Desert island books and poetry

September 28 2018

“WHAT is poetry?” asked Richard Jones, publisher of Tangent Books and Small Press Books.

Is it about a sense of identity? Does it tell a story or is it more abstract? Should it be written, spoken, experienced – or all three? These were just some of the questions explored by the panel as they discussed ‘Books and Poetry’ at Redland Library’s recent Desert Island Books event.

Joining Richard on the panel were Clive Birnie, publisher of Burning Eye Books; Vanessa Kisuule, Bristol City Poet 2018-2020 and Rebecca Kosick, co-director of the Bristol Poetry Institute at the University of Bristol.

The event was organised by Friends of Redland Library, who asked the panel to recommend a poetry collection or a book about poetry, as well as a ‘wild card’ – a favourite book in any genre that they would want to read and re-read on a desert island.  

Fascinated by the question of who we think we are, Clive chose Nigh-No-Place by Jen Hadfield. As he explained, Clive is descended from Peterhead fishermen and this collection, which is rooted in the ever-changing Shetland landscape, reflects his own deep-seated connection to Scotland. 

From a sense of identity to poetry as storytelling, Richard’s recommendation was High on Rust by Bristol poet, Ray Webber.  The collection, which tells the story of Webber’s life, was published in 2016 when Ray was 93.  Influenced mainly by TS Eliot and the Beat Generation poets, Webber’s work has, as one critic said “a fierce sense of energy, vitriol and devilish laughter.” 

Rebecca’s pick was An Ordinary Man by Ferreira Gullar and translated by Leland Guyer. Born in Brazil, Gullar was part of the inter-disciplinary neo-concrete movement.  He believed that poetry should be part of everyday lived experience and as Rebecca explained, that the reader’s participation makes the work complete.

An increasingly popular way of experiencing poetry is the spoken word and Vanessa, who has herself won many poetry slam titles, chose Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith.  Vanessa described Smith as a poet “of both the page and the stage,” who writes about being a black man in America in a collection illuminated by “moments of joy”.

Vanessa’s ‘wild card’ was equally challenging. She recommended Fishnet by Kirsten Innes, a meticulously researched novel about the sex industry and Coming Out Like a Porn Star, a book of essays by Jiz Lee, both of which she said, made her “look at sex work in a much more nuanced way.”

Rebecca’s oldest child has just started school and her ‘wild card’ was a book about learning to read, Lines, Squiggles, Letters, Words by Ruth Rocha, translated by Lyn Miller Lachmann. Richard’s pick was Dylan Thomas Selected Works because, as he said “his prose is often more poetic than his poetry.”

Bringing the event to a close, Clive returned to Scotland with his ‘wild card’ Cancer Party by Andrew Raymond Drennan. A bleak, gritty novel set in Glasgow, this book shares the colloquial immediacy of the spoken word poetry that first inspired Clive to set up Burning Eye Books.

The next Desert Island Books event is: Books and the Sea, to be held at Redland Library at 7pm on 16 October.

Admission is £3 (pay at the door)

Bristol is steeped in its maritime history and this event will explore how the sea has impacted both our literature and our lives.


The panel comprises:

Dr Kate Hendry (Chemical Oceanographer and Reader, University of Bristol)

Dr Laurence Publicover (Senior Lecturer, Department of English, University of Bristol )

Professor Rosamund Sutherland ( Emeritus Professor, Department of Education, University of Bristol and Trustee of SS Great Britain)

Captain Richard Whalley ( Royal Navy Officer, MoD Abbey Wood )

The Friends of Redland Library are a voluntary group set up to support Redland Library, helping to sustain and improve its service, and also connecting it with the local and wider community.   Redland Library is situated on Whiteladies Road, close to Clifton Down train station.

 Full details of this and future events can be found at