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.