Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Adrian Mitchell RIP

I've just read the sad news that Adrian Mitchell has died, of pneumonia.

He was something I could never be: a popular poet who never compromised on quality, who entertained, was thought-provoking and an inspiration for so many others. I have seen him perform on a couple of occasions and he was always great, a graceful reader with a quiet but assertive voice. He never had to shout and never went in for histrionics, and he always looked comfortable in himself.

His last poem has been posted on the Bloodaxe site.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On Having Nothing to Say, and Saying It

Seems to me there's two approaches to writing poetry, which can be summed up as "having something to say" and "letting the something say you."

Many poets, I suspect, "have something to say": a subject, either over their whole life, or for a particular work. It could be "capitalism is bad, socialism is good" or it could be as simple as, "I had a really good time on holiday in Greece."

Others - and I sort of count myself among them - actually don't have something to say themselves, but are trying to "listen in" and then record what the world is saying to them. The American poet Jack Spicer, put it succinctly: "you don't speak to the Outside, the Outside speaks to you." He had this idea that the poem didn't come from inside the poet, but from some outside source, as a kind of channeling thing, that you ought to remove yourself as far as possible from the poem so that you can hear what the poem/world is saying to you.

I can see this as sounding terribly mystical and foggy, but I can identify with it as well. Some of my favourite poems of mine are in some ways mysterious to me - I don't know where they came from. I work out what they're about as I'm writing. Or sometimes months later, after I've read them several times or published them in magazines. I still don't know what some of my poems are "about."

That is really why I started cutting and pasting, and why even though I don't use that technique as much now, chance techniques are still really important to me. Poetry to me is not about imposing my view of the world on other people but about seeking what the world is trying to say to me.

All this, of course, is only a partial explanation of what I do. And it doesn't mean that I've totally rid myself of ego in some zen kind of way. I'm still the same bundle of ego and uncertainty I used to be. But it does explain why "meaning" as in something imposed by me on the reader rather than something the readers discovers in the act of reading, is something I might want to get rid of in my own poems.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Been reading the Reality Street Book of Sonnets, edited by Jeff Hilson recently. I'm inclined to actually agree with Ron Silliman that it's one of the best and most significant anthologies produced in the last 25 years. It's full of so many different versions of the sonnet (and some things that aren't even sonnets) that it makes me gasp at times at the possibilities of the form. Everything from the concrete poetry of Mary Ellen Solt to variations on Berrigan's sonnets to the recent uses of the sonnet "box" by Abigail Obourne and Sophie Robinson.

There's a great deal of humour in this collection, and the sonnet is variously stretched, squashed and bent out of shape, though most people stick to at least one of the rules, even if it's only the 14 line rule, or the volta, or that peculiar out-of-balance octet/sestet division that makes it still so fascinating. There are poems and poets I don't get on with yet, but that's true of any anthology. A lovely Christmas present for the post avant poet and linguistically innovative chaps and chapesses out there.

Speaking of presents, I have recently reached the grand old age of 50. Time to lift my old willow wand to the crowd to acknowledge the applause of the crowd at reaching my first fifty. And I bet you never expected a cricket reference from me, did you?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Remembrance and Hypocrisy

Anybody else out there feel that all this Remembrance stuff that's all over the place is a teeny weeny bit hypocritical? Here we are again, remembering the "heroic sacrifice" of the First World War, while another set of young men go out to the Gulf and Afghanistan to be "heroic sacrifices" in another pointless war.

All those young men who died on the Somme (including among them, ancestors of my own family) didn't die for a great cause. Let us be clear about this: they died in vain, to support the flawed values of a bunch of tired empires trying to prop themselves up by killing young people. They were not heroes, great warriors going in to battle evil dragons; they were ordinary working people who died in their millions to uphold the great dragon of British imperialism. The Germans who they fought were also ordinary working men upholding their own dragon of imperialism. They were no doubt terribly loyal and patriotic and, like the well-brought up young people they were, they did as they were told.

But they were sold a lie. Just as the young men (often, in the case of American troops at least, poor and ill-educated) who march off to Iraq and Afghanistan are now. Watching the black-uniformed officers marching up to the Cenotaph to lay their wreaths makes me kind of sick. These people - or at least the politicians who declare wars - are still sending young men to die for British imperialism, pretending that it's a great sacrifice, invoking God and Christ as being on "our side", and it's just as much a lie now as it was then.

But there are still some brave souls who refuse. The conscientious objectors who refused to "go for a soldier", who refused to obey orders, who refused to prop up the dragon of hatred, prejudice and greed that is still what imperialism means, deserve to be saluted. They deserve their own monument. Refusing to kill is every bit as brave as going out to kill your "enemy." In fact, it's braver. Who is my enemy anyway? An ordinary Iraqi who gets in the way of a bullet? A young German man who's just come from the fields to die in another field?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Geeks and Elites

I went twice last week to the Fab Cafe in Manchester, a place dedicated to cult TV and what it calls "independent" music. It made me think some rather naughty thoughts.

There I was, basically in a crowd of geeks, people who could tell you cast lists and continuity errors in Doctor Who or Star Wars, who could talk the hindleg off a donkey about Star Wars, and I wondered, are poets like this too? Except, of course, we're interested in "high culture", not the "low culture" of long-running TV series that are perhaps not the most intellectually stimulating of programmes.

Except - they do often deal in quite poetic themes about the nature of reality, of time, even of memory. There are often quite complex themes about the nature of what we call life - is a pan-dimensional cloud of glass "alive" in any way, for instance?

I used to read science fiction all the time, and now I rarely do. Nowadays, I read an enormous amount of poetry. Most poets like to put themselves as rather superior to science-fiction fans, especially the kind of fan that dresses up as a Klingon. Yet being passionate about our art is exactly what makes us poets. Fandom is, perhaps, rather secondhand; someone else has usually done the writing, unless you become one of the many who write their own stories as an adjunct to the franchise; even then you're just slotting into an already established format. Rather like neo-formalist poets, he suggests with a tongue wedged firmly in his cheek...

One thing that fans have in their favour is that nobody ever suggests that their interest in and love of a science-fiction series is ever called "elitist", unlike those of us who are interested in "high art." Whether that "high art" is contemporary visual art, classical music, opera, or poetry (especially of the difficult late-modernist variety), it's assumed that if you like something that only a minority like, it must be "elitist."

But it's really no more elitist than watching every episode of Blake's Seven 10 times. Or prefering Tom Baker to David Tennant. We may like to think of ourselves as being concerned with more important ideas to do with language, culture etc etc etc, but I often wonder if a good science fiction story isn't as much concerned with those as poetry is.

Of course, all this could just be a temporal shift anomaly and really we're still back in Kansas.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Conscientious Objectors, Richmond Jail

Today I saw something truely humbling. I was looking at the archives of the Northern Friends Peace Board, getting them ready to deposit in a library, and came across a series of photos taken in the '70's, I think, of the graffiti by conscientious objectors in Richmond Jail.

I came across these two verses, by one HE Hancocks, of Sheffield, from June 21st 1915:

Ez for war I calls it murder
There you has it plain & flat
And I ain't to go no furder
Than me testimint fur that

If yer takes a sword and drors it
And go sticks a feller thro'
Gov'ment ain't to answer fur it
God'll send the bill to you.

Not great poetry, I suppose, but heartfelt nontheless. It made me realise even more that poetry's in everyone's soul, not just in the mind of the clever, and when people are in extremis, they don't turn to prose. No doubt they'll not put this in any anthology of first world war poetry, most of which seem to ignore the conscientious objectors, but this is just as meaningful to me as anything by Owen, and shows that not everyone buys into war propaganda, in any age.

I don't know what happened to Mr Hancock, or how far he suffered for his beliefs; but I salute him: fellow poet, fellow human, fellow child of God.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Two Readings Reviewed

Two readings proved instructive this week. Another installment of The Other Room, with Joy As Senseless Vandalism, David Annwyn and Caroline Bergvall, and The Poetry Party. I'm afraid, in the end, I prefered the first, the more avant garde of the two. But they both had their interests.

JASV were a bit scrappily presented, with photographs and accompanying poems (or is that the other way around) but apart from that, they produced some interesting material - a combination of found material, list poetry and visual pun. David Annwyn was wonderfully lively and physical in his reading style, reading poems about figures of the avant garde like Mina Loy and others. It was lovely stuff, wonderfully presented. Caroline Bergvall was a quieter figure, reading from her Salt book, Figs, and poems such as Fuses; but the effect if anything was more charged; these were wonderful conceptual pieces which were full not just of subject matter, but the substance of language, the way it drives meaning into other areas.

It was a wonderful evening again at the Old Oak,

The Poetry Party has visions of balloons, or perhaps a meeting of lefties in an upstairs room in a pub. It was more like the latter, though, like the Old Oak, it was a packed room. It also had music, unlike the Old Oak, though I left before the last band, dischuffed that I hadn't been able to last long enough for the open mike. I was just too tired and had to go to work.

But the poetry: best of a mixed bunch was Micheal Wilson, who actually pitched his reading just right. His poems were deep enough to intrigue, and his memnonic devices didn't just include rhyme; I noticed that he looped in several refrains and iterative devices into his poems. Plus, there was something of the Dylan Thomas about his writing that was lovely. John G. Hall himself was his usual self; wonderfully vituperative, spitting out his poems with real energy.

Sophie McKeown was one of the two guest, and she was very lively and again political; but her over-reliance on rhyme and a rather obvious plain style was a bit wearing for me. I couldn't agree more with her sentiment, but wish that the language wasn't so ordinary, that there was something of the same energy in her words as there is in her performance.

Abie D'Olivera read a long poem from someone else to start with; it was a strong piece about the Troubles that apparently was written in the '80's. And therefore, I'm afraid, rather dated; though it had a very Ginsberg energy to the words. In fact, there was something of Ginsberg and other Beat poets in her poems; though on the whole they seemed to drag (something true of Ginsberg at times) and repeat themselves rather too much. A good poet who needs an editor, methinks. Sometimes the poems were very powerful, full of emotion and anger.

But her performance was something else. If there were Oscars for over-acting she would be nominated. Her poems are quite dramatic enough, especially the one about being beaten up, without the theatrics. If ever there was a case for reigning back the performance in order to pay attention to the words, it's that poem. Some element of intonation and performance is a good thing, but I often feel that the more dramatic the writing is, the less you need to perform it. It's rather like a Whitney Houston song: too much vibrato ruining a perfectly good tune.

I prefered the Other Room because it's mostly my cup of tea. But it's good to know that not all performance poetry evenings are full of dull attempts to shock or tubthumping.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Collage World

I watched a weekend of Arts TV on BBC 4 this weekend: old issues of Arena, Omnibus and Monitor; interviews with Henry Moore, Orson Welles, and a wonderfully oddball programme about Pop Art directed by Ken Russell. A programme about Picasso, an edition of Civilisation, and the wonderful Ways of Seeing with John Berger.

In it, the sadly neglected figure of Pauline Boty was featured, showing some of her collages, and she helped me to complete a painting I've been doing for ages, by incorporating some collage. I don't paint much, and it takes me ages to see where the painting is going; so that was an evening well spent. Thank you BBC.

Collage, I suspect, is pretty much the twentieth century art form. That, and its sculptural equivalent, assemblage, seems to be what the art world does best these days: disparate elements drawn in to make something new. (The turner prize is full of assemblage and collage, and very little straight painting.) From Ernst's collages made from old etchings down even to Tracey Emin's Bed, art these days has more to do with picking up the bits and pieces from life and putting them together, not into an order, so much as a jigsaw of pieces missing, and pieces from other jigsaws. It doesn't make much sense, because it can't make much sense, because our lives are often cobbled together from disparate elements. A bit of religion or anti-religion, a bit of politics, a bit of New Age, a curiously reactionary bit there; it's not exactly a fully-worked through philosophy, more a kind of smorgasbord of found ideas.

Poetry's version of the collage is the cut-up, or it could be these days, flarf. It makes a new set of relations from the materials we make. Sometimes, we collage our own writing when we make one poem out of more than one; or we collage our experience when we don't write about one thing but about many at the same time. Simultaneity, as Appollinaire might have put it, is everywhere. We flip channels; in fact, perhaps the most potent symbol of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century could well be the TV remote and the set-top box.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Keeping Up

Does anybody else feel like they're not reading the "right"poets? I sometimes get the feeling that because I don't go out and get the latest Faber or Picador poet, that I must be out of the loop. I know it's impossible to keep up; but then there's still the pressure to read "what everybody else is reading."

And then there's all the young poets. I should be keeping up with them, surely... Not really. Some.

And I'm probably missing some good poetry. I know that the few poems by Nick Laird that I've read in magazines have been enjoyable; but I wonder if I could read a whole book of them. Instead, I get hold of a review copy of Robert Shepherd's Complete Twentieth Century Blues because that's the one I want to read. It's like I'm deliberately being awkward. If Sean O'Brien or Don Paterson are bringing out a new collection, I may get around to it one day; but I'm too busy ordering the latest by Geraldine Monk.

I might even enjoy their books. But not as much as the new Geraldine Monk; or the little pamphlet of Rupert Loydell poems he's just sent me. There's a massive amount of poetry out there, and the majority of it doesn't float my boat particularly. But I don't feel like dissing it either; most of it will appeal to someone, and most poets have their coterie of readers who can't wait for their next publication.

Nevertheless, there is still the vague feeling of not reading enough, especially when I read that Roddy Lumsden reads 100 books-plus a year and I look at the long list of Books Recieved on Ron Silliman's blog. Some of them even look really interesting. And that's not to mention all the poets from earlier ages I've not read yet. People have been recommending Wyatt; and if I can find an edition that's not too expensive, I might well have a go...

But, first, I'm not made of money. Second, I have other jobs to do. Third, there has to be time to relax, take in the world outside of poetry, sleep, eat, listen to music, stare at the ceiling/stars and even, dare I say it, write. So I don't feel that bad.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Sheer Numbers

One of the things Ron Silliman is frequently commenting on is the question of numbers. There are now more poets writing than there are ever were before. Is this a good thing, or are we going to see a decline in quality because of so much quantity?

Certainly, it's impossible to read all this poetry, unless you spend 24 hours a day reading it all and have a private income big enough to buy all the books (or you're important enough to get them all sent free to you...) And where would you put them? I have to have regular a clearout just to provide some space to put the books...

And there are so many different kinds of poetry - or writings that come under the banner of poetry in some way - from highly experimental to highly traditional, and every combination in between. If I feel personally that England at least produces rather too much bland quietist verse, there's still plenty out there to keep me interested. Poets I think I ought to be reading, and haven't got round to, poets I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot bargepole, poets I might find interesting if I had the time.

Then there are the poets I ought to discover that have been forgotten about. There's a new anthology of Mervyn Peake's poetry that looks fascinating - a good addition, I think, to my collection of forgotten '40's poets. There's soem poems in an article about Nicholas Moore in PN Review that look really good.

How do we evaluate it all? Most of it will probably not last - but then some will be forgotten forever, some will get rediscovered, some will get reforgotten. Some big names now will disappear, I suspect.

I ought to be reading more Peter Riley, for instance. He sounds fascinating from the recent article in PN Review - just up my street. But when will I get the time?

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Other Room

Barely a week since my last post, and here I am again. What's going on?

Well, despite a summer cold (aren't they the worst?) I ventured out to the Other Room, a reading series in a pub behind Manchester University, last night. And very glad I am I went, though it's a shame that one of the readers, Philip Davenport, wasn't able to make it. The two other readers, Maggie O'Sullivan and Stuart Calton, were there however.

From what I've seen in anthologies, I haven't quite got Maggie O'Sullivan's work yet, but her performance last night went a long way towards me beginning to appreciate her work. It seems to straddle various strands of avant garde poetry. There's a large element of "radical pastoral" that one can see also in poets like Harriet Tarlo, Frances Presley and Geraldine Monk; but also a large element of pure sound in the work. It's interesting that the book of early work she brought with her was called "Body of Work", but it does have a very physical element to it; this is a poetry concerned as much with the physical articulation of sound as with "meaning." It seems to be to be very "instinctual"; as opposed to a more "calculated" approach. Which doesn't mean that there wasn't a very feirce intellect behind the words, because there certainly was. Although I don't want to make too obvious a connection, it's something I also find in poets such as Geraldine Monk and Micheal Haslam; although all of them have a strong intellectual basis for their work, there's something untamed about them, a kind of wandering spirit that seeks to go beneath the surface of the world and bring something elemental back.

Stuart Calton, on the other hand, seemed to be a much more calculated poet. The two long pieces he read were sometimes funny, very involved, fragmented narratives and arguments with a strong political bent. The second poem was about the Co-Op, in fact, which he is ambivalent about. Although this was very definitely non-mainstream, this was on the surface much more controlled and probably represents the more politically-charged end of the non-mainstream as represented most publically by Keston Sutherland, Andrea Brady and Barque Press. It was difficult to understand, but also fascinating, and I enjoyed his performance, especially the halting way he sometimes spoke half-phrases and sentences. I bought one of his pamphlets, so I can pore over it and seek a way through it.

All in all, a fascinating evening. The Other Room is a good series to have in Manchester; we've had so much mainstream poetry for years, it's good to have something rather stranger at last.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Since last time I was here, I've been on holiday, a writing holiday to the beautiful Isle of Arran, and I wrote 4 poems there. But I was thinking recently about improvisation (I've just written a review of the Manchester Jazz Festival for Jazzwise magazine.) How does it relate to poetry?

If you're writing a poem that fits a particular shape, say a sonnet, then improvisation is less important: like a piece of music, you have a particular shape that it fits into (sonata form, symphony, or the generic pop song.) But you still manipulate that shape, twist it into slightly different shapes, otherwise what you have is the same as everyone else. But if you break too far away from the basic shape, then it stops being recognisable as a sonnet, and becomes something else. That's where poetic improvisation comes in: the poem starts to develop a shape that the author isn't aware of before starting the writing.

It happens too with subject matter: if one sets out writing about one thing, one may end up writing about something wholly other. Ashbery's poems always seem to me to set off in one place and end up somewhere else, because he doesn't have a subject to start off with. He has an atmosphere, perhaps, a form of words. These lead somewhere but he's not strictly in control of it, he's let go of that control. Perhaps that's what improvisation in poetry: letting go of the controls and letting the poem lead the writer.

In Arran, I found myself writing a poem out of one of the workshops that didn't fit any shape at all. It was free-form, even open-form - even the left-hand margin wasn't sacrosanct. Then I cut a heart-shaped hole in the front page of the Observer's business page, and wrote down what was found there. I also used quotes from songs. The shape was arrived at, not because it was decided on beforehand, but because it felt right. There was no idea of what was going to be said even.

Later, the poem was revised to jazz music. Some things were changed, others stayed the same. Revision wasn't done with the idea of trying to make it tidier, but with the idea of making it truer to the moment of writing. It felt organic (Denise Levertov's essay on Organic Form comes to mind!) and I didn't feel entirely in control. Quite an exhilarating experience.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The English Line

Rachel Fox has asked me for my definition of "English poetry," one that include Nick Laird (an Irish poet) and Andrew Motion.

It's a difficult question to answer, and I think now that it might be better to talk of the "quietist" poem. Not as in Ron Silliman's rather pejorative "School of Quietude", which is largely a rhetorical device to dismiss a lot of poets who don't fit into his notion of the "post-avant" (I see he now wants to try to encompass flarf & conceptual poetry in the same set as Ojectivism and the New York School.)

But I think it's a good description of what the English Line (to use Neil Corcoran's useful phrase) is about to call it "quietist." Here are a few characteristics I've picked out:

The quietist poem tends to be discrete, both in its aversion to extreme statement, and in the tendency for the poem to be a discrete unit in itself, unlike, say, the often messy, open-ended non-mainstream poem. There's a tendency to irony, to not expressing strong emotion.
The quetist poem tends to be written in a largely rational form, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Its syntax tends to be normative.

The quietist poem tends to be "about something" reasonably discernible - that is, it has one or two subjects and tends to stick with them. The non-mainstream tendency to drift from subject to subject, to slip between meaning and nonsense, is not much in evidence.

Use of chance techniques, improvisation, collage, is not something your average quietist poem will countenance much. Direct use of material taken from popular culture (as in flarf) or technical literature is generally frowned on, though pop cultural references can be used, as long as they're filtered through the quietist frame. Visually, left-justified is favourite, and the visual poem isn't generally seen. It's more like classical music than jazz, for instance. Not that there can't be surprise, as there is in classical music, but the resources for surprise are limited by the form.

These are just a few things I think distinguish the "quietist" poem. There are some very fine poets who fit right in here, so I'm trying not to be dismissive. Not every poem that can be identified as "quietist" will be entirely so. Not everything is as quietist as it appears.

I hope that answers the question, as well as bringing up a whole host of more questions than it answers.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maintaining the Crumbling House

I came across this rather intriguing comment the other day by Jon Stone, on Todd Smith's Eyewear blog:

In seeming very dismissive of the mere fact of the English postulating on
an English tradition that needs to be maintained,

I wondered about what it might be saying for quite some time, and still don't know what it means. "An English tradition that needs to be maintained" sounds as if something is under threat, or fragile, or vulnerable to dry rot. It makes poetry (for that is "the tradition" of which we speak) sound like one of those old manorial fastnesses that need to be maintained by the National Trust. All very nice and historic, but not exactly relevant to the modern world.

I'm sure it's not the intention of Jon Stone to make English poetry sound like this; it's the kind of thing you say in a blog comments stream, not a considered argument. But it nevertheless does continue the postulation that English poetry (as opposed to American, say, or Australian) is somehow under attack. From whom? And what is this English tradition that is under attack?

Well, it's very rarely the English tradition of radical dissent: the Diggers, the Quakers, the Chartists, the peasant balladeers, the trades unionists, the Blakeans etc. It's usually some notion of what I can only call an Anglican compromise: middle-brow, middle-of-the-road, middling and conservative with a small c. It's certainly not the "extremism" so-called of the experimentalists: open-form, open-ended, frequently messy and unclean. It's certainly one English tradition - and it shouldn't be gainsaid that there are some great examples. Edward Thomas is a great example, and more recently, Nick Laird.

But I don't see how it is under fire. Sure, it's probably having to compete with a more open poetics, it's having to absorb a few more influences. But - rather like the English language itself - surely it can do that without having to "maintain" itself. The great thing about poetry is its ability to both continually renew itself - often in the past through translation and cultural exchange - while staying in contact with its past. And its past ought also to contain a few more of those dissenting voices (like the '40's Apocalyptics, for instance) than it does now.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Like Buses

There was an interesting article in the Guardian about the "health" of poetry recently, by Anne-Marie Fyfe. It was interesting partly for the names mentioned - some of whom I've heard of and some of whom I've not, but also for the fact that a lot of names were missed out. There's an awful lot of poetry about at the moment. It didn't, for instance, include the names of Annie Clarkson and Eleanor Rees, two recent first collections I've particularly liked. And that's just for starters. The number of poets around is ever increasing: how does anyone keep up?

The fact that there's so much new writing out there can only be a good thing. It would be dreadful if there were only a few names in the "promising" pile; where would the next generation come from otherwise? But the fact that there's a lot of them also brings up its own problems: how do you judge who will be lasting? Some people worry a lot about this; but I can't say it bothers me that much. The poet who worries too much about his or her posthumous reputation is the poet who ends up writing nothing at all. All you can do is listen to the voice(s) of the world around you and attempt to write down, as clearly as possible, what it is saying. Poets who thought they would be remembered forever are long-forgotten (Nahum Tate, Colley Cibber anyone?)

In fact, I'd venture to say that the more you look to your posthumous reputation, the less likely you are to have one. Frank O'Hara had a very casual attitude to publication and wrote about the things that were happening "now", though the "now" he wrote about is over forty years old. And people still read him. Shakespeare wrote for the audience in the stalls and in the pit, not for posterity; he had a keen eye on the box office and never let an idea of "greatness" stop him from being popular. Nevertheless, with his language and his stretching of the iambic line almost to breaking point, he was one of the most innovative writers of his day.

Still, as Ron Silliman is often pointing out, there are now many more poets out there than there ever used to be, and there's no way that any reader can get round them all. Just keeping up with the local scene here in Manchester is quite exhausting, and I don't think I've begun to manage that. So if somebody mentions a name I should have read, or heard, and I look blank, don't worry. There'll be another 3 poets coming up behind that one.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Columbo - "Oh, and one more thing..."

I've been reading quite a lot recently - in particularly, and slowly, Rupert Loydell's latest from Shearsman, An Experiment in Navigation. There's something about his poems, and the way that they meditate around issues of art, spierituality, representation and lyric that I find fascinating. His style is laconic, undemonstrative, edging towards prosiness and away from a strongly musical rhythm; but under the style is an enquiring mind and a sense of the strangeness of language. In one poem, he can be as plain as a pikestaff, deeply personal, and move into the mysterious use of technical language, culled from his own enormous reading. His use of collage to create many of his texts never seems forced or clever in any way; it somehow seems to flow together into a poem that investigates, subtly and without you noticing mostly, what the possibilities of language are in describing, or rather connoting, the world of phenomena.

Perhaps this is what led me to think of the nature of innovative writing. This book, and the thought of an interview for an MA course in Creative Writing: Innovation & Experiment. There was a question about this on the letter inviting me to the interview, and yesterday, I sat down in a coffee-bar and thought about this. I suddenly had this vision of Columbo, having just interviewed the suspect, turning back to him as he reaches the door, and saying: "Oh, and just one more thing..." The suspect is caught off guard and made to answer on the hoof, and so reveals himself for the duplicitous cad he really is...

So the innovative poet can operate - while language or the reader thinks it's got away with its description or understanding of the world, the poet comes in with one further question, one further twist: Did you really mean to say that? That's innovation for me, and that what Rupert Loydell's poems do for me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Other Room

I went to a reading at The Old Abbey pub (now owned by the Kro chain, it appears.) There was Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey and Tom Jencks. Geraldine read from Escafeld Hangings and some know "ghost sonnets"; Alan read some of his logoclastic, intertextual poems, including a wonderful variation on some of John Ashbery's poetry from A Tennis Court Oath. Tom Jencks read from his first book, A Priori, just published by ifpthenq - which also run a magazine of loose-leaf sheets in an envelope.

Maybe it's the presence of at least three creative writing courses in the area (Manchester, Manchester Met and Salford) - but there's an awful lot of poetic activity in Manchester at the moment, and quite a lot of it falls into that strange category, the non-mainstream. Tom Jencks himself writes a poetry that uses the language of science and the media, that plays with the conceptual nature of language in ways that make it almost unrecognisable as poetry to those for whom narrativity and shapely well-made shaggy dog stories are the essence of poetry.

There's obviously something in the water. Years ago, we had the conventional mainstream of Manchester Poets, and that was it. Harold Massingham led a course at the Extra Mural Dept of Man U, which I went to and it was good in its way. You couldn't find non-mainstream books anywhere, really. It's really making a difference to what's going on in Manchester. I hope it keeps up and doesn't go away as quickly as it came, as the magazine Mad Cow did about a decade ago.

I have a poem in the latest issue of parameter - which has had a radical makeover. The last issue was conventional A4 staple-stiched, but issue 5 came wrapped in silver foil, with four seperately stapled booklets, one for the editorial, one for poetry, one for fiction and one for reviews and articles. Gorgeous is the word, and with people like Rupert Loydell and Ron Padgett in it, well worth £2 of anyone's money.

It was a great evening, organised partly by a London group called Oppened and by people like James Davies and Scot Thurston. The next one is in June, I think, and I'm already looking forward to it.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Companion to Lee Harwood

I've just started reading Robert Sheppherd's Companion to Lee Harwood, a book of essays about one of the best English poets around. The essays - by various hands - look at his work as influenced by the New York School, the transatlantic influences of living in Brighton, Boston and New York, and various other issues. Two essays look at his poems about relationships and the influence of women in his life, from his maternal grandmother to lovers, to other poets such as Wendy Mulford, Elaine Randell and others. There's an essay on his translation of Tristan Tzara, and one on his later poems. And a good bibliography at the back. All ably coordinated by Robert Sheppard's unfussy editing.

What everybody agrees about his work is about its openness. This is not just seen in his use of open form; but in the honesty with which he deals with feelings. He doesn't ever get sentimental, but he doesn't shy away from the personal. In fact, he has said himself that it wasn't until The Long Black Veil sequence that he realised how personal a poet he was. In many ways, he's as personal as many a mainstream poet writing about their personal life; but the results couldn't be more different from the average anecdotal closed form poem. He never comes to conclusions, for instance, and invites the reader in to make sense of the poem alongside him. He will write about a relationship in an open way, exploring its circumstances and feelings, but not giving us his answer to it. He doesn't give us the benefit of his wisdom; he leaves gaps for the reader to fill in. There's nothing "difficult" even in the Borgesian story poems he's also fond of; but the reader is not given the meaning of the poem on a plate; he or she is expected to work for it, to enter the poem like entering a room and wander about inside, figuring out what's in the room for themselves.

It's a poetry I've admired and aspired to for many years, ever since I came across the Pig Press books of his in a bookshop in Grassmere. I think he's wonderful, unjustly neglected like every good poet on the wrong side of the mainstream/non-mainstream divide and recommended to anyone who cares about English poetry.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I wish I could get here more often, but I've been pretty busy.

The second issue of the prison magazine the men started at Whatton is about to hit the cells. I've got a reading at Salford Uni on Tuesday, and a workshop with the students. Then there's the launches of Parameter, The Ugly Tree and Lamport Court, 3 of Manchester's finest magazines, on Monday Night.

I've also been doing some reading. I can thoroughly recommend a translation of Boris Pasternak's My Sister -Life, which I found in an Oxfam bookshop in West Bridgeford. I'm about to start a book of essays about Lee Harwood, when it comes from Salt. I read their Companion to Geraldine Monk, edited by Scott Thurston, and thoroughly enjoyed that.

I also recently read online a very antagonistic review of the anthology, Other, in Antigonish Review online. It was interesting not for the fact that I probably disagree with it; but in the ways that I agree with it. There are aspects of non-mainstream approaches that are no more realistic than the more mainstream ways. Non-mainstream values such things as a plurality of voices, fragmentation and so on, and will tend at times to over-emphasise that in a writer who isn't really all that fragmented; it emphasises "difficulty" but sometimes exagerates that difficulty.

I think the reviewer was almost entirely wrong in his reading of non-mainstream poets. He would mention something in an Alan Fisher poem that sounded, to him, as if it was just some politically correct mention of a London Tube station. But that's where Alan Fisher lives, and he's always written about that place. He quotes a line of one poem as being "bad", which when placed out of context on a page sounds bad. But it's not unlike those preachers cutting and pasting bits out of the Bible to prove that gay people will go to hell. It's out-of-context, and only serves to show the reviewer's prejudices up.

Do non-mainstream critics do the same? You bet they do. I read an article by Ken Edwards where he compared a short magazine poem from early Mathew Sweeney with a dense, allusive poem by Allen Fisher to illustrate the "superiority" of non-mainstream over mainstream strategies. Well, excuse me, but isn't that unfair? Shouldn't we at least compare similar to similar? What would happen if we take a more straightforward Lee Harwood poem and put it alongside Sweeney? Or a more densely allusive mainstream poem (Geoffery Hill?) next to Allen Fisher? What difference does that make to your point?

In the end, the whole thing comes to see like two cats fighting in a paper bag. Non-mainstream writers have a tendency to over-valorise their outsider status. Clare, Blake and others are invoked as "outsiders" - which in a sense they were; but in another sense, they aren't now.

So maybe I'm fence sitting here. Well, more on this later.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Winter Hands by Annie Clarkson

If there's any movement in poetry more stealthy than any, it's the almost invisible rise in England of the prose poem. Poets have discovered the prose poem in increasing numbers, but I can't think of anyone yet commenting on this. I went to see Simon Armitage reading from his Gawain poem, and even he ended the evening with some prose poems.

Annie Clarkson is a new, young, addition to this growing band of "prose-poets," with her first chapbook collection, Winter Hands (Shadowtrain Books, Unlike her fellow prose poet, Luke Kennard, there isn't any stand-up comedy surrealism here. Instead, what we have is a dark, wintry landscape of fractured relationships, fairgrounds and factory yards and people living on the edge.

These lyrical portraits of people and places, and people in places, are not totally grim, but there is a dourness about these poems that is lifted into poetry by the exactness, and aptness, of the language. When she describes the dirty sexuality of The Fairground Man: "dark hair curling round your ears, smell of generators and dirty denim, you open the door to my skin the ride of my life the holding on..." the reader is taken spinning into the romance of the fairground ride, and the dangerous glamour of it.

In places, there is a sense of the form only just holding onto the words, which at any moment could go spinning into the atmosphere. At other times, there's a grim realism pinning it down to earth. The prose poem here is not a vehicle for reverie and over-poetic language (which compensates for the lack of "poetic devices" in some prose poems.) Nevertheless, there is nothing else to call these pieces except poems. They vibrate like poems do, they leave resonances like poems do, they leave mysteries, they make you want to go back and reread them.

Annie Clarkson is a brave poet; and these are brave poems.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Poetry mags & well-made poems

I've been trying to read both the Poetry Review and Poetry, and wondering why on earth I bought them. Not that there aren't good poems in them, but they just don't seem terribly interesting overall. Or relevant. Some poetry magazines continue while having long since lost any raison d'etre. They're not publishing the new, upcoming poets, they're just publishing the few remaining members of whatever school of poetry they were set up to support. Poetry especially seems tired; well, it is nearly 100! It's full of perfectly decent well-made poems that refuse to lift off the page. Poetry Review is a bit better, but not by much.

Which brings me to this thing about "well-made poems." Surely poems ought to be well-made, not just cobbled together? Well, yes and no is the best answer. So many poems are perfectly well-constructed but ultimately empty. They're vessels for lots of clever phrases or ideas, or little packages of not very original insights or observations. There has to be more than just a good construction to make a poem interesting, something apart from it being well-made. Though there is some value in "well-madeness," and a good traditional sonnet is still worth reading.

But then there is always the non-well-made poem: the cut-n-paste, the aleatory, the fragmentary, where the point is precisely not to look well-made. A serial poem like Maximus questions the very idea of something being finished, or looking complete, well-rounded or beautiful. The well-made poem starts, works its way through an argument and ends with a satisfying sigh or clunk at the end. The modernist fragment poem starts arbitrarily (seemingly), ends arbitrarily, doesn't finish its thoughts, sometimes doesn't even finish its sentences or stick to a horizontal line. It scatters itself about the page, mixes register, interupts itself. In short, it doesn't follow a logical or sequential order.

All these techniques have been around the block for awhile now, and I suspect that for many younger writers, the opposition between well-madeness and fragmentariness is a lot less problematic. I suspect we will see in future, poets who can do both; who can write sonnets and fragmentary cut-up poems.

I don't think many of the big name magazines have caught onto this yet. But there are a few newer magazines - Parameter, Succour and a few others - that may be cottoning onto this.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Two books I ought to add to my list of favourite books of 2007.

David Morley's Invisible Kings, which is one of most inventive and enlightening books of 2007, and from the usually rather dry Carcanet press (I agree with Jane about Carcanet, often: though Ashbery & O'Hara are on their list.) Due to failing memory, I missed this out of my list. Apologies, David, it was great, especially the title poem Kings. Its use of Romanni language and its shape poetry, and its trawling of folklore, was wonderful.

And, just inside the year, Sandra Tappenden's Speed, which is Salt, of course. Very fast poetry, to be read fast, but several times over so you can get what you missed the first time. It's the kind of poetry that I can imagine some critics skimming over because it doesn't seem serious, and yet under the speed and the wit, there's a lot of serious meditation on mortality, on the way we live in the 21st century, on sexual politics.