Book Review

Feast of Sapphires by Matt Nagin

find out what poetry i like and why i write about poopoo

Poetry is a genre of writing which, until last year, I had a bit of an on-off relationship with. Some of the greatest texts (“in my opinion”) I read when an undergraduate were poetry, but so too were some of the pieces I “found” most boring. I read a bit of poetry from time to time and then, in 2013 (just before I started my MA) I had a bit of an intense dive into poetry. On the course that followed, I read quite a bit of poetry, most significantly the work of Sharon Olds (who I have continued to read since), and I realised that the poetry I liked is the kind of poetry that shows me a person, shows me a soul.

I like the kind of poetry that opens a door into someone’s mind and I see it, I see them, and I feel like peering into that mind gives me a window into what it is to be. The poetry I love is the poetry that makes me feel seen, right back at me.

I hate obtuse poetry.

I hate complicated poetry.

I hate poetry that is basically 500-word cryptic crosswords that are even less fun and even harder than cryptic crosswords. I hate poems that are too long, I hate poems that are about nature and other bullshit things that don’t matter to anyone.

I like poetry that’s about sexuality and love, but not poetry that’s sleazily describing the appearance of a woman’s body while the male voice of the narrator-poet remains curtained off, its body as invisible as the woman’s personality.

I like poetry that wrestles with the complexities of human emotion, poetry that speaks of death without speaking of murder or foul play, poetry that engages with feelings related to money and class without listing expensive things the poet-narrator has.

I like poetry that feels fresh, alive, I like poetry where every piece within a single volume combines to form a cohesive whole, that functions as a singular work: I hate “collections” that feel collected only because they are the most recent pieces written/finished by a singular writer. I’d rather read a collection that has five distinct, unrelated, parts, four of which are one poem long, than a load of poems presented to me as cohesive where four are wildly out of tone/voice/metre, whatever. Does that make sense? (Rare to read a poet say that, hey, listeners???)

I like poetry that makes me feel something, as long as that something isn’t disgust. If I want to feel disgusted I can get wasted, wank with my pajamas on, pass out, wake up and take a shit in the middle of the night while staring at my own dried semen dirtying my pubes and then I can stay there for too long playing on my phone so the shit dries in my arsecrack and it can’t be wiped out, instead I have to have a shower, even though water makes me want to vomit and I do vomit, and then I have water around my feet that contains a mix of my semen, vomit and shit all. Our bodies are easy to render disgusting, the process of rotting is foul, we stink and we ooze and we shit and we bleed and we scab over and we shed hair and we shed skin (like wood sanded by a carpenter rather than like a snake does): we are disgusting. It is easy to write of blood and fluids, but what is the point in doing so if the purpose is merely to shock, to disgust? For me, all creative arts require emotional justification. In my own forthcoming collection of poetry, Bad Boy Poet, there are several pieces about poo, but they serve an important structural purpose: not only are the poo poems (“pooems”) evidence of a deliberate decision of the male poet-narrator to deny his own physicality as a “grown-up sexual man”, but they also provide some light, albeit crass, humour within an often quite intense work.

Bad Boy Poet is a single work; I wrote most of it as a single work, intentionally, and I made sure that any poems I included that weren’t written for the purpose were tweaked so that became appropriate. A collection of poetry should be a unit, a book of poetry should be a work.

I found Matt Nagin’s poems a little difficult, to be honest, and though there were a few pieces in Feast of Sapphires that I enjoyed, there are too many skulls, too much blood and too much metaphysical – rather than psychological – darkness. I don’t really like poetry by men, and I know that’s a contentious thing to say (particularly as a male poet), but the reason why is simple: I think a lot of male poets choose to evoke ideas or images rather than emotions.

I don’t find ideas or images exciting. I can see an image by opening my eyes, by looking at the flowers beside me on the desk, and I can find ideas expressed in much more cohesive and neat ways in newspapers, magazines and non-fiction.

I understand, I understand, that poetry is what poetry is, that poetry has nuance and multiple purposes and many who write it have different aims to me… But for me, poetry is emotion, it is a sense of honesty, an ability to believe – even if I know it’s bullshit – in the truth of the feeling that I’m reading.

Matt Nagin has some nice images, some intriguing ideas, but it’s poetry that’s – to my eyes – pretty macho, and I don’t like that. There’s a slightly alt-righty aspect to a couple of pieces too (and a very 1970s piece called, simply, ‘Legs’ #vom), and that isn’t what I want from poems. Emotionality, feelings, knowing how you feel is more important than what you think. I don’t spend my free time debating, I spend it in therapy, y’know? This makes more sense to me.

And, yeah, I know this isn’t the “normal” way to look at the world. But fuck it, y’know, I know how I feel, and I feel fiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine.

Look at how benign and mature I am in my thirties: I disliked a book but just let it go.


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