Playing House

Katherine Stansfield
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
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Playing House is the debut collection of poetry from Katherine Stansfield. A concise wit, a distinct voice and an unsettling view of the domestic characterise these poems whose subjects are the ordinary as viewed through the author’s satirical yet sympathetic eye. John Lennon’s tooth, an imaginary ‘Canada’, bees in Rhode Island, cats and office politics are all peculiar grist to this author’s mill. She presents both historical subjects such as Captain Scott of the Antarctic, and common objects, such as household bleach, from a skewed perspective, adding humour, drama and a quietly distinctive pathos.

‘Striking imagery, strange leaps of thought, wit and menace aside, the unmistakeable thrill of Katherine Stansfield’s poetry is in the voice. It addresses the world directly, takes it personally, and comes at the reader from constantly unexpected angles, a tangible, physical thing.’ – Philip Gross

‘Tightly-wrought and multi-layered, Katherine Stansfield's poems are a wonderful alchemy, touching on a range of experiences, each one lit with rhythm and wordplay, from the "laminated skin" of the library card to the hymn to bleach.’ – Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch ‘

...Her recent work is the best I have seen from her: highly distinctive, charged with a wit that has nothing to do with trying to be funny and everything to do with the strangeness of being in the world. Her last lines are devastating, not just in themselves, but because they make you realize how far you’ve come in the few stanzas that preceded them. I’ve always thought she was going to be a star in the poetry world, and I believe tht more strongly than ever.’ – Mathew Francis


Review by Lindsay Macgregor, Dundee University Review of the Arts

Friday, January 22, 2016

Katherine Stansfield’s debut collection, Playing House, is quirky and surreal, witty and menacing.  Her subject matter includes the auction of John Lennon’s tooth, bleach, jetlag, crisp sandwiches and office politics.

It’s a collection which is refreshingly unthemed and varied in style, form and voice. In “Africa on BBC One”, an East African Shoebill is addressed:

        …………..                I’m not surprised
when one of your chicks kills the other
while I’m eating my spaghetti bolognaise,
watching. You see me, fork raised, appalled
and your Stanley knife mouthpiece flaps
into close up….

In “Training event”, we share the protagonist’s horror at sitting next to a woman who is too talkative:

The manager gives her a ‘for God’s sake’
look because he’s ready to tell us about
effective communication in the workplace
…………………………………I worry he thinks
I’m talking to her when she’s talking to me.

Stansfield’s skill lies in taking such every day, familiar events and exposing the strangeness or humour in them. “Trevithick” is an homage to her school science teacher:

                                        I wasn’t one
for melting biros into brittle swans
or sparking battery clips with drawing pins.
I wasn’t one for weighing the Greek
of equations and shouting out
Sir, it’s speed, it’s distance, it’s a positive charge

because I saw the pistons working his jaw
and the furnace stoked in his cheeks,
because I knew the Puffing Devil’s
pressure gauge always cracked.

However, to my mind, not all of the poems are as strong as they could be. There are a few in the middle which, though technically and observationally adept, feel a little one dimensional. “How to make a good crisp sandwich”, and, “My dental hygienist and I listen to Radio 2” don’t rise quite enough above their titles to earn their place amongst the other, more successfully layered and complex poems of this collection.

And just occasionally the tone of the poem doesn’t work for me. For example, the opening poem, “O bees of Rhode Island” begins:

You’re bolshie in morning hover, smug humming
zip tours of roses, those puckered-up girls,
while the pool’s unblinking eye gives back
your stateliness, your striped I’m-great-liness.
Hop a jig along, stop –

There’s a lovely energy and exuberance to this and the images of the “puckered-up” roses and the “unblinking” pool are spot-on. Yet, by comparison, I find the Rhode Island bees elude accurate description. Perhaps they move very differently from British bees but hops and jigs just don’t seem like bee moves.

Stansfield is at her best in her narrative poems, which are sketchy enough to leave plenty of room for the reader to fill in the gaps in the story, and in character poems, such as “Ghazal from John”:

Did you know that a leech that eats another leech
will remember all the first leech knew, John asks.

No, the small birds that rootle rock pools by the pier
are in fact striped plovers, John points out.

Drinking during the day is like being born again
after lunch, I think I hear John say.

Dormice don’t actually touch the ground. They leap
from tree to tree, like this, John shows me.

This is a typically understated and witty yet sympathetic portrayal by Stansfield – in these few oblique lines, we  recognise all the Johns we have ever  come across.

All in all, I enjoyed the originality, playfulness and range of this collection and look forward to reading more from Katherine Stansfield.

Review by Natalie Thomas, Oh Hello Poetry

Sunday, June 28, 2015

As an English Literature student, I tend to try and pick out themes within bodies of written work. In terms of Katherine Stansfield and her collection: Playing House, the only theme that I can think of that truly captures her poetic focus is ‘life’. Life in all its weird and wonderful glory.

Her poems explore everyday things like eating biscuits, serving tea, looking after cats and sitting on the tube. Whilst these might sound like rather menial topics, you will find yourself smiling in recognition of these moments and marvelling at how notable, even poetic, the everyday can truly be.

I think my favourite poem of the collection was ‘Relic’. It addresses a news report about the auctioning of John Lennon’s tooth. Stansfield takes this snippet of unusual news, already interesting in itself, and creates a poem full of surprising yet captivating imagery:

‘After fifty years it looks
like forgotten popcorn
or a knot of Wrigley’s
chewed past stretch.’

Stansfield’s imagination, in terms of both language and poetic content, is what truly makes her poetry. For example, she envisages someone planting Lennon’s tooth or someone putting it in their ear to hear

‘the long dead croon:

love love me do.’

(The above line made for a great ending. I turned over the corner of this poem just to experience those closing words again.)

Reading Stansfield’s poetry often surprised me. The normal and everyday became unexpected, unusual and gripping. A night out became a night of eating the moon, ‘ buoyed by the waves/ a cake on a tray’. See the poem: ‘I decided to have a night out’. Afternoon became an adventure on the sea, ‘hoisting the curtains as sails’ and taking ‘custard creams’ along for the ride. See the poem: ‘How I know I need a biscuit in the afternoon’. Finally, pandas became creatures of make believe. No quotation needed here, just read the title: ‘There’s no such thing as pandas’.

So if you have cats, like biscuits or crisps, ride the tube or the train, watch fireworks, hate working in a café or watch David Attenborough’s nature programmes on the BBC (yes there’s a poem for that too), then have a read of this collection and discover just how interesting and book-worthy these things can be.

On another note: The cover design of this collection (a collage-esque scene of a tea party) is, by far, the most interesting anthology cover I’ve seen in a while. (Thank you Heather Landis).


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