Introduced to Blackwells on a chilly October evening are poets Isabel Galleymore and Stephen Sexton, along with their shining debut collections. Both with previously published pamphlets, both lecturers in Creative Writing, yet both with a unique and distinctive voice; each takes their place before the keen audience to read and discuss their latest work.
First up is Isabel Galleymore who, as John McAuliffe excitedly tells us, was the first poet in residence at a research centre in the Amazon rainforest. She also carried out a residency on the Cornish coast, and says that both of these incredible experiences directly inspired her new collection, Significant Other. Published by Carcanet earlier this year, Significant Other was then shortlisted for the 2019 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Galleymore begins with the poem ‘Nuptials’, and we are immediately introduced to this promised close proximity to small creatures and strange nature.
Galleymore explains her interest in the idea “to be at one with nature”. She says her friend – a scientist – is wary of this phrase, for fear that it might lead us to forget our responsibility. We cannot be at one with nature if we are the ones destroying it. Galleymore has an interest in environmental issues, and feeds that concern into much of her poetry. She explains to us that she feels as though climate change has so far been an “ultimate abstract noun”, but that things might be shifting. With recent times, we have begun to reach out and touch the issue with more confidence. Wanting to “draw it closer”, Isabel Galleymore brings us poems such as ‘Day’, in which climate change denial is likened to romantic denial, and it gathers quietly, as we do, every day, “Our talk of weather still small.” This final line is one which hangs thoughtfully amongst the audience.
Galleymore goes on to attribute poems to her time in an owl sanctuary, to her knowledge of cockles and to the plethora of names for animals, “rich in metaphor”, which she encountered in the Amazon. Significant Other is poetry grounded in nature, earth, science and familiar human experience, in verses small but perfectly formed, like the creatures she explores.
Galleymore’s reading finishes with an exploration of our strange attachment to animals, with ‘Significant Other’. Later, when asked by a member of the audience why she resists the more usual, more ‘cuddly’ creatures, Galleymore talks about anthropomorphism, and how it’s difficult to project that onto something like a barnacle. It forces us to adjust our language, and our perception. “I’m interested in seeing the beauty in them, not making them beautiful.”
Quite the contrary to Galleymore’s short, neat poems, is Stephen Sexton’s 100 page long poem: If All the World and Love Were Young (Penguin, 2019), also shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Broken down into nine levels through a 1990s game SuperMario World, Sexton’s poetry is unusual, yet surprisingly lyrical. He tells us that he started the piece as a laugh, and that “what I thought was an amusing thing to do turned out to be remarkably serious”. The poem is an extended exploration of family, relationships and grief: namely, the loss of his own mother. “These are pastoral poems”, Sexton tells us, “it just so happens that these are digital landscapes.”
And so Sexton takes us through the mystical, and quite beautiful poetry of Yoshi’s Island 1, 2 and 3, before moving deeper into this strange world, leading the audience under water, through castles, into mines, and all with busy sixteen-syllable lines to match the original 16-bit console (This is, after all, a poem about memory, the poets tells us.) Though brimming with fantasy and, as Sexton puts it, “glitter”, reality pushes through the verse with sharp clarity. His mother appears: “Since she has lost her taste we have given her McDonalds”. And seldom does the average SuperMario player consider that “The mines dug out by hand have left thousands dead”. The joys of childhood games seem to dissolve here, lost in the past, and later Sexton reveals that the book is framed around a lost photo, taken by his mother, of himself as a child playing SuperMario Bros on their front-room floor.
Though we could have listened to both collections in captivated silence for the rest of the evening, the poets then joined each other and John McAuliffe for a friendly Q and A.
McAuliffe, mindful of the students and emerging poets in the audience, asks “How did you both get to this point?” Isabel Galleymore tells us that from bringing out her pamphlet, Dazzle Ship, in 2014, she never imagined herself creating this collection. She was familiar with the use of natural imagery, but not sea life, and the transition between the two works “felt like a jump”. Stephen Sexton says that his opportunity came from a tentative submission to an anthology of, in his words, “mildly erotic poetry”, and the conversations following that. Sexton adds that the poetry itself, however, “is entirely unlike me”, and indeed McAuliffe had already observed that this is a publication which “omits all previous poems” of his. “I’m trying to translate a video game into English” says Sexton, later adding that “I wanted it to feel strange.”
These are poets with distinct voices – distinct even from their own previous work. The collections feel new and exciting, playing with form with refreshing energy. For Galleymore, the “symbiotic relationship between form and subject matter” was essential. It would feel inappropriate to write a really long poem about a limpet, she says. For Sexton, length was easy, “because I had all the energy that mischief gives you.” He said that nevertheless, he wanted a sense of “the world intruding” throughout his work. It seems that this can be said for both collections, as they bring us towards truth in fresh and exciting ways. These are clearly two talented debut writers who, we can hope, will continue to bring new vigour to the poetic world.