Up from the ASHes

ASH launch picOn Wednesday evening last week, I decided to do something brave. I went to a poetry reading. Attending poetry readings does inevitably feel brave (people are often very honest, and that can be unnerving), but that courage can pay off. This wasn’t just any reading: Wednesday, 6th February was the launch of the Oxford Poetry Society’s termly journal, ASH.

(I’m still trying to work out the origin of the title, but my best guess is that Leonard Cohen quote, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Plath or Eliot had something to do with it.)

Upon arrival at Turl Street Kitchen, I was directed upstairs to find copies of the journal waiting by the door. The cover was simple, title and theme emblazoned in cream on navy – this careful minimalism betrayed an aesthetic concern visible on every page.  Each had involved much painstaking work of cutting-and-pasting, resulting in the journal’s hands-on look.

A crowd slowly gathered – eclectic, full of anticipation – as I began to peruse the journal itself. A curious mixture of photography, interviews, commentary, poetry and prose, much of it takes the form of newspaper-style cuttings over black-and-white grainy photographs. The bright central spread (Explorers, a photo essay by Rey Conquer and Milan Terlunen) stands out. It is two half-dressed adolescent males, a backdrop of daffodils and beech hedges, almost provocative. A couple of poems follow this theme, some explicitly sexual, but the ones which caught my eye leave more unsaid: Ella Thurston’s two contributions are highlights (A house, warmed and Unexcused). Nor would it be fair to pass over Maisie Lawrence’s For Belle and Sebastian – the band’s lyrics are crammed in as though page space is limited (it is), but the verse will bring a smile to the face of any fan. I didn’t see that coming.

As to the readings themselves, many came straight out of ASH, but there were also numerous original pieces presented, and these were exciting. They had titles like i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry and Fucking Juliette Binoche; their timbre was fresh and original. The single piece of prose – about antidepressants and snow-geese – was dark – very – but phrased beautifully and sparkling with black humour.

After a couple of hours of readings (set against soft percussive music from someone’s laptop) the impression I came away with was, overwhelmingly, one of community and support. This may sound like an odd thing to derive from what was ostensibly an evening of performance, but the rapt attention paid to each speaker testified to a very kind, concerned ethos. The editors spoke with fervent sincerity of their love for ASH: we heard how they nurtured new poets and tried to give people confidence in their work, bringing contributors out of anonymity and into the warmth. A quick flick through the latest issue suggests that they are succeeding.

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PHOTO / Denis Collette