Thursday, March 22, 2007

Scott Thurston & Allen Fisher - Matchbox Ist Birthday

Matchbox is a rather remarkable little magazine. You get one poet per issue, published in a matchbox on little bits of paper, for a single pound. The latest issue (the sixth) is from the doyen of the British avant garde, Allen Fisher. Last night, he and Scott Thurston read at the Thirsty Scholar here in Manchester, and I was there to see it.

The room was above the main pub, which is under one of the arches of railway between Piccadilly and Oxford Road station; so the reading was punctuated by the percussive sound of trains going past above our heads. The place is usually used as a club, and had a very late '80's - early 90's vibe to it. It reminded me of places like The Venue. There was a good crowd - mainly students and some folks familiar from the Manchester writing scene such as Adrian Slatcher, and one man who tried to participate very vocally. I'm not sure how much of the rather abstract and not exactly easily accessible verse he got; but he was dealt with magnificently by both writers, and seems to have enjoyed himself.

Scott was on first; the first time I've seen him perform. I read his book Hold (Shearsman) with some interest, and it was good to see him perform. His poems I first found difficult, as I often do with avant poets; but as I read them, they began to coalesce into something, if not exactly solid, then very full of barely-held in emotion. This was the case with his reading; and the way he loped around the reading area added to the sense of something untamed about his writing. I think of the three long pieces he read, I most liked the third, which seemed to have an urgency about it that was really exciting, even when he read a section out in Polish! (Which he then translated.) The long poem about dance that came before I was less sure of, and would have to see it on the page to decide; but it was still enjoyable nevertheless. I liked it at the time he read it, though, and there were passages where the phrases in the poem were almost dancing around each other with a wonderful abandon.

Allen Fisher is a poet who I have only occassionally dipped into, though he has a considerable reputation among the avant garde in this country and abroad. His poems are not always easy to get a handle on immediately, though that of course ought not to be a reason to avoid reading him. Now I've seen him read, I shall probably continue to read more; his reading again was very good and his choice of poems - mainly from his long-running series Gravity as a consequence of shape (Banda, African Boog and newer poems) was not so off-putting as to have me running from the hills. In fact, his reading probably enabled me to "get" his poems more; not in the sense of being able to tell you "what they were about," but in the sense that one looks at an abstract painting and gets a feel for its shapes, its textures and its own internal music.

Which is probably how one should see poetry anyway; not as something with some kind of Point It's Making, some Holy Insight into the fact that I visited Blackpool last week (I didn't, by the way), but as a network of textures and feelings and ideas that come off the page and lead you to your own thoughts. There was a time when I didn't get this point, when I was trying to Be Significant; but somehow by dropping the pose I seem to been able to do something more significant.

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?