Reviews of Surviving Larkin
Being hunted on a foreign island. Meeting your all-time hero. Seeking love when it doesn’t want to be found. Running through enemy territory. Almost losing a child. Getting lost on a hostile mountain. And realising your lover isn’t the one.
Survival comes in many guises.
In his first short story collection, acclaimed writer Will Kemp deftly explores the challenges life throws at us and the many ways we battle through. Sometimes survival comes through physical exertion, but more often it is a subtle, psychologically demanding fight that requires spiritual resilience and mental dexterity as things turn in an instant.
Using sharp dialogue, wry humour and a keen eye for the telling details that set one flawed human apart from another, Kemp has created a collection that will last long in the memory.
Jo Haywood, Valley Press
A remarkable debut collection where the quality of writing, the precision and economy of characterisation, and the deft creation of context - both physical and emotional - ensure the reader is gripped from the first word until the last. A collection full of humour, but also edgy and unsettling at times, and believable throughout - impossible to put down.
A dazzling array of stories from a consummate and sure-footed writer. Strong voices, lively dialogue, and Kemp’s trademark humour switch us from heightened drama to hesitant tenderness before finally slipping us into the shock of what it means to be human. This is a glorious first collection.
Reviews of The Painters Who Studied Clouds
As the evocative title, The Painters Who Studied Clouds, suggests, Will Kemp's focus in his third full-length collection includes art and the natural world, as well as music, literature, film and sport, all of which have manifestly offered him intense joy and succour. He succeeds in producing poetry that is at once wistful and amusing, and the humour is always pitch-perfect, never forced or heavy-handed. I particularly relish his dalliance with the surreal in such poems as 'Shopping with Elvis' and 'Playing Football with Keats'. This is a collection by which readers cannot fail to be both moved and uplifted.
Composers, artists, sportsmen and of course the writers... All of them are swept up in Will Kemp's irresistibly familiar address. You can imagine them, however serious or tormented, feeling warmed by it. This is not the familiarity of contempt but its opposite, one informed by knowledge, sensitivity and respect, with the kind of humour that's born of appetite for life. If you were stuck on the desert island Kemp conjures in one poem, you could restart a healthy culture single handed from this book.
Brimming with wit, moments of acute observation and imagination, and written in a wry, self-deprecating Billy Collins-esque style, Will Kemp’s third collection is replete with refreshing images for the things that enrich life, from clouds to sport, art to music. The Painters Who Studied Clouds is upbeat and positive, but never glib, expanding Kemp’s range and tone in this outstanding collection.
Jan Fortune, Envoi
This collection is mightily impressive – right up there with the best poets writing today in terms of its massive scope, elegance, wit and relevance.
Reviews of The Missing Girl
I’ve just read these fourteen poems three times in rapid succession and can see why this narrative sequence impressed the judge so much. The girl who is missing is Persephone but this is not a hackneyed re-telling of the ancient Greek myth but an account which could have happened this year of the abduction of a girl “by a man she should call uncle”. The contemporary resonances make it a chilling read. The other aspect of this pamphlet which enthralled me was the way Demeter’s unleashing of intemperate weather can so easily be translated into our current climate change.
Caroline Davies, Goodreads
The Missing Girl by Will Kemp really speaks to me. I love the way he connects a story of abuse with the seasons, and in particular the way Demeter comes to realise her power and takes action to better her situation, rather than accepting the absolute judgement of an uncaring male authority figure. At times chilling, visceral and haunting, The Missing Girl ultimately offers hope and helps to rescue the reader from the underworld of daily life so that we can all find the blossom on the blackthorn in a barren winter landscape.
A really strong sequence. Deceptively simple with Will Kemp’s trademark elegant minimalism, it packs quite a punch and adds something to the myth. I like the painterly use of colour to depict the changing seasons. I also very much like the delicacy of the mother-daughter relationship and its tenderness, but also the threat and violence in the treatment of the male gods. I felt “Arethusa” was particularly powerful and also loved the last poem which reminded me of Carol Ann Duffy's poem “Demeter”. Beautifully done.
Greek and Roman myth used to be a standard reference in poetry, but such references have become much rarer. This collection finds a way to renew myth by presenting it, at times, in more mundane contexts, but also by adding to it refreshingly contemporary, detailed and vivid images. It also handles narrative with effective pacing and authority.
As this is a sequence, I can’t really single out individual poems. Their interconnection strengthens each, and Kemp builds some interdependence through repeating the same images or the same language. The poems most likely to stand in isolation are the first ‘Disquiet’ which sets up a delicate mystery, intriguing the reader, and the last, ‘Return’ which can be read as the power of nature, or the rising of Spring, though it benefits from the enrichment of all that precedes it. As always with Kemp it is the lyricism of a delicately chosen language which I enjoy most.
Noel Williams, Orbis
Reviews of Lowland
The poems in Lowland deploy a subtle lowness of tone and timbre to great effect. These are poems of great empty sadness, where desire takes root in silts of the past. Between the texts, we piece together the ‘back stories’. At the core are two failed love affairs with Dutch girls, and many other disappointments and mistakes. As these accumulate in the lowland silt, the traveller finds it harder and harder to get where he wants, or know where he truly belongs.
This sequence ranks among the most coherent I have read. The overarching links among the poems are deft, and evince Kemp’s sharp awareness of structure. The individual poems are carefully crafted too. And, cumulatively, they develop a powerful, expansive pathos.
Andrew Sclater, Magma
Lowland is a strikingly ambitious collection, with a poignant and compelling narrative unfolding over the course of several decades and three equally accomplished sections. Even though it's an intensely personal story, the poems offer a profound exploration of such universal themes as love, hope, loss and grief. The collection is beautifully paced and Kemp displays a novelist's instinct for building to, and offering relief from, periods of heightened feeling and dramatic peaks. His evocations of the Dutch landscape, deftly reflecting his own emotional topography, are especially memorable.
Will Kemp writes with an exemplary confidence and fluency, but his real gift is in choosing subject matter and themes which really suit his voice. This is a distinctive, coherent and compelling collection which has the impact of a stylish book of short stories.
Peter Sansom, The North
A moving collection in three parts that begins and ends in Holland, in low land that is not only visually arresting, but a powerful metaphor for the journey from childhood and first love to brokenness and the long march back to life; changed and wistful, but never sentimental. The language is as pared down and stark as the landscape; emotion bristles between the lines, but remains controlled and precise, and between the moments of darkness, light and humour seep in. A consummate performer of his work as well as a gifted writer, Kemp keeps his tone varied so we feel for the awkward boy who imagines himself as James Bond, able to do so much “Or just have a quip ready for Gary Murray / as he pasted my face into the playground wall.” (Bond). Linguistically adept and full of emotional range, there is a subtle narrative arc in Lowland so that a book of Roman and Greek myths given to the young poet shows the way “those kings / packed their daughters’ suitors off / to slaughter”, foreshadowing events to come. As love blossoms, loss and breakdown loom: “Just the dark of a storm, this swarm of black wings / over the standing corn; / and that dirt track through / its centre, leading nowhere.” (Ravens over cornfields). Finally there is reprise: lyrical, wistful, mature, a sense of life’s canvas being “both scattered / and as one” // … “with its cries / from long ago”. A powerful, poignant and deeply satisfying collection.
Jan Fortune, Envoi
I was profoundly moved by Lowland, a beautiful and inspired piece of writing. I loved the way it read like a story, and although I wanted to savour each poem, the work had such an energy that I read it in one sitting. At times I held my breath. I enjoyed the way it drew on everyday language amid dream-like sequences, and related to the themes of injustice and the abuse of power, as well as the pain of being discarded by someone ruthlessly changing the goal posts of a relationship without any consideration of feelings. As such, the final 'Thinking of Holland' 'with its cries from long ago' was an immensely powerful closure to the whole. A visceral and personal account, and yet for every man and woman too. A heart-felt thanks for this brave and original work.
Jessica Williams Ciemnyjewski
One definition of great poetry is verse which leaves the reader or listener transformed in some way, and I think Will Kemp’s poetry fits that definition. His elegant, accessible lines and subtle music explore complex depths of emotion – yet the poems never hint at sentimentality. As a collection, Lowland reads somewhat like the lyrics of a libretto in terms of pacing and story-line – maybe not as dramatic as opera, but definitely as moving; once begun, I couldn’t put it down, and have since enjoyed several re-readings. A brilliant collection!
Unlike an ad hoc collection, Lowland comprises a life story and so the poems benefit from being read together. The poems are concise without being sentimental, and are often quite startling, but always easy to associate with. All the way through there are some lovely images, especially regarding the sky – 'braille of stars' and birds that 'pepper the sky' – and I love the rhythm and flow of “The afternoon before you flew back”. This is a compressed yet fluid collection, and the Dutch references throughout add a real zing.
Kemp’s second book from Cinnamon, and a third is already on the stocks for next year. You can understand why the publishers like his work. It is easy on the ear, lyrical, personal, natural, and has a direct voice that is immediately appreciable and understood. He also engages directly with his subjects, so that readers have little problem knowing what he is on about, or finding themselves in his concerns. Many of his poems have virtues that modern audiences yearn for: work that is well crafted and imaginative, but which is not too testing, intelligent without being an excessive strain on the reader’s own intellect.
Noel Williams, Orbis
Scene after scene unfolds, sometimes to be revisited, as in film – “I was always on the outside looking on” – and the lowlands are ever-present, rather like Thomas Hardy’s heathland in The Return of The Native. The vocabulary used is predominantly Germanic in origin rather than Latinate, with a sprinkling of Dutch words and names that enhance the sense of place. Sometimes it could almost be a translation from the Dutch.
Kemp is not out to shock with striking images. This is a subtle narrative using the limited palette of the Dutch Masters; there are poems entitled Girls by Vermeer and Ravens over Cornfields (painted towards the end of Van Gogh’s life). Brueghel lurks behind Landscape with no Figures Skating, and is present in The Massacre of the Innocents. The colours used are predominantly yellow, brown and Delft blue.
The brown Amstel slapping the side below,
December sky blue as the day we met.
Sue Kindon, The Interpreter's House
Reviews of Nocturnes
Kemp consistently delights and surprises with his ability to invent fresh and resonant images for darkness, the moon, the stars, while the range of tones – from the humorous depiction of the restive insomniac mind to the restrained grief expressed following the death of the poet’s father – is equally impressive. It is, however, Kemp’s brilliant evocation of different nightscapes, the focus on sound when visuals are diminished and the degree to which the dark sharpens and enhances memories, that make this collection especially compelling.
In this fine collection you’ll find night thoughts, night pieces (musical), accustoming one’s eyes to the dark, looking up at the Pole star, the moon, Venus, and the general sense of an astronomer peering at the universe. You’ll find the poet struggling through the thorns to find Sleeping Beauty, taking one look and tiptoeing back the way he came, and you’ll find him in New Mexico, coming on a beautiful woman cranking the old pump handle at the ranch. A key phrase (I thought) was “I pause to look at the stars”. Speaking as someone who once did drive a combine harvester at night, I warm to these poems, to their humour and gifts of observation. Try them for yourself.
John Hartley Williams
This accomplished debut explores a fascination with the night. From taking the dog out to revisiting Sleeping Beauty, from night sight to night music and from night loss and grief to the end of the world, the poems in this collection are united not only by a strong through line, but by a lyrical sensibility that knows exactly what not to say as well as what to include. The language is honed and lucid, and Kemp has a gift for the mot juste. Despite the darkness and moments of poignancy, the light is never far beneath the surface and what emerges is a sense of the darkness as a place of recuperation moving towards the light. Similarly the sombre is more than amply balanced by flashes of intelligent wit and an inventive humour that makes this an engaging and satisfying debut.
Jan Fortune, Envoi
As a frequent contributor to UK magazines, it’s pleasing to see his first collection is such an admirable achievement – 51 poems on a single theme would be impressive even for an experienced poet. As a whole, the volume offers both coherence and unity of a conscious and careful intent, and a variety of forms and gentler moods. Whilst this is a collection to suit the mood of almost any night, you’ll enjoy it in the harsh light of day, too.
Noel Williams, Orbis
Where to begin? This is an extremely accomplished collection, almost unbelievably the poet’s first. It has consistency of theme, tone and poem ‘heft’, with three sustained seven-part sequences and an impressive exploration of the experience of night: natural, psychological, social, spiritual, even formal (the concrete moon-phases of ‘Lumiere’ regressing like a Jaffa Cake eaten in reverse).
But it is line by line that Nocturnes truly shines:
“woods … heaving like green wheat in June” (‘Sleeping Beauty’)
“a guitar … notes twisting up/past shutters, roof-tiles, stars” (‘Estoril a noite’)
“night itself … sprinkled with frozen light” (‘Night Thoughts’).
An essential purchase.
Rod Burns, Other Poetry
Kemp manages to fill almost his whole volume with nocturnes, poems written in or about night-time and its experiences – the cosmic, the domestic, the ontological, the musical. The senses adjust to the dark and experience the world differently; memories cluster round. This is a collection of successful evocations and quiet illuminations, and the shorter, sparser poems (including those put together in a sequence on the power and associations of classical compositions) are the more effective:
Above the night-charred branches
of bare ash trees
a flurry of orange clouds
as if the sky had been switched on
or somewhere far away
a city was burning to the ground
Alasdair Paterson, Stride Magazine
Reviews in full
For reviews in full, go to:
review of Lowland by Will Kemp in Orbis magazine # 167, 2014:
review of Lowland by Will Kemp in The Interpreters House magazine # 56, 2014:
review of Nocturnes by Will Kemp in Other Poetry magazine (4.7) 2013:
review of Nocturnes by Will Kemp in Stride magazine 2012: