Helen Bowell

On [silence], reading in a pandemic and a cento call-out

I’m very excited to be the first in Poetry Business’s new series of digital Poets in Residence. Here’s hoping that by the time the final poet takes up their residence on this website, we’ll be allowed to go a bit more analogue again.

The good people at PB have asked me to write a bit about what I’ve enjoyed reading this year. I find myself still saying “this year” meaning “last year”, or really “since March 2020”, as if we’re no longer working in calendar years but in pandemic years. Anyway, I’ve looked through my list of the books I read in 2020 and there were some stonkers. I’m going to mention just three of the dozens I loved this/last year.


Last February, somewhere between Shropshire and Hereford, on the bus replacement service from one writing residential to another, leaving behind my fellow Roundhouse Poetry Collective writers and an elaborate puppet show, and heading towards the Foyle Young Poets winners’ Arvon course, where I would join Colin, Fran, Ray and Mimi as one of the grown-ups at The Hurst, I finished RENDANG by Will Harris.

This was before everything started happening and not-happening. Before time and space shifted. The whole book is excellent, but I particularly remember reading the titular poem on that bus. It’s a sequence that brings together disparate events or memories of them – staying with a stranger called Hayley in Chicago, talking to the speaker’s friend Yathu, visiting Jakarta.

I remember being especially interested in the sections of dialogue that are written out like a script. Does the form take us out of the story? Does it make these sections feel like a scripted performance, so less ‘real’? Or is it just the cleanest way of representing the speaker’s experience? 

[…] recently strangers have been coming up to me on the street. Yesterday, for example, a man in Shepherd’s Bush asked me about the fire.

ME: The fire?

HIM: Yes. Is it near…?

ME: [silence] Grenfell?

HIM: Yes!

ME: I don’t know. Fifteen minutes?


I keep thinking about all that is contained in that stage direction [silence], and what it does to see silence written out on a page – not performed, or suggested by a gap, but spelt out. [silence] What is happening during that pause?


Whatever reaction the speaker is having during that first [silence] is also a reaction to their own morally ambiguous choices. The speaker links this stranger’s unusual ‘pilgrimage’ to Grenfell with their own implication ‘in the spectacle of / hurt’ in Jakarta, saying: 

I couldn’t bear to look at
it – to talk or think about it –
so I covered it in silence.
I cordoned it off.

The [silence] covers over the violence. There has been so much [silence] this year. 

Tonight I think
of nothing empty
and life not
sound or fury
hit out to a
random beat but
silence mainly
silence that
accrues weight that
takes up space
and yet contains it.

I read the poem twice, then started writing. 


For months after I read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about Danez Smith’s third collection Homie. It’s a love letter to friends, and family, and community, but it’s also a letter of solidarity, and a thank you letter, and a fuck you letter, and a lot else. I’ve used the poem ‘trees!’ in workshops because it’s a ‘nature’ poem that my friends could actually relate to – you can watch a video of them performing an earlier version of it online. The book ends with a poem called ‘acknowledgements’, which is a shout-out to all the people they love. I wanted to write my own but I just couldn’t do it as well as they do.

I read it in the before-times, and I remember reading ‘rose’, a poem about bullying (and other things, obviously), standing on the bus home from orchestra, trying unsuccessfully to stop my cello from flying around the bus and not get travel-sick.

o rose, saint of getting roasted in the hallway, warrior queen of the misfits, my love, how did you survive us?

Before it came out, I reserved Homie from the National Poetry Library and picked it up as soon as they emailed me to say I could. Realising later that I wanted to have my own, permanent copy, I bought it from The Book Hive in Norwich while I was there for a Dead [Women] Poets Society event. That was February. Then everything shut. I still have the Poetry Library’s copy. It turned out to be more permanent than I thought.


One more, not poetry this time. Nina Mingya Powles has done a lot of very impressive things in the past few years. We met, weirdly, when she was volunteering for The Poetry Society. She had just arrived in London from New Zealand. I almost feel now like I met her before she was famous – she was helping us roll up Poems on the Underground posters to give away to schools I think. Since then, she has worked at the National Poetry Library, won the Nan Shepherd Prize, founded the press bitter melon, hand-made hundreds of absolutely stunning zines and pamphlets, and written and published a lot.

This year (this pandemic-year), she published her debut collection, Magnolia 木蘭 , which was shortlisted for the Forward Prize. Of course I loved it. (It also made me think we should put together a zine of Mulan poems because God knows every Asian woman poet has got one.) But what I loved even more was her collection of essays about eating in Shanghai, called Tiny Moons and published by The Emma Press. I read it in one day, and when I was finished I got up and made some dumplings. I had never made guotie, or what I would call in my clunky Cantonese ‘wo-teep’, but Nina sent me one of her own recipes. I made the pastry myself with flour and water. It was April and we were trying not to go to the shops. We didn’t have silken tofu so I just skipped that, but we did have the peas and the mushrooms. I even folded and crimped them so that they looked recognisably dumpling, a squinting impression of Nina’s tiny moons. To achieve the perfect texture combination of their crispy undersides and chewy top, you have to fry them on a high heat, then pour in water, clamp down a lid and wait. I couldn’t believe how good they tasted, dipped in the vinegar and soy sauce. I took them outside to my housemates and we sat in the sun, licking our lips from the grease.


I would like to hear about books that have meant something to you in the last year. I’d like to write a cento, a patchwork poem, with lines taken from your books. So choose a book (or books) that you’ve read in the past year, pick one or more lines (they can be lines you particularly like, or, even more fun, chosen at random) and send them to me via the form below by 12 midday, Friday 19th February. Please include the book title and the author. It doesn’t have to be poetry. It just has to be by someone else. I’ll then try and weave as many of the lines as I can into a poem and share it by the end of this month.

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