Half Moon Books
I heard Joe Williams performing his poetry, and I met him, before I read this. I think it is his debut collection.
This review is particularly difficult to write, for two reasons. The first is that Joe Williams does not come from Leeds, but lives in Leeds, whereas I do come from Leeds, but I now live in Wakefield. Westgate Studios, in Wakefield, is one of the places I have heard Joe Williams perform. Hyde Park Book Club, in Leeds, is another. Matt Abbott recently observed that he himself chose to write about Blyth in Northumberland, rather than Wakefield, because he was too close to his place of origin to see it. Matt has written some poems about Wakefield, but that is not the point. Joe Williams writes not just about Leeds: he writes about my Leeds. And that makes the review more difficult.
Many poets try to write about, or evoke, a sense of place. When you make a reader feel conflicted or regretful about the way you have evoked that place, that means you are doing something right: at least you have engagement. The way Joe Williams has evoked Leeds will not just appeal to people from Leeds: it will not just appeal to people who come from the industrial, university cities in the North of England: it will appeal to anyone who feels attached to a certain place – all the more, if that feeling of attachment is conflicted.
The second reason is that the subject matter of Joe Williams’s work is similar to my own. I once had a rather unsatisfactory conversation with Kirsten Luckins in which she asked me to describe my poetry in one word. I said, “urban”. She said, “Does that mean you are a rapper?” I said “No.” She said, “If you describe your work as urban, that means you are a rapper. Why do you describe your work as urban if you are not a rapper?” I said, “I describe it as urban because it is more likely to be appreciated by people who live in cities.” She said, “Name one poet that you would describe as urban, who is not a rapper.” I said, “Brian Patten.” She reluctantly admitted that I had a point.
Joe Williams’s work is urban, in the Brian Patten sense.
The three fundamental questions that I ask myself about the work of a new poet I encounter are: 1. Who is speaking? 2. What are they saying? 3. Why might it be important? I already had the answers to these questions, from Joe Williams’s performances, before I began to read, ‘Killing the Piano’. My reading of ‘Killing the Piano’ shows that Joe Williams has not just found his poetic voice, but has cultivated it to the point where he can use it to portray more than one persona. In this collection, he depicts a wider range of voices than I did in ‘Throwing Mother In The Skip’. The furthest I get from my own ego in my debut collection is in ‘Eleven Colours of Loneliness’. Joe Williams creates situations which are completely hypothetical, but very compelling, in ways that I haven’t, yet.
I hesitate to use the word, “surreal”, because it has become a neologism for “a bit unexpected”. But some of Joe Williams’s work is surreal in the sense that it deliberately blurs the boundary between fantasy and reality, in such a way that sane people might appear mad, and mad people might appear sane.
My first reading of part of this collection was while I was in the telephone queue for a call centre. Yes, I had the phone in one hand, and the book in the other. It is a book which understands things like being on hold on the phone, but without clichés. The hands we are in, in this collection, may be, at times, timid, or experimental, but they are safe. Where Joe Williams deals with situations you have read about, before, he does so in a way that is new.
He is just about the only Western writer I know who writes haikus which don’t make me feel nauseous. This is because of his mastery of tone: there are times when it is impossible to tell if he is being serious, or taking the piss. But he knew what he was doing, when he wrote the piece.
There is exactly one poem in the collection that I didn’t like, but I am not going to tell you what it is. You will have to read the collection, and work it out, for yourself.