In the autumn of 2011 seven poets from the North East of England, all previous recipients of the Northern Writer’s Award, met under the tutelage of Claire Pollard and gradually found the topic of their conversation turning to the possibility of establishing a new poetry magazine. Soon after, the idea attracted the support of Claire Malcolm, the Chief Executive of New Writing North, whose organisation agreed to oversee its publication. The result, Butcher’s Dog, is a promising bi-annual journal which, while open to all, aspires to encourage poets from the North of England in particular, and dedicates its first issue to exhibiting the work of its seven co-founders.
It is a testament to the friendly, democratic ethos behind Butcher’s Dog that no one of its writers is foregrounded at the expense of another, with each poet receiving three chances to strike us. This egalitarianism is especially evident in the magazine’s stylistic diversity, as it gives representation to aloof philosophical experiments, the irreverence and urgency of performance poetry, and an intriguing range of takes on the lyrical tradition.
Luke Allan opens the magazine with unexpected seriousness, his bare monosyllabic creations reminiscent of Paul Celan. While titles like ‘Fors’ and ‘Astringency (V)’ lend the poems an air of the esoteric, their uniform lower-case presentation eschews any authority on the questions they pose, such as the latter’s grand ‘why/when’. Leaving the weight of a few choice words on a line, Allan’s poems become tiny puzzles, their ambiguities and gaps open to universal interpretation, the reward stemming from our instinctive efforts to solve them. In ‘Fors’ this active search for meaning feels revelatory, espousing the power of imagination to bring reasons for being out of our heads ‘& into/the world’.
This theme of ‘singing to fill the gaps’ continues with Sophie F Baker’s ‘Poem as anechoic chamber’. Perhaps the most accomplished poet here, already the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, her voice is an inviting one. Purposeful but always wondering, Baker is never reluctant to astonish herself, whether in her use of neologisms like ‘wheevers’ to capture the distorting effect of tinnitus, or the tenderness contained within her phrasing, such as this little nugget in ‘Things to consider before buying rats’:
(…) They could each be a purse of treasure,
if the treasure was clutch-warm coins that could feign breathing,
and the purse, ribs.
With her poems so rich in their sound and clear in their imagistic precision, at all times Baker reassures us that she is in control, making us comfortable under her guiding influence.
Jake Campbell’s poems are less formally concerned, harbouring larger ambitions in their social commentary. Of all the landscapes presented to us in this issue, his is the most unmistakably Northern, evoking life in his resident Tyne and Wear through its landmarks and cultural signifiers: Quayside, Kronenbourg, Sky Sports News. Loyal to his autobiographical truths, Campbell has a knack for locating poignancy in the mundane, ‘Copper Theft in November’ turning a delay on the TransPennine Express into a reflection on class and financial problems. Ending with ‘our city still lit beneath the mineshaft sky’, his section exudes a proud sense of his community despite its imperfections.
By opening her first poem with the hallucination of caribou stalking a hospital ward, Wendy Heath is of a more unsettling, mystical bent; the freedom of the caribou, ‘unlike me’, hiding the brutal revelation of a deceased parent. Heath’s offerings are marked by deception of this kind: the quatrain ‘Lust And The Country Boy’ could be throwaway until the surprising last line compares memory to role-play, and she surreally veils the figure in ‘Twenty’ under inaccessible words such as ‘tourmaline’, ‘pleochroic’, and ‘brindisi’. As with Heath, we must be careful in responding to her intense mysteries.
As a writer accustomed to the demands of the stage, Amy Mackelden freshens things up with her forceful, heartfelt rhetoric and comic timing. The prose poem ‘And I Don’t Feel Any Different’ (points for the Death Cab for Cutie reference) is a fretful consideration of agency vs. predestination, driven by its insistent, plain-spoken language. ‘With Benefits’ shows Mackelden’s sly and playful approach to popular culture, following Jon Stone’s sestina The One Where The Cake Ignites by taking the already silly Friends to an entertaining extreme:
Codswallop is still the most remembered segment
And it involved the use of the phrase ‘Fish Wife’
Although such riffs are prone to running out of puff, Mackelden sticks to them with admirable conviction.
Andrew Sclater’s ‘Dim’ is one of the best individual poems in Butcher’s Dog, a tight formal construction whose language is sustained enough to handle its father-as-ageing-lightbulb conceit without ironic distance. Attentive to the aggression of being ‘neither screw-fit nor bayonet’, there is a resonance to ‘his diminished lumens’. Sclater proves adept at maintaining these conceits as he reconsiders the effect of glass in ‘Winchester Museum’ and chooses an appropriately simple narrative form to chug his HGV-themed ballad along.
The performance poet Degna Stone is the last to feature, her poems ‘Sweet’ and ‘Ruby’ notably more rap-like than anything else here as quick-fire portraits of manic women; ‘Sweet’s ‘girls who smell like Psalm one twenty’ especially suit this energy. The imprecision to ‘Mrs. Stone Visits Her Husband’ is understandable as a more fraught twin to Wendy Heath’s hospital poem, confronting sterility with conscious physical gestures. The importance of writing with vitality even if it can be erratic, like ‘Ruby’ and its summary ‘like being alive’, appears to be Butcher’s Dog’s key statement.
Although there is unfortunately no sign of Issue 2 as of yet, Butcher’s Dog introduces itself with a warm, enjoyable, and inclusive set of poems, successful in demonstrating the variety present in Newcastle’s writing scene. Writing this review from Salford, it would be refreshing to see the option of another young Northern publication in a literary environment that still feels skewed towards the South. Whenever the next issue emerges, it seems like this journal will be more than fit for that purpose.
Posted 5 years ago