Announcing our 2020 poets

Against the Grain Poetry Press

It’s been a busy few months for us at Against the Grain. We are poets as well as publishers and collectively we’ve been finishing writing projects, launching books and keeping roofs over our heads. We have also been spending long hours reading the hundreds of submissions that came to us this year. We each read all of them to create a short list. We were full of a glowy gratitude for every submission. We – as poets ourselves – know the pain and effort it takes to put a collection together and then wait with everything crossed to get the results. We were really pleased and impressed with the sheer volume and quality that came to us. We made our selections – some we agreed on and some we argued over and fought for. We can safely say that in some cases we were within a hair’s breath of selecting…

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Please Step Aside So I can Write About the Living by Anna Saunders

Please Step Aside So I can Write About the Living

You need to get the dead out of your poems
you told me but here I am writing of how
a month before you left this earth

we stood together in the gallery and I saw you reflected
in the fictive space of a painting

your form, gleaming white and translucent
as thin frost, or a sleek gauze

floating on the back glass as if airborne
a premature, amorphous haunting
your ghost getting here ahead of you.

You, see-through, overlay an oil sky
which takes up almost all the canvas

a deep hued emptiness which consumes the artist’s vision.

In that huge starless heaven
a white dwelling is as diminished
as a tooth in a cavernous mouth
a moth flying in space.

Your steps are so light
as you walk nearer to me.

How brave to paint so much darkness, you say.

Anna is a published poet, the author of Communion, (Wild Conversations Press), Struck (Pindrop Press), Kissing the She Bear (Wild Conversations Press), Burne Jones and The Fox (Indigo Dreams) and Ghosting for Beginners (Indigo Dreams) .

Anna is also the Executive Director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival and works as a creative writing tutor and mentor, a Communications Specialist, a journalist, broadcaster and a copywriter/editor. Her website: https://annasaunderswriter.co.uk/


Big Sue, Muse Oozing by

Big Sue, Muse Oozing

Belly, breasts, ooze, a lava flow of flesh in gravity’s grasp, no room for dunnage; the sofa, plump itself in faded floral, reminds us of lounge furniture before its distant descendants, Danish chic, et al, sturdy, as needs be supporting 130kg. No mottled sunbeam shafts through a window, no need for effects, just a backcloth.

A book she shall write, and a kind of pseudo-fame, await. Her Job Centre clients, sad litany of losers sluicing down unemployment’s drain, many with her body shape but none regularly posing for an artist, entertained by his jokes, his cooking, his studied rudeness, would be amazed.

Wire-thin, crow-like, he stares at the canvas she can see, squeezes paint, glances at her, colours out her tattoos. His name, famous grandfather’s, resonates, but the work, the visionary artistic existence, this current lure, ‘flesh without muscle’, his ode, this disclosure of her life in splendid, sprawling impasto, impresses her.

She can’t know a Russian who also bought a football club, an oligarch ogling her, shall fork out a record price for a work by any living artist, this but one of several nude feasts featuring her, and whenever she looks at her leg it shall remind her of a leg in these paintings.

Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Australian Poetry Journal, Critical Survey, Live Encounters, Poetry New Zealand, Southerly, & Two-Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.


Sarah James reviews Sophie Essex’s Some Pink Star

sophie essex

Some Pink Star
by Sophie Essex
Eibonvale Press
ISBN: 978-1-908125-75-0

That Some Pink Star looks, reads and feels beautiful in the hands is important given the sensual content of this chapbook, as well as the obvious care to layout and look of the words on the page. White space is a powerful creative element in these poems, which resist one-level reading, instead inviting multiple possible interpretations. Particularly between stanzas, the white space is a place where I make and re-make my semantic linkings. But, more than this, the spaces in these poems also allow for my reactions at an instinctive, non-language level.

This instinctive reaction reinforces my active reading of (and participation in) the poems and also my experience of them as ‘(outside definitions)’ (p.10) as they explore a range of what the cover summarises as ‘the correlation between sex and violence, the willingness of either and both’.

The best way of explaining both possible intentions and effects is to share examples, such as:

‘I want scope for desire
…………….visible depth’
(‘IKB’, p 11)


‘keening tigress
………………I come with the snow
………………bloom like spilt milk’
(‘Silent Red Avalanche’ p. 23)

There are many quotes I could have used. My review copy of the chapbook is heavily underlined and margin-noted with striking lines to return to for their texture, sounds and imagery as well as possible new meanings and connotations.

Colour features both in many of the poems and the poem titles, from ‘Periaqueductal Gray’ and ‘Violet Volcanoes’ to ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Yellowthroat’. As with white space, the use of colours creates tone and atmosphere, while also offering/demanding a sense-based (in this case visually-prompted) response. This might seem almost tender, as in ‘an easy creature bathed in lilac light’ (‘This Is The Colour of My Dreams’, p. 20). But colour often feels unsettling, to suggest a surface appearance/assumption that may not match reality, or even to wield violence, as in:

‘at this hour lilac disruption comes with the knee
arousal teases ferocity’
(‘Prickly Pear’, p,25)


‘this skyline curves a fresh pink brutality
my nose………………bleeds’
(‘Cotton Candy’, p18)

I’ve talked about responding and reacting to these poems instinctively. The best metaphor I can find for my own response is a sense of electricity: the crackle of language and imagery, sparks of desire, hissing arcs of resistance and shock, and also, perhaps, the splitting of the colour spectrum. The latter, of course, isn’t actually how electricity works, and yet this what I feel interacting with the poems as they work language in intriguing ways. Perhaps, the illogic of my colour-splitting analogy is even more appropriate given that the chapbook stretches and tests both its subject matter, language and form to create something unusual, with poems that are beautiful and striking even when they’re sharp. There’s something close to this, for me, in the description of ‘our bodies lit polychromatic’ (‘Pink Grapefruit’, p24).

There are other motifs and themes, including snow, fruit and objectification. Each re-reading I notice new slants and meanings, and experience new reactions and emotions. These poems more than any others that I have read recently defy any notion of being definitively and unexpandably understood. They will always have more, provided, of course, that we want to read for more.

That this should be the case seems particularly important in a chapbook exploring sex and violence as it directly highlights the notion of control – the control that the poet exerts in directing the reader’s understanding, thoughts and emotions and the control that the reader is allowed in interpreting and reacting to the poems. Arguably, the reader here may have a greater level of control than the narrator is allowed in many of the poems’ scenarios.

Finishing this review, I find myself questioning what a review is or should be. If the ideal is to sum up the whole chapbook in a neat and comprehensive way, then I’ve failed. But I also think that even trying to that would be to fail Some Pink Stars because this approach could never do the chapbook justice. However, if you come away from this review feeling something, a reaction or an energy change, then I may partly have succeeded in giving you a taste of these poems. To properly experience Some Pink Stars though is really only possible through reading and experiencing it directly and in full.


Sarah James/Leavesley is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Author of seven poetry titles, two novellas and a touring poetry-play, she has poetry featured in the Guardian, Financial Times, Bloodaxe anthologies and The Forward Book of Poetry 2016. She was Overton Poetry Prize winner 2015 and her recent titles How to Grow MatchesHow to Grow Matches (Against the Grain Press, 2018) and plenty-fish (Nine Arches Press, 2015) were both shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Award. Her website is at http://sarah-james.co.uk



Poetry and Cinema – Cinema Museum August 5th, 7pm

Date and Time: Mon, August 5, 2019
7:00 PM – 10:00 PM BST

Cinema Museum
2 Dugard Way
SE11 4TH

Celebrating the potential of literary and avant-garde poetry to explore and refract popular or arthouse cinema, this unique event will see performances and readings by some of London’s most interesting writers followed by a screening of Peter Greenaway’s remarkable and challenging 1993 feature film The Baby of Mâcon. This event aims to re-imagine moving image in the language arts.

The event will see the launch of SJ Fowler’s ‘I Stand Alone by The Devils and other poems on films’ from Broken Sleep Books http://www.stevenjfowler.com/istandalone alongside readings by Yvonne Litschel, Jonathan Catherall, David Spittle and more.

“The Baby of Macon is a sumptuous-looking tale of manipulation, greed, and religious fanaticism set in Peter Greenaway’s favorite era, the 17th century.”

Get tickets HERE


Via Negativa by Steve Xerri

Via Negativa

At the sight of long-stemmed lily buds
opened overnight in tongues of white fire
you prickle with the sense of a script
being played out : but you can’t tell
who is writing or how to translate it.
In your mind’s eye an image of blazing
letters blackens the page, a conceit
no sooner slammed down on paper
than deleted.
………………..No matter : failure
upon approximation is all there is,
step after step on the negative path
to not quite naming what steers worlds
and stars in cosmic circles, guides sperm
to egg time after time, holds sky
from earth and turns the seas
between – the not god that flows
and glows in everything.


Steve Xerri is a former teacher, musician & designer now making pots and writing poetry. He won the title of Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year 2017, and his work has been published or is forthcoming in Acumen, Amaryllis, Atrium, Brittle Star, Cinnamon anthology From Hallows to Harvest, Clear Poetry, Envoi, Ink Sweat and Tears, Ó Bhéal anthology ‘Five Words Vol XII’, The Clearing,The Interpreter’s House, Picaroon, The Poetry Shed, Poetry Society Newsletter, Proletarian Poetry, Stride Magazine and Words For The Wild.

Goliath by Mat Riches


You find you’re carrying
a cairn in your pocket.

You’ve been to some hard places
before and found yourself

looking down on the rocks
you stole as talismans.

A bespoke quarrying,
they were transported home

in a pocket and turned
over and over, flipped

through fingers like gymnasts
looping round balance beams.

Before you pick your point
short of the horizon,

consider more than just
saving trouser linings.

Take careful aim, winding
up and back, then release

to watch each brief puncture
and skip away lightly.



Mat Riches is from Norfolk, but lives in Kent. He’s currently poet-in-residence at ITV (although they don’t know it). His work’s been in Poetry Salzburg, Under The Radar, South, Firth, Orbis, The Interpreter’s House, And Other Poems, Atrium, Ink, Sweat & Tears, London Grip, Obsessed With Pipework, Glasgow Review of Books, and Algebra of Owls. He’s on Twitter as @matriches and blogs at https://matriches76.wordpress.com/


Vincent (1890) by Steve Walter

Vincent (1890)
Art is long, life is short.

You open your heart to cypresses
as you enter the grounds

of Saint-Paul at Saint-Remy,
catch the blaze of a wheat field with crows.

I never knew such colour
could hold so many words.

Every stroke of your paintbrush, connects
you with artists in my family, living and dead.

If we were to meet
would we share a bottle

of wine together,
talk yellow, yellow and blue…and red?

Might we discuss composition, the spirit of light?
Would I put my arm around you

as we go back inside, exchange
anecdotes, talk mental health?

You are here of your own free will.
I was sectioned.

And then it hits you, like
a fracture in a pane of glass –

all the grief that ever was,
expressed through this one old man.

Steve has written poetry from an early age, inspired by his late father (Ted), who was once known as The Policeman Poet (featured on TV News-Nationwide). His mother (Hazel), was an accomplished water colour artist.

Steve first qualified with a degree in biochemistry and chemistry, then moved into commerce and industry, in health, safety and environmental management. In spite of, or because of, his scientific background, he has performed shows at the Brighton and Edinburgh Festival Fringes, based on his first book: Fast Train Approaching… a powerful, yet good humoured, account of life during and after breakdown and recovery, and later, drawing on other people’s stories in Voices: mental health survivors, carers, therapist, family and friends (both published by Chipmunkapublishing).

His second pamphlet of poetry, When the Change Came, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2016, and his long poem, Gaia 2020, is published by Making Connections Matter.

Steve continues to enjoy creative writing, has a daughter and son, stepdaughter and stepson, and lives with his wife, Liz, a physiotherapist, in Kent.

Visit: www.makingconnectionsmatter.org