Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lost Your Voice? Try Strepsils.

So what is voice? When I was asked what my voice was recently, I was stumped. I don't know. Isn't it up to someone else to tell me what I sound like? All I hear is what I hear in my own ears, distorted by wind, traffic noise, the beating of my own pulse, and the fact that I've got a headache this morning or went to bed too late last night or faint images of the film I saw on TV or repeats of QI on Dave. Is there something that I retain from the first good poems I wrote? Am I still a Northern Anecdotalist (copyright Roddy Lumsden) or have a become something else?

Most of my influences are New American or post-British Poetry Revival. Is that part of my voice. Is a voice a combination of all your influences plus something from your childhood plus some essential essence of individual self that somehow gets preserved from the ravages of just living your life or is there such a thing as an individual self to preserve anyway? If I was to learn another language and write in that, would I still preserve that essential ingredient, the self?

I happen to be somewhat religious, but not in the way I was when I started writing. Then I was a born-again Christian (yes, I am a Survivor of Evangelicalism.) Now I'm a Quaker who isn't at all sure if he can intellectually justify the feeling at the back of his head that there is something he calls God that in some philosophical vague way sort of exists (I could go on but I'd be here till doomsday.) Am I the same person as I was then, or have I changed?

Has my voice changed, deepened, become more or less serious, sonorous, facile, fluent, stammering, louder, quieter, and does any of this matter anyway?

Who am I? And who are you? And who's he (behind you)?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Moving On

One of the things about being an artist or a writer is that you're constantly moving your own goalposts, changing the way you write. I'm sure there are some who seem to be writing very similar poems to ones they did before; but even the most seemingly familiar poet like Seamus Heaney has changed his poetry over the years. He's not writing Digging anymore, though there are continuities.

But readers sometimes don't want you to move on, and I had this experience recently. My first "proper" book, Calling Myself On The Phone, is very different from the more experimental poetry I'm writing now, though again there are probably continuities. This person, a very good friend of mine, said she liked the simple love poems I wrote then, and why couldn't I write like that now? It's the kind of challenging question that I think every poet should ask themselves now and again: why did I change?

It's a difficult question, because it also came with her feeling that I was no longer expressing my feelings in my poetry. After going through the two-fold process of "am I really avoiding feeling? (doubt)/no I bloody well am not! (anger)" I began to think this through.

And I came to the conclusion that I am basically right, after all, and there is an element of not being able to go back to what I did before, even if I wanted to. Quite simply, I haven't become a less feeling poet, and when I'm writing well, I'm not just doing it for show either. The poems I write now have as much emotion invested in them as the poems I wrote then. This friend of mine helped me to break through to writing about feelings in a way I never had before; and I've never looked back since.

But to expect me to write the same kinds of poems as I used it is impossible. Since then, there have been several more breakthroughs, including the one that led to the cut-ups of my second book Travelator, and the even more experimental poems of my latest pamphlet. Expecting me to go back now would be rather like asking Picasso to stop being cubist and go back to his Rose period. Like him, I can still look back on my earlier book with affection; but I can't repeat myself. I've forgotten how to write like that anyway.

So I'm going to keep moving on: probably my writing in the future will be different from what it is now. Who knows, some kind of clarity will return to my writing; but it won't be the same kind as before. Am I still expressing emotions through my writing? Yes, I am: but now I'm much more abstract. Still bothered about beauty as I always was. Still angry, still alive to feelings of love and loss (my mother has dementia: and the poems I write about that are very painful to write, however much I use cut-up, overheard conversation and chance proceedures.)

Anyway, I'm sure there's still copies of Travelator available, and Salt need your support. So if you still haven't got a copy, do get hold of one...

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Problems of Performance

I wanted to set down, as clearly as possible, some of my own thoughts about performance poetry. As someone whose alliances are more with avant garde, post avant and experimental writings, I sometimes sound off at performance poetry without really explaining what I have a problem with, so I thought it would be useful to try and be as clear as possible.

Firstly, there are some really good performers about in Manchester, which is obviously the area I know most about. There are also some terrible ones, who don't seem to have much in the way of self-awareness; but I won't embarass them by naming them. But there are performers who are consistently good at what they do, and I'll be mentioning them as I go along.

Secondly, it's very encouraging to see so many young people involved in poetry, and the support that the older generation such as Gerry Potter and John G Hall give to the younger. There isn't a sense of competition or dog-eat-dogness; though it might be there underground, I haven't found it.

So those are the positives; and there are probably many more, but I'm here to talk about problems that I have with it, so let's get on with them. Not that my comments only refer to performance poetry; a lot of mainstream page poetry is not much different in essence, however subtly it tries to hide it. These comments are personal and don't apply to everyone at all times.

Its Eagerness to Please

And I'm not just talking about the way so many performers want to make us laugh by pretending that making your jokes rhyme constitutes writing a poem. It's also a result of having to stand in front of an audience and try to entertain them. Now, there's nothing wrong with entertainment; but poetry is an artform not just show business. The listener should be offered an experience, not merely be amused. I have seen performances like that, where the poet offered us an entrance into an unfamiliar world and we entered into it unsure if we'd come out of it again, and subtly changed by the experience; but not very often.

The poet should never be too eager to please. Or its mirror image: to shock. It's one of the problems I always had with Chloe Poems and Rosie Lugosi. They were so busy being either shocking or entertaining that the real sharpness of their poetry got lost in a frisson of music-hall outrage, that frankly most of their audiences lapped up because that's what most of them had come for. When Chloe became Gerry and Rosie Lugosi become Rosie Garland, I saw genuine voices begin to emerge that were not simply trying to entertain us, or to shock us, but were trying to enlighten us.

A poem really should be itself; it should be an experience of the poet's world. It doesn't exist to please. Though it's not a bad thing if it does.

A corrollary of this is:

Its Cuteness

Look at me! I'm not going to give you anything where you have to feel any bad emotions, sadness or anger or melancholy, and I'm certainly not going to make you think, bemuse you or confuse you, make you feel uncomfortable or bore you.

Now of course, nobody wants to be bored in a poetry performance. But do want to be constantly entertained, amused like a Roman audience at the circus?  Or do we want some reality in a poet?

I've been watching Jackie Hagen perform for a few years now, and she's very good at what she does. But her performances have recently become a completely different thing. She used to be amusing, sometimes cute, and was introduced recently as a "poetry pixie." But her recent poems have taken us somewhere darker, much less cute, angrier, wilder. She's no longer trying to amuse us, to show us the wisdom of the jumble sale; she's giving us an experience that challenges us. She recently performed a poem about a man having a heart attack on Oxford Road that was raw, angry and moving all at the same time, that drew us into the experience and left me at least gasping for breath.

Sometimes it explains too much

This maybe a consequence of the kind of people who become performers rather than, say, mainstream page poets or avant garde poets. It might be a class thing or a confidence thing; although performers may have been to university, they may also be working class, or suspicious of anything too difficult or too strange. Now, I would never personally advocate a poetry that requires a string of references or notes, but a little difficulty is not a bad thing.

As an editor, one of my most common tasks is to cross the last verse out. Sometimes the first, but very often the last. This is where the poet explains to his/her reader what the poem is about, or gives us the lesson that the poet is trying to teach us. If you see yourself starting to explain what the poem is about in the poem itself, stop. Not only does your audience know as much (or as little...) as you, but they should also be given the choice to read it or experience it for themselves. Poets and poems are like cameras: they are lens through which other people see the world in a new way. They notice things, and point them out. They are not preachers, or teachers, and they are not any wiser than the rest of the world.

But what if the audience don't get it? That's the fear, isn't it? But then I have to ask, so what if they don't get it? Puzzlement, bafflement even, is as much a reaction to a poem as applause. Sometimes, a poet's imagination runs off into the surreal: so let it. A poem doesn't have to make the same kind of sense that a newspaper article does; it's a work of the imagination not an essay.

Well, I could go on. But this is enough for now. These are my thoughts at the moment, and they'll probably change tomorrow,