting this minor character’s humanity in contrast with the alien predator that kills him.

I’ll leave you with this scene, Ripley going to save Newt, Timmy’s sister. It’s the most kick-ass mother power scene ever!

And buy the pamphlet, it’s really entertaining and well-crafted.

Saboteur Awards: Inheritance

It’s a wonderful feeling to have been shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards, with Katy Wareham Morris, for our collaborative piece Inheritance (published by Mother’s Milk Books). Thank you to people who voted for our pamphlet.

This sequence of poems was written at a time when both Katy and I were under various life pressures, but we found a break from all the stress by working on the poems together. I started the sequence off with the first poem and then we would write in response, incorporating a word, phrase or feeling from the previous poem to create an echo across the centuries. After working on my book, Queen, Jewel, Mistress, it was absorbing to explore just one imaginary character in the 19th century. In contrast, Katy was working on poems that examined the current experience of modern motherhood.

“2016. Nights of no sleep, new infant to feed and soothe; a woman reaches for an old box of papers to read. Letters, diary: fragments of a life long gone. The writing of a forgotten relative from the 19th century that she had always meant to do something with. Archive. Study. Yet, she never had the time, until now, when her baby ‘murmurs in the blue slate light’. The woman from the past is suddenly in her life, ‘soft as the nook between neck and ear’. Two voices trying to find their way through motherhood and marriage, whilst still clinging to their own identities.

Inheritance brings together two poets, Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris, to create an unforgettable sequence of poems. The poems follow each other with echoes from the past, images that re-surface and bring with them a feeling of universal emotion, irrelevant of the century.”

If you have enjoyed Inheritance … 9th April-9th May: Voting on shortlist opens: Vote Now!

It is also brilliant to have two V Press Poets nominated for best pamphlet. Claire Walker and Romalyn Ante. Edited by Sarah Leavesley, who runs V Press, they are very different in style and showcase the variety of excellent work Sarah selects.

As usual, my part of V.Press was designing the hand-sketched covers (Sarah does the photo covers for the flash fiction).  Below is one of the stag images I drew for Claire, one of many as it was a very vivid sequence set in the countryside. It wasn’t chosen as the final cover but it remains a favourite of mine. Claire chose a tremulous, cautious deer peering out of the trees, which suited the pamphlet perfectly. Romalyn’s design was plain and one of those perfect combinations of the words becoming the image. I really enjoy reading each new poetry pamphlet or poetry book and working on the covers; sketching the pamphlets (where I include the word poetry somewhere)  and bolder designs for the books. For example, Kathy Gee’s Book of Bones had a striking, white image of a skull on the cover. Antony Owen, recently shortlisted for the Ted Hughes, had a plain blue cover with a repeating classical pattern bordering the name of the book: The Nagasaki Elder. Antony is an incredible ambassador for peaceful protest against nuclear arms and one of the things that sums up his kind, generous nature is the request he made to me to make his name hardly stand out on the cover as it was the names of the people in the poems, those interviewed in Hiroshima and Coventry, that mattered.


Finally, the incredible, monumental, heartbreaking, upsetting, vital #metoo anthology has been nominated. I am very proud to be included in this book. It has been so carefully and considerately edited by Deborah Alma and published by Nadia Kingsley at Fairacre Press. The work in this book will not be an easy read, but it is necessary, and ultimately creates a feeling of hope and solidarity. You can hear Deborah discuss the anthology at the Hive, Worcester 17th April.

V.Press shortlisted for the Michael Marks Awards for Poetry Pamphlets

The Awards are now established among the most significant awards in contemporary poetry. They are designed to raise the profile of poetry pamphlets, recognising the enormous contribution that they make to the poetry world.’

‘Judges’ Comments: The V. Press offering of four remarkably diverse pamphlets included a mix of established and new writers. We fell in love in particular with Alex Reed’s pamphlet ‘A Career in Accompaniment’ about looking after his wife – quiet poems, carefully crafted, with enormous emotional heft and dignity.’ 

We have a special offer at V.Press at the moment to celebrate the press being shortlisted for the awards, please follow this LINK to find out more.