Independent publisher Marble Poetry has quickly developed a reputation for releasing memorable collections by emerging poets that are pleasing, meaningful and, most importantly, approachable.
Here, Timothy Arden reviews the publisher three latest pamphlets – Hydra by Molly Ellen Pearson, Exile/Home by Mina Moriarty, and Ecstatic Motion by Zainab Ismail – and finds much to savour and recommend.
By Timothy Arden
It has been a busy few months for Marble Poetry, with the release of no fewer than three new collections. They are written by young, highly-talented female poets, but that is where the connection ends – besides the fact that each pamphlet is a pleasure for any fan of quality contemporary poetry.
The first of these new releases is Hydra by Molly Ellen Pearson. This challenging yet powerful debut work is a pamphlet consisting of 18 experimental poems that primarily explores the concept of the self, and its limitations.
Pearson, who is currently studying for a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia, deals with themes of ecofeminism, climate anxiety and gender embodiment in horror and other genre fiction. It is only fitting, then, that she calls repeatedly through the series upon the Greek myth of the Lernaean Hydra. This many-headed serpentine monster, and its ocean dwelling, form an apposite metaphor for the plurality of selves that constitute each individual, and which the poet acknowledges with a weariness far in advance of her years, as the title poem, ‘No Nothing’, sets out:
“the ocean seethes with plurality
if the tide came in, you might come in
& if you came in, something would
have to be different”
The way that Pearson utilises the character of Hydra represents, in particular, a profound examination of the divergent female experience, where the self is fractured, to the poet’s almost resigned distress:
“HYDRA bites like salt into my skin
i bleed a little
it isn’t personal”
Water is a recurring motif within the collection, used effectively to underline the contrast between the body – the outward, largely fixed manifestation of the self – and the fluidic inner identity. In her writing, Pearson expresses frustration by the fact that while the human body is mostly made up of water, there remains an unassailable gulf between this unified element and the divided individual. Her poem ‘Pond Skater’, with the central image of walking into water, brings this point into sharp relief:
“perhaps it is not water perhaps
we am together strange fresh thing
i walk into the water
i walked into the water
& it recedes
before me hiding its own extent”
This resignation, at times almost nihilistic, extends to the poet’s relationships with others. In ‘Things I Am Sure Of’, a lover, she sighs, will always remain separated because of the fundamental physical barrier between he couple:
“you are alone.
i cannot wholly touch you.
how does that feel
only our outermost
While human flesh may well restrict us, Pearson’s writing is as free-flowing and confident in its progress as liquid. Sometimes it is sensitive, sometimes as brutal and impactful as a torrent. Either way, her bold and striking use of language makes for a charged discourse about the human condition.
The second new release is Exile/Home by Anglo-Indian poet Mina Moriarty. The central conceit of this mini-chapbook – the first such release from publisher Marble Poetry, intended to promote short-themed works for reading on the go – finds real-life 20th century Indian princess and suffragette leader Sophia Duleep Singh traveling between two centuries, fluidly moving between her own time and the present day.
According to Moriarty, who is based in Scotland and is the poetry editor of Middleground Magazine, Duleep Singh has faded from history due to the racial discrimination and white-washing of the suffragette movement.
Her chapbook sets out to rectify this wrong, meditating upon the struggles and displacement of women of colour throughout history as a result of British colonial rule. In doing so, the 11 poems explore themes including feminism, sexuality and consent, childbirth and class, making comment on what it means to be a mixed-race woman of colour in the 21st century.
In the first poem, ‘Letter To Emmeline’, Moriarty, who was shortlisted in the 2019 Bridport Poetry Prize, uses the displaced figure of Singh to comment on society in a way akin to the Martian Poets of the 1970s, where the familiar is seen in a new light through the view of a stranger.
“I pass women with bare thighs and painted
small rectangles illicit hysteria
they laugh and shout and sob while it is
pressed to their cheek”
This sense of displacement, of not fully belonging, continues through the remainder of the short collection, decorated in beautiful and highly visual similes and metaphor. Take, for example, this passage from ‘Twins’, where the disconnection is emphasised through the motif of a mirror:
“the woman in the mirror wears her skin like
a pomegranate a fingerprint on her
abdomen from an impromptu shopping trip
her label reads exotic/half price”
Exile/Home is an incredibly strong offering for a debut work and sets Mina Moriarty out as a poet to watch.
The final new release that will be covered in this review is Ecstatic Motion by 26-year-old British Asian poet Zainab Ismail.
The collection, which comprises 19 poems, is dedicated to her mother, who emigrated from Zimbabwe to the UK in her mid-20s. Many were composed while Ismail was at university, where she studied English Literature with Creative Writing, before she entered the publishing industry.
The poems are divided into three sections, ‘Past’, ‘Present’, and ‘Future’. The poetry on offer is both lyrical and personal, expressing different facets of Ismail’s Islamic identity which are cherished parts of her being. These include such simple things as recalling the rustle of her grandmother’s veils or, in ‘Prayers Heard’, the serenity experienced in whispering prayers into her palms:
“A weight of gold begins to gush, narrating the gravity
of warm myth, the rush of jacarandas between her hands.”
While the verse is largely celebratory, there is a sense of sadness in poems such as ‘Otherworld’ and ‘My Grandma’s Gujarati Harmonies’, which share the pain of a mother tongue fading over time from Ismail’s perspective as a second-generation immigrant. In the former of the two, she writes:
“I tried to un-ghost the wilting tongue,
the half-lit voice of my elders, vying for fluorescence.
It blossomed elsewhere but I was young.”
Ecstatic Motion is both endearing and emotive, captured vividly in sparkling, intricate language as rich and captivating as Islamic art.
All three titles are worthy of any discerning poetry lover’s time. Based upon the strength of the verse and the high-quality presentation, publisher Marble Poetry – which is operated virtually single-handedly by founder, publisher and poet Aisling Tempany – will definitely be on this reviewer’s radar going forward.
Hydra by Molly Ellen Pearson; Exile/Home by Mina Moriarty; and Ecstatic Motion by Zainab Ismail are all published by Marble Poetry. Hydra and Ecstatic Motion are priced £5, and Exile/Home is priced £3. For more information, visit www.marblepoetry.com
Exclusive Q& A Interview with Marble Poetry founder Aisling Tempany
We speak to Cardiff-based publisher and poet Aisling Tempany about her work as a writer and as the founder of thriving small press, Marble Poetry.
Q. Marble Poetry began life in 2018 as the publisher of a quarterly poetry journal, Marble Poetry Magazine, but since late last year has expanded to also publish original poetry collections. What prompted you to expand into this arena?
A. It had always been my intention to gradually expand Marble into pamphlets and full collections, which is my 2021 plan.
Q. What do you look for in new poets before agreeing to publish their work?
A. The biggest reason for rejecting work is that the writing submitted has nothing to say. A lot of the poems I reject have no real voice behind them. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, they are written by people who feel they have to say something, rather than people who have something to say.
Q. In addition to running Marble Poetry, you also hold down a job as a bookkeeper. What are the main challenges you face in keeping a publishing house going?
A. The challenge I face keeping Marble going is the same problem that any creative person who needs to also keep a roof over their head faces: time. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently side-lined the arts with a campaign to tell people in the arts to retrain for another job, he struck at something which hurts a lot of creative people constantly juggling their own creative energy and ideas with having to keep a steady job to help pay for that.
So the challenges I face stem less from the demands of running a business – though there are challenges – and more from the emotional drain of knowing that your dreams and goals are not always valued and supported by those around you. Who can say how many great ideas in this world – how many painters, poets and musicians failed – because their bosses simply couldn’t or wouldn’t allow for a flexible working life. How many painters, poets, musicians just give up one day because they need to pay the bills and they haven’t got the energy or the time to keep trying. I shocked a taxi driver when he knew I was going from my 9-5 job to my art studio to try and do more work for Marble and other things. When it boils down to it, most of us only work in our jobs for the money. If creative projects were better supported, who knows what art we would create. I am pretty good at bookkeeping, though, and I’m still working towards being an accountant as well because I don’t want to limit myself.
Q. Poetry is often considered as an elitist form of literature. How would you respond to someone with that view?
A. They are not necessarily wrong. The poetry industry has lost its connection to ordinariness. Though there is nothing necessarily wrong with studying for a PhD in creative writing, it shouldn’t be considered the only way to write. PhDs are elite and excluding, and only accept a particular type of talent. Competitions require money to enter, oftentimes quite a lot, and that excludes anyone with a limited income, so again only a particular type of talent can win. I’ve been to open mics where I’ve been sneered at for being a bookkeeper, and I’ve been called trash by a university lecturer/poet, who partly inspired a poem I wrote called ‘Academic Poet’, where I made it pretty clear what I thought of him. I’ve been accepted in poetry circles, too, so I’ve felt it cut both ways. I imagine that there are a lot of people who feel about poetry the way I do about yoga: ‘I can’t do it; I don’t understand it; no one here looks like me, and I’m not welcome’. Changing the perception of poetry is very hard, and the pretentious elitism created in university departments by old white men needs to be called out a lot, lot more.
Q. Your own poetry has been published in magazines and anthologies including Templar and The Rialto. Tell us more about your own work, and what inspires you.
A. My inspiration comes from all sorts of places, so I’ve written poems inspired by historical tragedies, pop-culture conspiracy theories, and tasteless Christmas decorations in Paperchase. Inspiration is a strange sort of thing; it doesn’t come to you on an expensive writing retreat (so elite) but it can come to you from window-shopping in a stationery store to avoid the January cold.
Q. What are your plans for Marble Poetry over the next 12 months?
A. Like so many people right now, I’m hesitant to make long plans. I would say my plan is to continue to exist. That’s really a lot for a small publisher.
Q. If you were stranded on a desert island which three works of poetry would you take with you, and why?
A. The average poetry collection is about 80 pages so I don’t think I’d take any to a desert island as I’d be done with them very quickly. I’d take a pen and paper, and work on my own writing, because, lord knows, time in a secluded place with my own thoughts would be nice.
Q. Social media has become a popular space for new poets – such as the so-called ‘Instapoetry’ movement – to engage with audiences. In light of this, why do you think there is still a need for poetry collections?
A. Social media is just a form of communication, and it isn’t more popular with poets than any other industry. I mean, plumbers have their own hashtag, so there’s no specific movement there – just the Instagram filters coding our interactions. ‘Instapoetry’ in some ways reflects the worst qualities of how social media affects culture: it priorities image, the superficial, the achievement of getting ‘likes’. It is a fleeting medium that create 30 seconds of fame. I don’t think social media is good for art and culture. Social media is too much of a gimmick for advertising, with no real purpose beyond pet pictures, food pictures, and discovering who is a racist. Poetry, in essence, is creating a kind of emotional truth about the world, and social media doesn’t value truth. We haven’t stopped watching films because TikTok exists, so obviously there is still a need for poetry collections in an Instagram age.