Ten reasons why you must read Animals by Miles Salter

This review was originally published on Dead Ink.

1. Because the second collection from Yorkshire poet Miles Salter, Animals, is such an incredible mystery. This is a 47-strong ‘mewling crowd’ which explores Britain’s suburbia, confronts capitalism and corruption and war and godlessness, and predicts terrifying (as well as mundane) post-apocalyptic futures. Salter’s various voices are charming and challenging, and their richness deepens with every reading.

2. A case in point: the inimitable ‘Ten Reasons Why This World Must End Soon’, a poem inspired, we are told, by ‘a phrase on a placard held by a religious gentleman in the centre of York in Summer 2011′. The poem is literally a numbered list, unrhymed and unlined. Its ‘ten reasons’ range from the obscure ’1) There are not enough elastic bands to go around’ to the pragmatic ’3) There are more of us people arriving each day’ in a typically Salterian flux between high and low style. This is bravado of the highest order, and at times the reader would be forgiven for asking: ‘Is this poetry?’ But Salter should be given the benefit of the doubt, especially as the poem epitomises his complex approach to the collection’s ‘animal’ theme.

3. Animals avoids any cliché or sentimentality about humanity and animals. This is definitely not a book of poems about gaggles of geese and herds of hippos, nor is it restricted to the blurb’s assertion, ‘the most dangerous animal of all – the human being’. Instead, Salter uses animals as a way to talk about much richer territory: whether humans are most humane when acting ideologically or individually, whether humans are nurtured or tamed by their societies, and most importantly for the lyricism of the poetry itself, whether humanity thrives or dies under order. Salter’s attention to the power of (dis)order is impeccable and subtle: ‘Ten Reasons’ slides from the casually coherent ‘why/because’ form into inexplicable poetry, giving us these as final lines.

9) Imagine it. No rock and roll. No stock market.

10) The dust. The light. The silence defeating stars.

This is the kind of animalism that Salter is interested in: it is feral, wild, disordered and chaotic, and—

4. He is expert enough to reflect this tension between order and chaos in his poems’ form as well as subject. For example, ‘The Horse Rider’s Code of Conduct’ evolves from the professional and perfunctory language of the ‘code’ (‘I understand that riding at any standard has inherent risk / and that all horses may react unpredictably on occasions’) into a nostalgic poetry from the perspective of the liberated rider:

We kept going for an hour and the whole
world seemed to flood through me and I yelled out in a language
I didn’t understand, and did not want to go back.

5. Polemic poetry. It seems unfashionable at the moment to write poems with a political, ethical or religious point. But many of Salter’s poems do have an argument that is described and demonstrated as if to convince the reader. Through some clever arrangement the collection almost tackles issues in groups of four or five poems. First religion, as in ‘Their Eyes Were Not Watching God’ which mocks the shallowness of people (‘because the deity / never turned up on a TV show like Britain’s Got Talent‘). Then consumerism, as in ‘The Only Thing I Had Left To Sell Was My Soul’ and ‘World Without End’ which warn against the excesses of Western culture (from the latter: ‘we bought that quiet, single-minded / mania every time, looting shops // with plastic or cash, cramming cars with food’). Then war:

Your Country Needs You to forget the rules
of cricket and become a man who sweats
and screams in his sleep, a man who beats
his wife and daughter

Often the trouble with polemic poetry is that if you disagree with the poet’s argument, it can scupper your relationship with the work entirely. Perhaps conscious of this, Salter includes enough poetic interest (note the misleading eye-rhyme of ‘sweats / beats’ above) to appease to even the most anti-theistic, pro-capitalist and pro-war reader.

6. Because these poems are funny. ‘School’ depicts a Battle Royale where ‘The final exam requires no writing, / but, happily, a single baseball bat/will be available to the group.’ In ‘Ears’ a man keeps a tin of ears and, on some nights, ‘Lighting a candle, he takes one, / from the box, holds it in his palm / and starts. ‘It’s like this,’ he says.’ Okay, well maybe these poems are darkly funny, but it is still another of Salter’s skills which makes this collection such a diverse and engaging beast.

7. The cover photo. Squirrels, boxing.


8. Unlike a lot of poetry pamphlets or collections which look like they’ve been Canon-printed on recycled paper in the writer’s garage, this collection has the highest calibre of production values. The cover design is ingeniously simple, the paper is tactile and the typography is clean and professional. You might call that superficial, but it makes the reading experience into an actual experience. This quality is fast becoming the hallmark of Valley Press, a small Scarborough-based operation run by 26 year old Jamie McGarry.

9. For the sheer poetry of some of Salter’s lines. Examples include: ‘Outside, priceless birds were dancing in the breeze’ or ‘She unhooks the door three times / then places herself in the chamber of the day.’

10. Because you should get to know Salter. He organises York Literature Festival, plays music, and has written for BBC Radio, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Independent, etc. His other works include his debut poetry collection The Border (Valley Press, credited to Miles Cain), and A Song For Nicky Moon, which was shortlisted for The Times/Chicken House Children’s book award in 2010.


A question of genre

This article previously appeared on NAWE Young Writers’ Hub

Readers and writers often find themselves stuck in the same old genre, but would it be better to ask more of other forms? Jonathan Aldridge reflects on a very literary education, and wonders if he hasn’t been missing a trick…

I don’t think the question of genre ever came up at university. We studied novels, plays and poems which fell into the canon (by writers like Shakespeare, Dickens and Joyce) and which are called ‘classics’ in bookshops. Our faculty library was arranged by date (with surnames A-Z from 1500-1670, for example) instead of by genre like in a bookshop. And neither students nor tutors ever considered that there was more than one worthwhile genre, especially nothing that resembled sci-fi, romance, fantasy, crime or horror. Maybe studying gothic literature comes close, but even then we called it ‘the Gothic’ and referred to ‘tropes’ and ‘transcendence of boundaries’.


Actually, the question of genre came up once. I remember a conversation with a South African literature tutor. We spent a lot of time studying Apartheid literature, learning about how authors wrote politics and war into high-end literature. So I ask what sort of literature South Africa is reading and writing now (twenty years since Apartheid ‘ended’) and my tutor says “Oh, genre fiction, mainly. A lot of crime novels.” That was the only time genre was ever mentioned. And to me, it cemented an idea that genre fiction was the product of a safe culture full of lazy readers (like the modern-day UK?), whereas meaningful literature was a response to and catalyst of social change (like modernism during the early 20th-century).

So if there’s a reason I only write and read ‘literary fiction’, it’s because that’s what they teach you. In university circles, no one asks any questions of genre fiction; and in popular circles, no one asks any questions of literary fiction. I think we should ask more questions of each other.

It was failing to broaden my bookshelf which meant my early writing failed. In my late teens and early twenties I had little life-experience and would have done well reading and writing young-adult fiction or sci-fi as a way of expanding my horizons. But instead I was emulating TS Eliot, Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, and I was trying to write free verse, villanelles and avant-garde short stories. I guess it taught me an appreciation of those forms, but what I wrote was bad. It was like making little models of Big Ben or the London Eye out of matchsticks: I didn’t have the skill or the material to do it properly.

I think my literary education left me slightly skewed—so when I came to write my first novel, Banes Of Boys And Girls, I was more concerned about how the thing fit in with the Bildungsroman tradition or explored the ‘politics of desire’, rather than how interesting the plot and characters were and, basically, how good it was (I do think it’s good). It’s a novel about coming-of-age and falling in love for the first time, so I could have been reading young-adult and romance fiction to see how they navigate that territory. But it didn’t occur to me.

So for my next projects I’m going to change. I’m going to ask more questions of genre fiction in the hope of diversifying my writing. So before I get around to writing the office novel that is going round my head, I’m going to read some ‘office romance’ novels as well as masterpieces like Something Happened by Joseph Heller.

I’m already starting to kick the habit, and remind myself that plenty of genre fiction has merit. I’ve held literary fiction on a bit of a pedestal. They (Wikipedia) say it isn’t even a genre in itself, but it still has its own conventions: complex characters, minimal plot, linguistic texture, introspective style, slower pace. Just like crime fiction has its rogue detectives, sympathetic villains, dramatic clauses and plot twists. There is plenty of bad literary fiction, where boring characters doing nothing, just as there are bad crime novels with hammy dialogue and stupid plots.

But there’s also the chance to learn from other forms. I’ll give you a couple of sentences which to me epitomise the best literary fiction, especially in its ability to re-imagine a regular occurrence. In Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark On The Wall’ the narrator has been thinking to herself uninterrupted until “something is getting in the way […] Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing…. There is a vast upheaval of matter. Someone is standing over me and saying—”I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”” I like the idea that being interrupted from your private thoughts is “a vast upheaval of matter”: it’s really subjective and lightly melodramatic. You sense the narrator waking back into reality from a place of abstract thought. This is the cadence and mood you get from literary fiction; and the scene is typical too: domestic, psychological, nuanced.

I honestly don’t know what sort of sentence you get from genre fiction, but for the sake of my writing I need to find out. Maybe they can give the urgency, drama and scale which literary fiction lacks. My interest in genre fiction started recently, with something that Michael Crichton said in an interview with The Paris Review. He said that he was trying to write The Andromeda Strain (sci-fi) but couldn’t get it to be “factually persuasive”. So he “started thumbing through” We Are Not Alone by Walter Sullivan and “noticing the vocabulary, the cadences of nonfiction and how the structure of the sentences conveys a sense of reality that is not found in fiction.” I would advise anyone who reads only literary fiction (including myself) to ask more questions of genre fiction in order to find a new “vocabulary”, “cadence” and “structure”.

I don’t think I see myself writing an all-out genre fiction anytime soon, but I want to ask more questions of it. To learn new techniques and conventions beyond literary fiction; to use a sentence structure from sci-fi, or a plot framework from crime; to better my craft. That’s my answer, anyway.

Here Comes Everyone: The Heroes Issue

This review was first published by Sabotage Reviews.

The Heroes Issue is the second offering of poetry, short stories, and non-fiction from an embryonic community-led magazine called Here Comes Everyone, and published by the not-for-profit Silhouette Press. As I am usually a sucker for the literary canon, I was excited to read the cutting-edge works of unknown writers: I expected vigorous, irreverent prose and compact, personal poetry.


My expectations piqued during the editorial introduction, which—via Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the Dambusters, Genghis Khan, and David Attenborough—teased out many of the key issues within the theme. Heroes, it was suggested, can be humanitarians, inventors, “people who brought great social change”, or more mysteriously “a facet of an idealised person who I wish I was”. There was considerable space given to the idea that it is one’s perception of heroism which is paramount over the hero himself, and it was promising to hear the editor muse that “an individual’s personal heroes can say much about them”.

As a literary blogger who has considered the role of heroism and ‘superhumanism’ in modern times, I think that this is a satisfactorily nuanced reading of the hero. So I suppose what I desired after this editorial was what anyone desires from a themed magazine: an impressive range of creative responses which combat, elude and explore the idea. Read individually, the pieces I was given didn’t really do this. The poetry was mainly a slightly flabby form of free verse, and approached the theme from the rather conventional perspectives of war heroes and celebrity culture. The short stories were a little underwhelming in their character/plot and literary texture: they tackled the “Olympian guts” it takes to jump into a swimming pool, the militant nationalism of “Ireland’s heroic martyrs”, and the everyday heroism of a busy father.

However, when read as a group, the pieces did begin to say something very interesting. They showed such a vast range of human emotion and expression that it made me feel like I was dipping into strangers’ minds as I passed them on the street: there was a woman who evidently fancied her martial arts instructor, a man who wished he were Perseus, and a man with separation anxiety retained since childhood. There were also some standout pieces, namely the ones which approached the theme in innovative, oblique ways—i.e. that alluded to heroes or heroism without having to write “he was a hero to me that day” or the like.

Emily Densten’s short story ‘Smile for me’ playfully describes the narrator’s imagined rant at a man who tells her to “smile, sweetheart” as she waits for a tube. I took her “dreamed” cathartic tirade (“I’m not here to be set decoration for you”) to be an exploration of everyday timidity; that is, why people can find it so difficult to “stand up for themselves, finally, for once”, let alone act heroically.

Another favourite was ‘Hard Times For Tolerance’ by Ben Nightingale, the first opinion piece by HCE’s regular columnist, which was a stinging defence of “freedom of speech” against “jihadis who would take it away from us [and] those among us who are determined we should cave in and give it away”. As I am a generally tolerant person, Mr. Nightingale had a hard task of convincing me that the best way of combating the religious intolerance of Islamist fundamentalism was with religious intolerance of Islam. However, his “consciousness-raising exercise”—supposing that the Broadway musical The Book of Mormon had instead been about The Koran—was entertaining enough to retain my attention in spite of his more controversial claims. Furthermore, HCE is evidently achieving its aim of creating a communal space for literary types, as contributor Eugene Egan has already commented on Mr. Nightgale’s piece online: “He made me question some of the things I’ve taken for granted which is excellent.”

On a less positive note, it was very off-putting to find multiple errors of spelling, punctuation and syntax. It detracts from the writing, betrays sloppy writing and neglectful editing, and produces an unpleasurable reading experience. Needless to say, if one is a literary type one should take care not to write “pixcelation” or “men who’s ambition”. Having said that, I was intrigued and amused by the image of pigeons cooing “Like wantons retuning home for supper”. I was happy to overlook the magazine’s slightly-lacking design—it hasn’t got the gothic style of Popshot magazine (‘Birth’ issue out now), nor the slick minimalism of Peninsula magazine (only one issue published, called ‘Visitation’)—but these mistakes are unforgivable.

All in all, Here Comes Everyone’s Heroes Issue is a promising prospect which just doesn’t quite get to where it wants. However, as a “network and resource point for people who want to get involved in the world of publishing and the arts”, HCE and Silhouette Press seem to be attempting something worthwhile; to which end, you can find out more at herecomeseveryone.me and @HereComesEvery1.