Thursday, February 24, 2011

Wild Poetry

It's not, I've discovered, the simple difficulty of non-mainstream poetry that I like.

I've been viewing the recently uploaded Veer About anthology at - which is a wild and willfull collection of poet, visual poetry, art mixed with poetry and often very strange word-play, language poetry, straightforward modernism mixed in with all kind of avant-/post-avant poetry techniques, and while I've only just scratched the surface of what it does yet, I find myself drawn further and further in.

I probably won't end up liking everything. David Crystal's visual 'sonnets', which consist of brush strokes with a Chinese brush and ink? Hmm, maybe not... But then maybe... why not? There's material that probably will go above and to either side of my head, and not really make much purchase. Fair enough; but it's the wildness I like; the idea that has been planted somehow in these poets' heads: anything is possible. Anything probably isn't possible; but why not see if it is? There's a cover by Jennifer Pike Cobbing, wife of the late Bob: and remembering that lion of avant-gardism and what he considered to be poetry, I can see again how throughout the history of British poetry, since the '60's, there has been a wildness.

In fact, not just the '60's. One can see it in the early poems of Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, in Basil Bunting. It's a more confined wildness; but in that it didn't see the personal lyric as the soul voice of poetry, it was the beginning of poetry escaping its cages. One can see it too in the heteronymic profusion of Nicholas Moore, in the neo-romantics still not fully recovered. In the peculiar music of Lynnette Robert's Gods With Stainles Ears, or Joseph McCleod's The Ecliptic. One could go further back, to Blake and beyond...

In fact, one of the pervading influences must be that of Gertrude Stein, whose idea of writing as a form of sculpture and language as a non-referential medium affects a lot of the experimental writing going on at the moment. That, and the experiments of the dadaists, futurists and others from the early part of the 20th century. Here, language becomes not just about meaning, but about shape, sound, place on the page. It becomes sculptural and gestural, a form of abstract dance, and one makes one's way through it feeling confused, disoriented, and constantly in a state of anticipation. Which can get wearing in bulk. Sometimes, one longs for a straightforward statement.

But, even if I don't like all of this, I like the fact that it's possible. I like the fact that tennis players with words are doing without nets.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Modern Canadian Poets ed. Evan Jones & Todd Swift (Carcanet £18.95)

Anthologies of a nation's poetry are tricky beasts. Are they truely representative of that  nation's poetry, or do they just represent the editors' idea of that nation's poetry? A British anthology without Larkin would generally be regarded as unthinkable; but should that anthology also include Bob Cobbing, or JH Prynne? Is an anthology without those names reflecting what is really going on across the whole spectrum of British poetry?

I ask these questions at the start of a review of a major new British anthology of Canadian poetry because this is really the only view of Canadian poetry most readers are going to get, unless you have a special interest in Canadian poetry. And I have to say, right at the start, that what it does include is largely worth reading, often excellant and it was good to get acquainted with many writers I'd never heard of before. Margaret Avison's spare lyricism, John Thompson's ghazals, Anne Herbert's softly surreal meditations - I'm glad to have made their acquaintance.

But when I began to read these poems, and do some research around the whole field of Canadian poetry, several absences began to seem odd. There are several poets like Norm Sibum or Kociejowski who are immigrants from the United States or Europe; and there are several emigrants such as the feisty'40's lyricists Joan Murray, both of whom I enjoyed. But no Robin Blaser, who postumously won the Griffin Prize with his Collected Poems just a few years ago. And no Earle Birney, author of the acclaimed Bear On The Delhi Road. The more experimental poets such as Bp Nichol and bill bisset are also absent, as are senior figures such as Erin Moure and George Bowering. Steve McCaffery, leading light of the Language movement, is also not there.

I'm glad to have met the poetry of John Glassco and his translations of Garneau. particularly The Game: with its glorious first line: Don't bother me I'm terribly busy... Anne Carson's poetry sparkles as always. The rural voice is well-represented, and many of the poets seem to display a metaphysical bent that I very much warm to. Anne Crompton is one such, as is Anne Wilkinson:

Little Men Slip into Death

Little men slip into death
As the diver slides into water
With only a ripple
To tell where he's hidden.

Big muscles struggle harder in the grave.
The earth is slow to settle on their bone,
Erupting into mounds or sprouting flowers
Or giving birth to stones.

And how to stand a tombstone
With the ground not quiet yet,
And what to say, what not to say
When moss is rooted and the stone is set?
Very traditional, formal but beautiful. And there does seem to be a bias towards formalism in this anthology, which makes me wonder if it's really like all those anhologies of British poetry that have neglected our own native experimental writers. So is this mostly then an anthology of 'mainstream' poetry, as opposed to 'experimental'? It does include the poetry of Lisa Robertson, and many of the poets do show a distinctly modernist bent; but there's also a tidiness about the poetry that maybe reveals a distate with extremes.

I enjoyed this anthology, despite my misgivings about its exclusions. I like the fact that it includes some translations of French Canadian poetry. It made me think of what anthologies are for, why people put them together. That in itself is a mighty fine thing to do.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Other Room & Counting Backwards

An oral feast over the last two days.

Firstly, Posie Rider, Joe Walton/Jow Lindsey and Stephen Emmerson in the Old Abbey Inn. In many ways, as good as usual. I really liked the 'conversation' between Posie Rider and Jow Lindsey, that was in turn, apaocalyptic, funny, associative, tender and edgy. Jow Lindsey started off by speaking in a very unconvincintg woman's voice; and there was a sly smile on his face throughout the proceedings. I liked it very much, and purchased a copy of The Woman by another Joe Waltong heteronym, Yolanda Tudor-Bloch, in the break.

Stephen Emmerson came into his reading like an express train, read a short poem that he pretended was by Simon Armitage, then a very long extract from a very long piece that seemed to be partly about schizpphrenia. I have to admit there were times when he was reading when - like Coleman Hawkins once said to John Coltrane - I wanted him to "take the fucking horn out of his mouth..." There were lots of associative leaps, uses of technical/medical language, and he very rarely slowed down long enough to take a breath. Or for the audience to take a breath. But when he did slow down, there were moments of extraordinary beauty. He writes a very edgy, energetic poetry; and I did enjoy it, but afterwards I felt like going to a darkened room and putting John Cage's 4'31" on repeat.

Counting Backwards was a revelation. I sometimes miss this because it comes straight after The Other Room and I don't feel like going out two nights in a row; but I'm glad I went last night. First, there was the conceptual/minimalist poetry of James Davies, reading using a projector from his acronyms series and from a piece called Two Fat Boys. I'm not always a big fan of minimalist poetry; but this was really rather good, especially the second part which was in turns funny and disturbing. There was a final poem of visuals: boxes with dots strategically placed in some of them and phrases. Throughout, James sat in an armchair directing the whole thing.

Then Helen Shanahan painted onto the back of the sheet on which James had projected his acronyms; there was a film of what looked like Dungeness showing and she described a set of photos which we couldn't see. The piece seemed to be about memory as much as anything, and the emotional connections we make to images. It was rather lovely.

The second half was extraordinary: the first performance of Juxtavoices, led by Martin Archer. They were a largely amatuer choir that included Alan Halsey and Geraldine Monk, and the most standout piece was probably Three Iterations of a Poem by Samuel Beckett. But the blend of voices, the use of clicks, whistles, harmony and disharmony was extraordinary in all the pieces.

The Phil Davenport read just one piece: partly about and around the death of Micheal Jackson, but also taking in the torture at Abu Ghraib. He read quietly and simply into a microphone, with no special effects, and was very effective.

There's something very wonderful going on at the moment, when these extraordinary events can take place in one city. We have, I suppose, a fairly small community; but it's busy. Pretty soon, there's going to be a Writers' Forum North, which will hopefully help to cement the scene together. I'm looking forward to the future of poetry beyond the mainstream in Manchester.