Monday, January 30, 2006

Teaching avant poetry

Last week I did a class on Free Verse for an Adult Education Class in Bury and introduced them to a poem by Lee Harwood and a poem by Barry MacSweeney. I didn't say at first that these two are regarded in some circles as "avant garde" - neither poem was them at their most difficult, though MacSweeney's was typically mordant. I looked at their use of images, sound and even the visual appearance on the page. Line-ending too -

why does the poet end
the line here

there for instance?

They took to them both without much persuasion. Some prefered Harwood's lightness, others MacSweeney's heaviness but that I suspect had more to do with their respective tastes for light and dark anyway. Nobody had any difficulty with them.

Interesting that. There is this strange idea that the avant garde is "difficult" but when you introduce people to the avant garde without telling them it is, they don't seem to mindat all.
Of course, I didn't show them any JH Prynne or Drew Milne. I didn't show them any Bob Cobbing (though the recent exhibition of his work in Bury went down well, I believe) or face them down with US Language poetry. It was perhaps the more comprehensible end of the avant garde, nevertheless...

I don't think there's anything wrong with trying to widen peoples' perspective, especially if there are parts of the poetry world that most people don't usually have access to. Lee Harwood's Collected is a delight: both experimental and airy, open and free-wheeling. I'm less of a fan of MacSweeney's, though I don't know it well apart from A Book of Demons and Pearl
The avant garde poetry world does tend to be harder to access than the mainstream, I guess - like free jazz improv, it goes on on the sidelines. Some of the protagonists probably like it like that - it gives them a sense of superiority, and feedstheir persecution complex - but getting more readers/listeners to find out about you is no bad thing, in my opinion.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Stephen Poliakoff

I watched the latest film by Stephen Poliakoff on BBC1 yesterday, and it was a marvel. There's something about his work that is utterly refreshing and new each time I see it.

It was called Friends & Crocodiles and was about the working relationship between a man with a vision and a very hemmed-in, prim kind of woman. They didn't fancy each other, so there was no posibility of them ending up in bed together, or walking into the sunset hand in hand. This in itself is enough to recommend it; not that there was no sex in it (Paul, the visionary entrepreneur with the chaotic lifestyle, was partial to threesomes) but that the relationship between the two characters wasn't about sexual tension.

They were characters who rubbed each other up the wrong way all the time, who couldn't work together but should have done, because they each needed the challenge the other brought them. I know what that kind of relationship is like; I have that relationship with a friend. We sometimes argue, but she always challenges me with my poetry and my life. I don't know if I do the same for her, but I hope so.

Anyway, back to the TV film. What I like about Poliakoff is that there's often a kind of epic quality to his work that never seems overblown or dependent on trickery. He's what I feel like calling a "slow" worker: his films take time to tell their stories, to reveal their characters. He doesn't feel the need to blast you with noise either; people speak quietly in his films. The music is often string-heavy but contemporary, neither too lush nor harsh. This gives them an air of strangeness that it's difficult to describe in print.

I'm reminded a little of the films of Powell/Pressburger. Though Poliakoff is a lot less lush and neo-romantic, there is nevertheless an air that is very different from most British films these days. They're not trying to be working-class nostalgia, period pieces or in-yer-face gangster. They are not cute like Richard Curtis films (not a ditzy Yank actress in sight; and no Rowan Atkinson gurning.) Films like this, The Little Prince and Shooting The Past get you involved by good story telling and dialogue, and the script is almost scored like a piece of music. BBC4 are doing a special on him; I wish I had digital now.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


Seems to me that's there's interesting things going on in the world of Zimbabwean poetry at the moment. The poetry they are producing seems to be very lively and direct and full of reality in a way that I very rarely see. So I've linked to the webpage for so that people can go and investigate it. Dambudzo Marechera seems to have inspired a whole new generation of young poets, including some of the ones I've worked with on the Crossing Borders project for the British Council. Irene Staunton seems to be doing a great job in encoraging them and bringing them some recognition.

What I like about the poems is their directness of address. In reading Marechera and Philip Zuwhao, I feel like I'm reading the New American Poetry again, except with a greater urgency because this is not some American with a relatively privilaged upbringing. Life's hard in Zimbabwe at the moment, very hard, as seen by the short life of Philip Zuwhao. They deserve our support and encoragement, so go and read them.

And if they have books to sell, buy them.