Karen Dennison

Poet and artist

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That Christmas

Here’s an old poem of mine from Counting Rain.

That Christmas

no-one died suddenly
except on the kitchen table in Operation,
except in Cluedo – Miss Scarlet, in the ballroom,
with a rope. And no-one cried uncontrollably
except with laughter. And no-one counted
the seconds on the moon-faced clock
except to wonder what morning would hold.

That Christmas the fireplace outshone the sun,
the tree-lights were Jupiter, Cassiopeia, the Plough,
and our lives were streets of inviolate snow.


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Sally Douglas reviews blueshift: Art from Poetry – Poetry from Art

The Poetry Shed

blueshift: Art from Poetry – Poetry from Art, edited by Karen Dennison

blueshift is a beautiful little pamphlet consisting of a sequence of fifteen pieces of artwork and poetry, each by different writers and artists, and each responding to the one before: a chain reaction of visual and textual imagery which is a delight to experience.
The poems and the artworks are all very different, each a free and often tangential response to the previous work, and this is part of what makes the reading of this book such an exciting experience. However, even when the relationships are quite oblique, there is always a linking thread, like a strong but very fine wire, glinting from under the surface of the text.

The first poem in the collection, Rebecca Gethin’s ‘Wolf Moon’ responds to ‘Corvus’ by Emmy Verschoor, a mixed media work featuring a wolf silhouette against a background of…

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My review of Smashed Glass at Midnight by J V Birch

smashed-glass-at-midnight-cover-imageThis chapbook of twenty poems is published by Picaro Press, an imprint of Ginninderra Press. It is notable for its narrow shape, egg-shell-like cover paper and transparent endpaper. The poems are about loss in a number of contexts including failing relationships, childlessness, hospital admissions and dementia.

Each poem brings a distilled image with an intense focus where the abstract and the unseen often become embodied things. For example, in Sense of an ending – ‘The air between us is tired/wants to lie down/dream of doors being open’ and in What the old house thinks ‘my yellow’ is a living thing that once danced and sang and has now been stolen.

Emotions also become living entities, through the use of visual metaphor, that communicate with, possess, and control the speaker. In Offspring loss has its own will, taking the form of an unwanted companion, and ends up being carried in the speaker’s handbag and releasing itself as a ‘god-awful sound’. And in Instinct, ‘..it stood awkward at her door/ in a uniform it couldn’t breathe in.’

The poems also have the feel of a dreamlike distance as if the speaker is looking back on the past, detached from an earlier self where there was a sense of loss of control; where her body, hands and mouth had their own minds. From Admission – ‘her hands restless spiders make nests in her hair’ and she ‘moves her words to her fingers/ touches her mouth when she wants to speak’. Loss of control also features in Body where ‘many women have choices/mine are made for me.’

The image of the mouth punctuates these poems, recurring like an archetype where sounds and words are involuntarily released and then purposefully held-back. In Release, ‘I peel down/unravel myself./ Start with the flap at my mouth that’s teased for too long.’

Paper and folding also feature as metaphors for fragility and acceptance / closure. In Revelation ‘you thin me to paper’; in What the new wife does ‘she folds into routine’ and in Leaving ‘I place my goodbye on the table/ seven years of tears/ line dried, folded in pairs’.

This collection really resonated with me and its images stayed with me long after reading, a reflection of their strength and symbolism. I highly recommend it.

To end, here’s 17 years in full which I have chosen because of the stunning ‘moths that martyr the windows’.

17 years

Our mouths are no longer in love
they forget their place
what they used to be.

After rising I pair lonely hellos
spend the day elsewhere
although you left some time before this.

And still we return
to goodnights like moths that martyr the window
until we fold into ourselves.

J V Birch is a British poet living in Southern Australia. To buy the pamphlet, see Picaro Poets Series.

This review was originally published on Abegail Morley’s Poetry Shed.


Writing the City – Claire Collison

WTC-Autumn-15-flyerI heard about Claire Collison’s course, Writing the City, when she contributed to my pamphlet Blueshift. I decided to ask Claire a few questions about the course – her answers are below followed by her poem, The Trial, from Blueshift.

What inspired the ideas behind this course?

I reckon we get our best ideas when we are away from our desks, and out of the classroom. The Mary Ward Centre is slap bang in the heart of Bloomsbury, so it felt criminal not to take advantage of that. I tell writers where we are meeting each week, and then, only on the day, they are given prompts and a map back to Mary Ward, with places to look for en route. Back at base, we share the day’s writing. There’s something really special about a group of writers meeting and experiencing the same things, then each writing about them in their own unique way.

Can you give me an example of a place you’ve visited and a writing prompt?

Just one?! Along with museums and art galleries, we’ve visited venues as diverse as silver vaults and bowling alleys. We might meet in John Lewis and make notes in the perfume department before writing about monuments, or visit the Crossbones burial site on our way to Tate Modern. We’ve followed the routes of the characters in Mrs Dalloway…. I could go on.

I design prompts that will work for all kinds of writer – poets and prose, beginners and old hands – and try to ensure I provide enough background information for those who like their history, and enough diving off places for those who like to – well, dive off.

In Spring, we met at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the largest parish church in the City, took in the Display Gallery in Holborn Viaduct, and returned to Mary Ward via Conway Hall’s library. Here’s the prompt:

Dissenters, Law Breakers, Manifestos and Song

You are invited to think about protest in all its forms. Because the church is closely associated with musicians, perhaps your writing may take the form of a protest song.

In the gallery think about what is outside the establishment nowadays, and what you stand for, and what are you against?

Writing could take the form of text for a billboard or a manifesto (check out examples of both included in the gallery).

Maybe write your own manifesto in the form of a list – imperative tense is a must!

Heading back to Mary Ward, check out Red Lion Square and its history of ethical humanism. I have arranged for the use of the library here, on the first floor (no food and drink) to write up your manifesto or protest song or hymn….

What kinds of writing do people produce on this course?

All sorts! Novelists have used the days out to develop their characters; poets take the prompts and run with them. We’ve had songs and film outlines, think pieces and monologues and everything in between. People surprise themselves with what they can produce in such a unique space – and the group is always so encouraging and supportive, I think we are all more comfortable with taking risks.

If they choose to share it, I add their writing to the blog, where I also post a description of the day, along with prompts and photos –  so do take a look! writingbloomsbury.wordpress.com

The Trial

When they tell you it is called Persephone
you think of pomegranates –

red teeth thrown into a salad
in the chiller cabinet at the Lebanese café;

smoked and leaded stained glass
skewing daylight in the Princess Louise.

The drug flags up the bad cells for your immune system
to deal with, like bouncers in your own internal disco.

Every three weeks, behind blue curtains, in your left thigh
and then your right, alternately, for six months or twelve.

Signing your consent, you ask what they know
about Persephone. Nothing really, they reply.

You dream you’re making pomegranate jam.
Your aunt tells you to sieve it, but you say no,

it’s not to eat, it’s to look at.
You drop pink gobbets into sterilised jars,

seal down lids:
seeds inside cells behind glass.

Claire Collison


Talus – a poem of mine


It has no voice, refuses to neigh
or nicker. Horse-blood doesn’t flow
into my own, its weight lost to my hand,
cold nuzzling my palm. Grey-white
does not transmute to dapple-brown.
The unnamed horse remains unnamed.

If I were a bone biographer could I read
its pumice-like surface, determine year of death,
whether stallion or mare? Would I understand
from indents, misshapen places, forces
pressed upon it; thickened and roughened
where muscles connected?

How much history is lost to marrow, how much
scrawled inside coral-shaped tunnels?
Could they tell me how it grazed on wild thyme
on Mongolian steppes, licked salt from dried-out lakes;
if it died of starvation or old age or at the teeth
of wolves that crept down the mountains at night?

Are its skeleton keys still there on the ground
where I found them, displayed like a museum exhibit
missing this stolen piece of puzzle, this anklebone?

Karen Dennison (published in Obsessed with Pipework No.70)

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An Essex Parish by David Canning

P1080476An Essex Parish is a sequence of poems that tell a story of murder and redemption, reflecting modern events against Essex’s religious and violent Anglo-Saxon history.

This first collection by David Canning includes his mountain poems in The Eternal Mountain, which draws on his experiences as a climber and mountaineer, and in A History of the Troubles, he explores relationship, family, love and loss.”

I designed the cover for this fabulous collection – this involved manipulating one of Dave’s photos (of Walton-on-the-Naze pier) in Photoshop. One of Dave’s poems is featured below.

The book is available from Amazon and from Red Lion Books in Colchester and a launch is being held 17 September 8pm at Piatto Cafe in Colchester.

A History of the Troubles

I’m in Derry, propping up the bar,
Obvious as a watch-tower, nervous as a look-out;
Bottles crash and pints of Guinness
Twitch and jig to the click and boom of a bodhrán;
And as the folk singer’s mural song
Ricochets off walls and table-tops,
Smoke twists from the barrel of her mouth.

A Tricolour, ceiling-stained to three shades of rust,
Drops a thread into my lap, so I follow its twisted path
To a one-room cottage in Ballybofey, Donegal,
Where children play on its earthen floor,
And a woman grubs for potatoes in the peat,
Hums the song her mother taught her to work by,
Baby suckling at her breast – my father’s father:

Who ran, first from Michael Collins, then from my Gran,
The shadow parked on the corner of my heart,
A car with blacked-out windows watching my childhood;
But there were no fifes or braid, or proud rattling parades,
No glorious fucking revolution in our house,
Tense as a twitchy, checkpoint trigger finger,
Just the white flag of my eyes rising to the punch.

David Canning

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The Memory of Water by Abegail Morley

I was delighted to collaborate with Abegail Morley on her poetry pamphlet, The Memory of Water, now available to buy from Indigo Dreams. I provided the colour cover image and several black and white images that feature inside. They are photos taken at Scotney Castle, a magical place and the inspiration for the beautiful poems in this pamphlet. I manipulated some of the images using Photoshop including using ‘layering’, one of my favourite techniques.

TMOW matt 72

Photograph by Karen Dennison

The memory of water

Nothing escapes water. It clutches its past, stores
everything that’s ever happened in its bulky weight,
reflects all it knows onto the underbellies of clouds,
clings to the old days when ice clenched its teeth.

Sometimes on gentle summer evenings when the moat
doesn’t know you’re there, its lapping ripples clear
their throats, let stories float from their tongues
like paper boats, rose petals in oil, feathers in air.

Water cannot lose its beginnings, memory crouches
in its black pockets. If you put your ear to its mouth
you hear the clang of bells, footsteps hurtling
across a bridge, the splash of a fall after leaping.

Abegail Morley