Dostoyevsky Wannabes Cities: Bristol Review

If you’ve not yet encountered Dostoyevsky Wannabe, I’d highly recommend them. A small, independent press based in Manchester, they’re at the vanguard of accessible, innovative literature, producing work at a prolific rate (51 books in four years)

One of their more popular projects is the Cities series, where they invite poets to collaborate to produce a pamphlet of poets featuring work by writers from that city. Bristol was one of the first, launched at Rough Trade in April 2018.

It’s a small collection, featuring work by six poets.

The first, Sarer Scotthorne, describes herself as a feminista poet martial artist.

Her work is very experimental in style. I initially shied away (as I always feel like I’m missing something when I read experimental work) but there is some interesting exploration of political ideas here through the lexical field of business speak. A sense of hopelessness in the world of business as a pawn is built through language and structure which fades out to a very hopeless tone from a more confusing one at the beginning thanks to a barrage of impenetrable language.

The second featured poet is Vik Shirley with a sequence entitled ‘Betsy Variations’

This is also really experimental, but with a much lighter touch. Shirley meshes the oblique with humour through phrases such as “Praline vigilantes/ with a dash of chinchilla”. I love the repetition in the first part and how she plays with form –  the sequence is part prose poem, part play, part poem. The later poems in the sequence feel like a refreshing revamp of the western ballad style, where the notion of the American dream is smashed in a very visual way. Throughout, there’s a great choice of language – and the combination feels fresh and interesting

David Turner (founder of the excellent Lunar Poetry podcast) sequence of ekphrastic poetry is a bit more London-centric in its direction. More prose poetry than lyric, his language is colloquial in place, keeping it light and very modernistic in feel. The idea of Ai Weiwei confronting 563 bags of Cadbury’s Mini eggs with “That’ll fucking teach ‘em.” feels ridiculously comic and as if we’re setting foot into a farcical world. Through the satire, Turner completely takes modern art from its pedestal by exposing the works of Emin and Hirst.

The first poem ‘gently’ by Paul Hawkins combines scientific/technological language as he plays with white space. His use of abstract language eg “Twombly” feels playful in ‘around midday’ and there are some great images in ‘coffee at junior hearts’ , a more ‘traditional’ poem with less white space “the cassette loops four lines of nothing” stands out as [particularly poignant.

My favourite is ‘probably (reprise)’ which seems to work as a partner poem due to recurring motifs thanks to phrases such as

“the composition

some blurry waltz

wet with a kick like a train station”

Experimentation with the meshing of two poems in one is something I’ve tried myself (having been inspired by Sinead Morrissey) so I was glad to see it in Wash it Off! (Freedom) which merges the technological language. Overall, Hawkin’s use of lexical field felt very important.

Lizzie Turner, creator of ‘a poem a week’ is the penultimate poet. Her first poem ‘Leaving for Work’ is a lovely opener to the style of blocking out text. There is such power in the phrase

“a disturbance of birds

burns circles

above the bed” that it has stayed with me long after finishing the collection.

The next three poems are a a sequence of blocked poems. The first is in the style of four diary entries has just the names hidden. I found it to be a really, really powerful thing to see the process in the three stages – almost like being privy to the editing process. The last poem is particularly strong, with only certain words and unblanked like “feel guilty”, creating a very powerful sense of strong negative emotions in the final poem.

The last poet is Clive Birnie, founder of Burning Eye Books. His sequence on ‘The Lemon Squeezer’ has a contemporary feel with references to “dollar is rallying again” exploring the idea of the  corporate and modern lives and the relationship between the two. The final line in the third poem “who will be the first to feel the squeeze” is pleasingly playful.

His images feel separate but are brought together in interesting ways. In ‘V’, the final two lines

“A fool should sell himself, while

he still has something to sell.”

feels a bit like a saying and the poems are easily consumed.

On the whole, this is a great collection in that it shows a diversity of experimentation, something that Bristol as a city promotes about itself – the collection reflects the city. There are more and more of these being published – I’m particularly excited to read the Madrid one, curated by the team at the excellent Desperate Literature bookshop – and for only £5 a book, they are a great bargain!



Published by nicolaheaney

I'm a poet based in Bristol via Derry, St Andrews and Madrid. When I'm not writing or performing my own poetry, I'm reading or trotting about with my camera. There is sometimes drink taken.

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Wood Bee Poet

Poems, thoughts...etc.

The Pledge

Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon

Nicola Heaney

Writer & Poet


'She would say to discover / the true depth of a well, / drop a stone, / start counting.' - Andrew Greig

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