New at Numéro Cinq

Way back in January I had a properly wonderful experience. I went to the studios of two very talented women: the painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, and spoke with them about their creativity.

The results were fascinating. Two amazing artists with two perspectives on creativity that could hardly be more different. We spoke about fear and anxiety, about process and productivity, about inspiration past and present, and about the roads their careers had taken them down.

The interviews are now up at Numéro Cinq and I think they’re both reassuring and encouraging for anyone who wants to live a creative life or simply explore their own relationship to art.


Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.

Best Books of 2013

This may not have been a fabulous year for me personally, but it was a great reading year. I had very few reading slumps and enjoyed a bumper number of good books. Above all it was the year for non-fiction, so much so that I’ve had to introduce a range of categories to cover all the books I feel obliged to mention. Let us look back fondly.

Best Literary Fiction

Louise Erdrich – The Round House

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American


Best Innovative Fiction

J. R. Crook – Sleeping Patterns


Best Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall


Best Debut Novel

Beatrice Hitchman – Petite Mort


Best Quirky Cute Novel You Can Read In An Afternoon

Alexis M. Smith – Glaciers


Best General Fiction

Maggie O’Farrell – Instructions for a Heatwave

Harriet Lane – Alys Always

Amanda Smyth – A Kind of Eden


Best Contemporary Crime

Stella Rimington – The Geneva Trap

T. V. LoCicero –Admission of Guilt


Best Golden Age Crime

Elizabeth Daly – Somewhere in the House


Best Crime That Managed To Be About More Than Crime

Attica Locke – The Cutting Season


Best Poetry Collection

Kaddy Benyon – Milk Fever


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Nature

Kathleen Jamie – Findings

Neil Ansell – Deer Island


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Memoir

Jennie Erdal – Ghosting

James Lasdun – Give Me Everything You Have; On Being Stalked

Kathryn Harrison – The Mother Knot


Best Creative Non-Fiction. Category: Completely Uncategorizable

Maggie Nelson – Bluets  (my favourite post of the year)

Stephen Grosz – The Examined Life


Best Non-Fiction That Brought Self-Illumination

Kathryn Schultz – Being Wrong

Susan Cain – Quiet


Special Award for Services to Existentialism

(I will never tire of watching that)

New Poetry

Some of the most criminally unappealing sentences have been written in the service of talking about poetry. Poems are like wine in the way they can lead their enthusiasts astray in language, and before you know where you are, poetry is reclaiming personal experience, or putting us in touch with the cosmos or singing the universal or celebrating the elemental or goodness only knows what. Which is ironic, given that poetry is there to make us think harder about language and what it can do. The older I get and the more poetry I read, the less I know what to say about it – which is a shortcoming on my part. However, I’ll do what I can for two collections of poetry by a couple of intriguing poets, Kaddy Benyon and Fiona Sze-Lorrain, which is at least give you a generous offering of their poetry.


When the Title Took Its Life


My saddest lines

Wish to know how they left

This pen


And why I imprison them

In corridors

Along margins. Abbreviated


But exhausted from labor.


Tonight they wreak revenge

On my mortal hand –


Erase me.


Write “I don’t know

Why I am sad.

Night is long. Like an empty house

With annexes of silence.”


Or bar with a slash

Words like “bleeding”

“persecution,” “exile,” and “loneliness.”


Like a blind judge, these lines

Doubt my sincerity.

Here is not life.


The sickle moon looks down.


What does it know? The storm

I heard when I meant

To be writing.


This comes from Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s collection, My Funeral Gondola. These are cool, spacious poems, often with a lot of white space to do your thinking in. Elegant or evocative sentences feel like they’ve been plucked by tweezers and laid on a white cloth for inspection. But there’s also a stark drama to many of her lines, and a little capsule of enigma left rolling about in them, too.  One of my favourites is entitled ‘Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back’ and it was a delightful mixture of the wry, the ironic and the observational. Here’s an excerpt:


To conceal jealousy, he wore dark glasses, took

Pictures with a pen camera. To be posted

On a blog, in a third-person account.


Is Foucault in season?


The most interesting lectures, from those who

Chose to stay the peripheral sort.


For instance, an American who studied nature.


Or the Irish dramaturge in awe of Brecht

And Buddhist grottoes


A professor emerita

Trying to seduce with her foxy hairstyles.


A clique of amis

Who could handle theoretical smiles.


By contrast, Kaddy Benyon’s poems are much earthier, more sensual and much more tightly packed:


Strange Fruit


Sometimes I have an urge to slip

My hands inside the soiled, wilting

Necks of your gardening gloves;

To let my fingers fill each dusty

Burrow, then close my eyes and feel

A blush of nurture upon my skin.


Sometimes I am so afraid my hurt

Will hack at your figs, strawberries,

Or full-bellied beans, I dig my fists

In my pockets and nip myself. Sometimes

I imagine the man who belongs to

The hat hanging on the bright-angled


Nail in your shed. I think about you

Toiling and sweating with him;

Coaxing growth from warm earth;

Pushing life into furrows. I am curious

About what cultivates and blooms

There in your enclosed, raised bed –


Yet I want no tithe of it for myself.

Sometimes I just want to show

You the places I’m mottled, rotten

And bruised; I want you to lean close

Enough to hold the strange fruit

Of me and tell me I may yet thrive.


This comes from the collection Milk Fever, and there is a clear preoccupation with close relationships, unusually intimate and mysterious ones like mother and child and lovers. This is an altogether more intimate voice, more insistent on the mind, recklessly pushing fragments of images onto the reader, bringing us up closer than is comfortable to the bodies, scents, experiences and perceptions in the poems. Where Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s poems are gently cloaked in spiritual ideas, Kaddy Benyon’s are grasping at disquieting feelings. I loved the start of ‘Undone’:


We had to run for the bus after confession,

Where waiting for Mother’s silence

I’d made imaginary idols of saints, illuminated


By twenty votives I paid for with flickers

Of prayer. We’d no time for my litany

Of lies and spite and rage so the priest winked


And told me Next time. I reached for Mother’s

Hand, already crammed with beads

Clacking together: a metronome for OCD.


I wish I could recall where I read an explanation of the literary as being ‘the place where the material is filled up with the ineffable’. For that seemed to me the perfect description of all poetry. I found so much to enjoy in both these collections and particularly those moments of reading poetry where you pounce on a line as if it were an especially gorgeous shell on the beach. ‘My skin takes thoughts/away from light’ stayed with me for a long time from My Funeral Gondola. And in Milk Fever, of a baby’s cradle cap: ‘I want to pick him clean: to preserve/him protected/from the ravenous urge to love.’ Gorgeous stuff.