In the intimate setting of Reference Point on the Strand, and after Covid-induced postponements, the ‘presence’ of writers sharing their work in an exciting literary space has never felt more special. Still Point’s fifth and newest issue, ‘Presence’, is an impressive collection of poetry, fiction, essays, and art that explore the significance of presence and how it has changed for us during a global pandemic. Editor Lizzie Hibbert writes in the journal’s introduction about how, with the pre-Covid past ‘gone forever’ and the future uncertain and ‘cancelled’, we only have the present to cling onto. But when ‘presence’ also implies connection – something that was lacking offline during lockdowns and government restrictions – how do we navigate learning to ‘live in the moment’? How do we reach out to others during times of crisis?
The showcase venue, a converging library, bar, and performance space, was certainly well chosen. An industrial room lined with bookshelves, glass cases of precious Pocket Poets Series, and a table that displayed works by Susan Sontag, Plato, Somaya Critchlow, and more. Warm orange lamps, chill beats on vinyl, clattering drink glasses and chatter made for a relaxed and inspiring atmosphere. In front of various chairs, a microphone stood amongst sofas where the readings took place.
After an introduction by editor James Waddell, the evening started with Sarah Fletcher, a poet and PhD researcher on pain and expression at Aberystwyth University. Her poem ‘A Slap In The Face… of Nature’ exhibited the sensual and effervescent narrative quality of her writing. Lines such as ‘swans drinking white wine are just called swines’, and ‘I am…borne back as Baudelaire’s petty whores’ were humorous and wild. I was particularly impressed by ‘To You with a Guitar’, with lines that shook me like ‘living inside this sterile throb could be like living under God’, and ‘you have ghostwritten this poem from ten years in the future and you have ruined my life’.
Next was Nadine Deller, a writer and PhD researcher on Black women’s theatre at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and the National Theatre. Deller read aloud her incredibly powerful prose essay ‘Red Wall Walk’ about her experiences of racism, centred around the ‘blood-red’ wall often graffitied with hate speech which she passed whilst walking to school. The wall provokes questions about what it means to be British when people still ask ‘where are you really from?’. It asked about the integrity of our British ‘values’ when ‘so-called white liberals’ did nothing but claim to ‘understand’ Deller after she was called a racial slur in the workplace. It cuts to the core of our problems in society today, and thus, Deller imagines dismantling the wall ‘brick by brick’.
The final reader of the first half was Rose Higham-Stainton, a writer interested in women’s creative practice and representations of femininity. In her poem about surface states, I was blown away by the vibrant description of senses and how this linked to the importance of family ties and how our bodies are situated in society. She spoke of the ‘surface’ of her grandmother’s skin violently printed ‘as glass shattered the night’, the speaker’s genes a ‘glitch’ in her body privileged by the Western world, in which there is the ‘violence of heteronormativity’ and the ‘surface’ is ‘pliable in the hands of capital’. Higham-Stainton’s words feel tangible, as in ‘Colette–Mirror-Play’: ‘marzipan’, ‘perfumes’, ‘the faded lavender of angelica’. Her attention to detail and characterisation is stunning.
After a break, the second set of readings began with Imogen Cassels, a writer of poems and essays on subjects such as surrealism, translation, and grief. Cassels’s language was beautiful, with lines that swept me away like ‘I’m tired of feeling like Christ…walking the streets like an open wound’, and ‘all funerals in summer now because of the flowers’. Her words are frank, visceral, concerned with nature and spirituality, and they catch you off guard, such as the line from ‘after Dom Hale’: ‘oh my lightfoot you windfucker you furious excuse for a buzzcut.’
The final performance was by Fiona Glen, a writer and artist interested in ecologies and how we can understand ourselves through other species. Glen captivated the room with ‘Untitled’, a poem inspired by the Hayward Gallery’s Louise Bourgeois exhibition. Her crafting of a unique soundscape, packed with sharp and ‘plump’ plosives and onomatopoeia, was incredible, and she clearly had fun reading it. She also read a shortened version of her prose essay ‘Leaves, Alive and Otherwise’, which can be found in the new Still Point issue. Again, I was stunned by Glen’s command of sensory description, which plunged the audience straight back into the hot spring of 2020 that effortlessly transitioned into summer, bringing with it a dryness akin to autumn, an anxiety about climate change and the confinement of lockdown: ‘the horror, the horror’. Near the end, she prompted us to close our eyes and imagine the leaves she illustrated with increasing intensity, and I was completely carried away by her words.
I left the showcase feeling electric with inspiration and excited to read the ‘Presence’ issue, which I found equally affecting. Each piece was a thought-provoking contribution to the theme. I think it is important that events like this continue to connect us to other writers, to each other, and to words and art that reassure but also strike us with their ‘presence’, and weave together the ‘present’ with the future and past. As we are instructed to ‘learn to live with Covid’, after these two years of utter turmoil, I believe that writing, art, and the sharing of them are integral to keeping us together.
The fifth issue of Still Point is available to read in full online at stillpointldn.com.
This poetry and fiction showcase was for Still Point, a journal established in 2014 by arts and humanities researchers at London universities. It is edited by postgraduate research students with the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, and they publish weekly online, yearly in print.
Edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor