Announcing our 2020 poets

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 some only to be drawn again to the four we ultimately selected. There were a good many pamphlets sent to us that deserved publication and that we are in no doubt will be selected elsewhere. We wish all the submitters luck with their poetry and please send to us again next year. Well done again to all those shortlisted – we made the decision not to publish the short list but let the poets know they made it to the second cut.

It’s a mysterious process and after quiet deliberation, we all agreed on and selected our four 2020 poets. All four pamphlets stood out to us and all for different reasons, some because they were sharp and forensic, some because we kept thinking about them, and others for what we felt might be an interesting journey of collaboration from edit to publication.

Huge congratulations go to –

Denise Bundred – Litany of a Cardiologist

Ben Cusden – Join the Dots

Olga Dermott-Bond – apple, fallen

Natalie Shaw – Oh be quiet

In the next few weeks and months we will bring you more news of our new poets, sample poems and the pamphlets’ publication dates.

Abegail, Karen & Jess


Patricia McCarthy reviews Metastatic by Jane Lovell

Taken from Agenda Poetry Reviews

Jane Lovell is a master/mistress of the lyric with wonderfully apt, incisive images culled often from the natural world around her. She has yet to have a full collection published but in this pamphlet, Metastatic, she is at her best. Here, the lyric is clothed in urgency and is used to powerful effect in articulating the traumatic situation of her husband facing a rare cancer diagnosis and them both wondering if he will survive. Hence lyrical language is juxtaposed, very carefully it has to be said, with hospital terminology, resulting in very moving poems that are never sentimental or over-dramatic. In fact, the poems are dignified and quiet as they deal, at subtle angles, with the mortal diagnosis. She contrasts effectively the spoken with silence, or different kinds of silences, and light versus dark. The frequent use of alliteration and sibilance highlights the altered perspectives induced by shock when even time, as we know it, goes awry. In the poem ‘Birdsong’, ‘Even the cup in your hand/ assumes a strange longevity’… ‘The world has shrunk away,/ moves in different realities;// our life has shucked its skin,/we are already ghosts’. This contrasts with the normal world: ‘Sometimes it seems it’s just me’ and those birds// all that bird song, so much life’. This dislocation in a world of changed perspectives continues in the poem ‘How do you do the right thing’ –
when landscapes are untied, hedges slide into oblivion, fields flap untethered, their edges fraying to dust’…
Horizons are threaded through the poems, coming closer and closer in their shrunken world. They ‘now go all the way to the horizon/ and stop/ our whole world is here’, for there is ‘nothing beyond// nothing beyond/ but the man who reads blood/ circling numbers in a scree of figures’, this man whose word ‘draws the horizon/ into a knot’, along with bones and carcasses, ghosts ‘of gone-days’, ‘of hedges’, ‘a ghost owl’, a ‘ghost garden’, and the patient himself who fades ‘to shadow as we walk’. Yet this is not a Gothic world; it is a natural one with birds to bless, and listen to as examples of fortitude: ‘that blackbird chortling regardless/ of his dried dead young’, a fallen plum tree, juniper, a hare, a kestrel, a thrush, owls. And the scraps of solace that her husband keeps ‘like a talisman’, the solace ‘in the altered step of time’ uplift even momentarily.
Throughout the sequence a lot ‘spills’ and is ‘pinned’ – as if the life-force is leaching away or being held down by diagnosis after diagnosis from screens and slides. The repetition of these words, plus the repetition of many lines in poems, and the same image at the beginning and end of a poem, like bookends – such as the horse at the beginning and end of the poem ‘Equivocal’; also the first and last poem in the pamphlet focusing on ‘day’ – ‘Ten days’ at the beginning and the hopeful ‘new day’ at the end – add to the symmetry of the whole, and increase the haunting effect. In the last poem where even the thrush sings in a minor (sad) not major key, Lovell subconsciously defines what these poems are: spoken/ in the quiet dark’. How well-spoken they are indeed.
In the overall doom which holds the unwanted clinician’s words, Lovell articulately chisels words from silences – and this is surely where the best poetry lies in all its urgency, intensity and meaning. Lovell dares these spaces with great empathy, sensitivity and delicacy, and the control she achieves makes these poems all the more harrowing and moving.
This is necessary poetry, grace-given, where ‘the trees are angels, quietly/ unpicking strands of destiny’ and it is hoped that these angels will continue to do just this for Jane Lovell as her poems evolve with a surety and sparseness that few poets today ever manage.

Four poems by Graham Clifford

Here we feature a few poems from Well by Graham Clifford. Enjoy!

‘These are pitch-perfect poems powered by luminous and revealing images, a razor sharp voice and a beguilingly dark humour. There is irony too and witty insights. Graham is a poet’s poet, with a mastery of syntax and form and a keen awareness of the writer’s need to observe. An immensely readable collection, with a great deal to admire and enjoy.’ Anna Saunders

Resusci Anne

I am simply the latest to come to you
with my frantic efforts at restarting your heart,
adrenaline-breath in through the lips
that Baudelaire compared to La Joconde’s.

Everything burns internally when
I Google you, for images only, everything
since they fished you from the Seine
by the Quai de Louvre, causing a hole

in humanity; we couldn’t cope with
this loss. Countless corporations
and attempts we have made on your likeness,
inconnu. Smiling and concentrated,

black and white and in high def,
in water, on land,
scenarios and death masks,
the rucksack of Baby Annies

you gave birth to; decapitated-you
French kissed; a trunk, you goad us
implying you could still be reanimated
if we keep thumping on your improved chest

more lifelike in its trademark death.
Perhaps it is this handing on
that is the saving, Anne. A toy maker
and a doctor made you. Breathe. 1,2,3…

Nearly Normal Dream

There was nothing to my dream, except
there were two of everything.

Two double basses; two soups.
When I had to leave you both again
and opened the doors
two brutal worlds rejected my double efforts.

I woke up drenched by twice the sadness.
Where my other heart was ached.


Divers fan and fuss silt to reveal a spire tip from a village they say sank for a reason:
we’re sinking.
My daughter’s anemone fingers splay and clench under a thin layer of sleep;
myoclonic jerks, eye-whites, as outside,
bean plants stretch up and out, urging away like we do, sickened at first
by our own seedy origins.
Get away! genes insist. You will never get over that pained, crouching creep
of bad-back Alsatians. This bench
may well have been where you loved to sit and rest but, if they chloroformed
the street and switched a maple
for a larch, are you claiming you would notice? How far down till you find
a significance? How far down
do we own? And above? I might one day wake and just go but I won’t. To look
up at the blue, blue sky –
who would have guessed all the blood stains, the flesh and jumble of scrags
words totter on? My teacher
was right: those books over-reached me, but if I slow the last drip, it backs up
a perforation in the shower rose
with the room, the fixtures, me, the window, everything outside, a jet and clouds
elongated, cleaned up. Perfect.

Li Po in New Look

I was remembering lines of Li Po
in New Look to the cute teenager-y lyrics
like liking a neck shiny with perfume
and the girl in the lingerie photo seemed to be saying
I love you not I want to suck you inside out
this time; I’d seen her before, backing
away from me in empty rooms in magazines
or turning to a leafless tree, with hats on.

And our daughter had a blue vein
across her nose, still angry
from the gristly pop of birth.
She daily tried on a new face
and had now found the perfect Edwardian
incredulity for the rows of versions of a shoe
they keep designing,
tweaking the same to try and catch up with
a desire that should be allowed to fly away,
worrying at the new
like grabbing at tap water, or a thought
made of low rumbling words for a second,
like hope. And Li Po in New Look.

The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament

The Ventriloquist Dummy’s Lament is an exciting collaboration between poet and artist. It consists of a powerful combination of 21 villanelles by Colin Pink with 21 woodcuts by Daniel Goodwin inspired by the poems. We launched the book and accompanying exhibition at a packed out Poetry Cafe June 5th with readings from Colin and guest poet Mimi Khalvati and an introduction to the woodcuts by Daniel. The exhibition of Daniel’s woodcuts and paintings runs until 29th June, where you can also buy a copy of the book (also available from our Shop).

Ventriloquist Front Cover with Border‘..breathtakingly Colin Pink gives us twenty-one accomplished villanelles, each one accompanied by a woodcut of a lightning panache by artist Daniel Goodwin, to illuminate the poet’s “vision” so “that many beings can become vessels of light”…’ William Oxley

‘Daniel Goodwin’s woodcuts are lively and direct responses to Colin Pink’s incisive villanelles. They offer an unusual perspective in which images taken from the poems’ themes are revealed out of apparent abstraction, their visual boldness perfectly complementing Pink’s rhythmic urgency.’ Kit Boyd



We thought we were moving upwards, forever striving,
Reaching for rung after rung. All along we couldn’t see
The way up and the way down came to the same thing.

A sparrow swoops in one door and out again, flying
Through the hearth, swift hearted, from artifice it flees.
We thought we were moving upwards, forever striving

To complete the perfect circle. There was always something
Missing no matter how hard we searched. It couldn’t be
The way up and the way down came to the same thing.

All go into the dark whirlpool and there’s no returning:
Consumed in love, ambition, reverence, in each degree
We thought we were moving upwards. Forever striving,

Intoxicated with ideas of progress, we persisted, inventing
Many things with unexpected consequence. We didn’t see
The way up and the way down came to the same thing.

After a long journey, travelling in novelty, we’re becoming
Doubtful; did we live a toxic dream? It made our spine freeze:
We thought we were moving upwards, forever striving;
The way up and the way down came to the same thing.

Colin Pink

4 Upwards
Upwards © Daniel Goodwin

The Dancing Boy

See below four poems from the brilliant The Dancing Boy by Michelle Diaz. The pamphlet is packed with gems like these. Available to buy from our Shop.

The first night after my father left

my mother lay as if the darkness knew her,
closed herself up inside, became so small
that she couldn’t find alone.

The sky was full of nouns.
She dare not look at the stars,
would not fix her eyes on light.

The night was the belly of a whale.
She was not Jonah.
Nobody came to save her.

Repeat the words –

She could not find where she began or ended.
There was no definition.

The air was thick and black.
Her throat an oil spill.

She delivered her heart like a stillborn
into the mouth of the darkness.

A Birth Journey in Nine Movements

We are en route to Yorkshire.
I stir my latte with a pregnancy test,
it shows up positive.
All the waiters do the Macarena.
My mother finds a Clear Blue box in the fridge –
it is full of eggs.
We have omelette for tea.
The family has never been so together.

I am carried around by four angels
who guard my apple pip cargo,
pump me full of oxytocin,
airbrush the stretch marks.

My body wages war on vegetables,
organic and tinge of green are off the menu.
I am possessed by the Honey Monster,
only pear drops and Jelly Tots will do.

Three weeks to go and somebody has let the bathwater out.
Oligohydramnios. The midwife tells me you’re shrinking.
The sofa becomes a wet grave I bury myself in.

The hospital – I have a bed with a bell,
Mr Doc says Emergency caesarean.
We float round the room like balloons in denial.

Seven days go by – you are still not out,
despite Doctor Patel’s insistence,
despite the letter on serious yellow paper,
despite my dangerously high blood pressure.
I sense we are dying. I am probed silence.
You have been leaked information.
You are not coming.

C-section. They find you. I become Mummy.

The room breathes morphine, the women sweat.
I am in Tenko. The nurse has a moustache.
She withholds pain relief, wheels away precious baby.

A cold star rises above the saline drip,
guards the broken nativity.

My old skin lines the corridor,
the curt nurse picks it up.
Strangely, I cry because you are no longer inside.
Your dad closes the curtain in case they think I am depressed.
I’m not. It’s just that I will never again know such intimacy.

The Rebellion of Sleeping in

I want to scrape back clouds,
bring morning to you on a tray,
allow you that extra hour.

I want to scrunch the world up, pocket-sized,
then feed it to you
in pieces you can swallow.

Instead, routine makes a Colonel of me.
I bark instruction:
Face and nails, tie straight, cornflakes,
blazer. Hurry up, it’s late!

Not today.

Today I will let you sleep ’til ten,
swim in your unseen dreams.
To hell with school, alarms,
the regimented day.

Your face is the softest peach.
The way things have to be
will not consume the fruit of you,
dribble you down its chin without care,
without tasting your sweetness.

When I rehearse my deathbed scene

every face I’ve ever loved is there.
It took Morrissey a while but he made it.

Gretchen the blue-haired doll
has been scooped out of the bin
where she fell in the late 80s.

All the cats buried in the garden
shake their bones,
stripe my duvet.

There is no confession, no last rites
or familial fights.
All prayers are offered in dance, all tears in song.

There is snow and Baileys
and Christmas crackers
even though it’s June.

The men recite poetry,
the women write it.
There is a ban on taking umbrage.