Saturday, December 31, 2005

Highlights of 2005

1. Sideways - great movie about drinking fine wines and women.

2. Gilad Atzmon concert at the Green Room - fantastic sax player, who did a wonderful piss-take of the execrable Kenny G - great album too: Muzik.

3. Sarah Broom's book about contemporary poetry in Britain and Ireland is one of the few that actually straddles the mainstream/avant-garde/performance poles successfully.

4. A weekend of avant-garde poetry in Cambridge.

5. A trip to South Africa to meet lots of poets and a visit to Soweto to meet a jazz-loving taxi-driver, playing Hugh Masekela in his car.

6. Geraldine Monk's Escafeld Hangings.

7. Chris MacCabe's The Hutton Inquiry.

8. Ashbery's latest book - and, from the end of last year, his Selected Prose.

More later...

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Ideology of No Ideology

Here's a claim that I read on the back of Miracle & Clockwork. "Other Poetry has sought to present excellent poetry in an attractive form without regard to ideology or fashion." I wouldn't want to quarrel with the "excellant": there's some good stuff in the anthology; I want to argue about that last phrase: "without regard to ideology or fashion." This makes such massive assumptions that it has to be questioned.

It seems to me that there are two kinds of poet: "just poets" and "label poets." You can, for instance, be a really good poet, like say John Siddique or EA Markham, a truly inventive poet like Edwin Kamau Brathwaite; and when people come to critique your work, you suddenly acquire a label: "Black poet." All poets of the female gender are automatically "women poets", whether, like Elizabeth Bishop, they protest against the label or no. You can choose to be an "avant garde" poet, I suppose; but then quite often it's not so much a choice as a question of chance. Most avant garde poets, like most other poets, fall into their categories because of factors such as who they meet, where they study, what really turns them on; not because of some self-conscious desire to be different.

But the "just poets": the "I'm just a poet" brigade. Well, they tend to be white, middle-class and mainstream. There is nothing wrong with that; but it's every bit as much of an ideological position as would being a gay avant garde post-modernist poet of colour (such as Timothy Liu, to take an American example...) It's just that it pretends not to be. The "mainstream" is the normative position. The word "poet" without a label is usually assumed to be white, male, Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, who writes poetry that is relatively closed, relatively comprehensible and doesn't do anything silly like "open-form." It can be a bit surrealist, but not so it frightens the horses. It can rhyme, but shouldn't use archaic poeticisms. It tends to be fond of the lyric eye, doesn't go in for fractured narratives, cut-ups, oulipean games playing, visual effects etc...

Anything that doesn't fit this mould is an "adjective poem." It's a "black poem" because it's about the legacy of slavery and it's written by a black man. It's a gay poem because it's about being picked up in a bar in San Francisco and the author is gay. It's "avant garde" because the editor can't understand it. Anything that is not mainstream is assumed to come with a label, anything which is mainstream is assumed to not need one.

The very notion of excellance assumes that the person making the claim to only like "excellant poetry" knows how to pick out the excellant poetry from the bad poetry. An "excellant poem" is one that confirms the idea of excellance that is in the editor's head. What is excellant to the editor of Other Poetry might well be dull, pedestrian stuff to the editor of Parataxis magazine. Yes, Miracle & Clockwork contains some excellant mainstream poetry (I don't include my own poem here, as I'd love to have had the opportunity to edit it) but to claim to not have a position, to be free of ideology, is nonsense. It's like saying "I'm not interested in politics," then always voting for the party that's in power.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Miracle & Clockwork

I've just had a poem published in a new anthology. It's in the magazine Other Poetry's Miracle & Clockwork anthology, and I've put in the link to the magazine's webpage above though it doesn't yet show that it's now out. It's being launched in Newcastle on the 16 December. I won't be there (too far to go.) I find it slightly odd revisting that particular poem, especially as it's probably the unedited version from the one that's in Calling Myself on the Phone (I only received it this morning; I haven't had a chance to check it.) But I'm in good company: Anne Stevenson, Sean O'Brien, WN Herbert, Jon Silkin, Geoffery Holloway and a host of others.

It wasn't entirely a surprise, but only because I had read my name on their website when doing an ego-google on my own name. They didn't let me know by mail, though they probably didn't have my e-mail.

Anyway, it's a nice Christmas present.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


I must try updating this place more often. I've come to the end of term, but I still seem to have lots of work to do, and the possibility of more work to investigate (it never gets any easier; but anyone out there needs a poet/workshop leader for their writing group/course, send me a message.)

I did another workshop with the drugs/alcohol rehabilitation unit recently, something I can't help but enjoy enourmously. There's something about working with people who have no personal interest in the literary world, especially the poetry wars, that is remarkably refreshing. They always come up with something remarkable, not for its literary sophistication, but for its openness and honesty. Is it good literature? Who cares?

It does me good to remember where it all comes from: not from some desire to be famous, to be published by the "right" publisher, but to seek some kind of truth about your life. In today's post-modernist world, that word truth is a problem; but I'm not refering to some big grand narrative truth about God or Fate or capitalist hegemony, but the little truths about who we are when we strip away the labels ("mainstream", "school of quietude", "traditional", "modernist", "avant garde", "post-avant," all that stuff.) It's about being human - not with a big "H" but a little "h" - that's why I like working with these men and women who are trying to better themselves, to get back to families and to do their best for their children.

Last Trof Open mike of the year last night too; where I met a guy called Dave from South Africa, who plays a funky kind of guitar and writes poetry. John Calvert and his Yamaha was in good form too. I like that place too, though the DJ played too much prog for my liking. On Thursday, I hope to go to "how many days before Christmas" at the Horse and Hounds on Shude Hill.

Monday, December 05, 2005

I've been pretty busy of lot, and not had that much to say. I don't think I have much going on in my head beyond the usual stuff about identity, anyway. I've been reading a few interesting people - a new Salt collection from Chris McCabe called The Hutton Inquiry, which has some interesting takes on the contemporary scene, for instance. Then there's Geraldine Monk's latest from West House, The Escafeld Hangings. She just gets better and better.

I've also been reading a lot online of Landis Everson, a poet publishing his first book in his early 80's. He'd given up writing for forty-odd years when he lost contact with the poetic community that nurtured him (basically, the Jack Spicer group round Berkley and San Francisco), but then he was contacted by someone who remembered his name and started writing again. The new poems are open, generous, meditative reflections on the past, on friendships and on the quotidian details of his life. A little Frank O'Hara, perhaps, and charming.

But it's interesting, what would I have been like without the poetic friendships and encounters I've had over the years? I came to Manchester in 1980 from a small town in North-East Lancashire called Accrington. I was under the influence of Ted Hughes at the time, and the local library supplied me with a few interesting books, mainly Movement-y poets like Larkin and Elizabeth Jennings. I'd got every book of Sylvia Plath's, and Lowell's poems were in there too.

Then I came to Manchester, discovered O'Hara, Ashbery and co, started going to writing groups (I'd gone to one in Blackburn though) and Manchester Poets group, and here I am years later, this strange half-Modernist creature you see before you. C'est la vie! Had I stayed at the accountants in Accrington, I might have had more money, but would I have given up poetry? What's the point of writing if you don't have an audience? Anyone out there still listening?