Reviews|

Best Friends Forever edited by Amy Key

28th May 2015

★★★★
Best Friends Forever
From the excitement of new friendships through love, insecurity and loss, to the enduring comfort of old friends who know each other inside out and back-to-front, this new anthology of poems from Emma Press encapsulates the multifaceted nature of friendship between women.

I have to confess, I was unsure about this anthology at first. I have always had a lot of friends who are men and am a little suspicious of anything that puts too much weight on the importance of gender in friendship – or in anything, to be honest.

The cover image did not allay my trepidation. It shows a broken-heart necklace – the kind you share with a best friend, each having a half which fits exactly into the other. It’s drawn in the style of a doodle, is quite colourful, and seems to suggest that friendship between women is a thing for the playground and the teenage bedroom, rather than something grown women might need as an integral part of their lives – and indeed many of the poems have a nostalgic feel to them, remembering school friendships and mourning their loss.

In her introduction, the anthology’s editor, Amy Key, points out that friendship between women ‘tends to be portrayed in a very extreme way [. . .] all ice cream and manicures.’ I asked her why she thought this was, and she told me that ‘society is threatened by [the power of] close relationships between women,’ and so these relationships have been ridiculed or caricatured – particularly to sell products. She went on, ‘conflicts between women are also reduced to pettiness [. . .] as though women are not allowed or supposed to disagree about anything.’ But these caricatures ‘in no way represent the vital and sustaining relationships between good girl friends.’ Looking at it this way, it’s no wonder Key felt it was high time there was a poetry anthology that gave an accurate representation of friendship between women.

And so I began reading with the hope of discovering something true and honest, something that even I – with my resolutely un-manicured nails – could relate to my own friendships with other women.

The anthology did not disappoint. Although there is certainly no shortage of clothes and make-up, here, there is also rock music and cars and violence and adventure. The poems got me thinking about my own friendships and how they have changed over the years, and they got me wondering why, as is pointed out in Jacqueline Saphra’s brilliant poem, ‘Catharsis’, it is so ‘hard [. . .] to make new friends once you reach / a certain age’.

'...the grief of a friendship failing is as painful as [a failing] romantic relationship.’ As this anthology demonstrates, it is also as deserving of recognition.When I asked Key about this, she acknowledged that ‘the kind of immersive experience you have as a girl or younger woman becomes a bit impossible [as you get older]’ and so this affects how you form friendships, alongside the other commitments that restrict the amount of time we’re able to dedicate to our friends.

There is something very melancholic in this idea, and in the idea of friends changing so much (or staying the same when it is you who has changed) that they become a disappointment, or let you down, as the friend does in Martha Sprackland’s ‘Agnosia’. Amy Key emphasizes, in her introduction, that friendships between women ‘are not all flawless; perfection is most definitely not the point.’ And she told me that ‘the grief of a friendship failing is as painful as [a failing] romantic relationship.’ As this anthology demonstrates, it is also as deserving of recognition.

But the melancholy by no means dominates, and is balanced by the joy of enduring friendships, which last well into old age and can weather distance and separation and still be as strong as ever – as with the ‘four old ladies in a beige sedan’ who are confident the ‘cops would never flag us down’ in Julia Bird’s poem, and the friends who ‘trump grandchildren, annuities, aches’ in Kathy Pimlott’s ‘Zero Balancer’.

I have to say that I’ve come away from reading Best Friends Forever as a convert. What Amy Key and The Emma Press have done is to shine a light on a vital and sustaining part of women’s lives, and an often undocumented one. This anthology would make a great gift to a good friend, but it is also a valuable aid in considering the importance of one’s own friendships, past and present.

Note: The subtitle of this anthology is Poems on Female Friendship, but the editor and publisher have emphasized that the call for submissions made clear everyone’s contribution was welcome, including all genders, trans people and non-binary people. The poems were chosen on the basis of being about friendship among women, including people who identify as women, and the language of any future reprints will be adjusted to make this clear.