In remembrance of Roddy Lumsden

Five years ago I pitched an essay to the editors of a new edition of Gurlesque – an anthology of women poets that was central to Roddy Lumsden’s teachings. I wanted to use the essay to highlight Roddy’s incredible influence on a generation of UK poets. The essay was accepted and they asked me to write it in the style of a ‘postcard from the UK’. The updated edition of the anthology however, never seems to have happened, so for what its worth I’m publishing it here, because this story is really important to me. The writing in the essay is a bit awkward and I wouldn’t write it in the same way now – its almost five years old – but I’ve left it as is. I’m glad to say that since writing it i’ve met Chelsey Minnis, but have now lost the incomparable Roddy.

Dear Editors,

I wonder if it would surprise you to discover that poets from your anthology Gurlesque have become very important to a group of early-career writers in the UK. Emily Berry, Sophie Collins, Sam Riviere, Camellia Stafford, Matthew Gregory, Sarah Howe, Heather Phillipson, Mark Waldron, Chris McCabe and Crispin Best are just some of the poets who come to mind. I don’t imagine their names are too familiar to you, but I hope they will become more so.

How did this happen?

I am going to load two chance, and somewhat mundane, events of the early noughties with great significance. Both involve the Scottish poet Roddy Lumsden. The first was the time he found himself in an LA airport bookshop, browsing the poetry section. He bought a stack of collections, which included Interior with Sudden Joy by Brenda Shaughnessy. The second was a trip to New York, where he visited the now-closed downtown branch of Strand, with the poet Cate Marvin. She was handing him books she thought he’d like. Among them was Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis.

Back in London, Roddy ran two weekly poetry workshops. In one of his classes, sometime in 2006, he introduced three poets totally unknown to everyone in the room: Chelsey Minnis, Brenda Shaughnessy and Matthea Harvey. He told us these poets were loosely known as ‘gurlesque’ writers. I can’t remember who was in the room, but around this time a few of the names I mention above were in this group with me. It was common for the poems Roddy brought to class to be taken apart—this happened most often when we were looking at work from UK poets, ones that might be defined as mainstream. The week he brought the gurlesque poets was entirely different. The room was split, but those on my side—the side of the poems—were blown away. To this day that poetry class remains the single most memorable and important I’ve ever been to.

Chelsey’s poem was “Cherry,” from her collection Zirconia. I felt I was on my knees, licking the floor of this poem. As soon as I got home that night I ordered her book. The Brenda Shaughnessy poem was “Project for a Fainting” from Interior with Sudden Joy. I loved it with a sort of feverish intensity; it came with full-blown theatrical staging in my head of a woozy, peculiar world. Matthea’s poem was the brilliant “Baked Alaska, A Theory Of.” It was so weird and playful and charming.

Within a few weeks I was telling people these three made up my “favourite poets.” No other poetry mattered at all. With Chelsey I had that teen feeling of wanting to play everyone my favourite song. My Amazon buying history shows me that in this period I bought three more copies of the book to give to friends.

In a pub after class one night, we even made a handbag of her book BAD BAD, by threading a long pink ribbon through the middle of it and wearing it cross-wise over the body. We’d fantasize about getting to hear Chelsey, Brenda, and Matthea read their poems. Scraps of biography about them were shared. We always used their first names, in contrast to referring to UK poets by their surnames. They were our imagined friends; we had to be on first-name terms.

Facebook allowed that to happen a little. Roddy made friends with Brenda and Matthea, and so when Brenda was invited to come over to London to read at a birthday celebration for the Poetry Library, by the poet and librarian Chris McCabe, Roddy suggested that she meet up with a few of us and maybe do a reading. We organised a secret evening for people in Roddy’s classes who, of course, had all come to love Brenda’s work. It was all a bit Dead Poets Society. The reading was held in the top room of Roddy’s local pub, and he and I were her support acts. Before the reading we had a dinner—me, Roddy and Sarah Howe—where I squealed at her “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE HERE.” “I’m just Brenda,” she said. “We’re friends now.” She was quite taken aback by the fandom she found.

The following year, Matthea Harvey was in the country for a family wedding. One of our biggest magazines, Poetry London, invited her to read at the Southbank Centre. Their editor, Ahren Warner, had also been a student of Roddy’s. After her reading I rushed towards her to tell her how much I love her poetry and pulled out a very dog-eared copy of Sad Little Breathing Machine for her to sign. Sarah was there again, as was Mark Waldron, and we all went for dinner, where Matthea excitedly wrote down the names of UK poets we suggested she read. Later we swapped our Instagram names so we could share photos of our respective rescue cats.

We haven’t yet found a way to meet Chelsey, though I often joke I’ll do a Kickstarter to fund flying her over here to do a reading. She’s almost a mythic presence and, as such, is a sort of cult figure for a few of us. For example, Roddy and London poet Tim Wells put on a tribute night for her a few years back—a gang of London poets, in love with Chelsey, reading Chelsey-inspired poems to each other. Roddy has the cover of BAD BAD as his Facebook profile picture, and last year I had a replica necklace made. I want to wear Chelsey Minnis button badges so other fans can easily identify me and make themselves known.

Over time I have begun to see evidence of how these three poets have influenced the UK writers I have mentioned. The cool, clever, strange poetry of Matthea shows up in Mark Waldron’s poems. The spell-like quality of early Brenda Shaughnessy poems is audible in Emily Berry’s and Sarah Howe’s work. The scepticism and daring of Chelsey Minnis is there in Sam Riviere’s poetry. These are four of the most interesting poets in the UK and their poetic gaze is more often than not turned on contemporary women American writers. That focus has been in no small part to a Scottish male poet buying books in the US, sharing the poems from them and being excited about the work. It is hard to eat a plain avocado when you know what it tastes like with salt, lime and chili on it. Discovering Chelsey, Brenda, and Matthea, then going on to discover more poets through the Gurlesque anthology sort of killed UK poetry for me. Everything read as bland and generic afterwards.

Chelsey’s Preface 1 is ‘Poetry should be, “uh huh” like …“baby has to have it…” I want to read poems that are sweet, sour, brittle, decadent, clever, cool and strange. A new generation of UK poets are publishing poems and books that have these qualities. They are writing critically about poets from the gurlesque in magazines. I am among them, writing recently about the affinity between the deceased English poet Rosemary Tonks and Chelsey Minnis for Poetry London. My knowledge of contemporary women American poets outstrips my familiarity with the dominant poets of the UK by some stretch. I’m left thinking about how some young British poets will be raised on a diet of Morgan Parker, Sara Peters, Wendy Xu, Dorothea Lasky, Dominique Christina. Then maybe they’ll read Chelsey, Brenda and Matthea. Then Noelle Kocot, Eileen Myles, Audre Lorde… I wonder how this will shape the UK poetries of the future. It’s exciting to think about..

I hope you’ll consider this my love letter to the Gurlesque, from London, England.



after The Log Lady

Sometime men, like ideas, jump up and say ‘hello’. They introduce themselves, these men, with words. Are they words? These men speak so strangely. All that we see in this world is based on someone’s men. Some men are destructive, some are constructive. Some men can arrive in the form of a dream. I can say it again: some men arrive in the form of a dream.




things i’m reading while waiting for an emotional starlit cheque

‘I was ashamed, but undaunted (my epithet?).’

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson is killing me sentence by sentence.


‘I read it again, from cover to cover, lying in bed on a grey morning. I looked ay my dressing grown, the turquoise towel hanging on the door, the North Pacific Ocean on the map above my bed reflecting in the mirror on the opposite wall and, very suddenly, the mid-January sky blue through the shreds of the trees.’

& while we’re on Maggie Nelson, Rebecca Perry writes beautifully on her Bluets in the latest The Poetry Review.


‘If we can’t have everything what is the closest amount to everything you can have?’

From a new poem by Emily Berry, which you can watch online thanks to a new reading series The Poetry Extension, founded by poet Natalya Anderson. The first event features Rebecca Perry, Jack Underwood, Matthew Tierney, Ada Limon, Emily Berry, Sara Peters. You can watch the event here.


‘do you know what it’s like to live / someplace that loves you back?’

from Danez Smith’s “summer, somewhere” first published in Poetry but also in the latest The Poetry Review thanks to their regular exchange with Poetry magazine.


‘Okay guys see you in a while’

Joey Connolly wants to read more books from other countries. I am very impressed. You can watch his progress & pick up book recommendations here. There’s also loads of good stuff on Joey’s blog. LATE ADDITION: Joey’s just made his entire reading list public which takes account of gender, ethnicity, countries etc with the objective of reading more broadly. It’s amazing! Take a look.


‘The new me would not talk about her feelings so publicly anymore’

from Julia Scheele’s brilliant comic on mental health and autobiography.


‘Sometimes, it feels like every day brings a new statement on abortion from someone whose opinion you really don’t want to hear.’

Stephanie Boland writes on Donald Trump and the UK’s own abortion problem in The New Statesman.


‘I looked like the mad wife in Jane Eyre / who was locked in the attic: hair crazy, / wearing my bathrobe over trousers / (I’d run out of clothes), crying & laughing / like there was no difference.’

This is from Kathryn Maris’s pamphlet 2008 published by If a Leaf Falls Press, which is run by Sam Riviere. The press publishes very limited edition poetry with an emphasis on appropriative and arbitrary writing processes. I am very excited to see what Monica McClure’s involves, which is coming soon.


‘if you’re lonely, this one’s for you’

so reads the dedication of Olivia Laing’s beautiful The Lonely City.


‘No space for body in the poetry. No / space for body at the cool kids party. No space for body / on the exam table. Definitely no space for body in the family / plot. Body all that potential.’

from The Fat Sonnets by Samantha Zighelboim.


‘How does it feel to be a problem? The mute centuries shatter in my ear.’

Safiya Sinclair’s winning poems from The Boston Review poetry competition.


‘we learned to speak of our own souls with great candour, so close did we feel to them, when before they had seemed like trick staircases to nowhere, sealed behind glass.’

A new poem by Sara Peters in The Walrus.

Only Instead of a Star

image1 (1)

after Mabel Evelyn Key

it must be very beautiful
the place i’d like to spend my life in

because loneliness
is my new summer rigour

is all my own work
is the prettiest i’ve ever had

because loneliness
is the common task

my only pal
i believe i’m getting morbid

i often did without
some things that happen

seeing things
is too much for my intelligence

everything seems very awful
quaint, pretty little thing

like other girls
i hope you never know

what it is to be lonely
and sad

all day & every day
cured of infatuation

not a soul remembered
my intelligence

This poem appeared in Roulade. 

Caught in the Champagne-sleet of Living

Last year Poetry London invited me to write a personal response to Rosemary Tonks’s collection poems, Bedouin of the London Evening, published by Bloodaxe. The response appeared in Poetry London’s Spring 2015 issue and is reproduced in full here.

Caught in the Champagne-sleet of Living: Amy Key’s personal response to Rosemary Tonks’s rediscovered poetry.

Sometimes when I read poems, they wash over me as if they were hardly there, a culinary foam, all air. ‘Can I taste this yet?’ I ask. Others I munch through like a bucket of popcorn, feeling dissatisfied and guilty afterwards. I can’t absent-mindedly munch Rosemary Tonks’s poems. Like a night spent downing shots of absinthe, I first binge-read The Iliad of Broken Sentences, the second of the long out-of-print collections she published in the 1960s, some six years ago and got terribly drunk. I loved her work but felt somehow overwhelmed as if the poems had layered me in a scent I couldn’t wash away. Reading Bedouin of the London Evening helps me understand why I felt this way.

In ‘Love Territory’, Tonks has layers of ‘bronze-brown dusk’, ‘bronze nights’, ‘brown nights’ and ‘deep bronze’ interspersed with ‘half-lit’, ‘half-dark’ and ‘half-light’. Repetition of certain words and ideas is a hallmark of her work. I’d probably ask for more variation if someone brought me this poem for feedback. But over the whole book it’s ‘savage’ and hideous – the accumulation of her Collected Poems’ sludgy colours becomes obsessive, creating menace. For me, these sepia poems provide a counter-balance to the dominant trope of Swinging London: all Union Jacks and Pop Art mini-skirts.

Tonks’s personal iconography extends to fabrics, cafes, meat and London, like particular colours these too, are recurring motifs. Two that struck me most – cabbages and diamonds – frequently appear in both her books. They seem to signify the queasy meld of the dreary and casual with the exotic and sensual. ‘Sentenced to cabbages’, Tonks notes ‘cabbage-light’, ‘cabbage-shade’ – and the more workaday cabbage stumps and banknotes. Diamonds are ‘spat… drunkenly’ or conversely ‘heavy drinking’, she wants to ‘take a diamond’ to scratch ‘your junkie’s green-glass skin’. I did wonder if Tonks had an awareness of this prevalence, in the same way you might collect ‘special’ pebbles from different beaches and find yourself unable to distinguish between them later. In another poet’s work, the overwhelmingly opulent layering of images and iconography might turn me off, but it’s precisely this excess that is so compelling to me in Tonks. 

Reading Tonks has brought to mind lots of contemporary poets’ work. I can hear the pizzazz of Heather Phillipson, the disquiet of Emily Berry, Annie Freud’s elegant luxuriance, Fran Lock’s gothic tenderness. In re-reading her work, I’ve come to notice how influential Tonks was for me. Her exclamations and fondness for contrasting glitz with grime mark my own work. Most surprisingly I find myself thinking of the US poet Chelsey Minnis. To me, Tonks is a poet revulsed and intrigued by her own desires. Likewise Minnis’s poetry exposes the grubby, seedy and outrageous. It does this through an overlay of indulgent glamour, ‘like buttery sweetbreads spilled down the front of your dress’. Though more permissive than Tonks, Minnis is fascinated with her self-disgust: ‘Because I like both pleasure and revulsion… I have a great desire to enjoy my own disgust’.

I almost imagine it is to Tonks that Minnis addresses:

If you deny yourself pleasure, then what does it do for the people around you?

Are you trying to please god with right-seeming behaviour?

This is a dark dark error…  (from ‘Poemland’)

In ‘Bedouin of the London Morning’ Tonks writes: ‘if you knew the exotic disgust that grips me… If you knew my (half erotic) convulsion of loathing’. She seems terrified we might turn our backs on her, but dares us to. Her poems are full of foreboding, as though she’s warning us off a terrible calamity. Sometimes this is very direct, as in the brilliant ‘Done for!’:

Take care whom you mix with in life, irresponsible one,

For if you mix with the wrong people

– And you yourself may be one of the wrong people –

If you make love to the wrong person,


They will do you ferocious, indelible harm!

If Tonks were writing today, I’d assume her work to be self-aware melodrama, a send-up – all those exclamation marks, that self-berating tone; it’s hard not to read with a millennial raised eyebrow. Yet I found it refreshing to read poems that are so gorged on their own feeling its impossible not to take them absolutely seriously. That’s not to say the poems are without their humour. How’s this for a one-liner? – in her take-down of the ‘Students in Bertorelli’s’:

Nothing holds upright but some cold green diction, banknotes, a penis.

And she can find herself ridiculous, for her ‘irresistibly amusing’ thoughts, her ‘fierce hot-blooded sulkiness’, for writing poetry – poets being ‘disreputable pets!’. I fiercely love this from ‘The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas’:

Make them drink their own poetry!

Let them eat their gross novel, full of mud.

In perhaps Tonks’s best known poem, ‘Badly Chosen Lover’, Tonks addresses the poem’s subject: ‘My spirit broke its fast on you’. That poem – the first of hers I read, when it was anthologised by Bloodaxe – has taken on the quality of an anthem for me. I’m reminded of reading Anaïs Nin’s diaries at nineteen, swept up in ecstatic, grubby romanticism. These are ‘drug strong enough’ poems. I often had to steady myself when reading them, to close the book for fear of falling out of my own senses.

Amy Key’s first collection, Luxe (Salt, 2013), was reviewed in PL 87.

BBC Poetry Season

I want a show about Chelsey Minnis
I want a show about Rosemary Tonks
I want a show about Claudia Rankine
I want a show about Noelle Kocot
I want a show about Brenda Shaughnessy
I want a show about Audre Lorde
I want a show about Veronica Forrest-Thomson
I want a show about Eileen Myles
I want a show about Rae Armantrout
I want a show about Katsura Nobuko
I want a show about Marianne Moore
I want a show about Ten: the new wave
I want a show about Cathy Park Hong
I want a show about Sara Peters
I want a show about Adrienne Rich
I want a show about Alice Notley
I want a show about Dorothy Parker
I want a show about Tracy K Smith
I want a show about Amy Lowell
I want a show about Glitter is a Gender
I want a show about Ruth & Bianca Stone
I want a show about Christina Rossetti
I want a show about Charlotte Mew
I want a show about Den Sutejo
I want a show about Matthea Harvey
I want a show about Anne Sexton
I want a show about Emily Dickinson
I want a show about Luna Miguel
I want a show about Tender
I want a show about Kim Hyesoon
I want a show about Gwendolyn Brooks
I want a show about Ariana Reines
I want a show about Stevie Smith
I want a show about Gabby Bess
I want a show about Best Friends Forever
I want a show about Hoa Nguyen
I want a show about Gertrude Stein
I want a show about Mary Ruefle
I want a show about Denise Riley
I want a show about Anne Boyer
I want a show about Anne Carson
I want a show about Chelsey Minnis
I want a show about Chelsey Minnis
I want a show about Chelsey Minnis

A Mostly Exquisite Epic

Earlier in the Summer I was asked by the Southbank Centre to design a free poetry activity to run during the Festival of Love. My friend Camellia Stafford was with me when I got the email and we started to come up with ideas, one of which was based on a favourite game we like to play when we’re drinking. (One other idea, ‘Feeling Emojinal’ didn’t pass the test, but I hope I can make it happen one day).

So at the weekend Camellia and I set up camp in the Arcadia Pavilion at the Southbank Centre, and asked members of the public to help us create an epic love poem, which once finished will go into the Poetry Library’s permanent collection and will hopefully go online in its entirety somewhere.

The idea was that we’d write one ‘exquisite corpse’ style, with people responding only to the previous line in the poem, and in the process we’d make something weird and wonderful. To get us started I asked Maurice Riordan, Kathryn Maris and Patrick Mackie to write the first three lines. We then added one by John Keats and let the public take it on from there.


We were worried no one would get involved, but after a slow start whole families descended on us, each person keen to add their line on what love is, many choosing to put their love for their family on the record. Children added lines of love for pizza, Frisbee, rockets, fairies, salami and ice cream. One of my favourites came from my friend Wayne’s daughter:

Love is like a unicorn hat and lilies.


We interspersed them with lines from Rossetti, Dickinson, Yeats, both Brownings. Some of our poet friends popped down to add to the epic (thank-you Rebecca Perry, Crispin Best, Wayne Holloway-Smith, Sophie Richmond and Alex MacDonald). Others texted or tweeted lines for us to use. We spotted Neil Rollinson on his way to lead a poetry workshop & persuaded him to join in. Occasionally we slipped in ones of our own and in a POEM GOES GLOBAL moment, received a contribution from editor of POETRY magazine, Don Share.


By the end of the second day we had over 18 A3 pages of poetry, tacked up on the glass wall of the Royal Festival Hall – our guess is we have around 200 lines so far – not quite an epic yet. But what it lacks in epic scale, it surely makes up for in number of authors!


This coming weekend I’m doing it all again and will be joined by poets Emily Hasler (Saturday) and Alex MacDonald (Sunday). Come to see us between 11am – 4pm Sat 11 & Sun 12 July or tweet me @msamykey to contribute to this very strange and lovely thing.