I read poetry constantly but I can rarely read more than a few at one time before I am overwhelmed even with poets I know and love. So 'Nicotine and Napalm' #, the first collection by local 'stand-up' poet and writer Emily Priest, is a unique experience.
Last year, Portsmouth Poetry co-curated the headline event of Portsmouth Festivities, “20 Love” marking the twentieth anniversary of the founding of this annual 10 day arts event. Poets were invited to produce and perform works inspired by each of the poems in Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair”. We were commissioned to find two rising poets on the stand-up circuit. I almost despaired finding a young writer locally when I discovered Emily. Not only is she a talented poet, her work is similar in style and content to Neruda.
And she can perform. Video clips of her reading her work are breath-taking in their passion and crafting. Around the time she was involved in ’20 Love’ in June 2019, Emily published this first collection in print.
I took a copy with me on a train journey expecting only to start reading it. I began late on a cold November night coming home from the annual memorial for Dylan Thomas at Westminster Abbey. But this time it was not just a handful of poems! Captured from the first pages, I read slowly and intently through to the end and I was genuinely blown away! I knew Emily was talented but was not prepared for how amazing this collection is!
Nicotine and Napalm chronicles the path of a doomed relationship from its initial intensity, its growing frustrations and disappointments, through break-down and break-up, the nagging aftermath, to its final resolution. It is an account of the passion, joy, disappointment and re-growth that leads to a new strength. It is frank and honest, sometimes painfully so, sometimes explicit in its openness. Few women write about the exhilaration and despair of love, emotional and physical, with such clarity and intensity. The parallel with Sylvia Plath may sound exaggerated but it fits. Few poets of any gender dare to be so honest, to be prepared to investigate and lay bare what it means to love, to struggle with love that is not equally and fairly reciprocated, to admit to the page the short-comings and disintegration, the delicate and needy aftermath before the growth that is the positive result of pain.
The final poems are in contrast to the doomed trust and dependency of the failed love. They include stunning statements of female empowerment and courage. (I am reticent to call them ‘feminist’ only because too often such writing is more polemic than poetic.) They are determined, angry poems from someone who has found strength through heartache without letting it deter her from loving.
I would encourage you to read these poems and to read them in a single sitting so that you follow the path of the poet’s growth and the narrative that connects them. It is a work all women would understand and identify with. A collection you would want to give to your daughters before they plunged into the maelstrom of love, sex and relationships. And, like Plath, it is a work all men would benefit from reading!