Monday, March 12, 2007

Don't Start Me Talking

Don't Start Me Talking ed. Tim Allen & Andrew Duncan (Salt)

In many ways, this is a historic book and tremendously exhilarating to read. I can't get enough ot it - I keep rereading bits of it. It's a series of interviews with contemporary poets - who are all innovative and able to talk about it. There are so many ideas running through it that it's hard to keep up at times, and it has been of tremendous encouragement to a poet like myself who often feels himself to be rather on the fringe of the innovative community.

Or I should say, communities, because there do seem to be a least two: the London group centred around Bob Cobbing, and the Cambridge group centred around JH Prynne, who isn't interviewed but some of his students/colleagues are (in particular, John Hall and Andrew Crozier.) I understand that in the past there were rivalries between these two, and the London group do seem to be distinguished by a perhaps punkier, more anarchistic approach, whereas the Cambridge group seem somewhat more straightlaced.

One can see from these interviews just what an enormous effect The New American Poetry, in particular Black Mountain poets such as Olson, Creeley and John Weiners, had on these British poets; but also there seems to be mention of a lot of improvised, free jazz (Derek Bailey & Evan Parker for instance), European surrealists such as Peret and alternative British traditons from ranter Abiezer Coppe to Quaker Basil Bunting. A lot of the writers interviewed are part of that ongoing project of innovation that began in the 60's and are very important to an understanding of English poetry during that period, and, with the younger writers here, continuing into today.

They don't always come off well: Eric Mottram's prejudice against "pop music" just seems like a blind-spot, and sometimes the anti-mainstream bias comes across as slightly petty (the mainstream is far more diverse than post-movement anecdotalism would have you believe.) Nevertheless, it is an exciting book; and one I'll be reading more than once.

One big gripe, however. In a book of 21 interviews, you'd expect a fair number of women writers among the men. But there is one woman in this book: the no doubt considerable Elizabeth Bletsoe. No Denise Riley, Wendy Mulford, Elaine Randell, Harriet Tarlo, Geraldine Monk, Maggie O'Sullivan, Caroline Bergvall, Frances Presley, Caryle Reedy; and I'm sure I've probably missed someone important out; but even just a few of these names even would have balanced out the ovewhelming smell of male testosterone here. It seems dreadfully unbalanced without their voices added into the mix.

So, although, I highly recommend this book for what it does give, I can't wholeheartedly endorse it. There's a rich fund of stories, ideas, techniques in this book; and lots of interesting avenues for exploration; but there could have been so much more. Perhaps we should have a second volume: twenty female interviewees, with a token male interviewee?


ivoryfishbone said...

sounds v interesting reading - but it's an all too common problem ... my experience of teaching writing is that women outnumber men (except for that class i ran in a lifer's prison hahaha) but that at open mic events more men than women get up ...

glad to have found your blog ... looking forward to nosing round it ...


ttucker23 said...

This book sounds good. I'm in a group called the Culture Club (no not that one - see our blog at:,and we're discussing JH Prynne this month. Does this book help with an understanding of his poetry? If not, can you recommend one that does, as he's challenging, to say the least, and I currently have no steer.

Steven Waling said...

N.H. Reeve & Richard Kerridge - Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H.Prynne

There's also an essay on Prynne's the Oval Window on Jacket (issue 20)

But this book doesn't include Prynne.