Tag Archives: Catherine Edmunds

Book Review: How to Win at Kings Cross

Author:          Catherine Edmunds

Publisher:       Erbacce Press

ISBN:              978-1-912455-003

Pages:              96

Price:               £9.95

Reviewer:        Mandy Pannett

 

Cover of How to Win How to Win at Kings Cross by Catherine Edmunds is a stunningly rich poetry collection. Among the qualities that most impress me are its variety of themes and styles, an originality of approach and, most of all, an exuberance and freshness of voice in every one of the pages.

 

The first poem in the book shares the title of the collection. Here we have many of the characteristics found elsewhere. An immediate sense of urgency and pace is induced by the use of repetition – a technique which this poet excels at. ‘The trick is to enter at Granary Square’ is the opening and repeated line. Already we are in a modern, fast moving, urban setting where trickery counts in a game the narrator is reluctant to play.

 

Unusual details catch the reader’s attention. Swans and cygnets on Regent’s Canal swim ‘at half the speed of gossip’ while the narrator aches ‘like Salcedo’s crack in the floor of the Tate’. Striking images fill the poems – the person who speaks in How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home feels as if her heart ‘is a hot, wet rat’ while in Wounded Women we find ‘Daffodils grow in lovely gardens as well as in shit,/and the chicken may well bear a beak/as fierce as that of any raptor.’

 

Frequently the imagery is surreal and totally unexpected. In Red Kite we meet astronauts who have come to ‘plant trees on pit heaps’ – a situation echoed in Cmtillery where we encounter a strange character who ‘Months after returning from space … still lets go/of objects in mid-air, fully expecting them to float./But he’s just twelve years old, it’s 1857.’

 

Humour blends effortlessly with surrealism in Anatomy for the Artist where a bored lawnmowed itself’ and a kettle leaves a note on the table saying ‘Sorry about the toaster’.

 

This is lovely quirky writing that appeals to me. Another quality I admire in this very readable collection is the way Catherine Edmunds introduces sudden twists and turns. How to Make Tea When He’s Not At Home develops a sense of unease in a scenario in which the narrator tries to take her mind off things by making a cup of tea after a lover has returned to Hull ‘after a brilliant few hours in Beverly.’ Gradually the details become staccato in tone and more and more repetitive as she instructs herself to ‘Squidge the bag back down,/Keep it there. Squeeze. Repeat./Throw the bag at the bin. Miss.’ In the last line we discover the reason for these obsessive acts: ‘Wonder who she is.’ The setting in Anatomy for the Artist is even more disturbing as descriptions of the narrator as artist juxtapose with weird events in the house in which something seems to be ‘dying’, books talk quietly to each other and chairs move themselves around ‘having nothing better to do’. I won’t give away the ending but an explanation and a whole back story is revealed in the skilful last few lines.

 

Different forms and layouts are used in How to Win at Kings Cross, each with a purpose. In Erosion the purpose is to convey humour through different line lengths.  A weathered and disintegrating statue of a king or a saint shows his features drooping and ‘his beard rippling like molten cheese.’ This image leads into the following lines:

 

‘and

that’s

when he

comes to life,

perks up when thinking

of cheese. His left eye blinks open

for a nano second: Mon dieu, mon dieu – ah! Fromage!’

 

At the end of the poem the character returns to his niche in Rouen Cathedral where he can sleep the sleep ‘of a ripe runny Brie.’ A delightful pen-portrait.

 

Sometimes the tone is ironic. In Jeans, but so fucking what the members of a committee spend a long time ‘talking about/the insane use of plastics/as if they intend to do anything about it’. The landscape here is one of broken trees with conversation at the level of Tupperware. There are undercurrents of menace in many poems. In Courage ‘The man arrives in a big car, dark windows’ as ‘pigs squeal’ and the narrator leads the children to safety ‘along the lane, claggy and stinking with cow’s piss.’ Juxtaposed with strong and striking narratives there is pain and despair. The title poem begins with an emphasis on ‘hurt’, ‘ache’, ’cracks’. In Time to Abandon Monogamy one faces a future of ‘life after sunset’.

 

Bleak words intersperse with humour, lightness of touch and tenderness as well. I find the poignancy in The Obstinacy of Owls almost unbearable. Here the owl and the pussycat have grown apart, their ‘pea-green boat has been confiscated, turns out to be nothing but ‘a dream, a hope.’

 

As I said at the start of this review, How to Win at Kings Cross is a stunning collection. These are poems with a difference, poems for today. I’ll end with a final passage from Jeans, but so fucking what which I feel illustrates the uniqueness of Catherine Edmunds’ work. The poem ends with a bang as the narrator hurls a tea tray at the window but before this happens we are given these lines:

 

‘Every evening we used to go for a walk

along the beach and throw pebbles into the sea.

You tasted of salt and seaweed.

We lit a fire and turned into smoke,

we drifted. We had sex in the sand

and the grit and it hurt

and I would give anything to have sex in the sand

once again with you.’

 

Later, as someone picks up the empty cups, there is a single, almost throw-away line: ‘Why did you die.’ SLQ

Mandy Pannett interviews Catherine Edmunds

Thank you for this interview, Cathy. Good to talk to you. Congratulations on the publication of your collection ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. This was the result of an Erbacce Press competition wasn’t it, which had nearly six thousand entries? Tell us more.

I love the ‘Erbacce Prize’. It’s free to enter, you send a good sample of poems rather than fixing your hopes on just a few, it’s genuinely read blind, and the prizes are seriously good. In previous years, I’ve come close, but have just missed out on the top prizes. This year I finally made it and have been rewarded with the publication of a complete collection.

This is a full length collection – nearly one hundred pages. I’d love to know what criteria you adopted for selecting and ordering the poems. Are you following themes, settings, atmosphere? Was it difficult to choose the first and last poem?

I have written hundreds of poems since my first collection, ‘wormwood, earth and honey’(Circaidy Gregory Press, 2007), so I had plenty to choose from. Initially, I gave preference to those that had already been prize winners or published in prestigious journals, but they weren’t always my favourites, so some of these were eventually discarded. Ultimately, I went with my guts. I could see various themes emerging, but wanted to leave the precise order to my editor Alan Corkish at Erbacce Press. He has the editing and publishing experience; he knows what works, and I trust his judgment.

I’m intrigued by the title ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’. Is there a background to this? Was it a title in waiting?

The title was inspired by an internet article I came across a few years ago that demonstrated the necessity of ignoring direction signs on the Kings Cross Underground unless you are happy to walk miles out of your way. My brother used to have a flat a short distance from the station, and I always stayed with him when I was in London, so I gradually learnt the tricks of ‘how to win’. Over a period of ten years, I gorged myself on all the art the city has to offer, and this is reflected in the title poem, which I see as a declaration of my love for London, but which other people interpret very differently. That’s the great thing about poetry—the poet provides the initial impetus with the words, but it’s the reader’s interpretation that creates the poem.

You are an incredibly creative person – musician, artist, novelist, poet – there’s probably more! Are you drawn to all of these equally or, if you could only concentrate on one thing, what might it be?

Last summer, when I was being filmed as a contestant for Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’, presenter Frank Skinner said it was like sitting next to Leonardo, which was a wild exaggeration, obviously, but nice to hear. I have been an artist all my life, and when I’m painting, I don’t want to be doing anything else, but professionally, I’m a musician, and six months ago I joined award-nominated Irish folk/rock band, ‘Share the Darkness’. When I’m playing with them, I’m on a real high and can’t imagine anything better—but then there’s the writing. When I’m writing a novel, I fall in love with my characters with such intensity, it hurts when eventually I must send them away from me. Individual poems can have the same effect. Could I pick just one, out of writing, music and art? No. Not a chance.

Not only creative but prolific too. Do you have a routine for writing, a daily to-do list, or do you grab opportunities as they arise?

I have a daily ‘to do’ list, but I rarely adhere to it. I get up early, skim through facebook and emails to deal with anything urgent, and then dip in and out of writing/art/music all day. I stop every so often to give a scheduled violin or piano lesson. When I need a break, I indulge my ‘killer sudoku’ habit, and I’ve also recently started learning Welsh. Wales is a country I love and have visited since early childhood, hence the number of poems with Welsh settings in the collection.

And now what comes next, once you’ve sent ‘How to Win at Kings Cross’ on its journey? A long poetry sequence? Another novel? A multi-media publication? Lots of luck with it, whatever it may be.

Thank you. I have recently completed a novel and a novella which are being sent out to agents and publishers, so writing-wise I’m between major projects and am concentrating on individual poems and flashes. Wearing my artist’s hat, I’m working on a large portrait—not a commission, unusually for me, but an attempt to hone my portrait-painting skills. I have had three drawings of Christine Keeler accepted for a forthcoming nationwide tour, so I feel I’m on the cusp of doing something more prestigious with my art. Musically, my electric blue fiddle is fully booked from now till Christmas and beyond. People ask me how I manage to do so much, particularly given my major health problems—but illness is what has spurred me on. We all lose eventually, but while we’re on a winning streak, we need to make the most of it and live life to the full. And I know how to win at Kings Cross.

 

Copies of How to Win at Kings Cross may be purchased from the Erbacce Press website: http://erbacce-press.webeden.co.uk/catherine-edmunds/4594362934