In The Red 16

From May 2017 to May 2018, a group of friends and I ran the sixteenth edition of In The Red, a Liverpool based literary magazine. Throughout the year we organised several open-mic poetry events with a range of artists and performers including European slam champions, local writers, theatre collectives, and numerous musicians. Due to the financial success of the events, we were able to produce a magazine in digital and print that we are extremely proud of.

As co-host for each event, lead designer for the magazine, and one of four content editors, I have developed numerous skills within publishing, editing and digital media.

To see the magazine in full, please visit:

In the meantime, here’s a preview:

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Why you should read Ocean Vuong’s T.S.Eliot prize-winning collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds.

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong’s debut collection, has just (January, 2018) won the T.S. Eliot Prize – a major in the world of poetry. But who is Ocean Vuong? And why has the collection won over so many, from critics right through to those brand new to poetry?

Let’s start with the name. Vinh Quoc became Ocean as a means of disassociation from the now-absent father who chose the name. After fleeing a war-torn Vietnam and living in a refugee camp, the family landed in America ready to start a new life, only for the father to break away from the family. Vuong’s mother, in response, changed Vinh Quoc to Ocean, symbolizing both the broken relationship and the duality of her son, neither American nor Vietnamese but ‘a body of water connected to and separate from each shore’.

Vuong’s debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is equally an ocean. At times still, at others violent, the collection laps the beaches of Vietnam and America; its tides roll through questions of language, sexuality, identity, and history. In his poem ‘Daily Bread’, Vuong describes his writing as ‘Crescent wave. Salt spray. Tsunami’. He states he has ‘enough ink to give you the sea, but not the ships’.  The inference is that the poet has many depths; that he is trying to work these out; that he can show why he is Ocean but not why he struggles to stay calm. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an attempt to answer that very question.

‘Threshold’, the opening poem, described in Vuong’s reading at the Fashion Institute of Technology as his ‘raison d’être’, is an exploration of the poet’s approach to writing a ‘personal Ars Poetica’.

“For in the body, where everything has a price / I was alive.”

Vuong uses the poem to show us what to expect from Night Sky and from the poet. The first-person narrative suggests a truth and the descriptions of ‘watching through keyholes’ and ‘entering a song’ show physicality, the lyrical, and snatched moments, are key to his writing process. In an interview with The Creative Independent, Vuong explains this in greater detail:

“What does it say about the speaker who looks up at the sky and sees ruptures? There’s an autobiography in the gaze.”

Night Sky questions themes of fatherhood, masculinity, and sexuality by presenting their conflicting traits. In In Newport I Watch my Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Back’, the actions of the speaker’s father are used to portray contradictions; the jump from sympathy for a stranded dolphin to having a ‘hammer in his fist, mother / a nail-length out of reach’. The ‘autobiography in the gaze’ being the speaker’s confusion about the father; a man who, in ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’, is described as ‘backhanding mother, then taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table’ before vacating to the bathroom to weep. It is a testament to Vuong that he can portray confusion with clarity, describe in detail that which by its nature is blurred.

This back and forth continues with language used to unsettle the reader and/or introduce violence. In ‘Aubade with Burning City’ Vuong describes ‘Milkflower petals in the street / like pieces of a girl’s dress’. The shift from a soft, romantic line to the violence of a ripped dress causes shock. We aren’t sure where the poet is taking us. The line is then repeated further in, altered to ‘Milkflower petals on a black dog, like pieces of a girl’s dress’. Vuong presents the reader with what they already know but adds a twist.

In the same poem, a man pouring champagne tells a woman to ‘open’ and ‘she opens’. Later, a nun is set on fire and her death is described as a God calling her to ‘open’, for whom ‘she opens’. Foreshadowed lines and their changes add cohesion to Vuong’s poems but also help to push them in new directions. A line at one point can describe celebration, at another, trauma. This is evident not only in singular poems but throughout the collection, helping the interplay between single pieces and the work as a whole; for example, the repetition of ‘entry wounds’ and ‘exit wounds’; of people drowning; of cigarette smoke.

In his review for Lambda Literary, Christopher Soto identifies a group of words that repeat throughout: father; mother; fire; teeth; dreaming; scream. In my own reading, I noticed others: flame, hair, smoke, grenade. I agree with Soto in that this repetition could feel like a ‘poetic tic’ in less able hands, but with Vuong, ‘every instance where the word is repeated…gains new meaning’.

The technique of redefining meaning is apparent in the genesis of ideas as well as the language used to achieve them. Vuong uses existing material – mythology, art, history – as a microscope (or more precisely, a kaleidoscope) for his own experience. His poems reference Rothko paintings, Homer, the evacuation of Saigon, the Japanese poet Basho. With titles and epigraphs as references, readers are given hints as to what direction the poems will take. Art and history do play a role within the collection, but it is mythology that is most frequent. In her review for The Guardian, Claire Armitstead quotes Vuong on this obsession and how it interplays with reality:

“’Western mythology is so charged with the father,’ he says. ‘Personally, I’m always asking who’s my father. Like Homer, I felt I’d better make it up. The Japanese have a word for it: yugen, when you have so little you have to imagine it.’”

This imagination, or rather, this straying from the factual, is equally evident in the choices on language. Doubt creeps into Vuong’s poems from their very beginnings, opting for ambiguities such as ‘Instead’ and ‘Suppose’. The tendency to avoid complete answers is evident throughout. In ‘Notebook Fragments’ it reaches a crescendo. With no outright theme, the poem is an amalgamation of separate, brief stanzas that jump between history, sexuality, identity, masculinity, fatherhood, and language, similar to the collection as a whole. Vuong makes ‘Notebook Fragments’ coherent by placing it in the final section of the book. By this point, the themes have already been examined and readers have the knowledge to untangle the complexities. Vuong supplies us with the jigsaw pieces before asking us to solve the puzzle.

Having faith in readers is important, especially in poetry, and Vuong is never shy to challenge. This confidence towards the reader is also evident with Vuong’s choices on form. The poet jumps between couplets, free form, and more prosaic styles, such as the Japanese Haibun with ease. The forms predominantly add an extra dimension to the content, for example the Haibun describing a refugee’s journey from Vietnam to America. Occasionally, the choices seem strange. The use of footnotes for the body of the poem ‘Seventh Circle Of Earth’ for example, but it could be argued that the decision to break convention is laudable. And what would any collection be without exploration and risk, especially a debut?

The non-conformity of the work has its strengths. It lends each poem an honesty by not forcing them into too neat a box or category, meaning readers can find something new at every visit. For those looking to write poetry, there are lessons to be taken from the bravery. There are also lessons in the use of repetition and then the twist; in the variety of form; in the freedom with using existing material to analyse the self; and, more common with other poets – especially those also published under Johnathon Cape (Andrew McMillan, Neil Rollinson, Sharon Olds etc)in the use of the body to ground emotion and exploration of the psyche.

Vuong’s debut is brave and takes risks, never forcing its poems into too conclusive a finale. There are moments where this may stray too far, yet the debut is undeniably the work of a hugely talented poet. Night Sky With Exit Wounds will forever remain an insight into the poetics and life of arguably the best – dare I categorise – Asian-American poets of our time.

The Hen Harrier

It feels like a gift. Because we’ve chosen to sit on the terrace despite the fact winter is very nearly here. Because years ago, we came to see one and it flew in and sat straight down, invisible in the marsh. Ten seconds it had been in the air, and we’d been waiting three hours. This time, there’s no stream of twitchers. No expensive binoculars. No tripods or cameras spread along the prom. This time, we don’t have gloves, hats, a bag full of snacks. We just fancied walking the dog and having a drink in The Ship.

 I notice it first. A large black letter V dancing through the air.
  ‘What’s that?’ I ask, nodding beyond the terrace to the marsh.
  My dad, with barely a glance, replies, ‘Just a crow I think son,’ and sips his pint. I say it’s too big for a crow but don’t really believe myself. It’s far away and he’s the expert.

 Three quarters of a pint later, midway through a conversation about work or university, and it’s back, flying inland this time, much closer, twisting and turning at the marsh.
  ‘Look! It’s not a crow!’ I shout, more excited than I’d have expected for its sharp wings, splayed tail, its burst of acceleration as it flickers this way and that. My dad turns, catches it in his sightline and is straight to his feet.
  As he says this, he is jumping up and down.
  ‘Trust me to have left my bino’s in the car. In fact, wait! They have a pair behind the bar. I’m sure they do. Keep it there. Don’t let it move.’
  I’m not sure who he’s talking to. Me? The bird? A god I never knew he believed in?

A few minutes pass by before he’s back, binoculars in hand.
  ‘Where is it son?’
   ‘By the seagulls. Look past the lamp-post. A bit to the left.’ I’d followed its every move, willing it to stay.
   ‘Got it. Oh, it’s magnificent. Majestic.’

I don’t watch the bird anymore. I know my dad won’t lose it now he’s fully kitted out. I watch him instead, no longer jumping, but turning his head in sync with the harrier’s flight, cooing as if he’s a bird too.
   ‘So graceful, and the colours. Underneath the wings. Oh wow.’

I sip my beer, pick at crisps, watch and listen in silence. My dad does not seem like my dad. He’s absent and his usual serious self has reverted to what I imagine is its youth; to days breaking into Lord Derby’s estate, climbing trees, snatching spare eggs from the nests of his favourite birds.
   The Hen Harrier is busy still, getting in as much hunting as possible before the sun drops behind the Welsh Mountains. Before the white stone stretch of Parkgate turns grey and purple in the dying light.
   ‘Let’s have a look a then,’ I say, and without hesitation he passes over the binoculars.
   ‘Find it with your eye first, then get it in the viewfinder.’
   I’m reminded of being eight years old, kicking a ball on the field opposite our house, learning about a good first touch, cruyff turns and the outside of the boot. The binoculars aren’t great but I find the bird and follow it anyway. I notice the speckled white and brown of its underwing and flank, the curled beak, the yellow iris and pitch black pupil, the snake-tongue tail.
    ‘Ay dad, it is pretty cool.’

High On A Mountaintop

The criticism was because they had to call out the rescue team, who arrived
in full strength – mountain ambulance, rescue dog & helicopter – for these three,
jelly-legged & white-faced at the summit.

Their equipment was not goretex jacket, carabiner or pair of hiking boots,
but a packet of king size rizlas, a pouch of amber leaf,
& a rather large quantity of weed.

Think of the moment before paranoia set in, when the cloud broke
into sun & blue sky, revealed the great Wast Water lake, rolling hills,
patchwork farmland, power stations & the glint of cars
bumper to bumper on a rush-hour A595.

Think of the moment these boys, having escaped
& found their high at the peak of Scafell Pike, shouted
either to each other or to nobody in particular,

                                                                                                          This is it lads! This. Is. Fucking. It.

The Boomtown Fayre (2016)

(commisioned for UrbanistaUK – September, 2016)
(photo credit:

For four days of the British summer, a bohemian, free-spirited city pops up in the countryside of Winchester, England. Think Moulin Rouge on acid. Think Las Vegas and mushrooms. Stir into this cocktail heavy doses of revolution, community, and a line-up of the best music around, and you may get close to the magic formula of The BoomTown Fayre.

As you approach the site, the air starts to change. A light breeze trickles its way through car windows, a taste of the extraordinary on its breath. The A31 is awash with cars, nose to tail. They wear bumper stickers preaching freedom, music and love. They’re filled with tents, camping chairs, alcohol and food. If you look closely, you can see human heads bursting through. If you look closer, you’ll find other stuff too. But let’s not go into that. Suffice to say BoomTown doesn’t abide by the rules. This isn’t first-class travel and this isn’t a first-class weekend. BoomTown turns its head at class. It’s off the grid. It’s the underground comin’ up. It’s the kid who got expelled from school but is driving a fifteen-plate Beamer. A hidden wonderland and a fiery nightmare. Hell and Heaven in equal measure. When you return to reality, you’ll be unsure who you like best: God and her benevolence or the Devil and his tricks?

Thursday evening. The sun drops and the lights of the UK’s biggest pop-up city start to twinkle. Growling basslines sound out like foghorns in reverse, welcoming rather than warning. As the sun slides behind tree-lines, water bottles are filled with harder liquids, and wallets packed with the kinda’ shit you wouldn’t want your Nan to know about. The tagline for the weekend is the Revolution Starts Now, and boy, does it feel that way. From dress to attitude, the flavour is anarchy. British Festivals normally abide by certain rules: rain, wellies and a line-up set around headliners. BoomTown is different.

The newly arrived sixty-thousand trot along bone-dry grass in flip-flops and shorts. DJs and bands play an abundance of venues, none more important than the other. The festival’s strength is both its consistent and random nature. Such a phrase seems bi-polar, but the festival revels in this madness. At any given moment people lie in secret-forest hammocks, skank to Drum n’ Bass, or two-step to Techno. At every corner is the option to relax or let loose your inner demon.

There is an element of virginity to the first night. Teens, twenty-somethings, families and older revellers walk the districts and take in all that is on offer. Jaws are dropped at the scale. I start my night by meeting up with Alex, a guy I car-shared with to the festival. I meet him by the Helter-Skelter. He tells me of a conversation he’s just had with two BoomTown regulars: an older gay couple who have attended since day one. They tell him of the origins. How the police couldn’t control the raves and had their hand forced into legalisation. Over the backdrop of the rolling Winchester hills, this sense of anarchy still prevails. It flows through the nine districts and seeps into your system. If you listen closely, you hear a big Fuck You to The Man. A Fuck You that will resonate way past closing time. Whether this outlaw inception is imagined or real is irrelevant. Its result is pure. The Revolution Starts Now.

Alex and I treat the first night as one of exploration and by its end we have stumbled into a multitude of different spaces: rooftop bars and forest raves in TrenchTown, cowboy dives and dancehalls in the Wild West, ska-punk and hell-jazz sessions in China Town. We meander through the colourful, Latino-styled backstreets of Barrio Loco, where tech-house and garage beats are pumped out to the masses. We end the night in the beautiful, Eden-like space Whistler’s Green, surrounded by ambient music and soft neon light.

There are nine districts in the BoomTown metropolis. Throughout the weekend, we will take on chameleon-skin and become a part of each: part of the one-percent in Mayfair Avenue, where lavish electro-swing parties raise the roof; part of the Wild West, where they sip whiskey and rock out to the finest country; part of the gypsy movement in Old Town, where Balkan sounds are played from dusty taverns and circus acts walk the line and breathe fire on pirate ships. We’ll become part of the bohemians, talking art and theatre in magical spaces like Whistlers Green and KidzTown; family friendly, creative spots where talks, workshops, yoga and play areas keep all engaged and entertained.

Then we will be drawn to Trenchtown, to skank to Reggae and Dub under the leafy canopy of the Hidden Woods. Or maybe we’ll make our way to the Lion’s Den, an Aztec stage in a glorious, amphitheatre-like valley. In the day, we’ll chat with strangers as sun shines to reggae beats and marijuana scents. When the stars appear in the sky, they appear on stage too. The likes of Madness and Damien Marley, singing classics like House of Fun and Could You Be Loved to a responsive crowd of near twenty thousand.

New for 2016, Sector 6 is the height of chaos. With the heaviest bass, the revolution is in full strength. Politics is no more. The artists and crowds both want, not to take power but to destroy it. Dub Phizix, So Solid Crew, My Nu Leng and more sweep up the disarray of onlookers. They mould apathy into energy. The crowd, no longer a collection of separate entities, but a powerful, fine-tuned beast.

For those of a more fun-loving, easy-going nature, the colourful, carnival styled Barrio Loco becomes home. A melting pot of cultures and communities where house, tech and garage beats play from all angles. The Vamos stage hosts the likes of JackMaster, BTraits and Liverpool’s own Melé. Derek Carter, MJ Cole, Skream and Alan Fitzpatrick also jump on deck duty. From the General’s apartment balcony, fresh house bangers are played out into the street.  

Just around the corner from Barrio Loco is ChinaTown. Here lies a marketplace of technology, a myriad town where Ska and Punk takes reign, where DJ’s hype up the crowds from small 16-bit console styled stages. In complete contrast to these smaller venues is Bang-Hai Palace. Introduced last year, the stage hosts the likes of Plump DJS, Zed Bias and Krafty Kuts. The palace is a celebration of the people, where fireworks and anti-establishment messages are dropped in and out of the rave.

BoomTown does not lack variety. Every district has its own feel, with themed bars and venues, small spaces and grand stages. It is impossible to visit everything on offer but this is its strength. The festival offers a weekend where a new experience is always just a stone’s throw away.

Despite this abundance of choice, a consistent atmosphere sweeps through the city. A sense of community lost in 21st century Britain. Brexit, the Labour leadership crisis, anti-immigrant rhetoric; negativity bubbles below the surface. Xenophobia is on the up. In BoomTown, the opposite is true. Community and friendship are the zeitgeist. All races, nationalities, sexualities and genders are represented and celebrated.

At any one moment you expect Jeremy Corbyn to bounce around the corner with his jaw more left than his politics. With his arm wrapped around Theresa May. You can picture them sharing a joint, for the first time ever, dancing to the same tune.

For a festival that started only eight years ago with three thousand people, a festival that now caters for sixty thousand, problems are to be expected. In future, the organisers could do more to limit the traffic congestion upon entering and leaving the site. I doubt the burn-out of cars was preventable, or the tragic passing of Olivia Christopher, but investigations of the highest quality must be concluded before the next chapter. Criticisms such as these are bound to occur when so many are in such proximity to each other. All we can ask of BoomTown is they ensure to do their utmost to prevent a repeat. In an announcement made on its Facebook page, we can see that this is underway.

“Although there were many amazing things that happened at the festival last weekend, the incidents that did occur, we feel we should take some time to take stock of. As a very close team with so much love for the community that is created at BoomTown, we are absolutely devastated by the news of our festival attendee who tragically passed away. Our thoughts are with the young lady’s family, friends and loved ones.”

BoomTown is a place where friendships are made. A place where solidarity is shared with all. It is a place where separatist values are looked down on. The campsites sit like bridges, not borders, between stages and districts. In this green corner of Southern England, a representation exists of how the world could be run. A world where difference is cheered. A world where life is a sprawling piece of art. A world where the many and the few come together for one massive party. BoomTown is a kaleidoscope fiesta of art, music and people. It feels almost a religious experience. I am converted, and I pray you will be too.




Live At The Nordic – Astles’ Heartfelt EP

(commissioned for Urbanista Magazine – 2017)

After winning the Merseyrail Sound Station prize and stealing the show at LIMF, Astles keeps the hype-train rolling with new EP Live At The Nordic. Recorded in just one afternoon, the debut offers twenty-three minutes of searching vocals, cute guitar riffs and a hell of a lot of potential.

At just eighteen, Southport singer-songwriter Dan already has a wealth of experience. Writing since his early teens and more recently soaking up the creative culture of Liverpool, he is starting to make a name for himself by playing shows, hitting the studio and running his own open mic night in Southport. He’s gone from home-made Youtube videos to recording with the likes of Michael Johnson – think Joy Division, Erasure and Soft Cell. Speaking with Dan, he says he has no plans to slow down and if the EP is anything to go by, he’s definitely one to look out for.

Never planned to be flawless, Live at The Nordic has a vulnerability, an unpolished, scars-on-show kind of attitude. The tracks flit between moments of power and of intimacy. Matched with a light-touch production and the acoustics of the Nordic Church, what is offered up is honest, raw and a perfect introduction to the rising Scouse star. In an interview with Dan – which you can read below – he names Jeff Buckley and Bon Iver as sonic influences and the similarities are clear; strong vocals, sparse production, a tendency towards the emotive.

With tracks titled such as Letters to Your Dad and Time Forgot (Joseph’s song) there is more than an ounce of the personal to Live at The Nordic. Vocals scream teenage-longing in both delivery and content, and even if the lyrics do stray slightly into cliché at times, they still ring true. Mostly written between sixteen and eighteen, the lyrics describe those pained years of first girlfriends, first drinks and first smokes. Make no mistake though, this isn’t a juvenile production. The content may stem from youth but the talent in piecing a song together seems to come from a man of more years than Dan has under his belt. It’s clear that hard graft, and plenty of it, has been put in.

Earlier tracks such as Last Bus and Her can be found dotted around the internet and are equally worth a listen. The studio-productions offer a fresh insight. There are tinges of electronica and the ambient undulating beneath a Buckley-like guitar. With such a strong back catalogue, you can’t help but feel that when an Astles’ album comes, it’s going to be special. If Dan can take the vulnerability of the live-takes into a studio production, there’s no knowing where he’ll stop.

Urbanista catch up with Astles:

Who would you name as influences for the EP / your work?

Sonically I’d say the main influences of the EP would be Elliot Smith, Bon Iver, John Marytn and Jeff Buckley. The idea behind the EP was to have something which was raw and honest and to use the beautiful space of the Nordic Church to incorporate this.

Any up-coming local bands / singers you think we should look out for?

I really feel there is something going on in Liverpool at the moment which is special. There are so many artists who inspire me. Some of the people I love in no particular order are: Thom Morecroft, Silent Cities, Eleanor Nelly, Xam Volo and Johnny Sands – all making beautiful music.

What’s in the pipeline for yourself in terms of new material?

The last EP was sort of an accumulation of the songs written over the last few years. I sort of see it as a soundtrack of me aged 16-18. The newer stuff I’ve been writing is a lot more mature and ambitious. I’m working a lot in the studio at the moment, doing a lot of writing, and I’ll definitely be releasing some studio stuff this year

Where can we come see you over the next few months?

I’m playing lots over Liverpool, including record store day at the Jacaranda, The Sound City Conference and LIMF. As well as a few out of town shows. I’m always playing, if you follow my socials you’ll be able to see where.

Favourite place for a beer in town?

The Jacaranda is where I had my first legal pint!

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