Saturday, July 25, 2009

The State of British Poetry 2

Just as one thinks that poetry is on the rise, one reads the list of Forward Prize nominations ( and starts to despair again. I mean, what an unimaginative bunch. Nothing wrong with any of them; perfectly OK, and at least there is one name who might actually be interesting; but they could have looked a bit further, to say, Shearsman Press, to find a bunch of stuff that would actually be worth reading.

Instead, we get the same old names. Nothing wrong with any of them, though they don't appeal to me much. But it's the same old Faber/Picador hegemony with a couple of Americans thrown in. And in the case of Sharon Olds, an overwrought confessionalist duffer, frankly.

The real business of poetry, meanwhile, goes on under the radar. Get hold of Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh, new out from Salt, to see lots of interesting prose, prose poetic and poetic manifestos from a really exciting bunch of people, mainstream to post-avant. It will give a much more true analysis of what's actually going on in poetry than the Forward Prizes ever could. There we have a truely international grouping of ideas, of thought and emotion from the likes of Robert Shepherd, Nick Piombino, Nathan Thompson, Sheila E Murphy and a host of others, including my own modest contribution.

Perhaps poetry's under the radar status is no bad thing; it can go on and do things that official verse culture can't do. It can speak its visions uncluttered by the demands of the media. But it also needs to be heard. So go out and search out the real stuff, and don't bother with the prizewinners.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Marina Abramovich Presents

Fascinating evening of performance art at the Whitworth last night. It was weird, first, to see the whole gallery empty of pictures, bare walls except for one room which had been scrawled on by one of the performance artists.

It started with The Drill, where Marina Abramovich give a speech about art then took us through a series of "excercises" that include looking someone straight in the eye, screaming loudly and walking out the room while paying attention to each movement. A good way of getting us to start paying attention of our own body processes and the world around, but being short sighted, looking in someone's eyes was difficult because all I saw was a blur!

The art itself was somewhat variable in quality. Things that didn't work for me included Melati Suryodarmo carrying a piece of glass around while saying "I love you." OK, maybe it's about the barriers we put up even when we say sweet words to each other. But it was a rather dull point, made dully. Similarly, jumping from the staircase onto a mountainous mound below while semi-naked (Amanda Coogan) didn't seem too deep to me.

But I do emphasise that this is something that may appeal to others, rather than me. Things that did work for me, however, included Ivan Civic's Back to Sarajevo, which involved projecting a film onto the wall while the artist climbed all over it, basically inserting himself into a film about a return to Sarajevo. I found it unaccountably beautiful. Similarly, Alastair MacLennan's piece, which involved carefully arranged shoes, all single shoes, no pairs; and also dry earth, pigs' heads, shredded paper, fish and chairs; with the artist himself sitting holding a bit of tree and a shoe on his head, was decidedly odd, but also strangely poetic. It seemed to me memorialising something, some past terrible deed; but it wasn't specific.

There was a little bit of nudity about, with Yingmie Duan exploring "dark desires" by walking very slowly and touching herself in a kind of mock-erotic way, and Kira O'Reilly falling very slowly down stairs, and making me think that if she slipped she could do herself an injury. These performance artists need a lot of discipline and control to do what they do; but I wasn't sure either piece had that much to say.

Nikhil Chopra was the only artist to use the gallery as his canvas, by acting the part of a fictional artist, drawing in charcoal on the walls, in a sometimes frenetic, sometimes meditative way. I liked that piece, not just because there was something happening, but because it had a sense of the primitive about it. In terms of control, Italian artist Marie Cool Fabio Balducci's piece was much cooler; but it seemed almost as if there was a barely concealed passion beneath the choreographed movements, making and unmaking of sculpure using mirrors, string, salt piles and other objects. The way she carefully lit a piece of cotton thread, that kept the flame at the same height as her hand moved down to meet it was mesmerising.

There was something mildly disturbing about seeing an artist's feet sticking out of a pile of rugs; but otherwise I think I missed the point of Jamie Isenstein's piece. Terence Koh lying about the gallery floor while music was playing similarly did nothing for me. But I liked Eunhye Hwang's The Road, which used radio static and her own body to make a curious kind of music. The noisiest piece, though, was Nico Vascallari's piece, in one of the stairwells, which involved him hitting metal on metal and causing the most amazing resonance and natural feedback effect I've ever heard. Although he was at the bottom of the stairs, some of the sound seemed to come from above.

The most disturbing and effective piece, however, was Fedor Pavlov-Andreevich's piece on the life and death of Vitaly Titov, in which he was completely encased in a wooden box, apart from a hole for his mout where members of the audience were asked to feed him, clean his teeth, even scrape his tongue. I took part in this, cleaning his tongue and it was the weirdest experience of the evening.

All in all, a good event and one I think I'll remember.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The State of British Poetry 1

Seems to me that anyone who's afraid that poetry in Britain has lost its way hasn't been travelling in the circles I've been travelling recently. Though I have been known to complain about especially performance poetry, my second trip to Arran confirmed that even that is in a reasonably happy state, with a new collection from Gerry Potter about to hit the stands (in fact, his first as Gerry rather than Chloe.) Performance poetry is often about story telling, and his stories from life in Liverpool are often highly colourful and moving, though in a rather traditional mode.

I met the poets from Unsung magazine in Arran, who had camped under the stars in Lamlash and got eaten alive by the English-hating midges, who managed to set up a reading in the Lamlash Bay Hotel on the Wednesday evening. A very lively reading ensued, and some great writing from all concerned.

But it's the post-avant side of Manchester poetry that interests me most. I really must get hold of Richard Barrett's latest publication (review copy, anyone?) and James Davies and Tom Jencks are both doing things that both puzzle me and intrigue me. Matt Dalby's sound poetry performance at The Other Room was also wonderful, if at times rather hard on the ears.

In fact, throughout the country, there's a host of weird and wonderful experimental things going on. Tom Chiver's selection of London poets for penned in the margin, City State, has loads of new young poets, many of whom are playing with the edges of what poetry is, mixing up the mainstream with the nonmainstream, the performance with the post-avant, etc...

But all this goes on under any kind of radar. The BBC Poetry Season had Tom Chivers on Late Review, but that was it. If you read the Guardian Review, you'd think all poets were published by Faber and Bloodaxe and there weren't very many of them. In fact, there's loads, and a lot of it adventurous and exploratory in ways that I don't understand sometimes, but I'd rather poetry went to new places than stayed in the same places all the time. Long live British poetry!