Monday, February 26, 2007

The Genuine and the Artifice

Firstly, another workshop at Fuel this Saturday (3 Mar): 11.30 -3.00 for all those interested.

Secondly: Some interesting experiences this week. I went to two readings this week, one as part of Viral Signs at Salford University, and one at Manchester Central library, launching the latest issue of The Ugly Tree.

They were contrasting in two ways. Phil Davenport at Salford read and discussed his very avant-garde poetry, much of it with a visual basis or at least approaching the condition of contemporary art. His Imaginary Missing Persons, for instance, are made from cut-ups from missing persons adverts in The Big Issue and his own journal, and he wrote a whole series of poems by cutting heart shapes out of a book of porn "readers' letters". There were others, such as a poem taken from what he'd heard a man say in an airport, but these are what struck me at the time. What struck me most was how moving these poems were, though their techniques seemed on the surface to be terribly artificial. He said that he thought it right if he was going to be using material that was about vulnarability to expose his own vulnarability in the process.

The second reading - or performance is a better word - was the Ugly Tree performance the day after. Very lively, sometimes loud, and very entertaining. But also very expected. There was a poet who tried to shock us with horror poems, a bit of feminist rewriting of myth with a lot of vocal over-emphasis, a poem about live fast die young leave a beautiful corpse, and a poem about rock and roll where the poet thumped the podium and got us all to join in.

The one poem that stood out for me, however, was a poem by Tony Walsh called (I think) Girl, Like, y'know which was in the voice of a 17 year old girl who had made a mess of her life. Again, it was a poem about - and expressing - vulnarability. Linguistically, it took an expression of inarticulacy - the expression "like, y'know" - and turned it into an expression of great depth of feeling. You felt that, for a few moments, this tall, very male performance poet had become this poor 17 year old pregnant girl whose boyfriend beats her up. Again, the situation is artificial: but the artifice has revealed more than all the supposed "authenticity" of the rest put together.

A lot of poetry is about posturing of one kind or another. Whether it's the performer saying look at me I'm going to shock you/I'm a rock and roll rebel, or the page poet asking you to admire the amazingness of his images/his perfect sonnet sequence, it's so often not about truth as it is about positioning, posturing, ego.

I'm as guilty as the next man, I guess; I have an ego as big as anyone. Bigger in fact. I have the biggest ego of anyone I know, he says, egotistically. But when I get it right, I hope at least to be able to find something genuine among the artifice.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Being bold

I had a conversation with a poet called John Hall recently. One of the things he said that I agreed with was that an awful lot of English poets are scared of getting things wrong.

By which I think he meant that they pursue tried and tested techniques of writing, that they never try anything they've not really tried before; and they stay within certain boundaries with their work. They never try anything ambitious. Not always true, of course; but if you read a lot of poetry, as I do, you do seem to find a lot of the same kind of shapes (regular stanzas, lines all the same length, everything correctly punctuated) and subjects (personal stuff mostly, with occassional forays into history, or even very subtle, so subtle you almost miss them, political references). Emotionally, let's not whatever we do, go over the top.

It's good to read poets who do take chances, though. These can be anything from formal challenges, forays into abstraction or the use of open-form techniques, or language poetry, or even concrete or viso-poetry. I like the use of sound in the work of Geraldine Monk, I like the way some poets' poetry goes over my head in terms of subject matter but still keeps my attention because it sounds interesting. Or a poet like John Siddique, who takes risks with feeling: whose work veers away from sentimentality at the last minute in often very personal poems.

I reached a crisis in my own work where I had to do something drastic or give up, about a year and a half ago. I knew how to write poetry; but I could do it in my sleep and the poems I wrote sounded like they were written by somebody half-asleep. So I took a pair of scissors to my poems and cut them up, or a wrote them "backwards" or I mixed two poems in one. I made one poem out of lines culled from rejected poems. Suddenly, like when I began, I didn't know what I was doing anymore and my writing began to excite me again.

Being bold is good for the soul, methinks.