Ben Norris, Nasty Little Intro #9.
(Nasty Little Press, £2)
Ben Norris – playwright, founder of UniSlam!, and 2013 UK All-Stars Poetry Slam champion – makes his print debut in Nasty Little Press’s ninth Nasty Little Intro, a series that showcases ‘the finest new voices in poetry’.
The first and strongest poem, ‘Breaking Cobs’, tackles the Midlands and the North/South divide. ‘Cobs’ is the local word for rolls, and the image of breaking bread suggests bonds fostered by being from the place in between, where only crumbs fall. This is reflected in the poem’s form, with ‘We can’t win, me and my mates’ suspended between two unequal stanzas, in the ‘void / between Watford Gap and Hadrian’s Wall’. The poem toys with the distinctions between ‘proper’ and ‘common’, introducing Norris as a poet for whom identity is integral.
‘Since Records Began’ and ‘Surprise’ deal with romantic tensions, and are the least successful poems in the pamphlet. That said, ‘the evil horns […] absent-mindedly doodled | onto François Hollande’s mistress’ hints at a comic talent, which reveals itself in ‘Role Play’ where the struggles of the young professional are framed as a type of erotic play: ‘Dressed as a middle- manager | for you […] You like that. Yeah’. The language of sex is repurposed to question how the roles we adopt affect our identities (‘Say my name.’), before asking, ‘Are we happy?’
‘Dad Joke, for two voices’ sets Norris against his father with ‘flat cap, and workman’s hands’ who disapproves of ‘caramelised onion houmous’. Differences are bridged by the ‘rarely shared family wafer’ – splitting ‘the KitKats’ offers a new way of ‘Breaking Cobs’. This poem is littered with everyday details; Norris embraces the commonplace, and it is quiet and genuine relationships that are most valued here.
The final poem, ‘The Measurement Trick’, begins with siblings literally measuring themselves against each other and ends with the final moments in their childhood home. The innocence of lost toys makes way for the ‘new definition | of family mum had handed’ to their dad. The marks on the wall come to represent how we measure the totality of our lives, becoming ‘a pencil halo in profile’ for their recently passed mother.
Just as the siblings interrogate the marks on the wall, each poem summons something marginal and interrogates its story. Norris highlights the richness of the quotidian and is strongest when considering the tangled factors that help us create the stories of ourselves. This is the Intro; I’m interested to see what will follow.