Tony Cross is reading all the books and poems shortlisted for this year's Forward Prizes for Poetry. Here are his thoughts on Comic Timing, the debut collection by Holly Pester...
Every so often in my poetry reading I come across a collection of poetry that is hard work. Not because it is bad, but because it takes effort to untangle. When reading this I felt like a stone being skimmed across a lake. Occasionally, the stone would feel like it was flying, but then it would sting the water. Then lifted again. But eventually it would sink beneath waves.
This is Holly Pester's debut collection, and she isn't taking any prisoners. The blurb describes her 'unique demotic'. I had to look up demotic. It means, as far as I understand, colloquial speech. Pester's language is certainly her own and the subjects of the poems - from my perspective - is survival in a dull and difficult world. A world which challenges us constantly. Either spiritually or physically. Particularly women. And women's experience - of their bodies, of poverty, of politics, of everything - are at the centre of this collection.
One of the poems in the collection that affected me the most. A poem that would make this collection worth reading almost on its own is "The Work and It's Record." It's a protest poem. Or I think it is. A cry from the heart about the constant battles that women are having to fight, with the emphasis on abortion.
If I was a professional reviewer of poetry I would, of course, have dug into Holly Pester's interviews and used that to help me build on the weak foundations of my understanding. But that always feels like cheating to me. Like reading other people's reviews so that you can work out how you feel about something. I think you've got to go purely with you own feelings. Because, at its core, what is a review if it isn't personal?
Did I enjoy reading this? Yes, I did. Not because it was easy and not because I think it gave itself up to me clearly. I found it hard work. I had to re-read and re-read poems. I still don't know if I 'get it' but I enjoyed the attempt. I will certainly read this again, because I feel it has more for me.
I have written paragraphs above that talk with a certainty I don't feel about what this collection is about. I'm probably entirely wrong. I'm sure if Holly Pester was to read this review she'd think I was an idiot, which may be true.
I also don't want you to think that this is pretentious. It isn't. Pretention, which is a word I hate btw, implies - in England anyway - a certain artsy-fartsy self-regard. That isn't what this collection is doing. It's using language in its own way, but not as some academic exercise. Pester wants to say things her own way and if that isn't what poetry should be about then I don't know what it should be about.
But Holly Pester will probably think everything I've written is nonsense. Thankfully I will never know.
Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71
About The Forward Prizes
The Forward Prizes are a celebration for those who love contemporary poetry, in association with the Forward Arts Foundation. The winners of this year's prizes will be announced at a ceremony on 24th October. Here are the shortlists:
The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Collection
Kayo Chingonyi – A Blood Condition (Chatto & Windus)
Tishani Doshi – A God at the Door (Bloodaxe Books)
Selima Hill – Men Who Feed Pigeons (Bloodaxe Books)
Luke Kennard – Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins)
Stephen Sexton – Cheryl’s Destinies (Penguin Poetry)
The 2021 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection
Caleb Femi – Poor (Penguin Poetry)
Alice Hiller – bird of winter (Pavillion Poetry)
Cynthia Miller – Honorifics (Nine Arches Press)
Holly Pester – Comic Timing (Granta Poetry)
Ralf Webb – Rotten Days in Late Summer (Penguin Poetry)
The 2021 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem
Fiona Benson – ‘Androgeus’ (Times Literary Supplement)
Natalie Linh Bolderstone – ‘Middle Name with Diacritics’ (National Poetry Competition)
John McCullough – ‘Flower of Sulphur’ (Poetry London)
Denise Riley – ‘1948’ (Poetry Ireland Review)
Nicole Sealey – ‘Pages 22-29, an excerpt from The Ferguson Report: An Erasure’ (Poetry London)
Image - Amazon