Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not All Like That

Not All Like That

Ok - mostly on this blog I don't talk about my religion because I'd hate to come across as wanting to proselytise anyone or being in your face about God and all that. If you're happy with your own spiritual path or lack of spiritual path I'm not going to try and change you.

But for better or worse, I am a Christian -albeit a very liberal, very progressive Christian who is also a member of the Society of Friends. And this is important.

The problem with us liberal progressive types is that we tend to be quiet, non-aggressive, non-confrontational and nice. Unlike the fundamentalists who tend to shout a lot, whether on street corners or in the news, we tend to work quietly behind the scenes trying to change things by reasonableness. We're not as good at standing up for our faith as the haters and homophobes are.

Well, the good news is that this - in America at least - is beginning to change. More people are coming out of the woodwork and publically declaring that we're Not All Like That. Which is great isn't it? It's taken a long time for it to happen, but thanks largely to a man called John Shore, it's beginning to get more and more militant.

I think personally I'm not so much a NALT Christian as a Won't Take It Anymore Christian. I won't take the smug triumphalist hateful nonsense of the fundamentalist bad news gospel anymore. I'm fortunate in that the Society of Friends is fully supportive of LGBTQ people, but nobody much notices you in the media unless you shout a lot. So, to misquote Ginsberg, "I'm putting my (un)queer shoulder to the wheel."

I'm sick and tired of the misrepresentation of Christianity by these sorts. If Jesus was about anything, he was about love. True faith does not cast people into the outer darkness for being different; it is welcoming and open and radically inclusive of everyone. True faith doesn't deny the questions, it lives in the tension of those questions.

I know that the atheists among you might want to tell me that I shouldn't be believing in God anyway; and it's complicated by my own rather apophatic (look it up) approach to the traditional creeds and beliefs of Christianity. But I don't want to get into arguments about the existence or non-existence of divine beings; this is too important. People are still being villified for being gay, young men and women are still contemplating suicide because they think they're wrong, and people in Russia and some African countries are still being jailed because of their sexuality. And in the name of Christ, Allah, or any other God you care to name, it has to stop.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Ethics of Collage

There's been a lot of righteous outrage about plagiarism in the poetry world of late. Rightly so: to take someone's work, change a few words and then pretend it's your own is an awful thing to do. Poets, of course, will continue to be influence by other writers and there's nothing wrong with that. Poets will borrow from each other freely, hopefully; but in their own words not the words of the borrowed.

Some have 'justified' their stealing as 'sampling' or 'collage'; and it's true that collage is almost the modernist technique par excellence, seen in the work of Pound and Eliot, for instance . The difference between Pound and Eliot and the average plagariser, however, is that both those poets were very open about what they were doing and they were creating entirely new works from collage, not pale imitations of the original texts, with just a few words change.

So I think, for those of us who do use collage extensively, it might be good to put down on this blog what are my personal 'rules of appropriation.'

1) It must be a completely new work Not an imitation; like a Yellow not a Red Wheelbarrow, but a completely new work. The notes at the back of the Wasteland tell you the sources he used, but they don't tell you anything about what the poem is about, because he is using the sources rather in the way Picasso uses collage: to make a new work.

2) Wherever possible, literary sources should be acknowledged, especially if the person sourced is alive; or pretty darned obvious if not. Not literary sources (I've used signage on shop windows for instance) need not be specifically sourced (in my case, I can't always remember which shop or advert I used) just generally acknowledged.

3) Tributes are ok as long as they're acknowledged. Centos: it would be better if the sources went with the poem, but if that proves awkward, then at least call it a cento.

4) I personally would never use the work of a living poet without their express permission. In the heady world of New York School poetry in the '60's, some poets, Ted Berrigan in particular, often recycled both his own and other peoples' lines; but he was part of a particular scene where that would probably be tolerated among themselves. And what he did with it was always new, often amusing and the original writer probably wouldn't have minded a bit.

5) Do not enter competitions. (That's a personal rule).

6) Make it new. Whatever else you do. If you can't manage that, take up painting by numbers or something.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The Major Poet Syndrome

Interesting rather 'mixed' review of Nathan Hamilton's Dear World & Everyone In It anthology in The Wolf magazine. Interesting not so much for its opinion about the book, so much for what it says about what the reviewer (Todd Swift) seems to be looking for. He seems to be rather anxious to find The Next Big Thing. This seems to be a common thing among reviewers and critics: everyone seems to be looking for the next Auden, the next Larkin, maybe in some circles, the next Pound or the next J H Prynne, if that were possible.

In Todd Swift's case, he mentions that some of the poets could be the next Larkin, Plath or Hill. What he doesn't do, and what I suspect the standpoint of the anthology is getting at, is actually question whether we need a next Major Poet at all. Because whether that major poet likes it or not, it is assumed that this or that Major Poet is the way for everyone to write. He or she becomes the influence de jour as it were.

But what if, instead of trying to look for the one who will turn into the next Major Poet, as if there could only be one top dog, we look to value poets for what they are, not as part of some imaginary league table with winners who get to influence everyone else?

Hamilton's anthology betrays a whole panoply of influences in its pages. Prynne, Bunting, Barry MacSweeney - and yes, probably Carol Anne Duffy and Simon Armitage. No-one can deny the influence of Roddy Lumsden on contemporary poetry, but there's also Rupert Loydell and Robert Shepherd there too. There isn't a single set of influences on young British poets anymore.

Is that not a good thing? Do we need another Armitage or Duffy? Not that there won't be poets influenced by other poets; I can already see Luke Kennard as an influence on newer poets even than these; but another stream is going to be influenced by Keston Sutherland. And another stream is going to be influenced by (name your own...)

A lot of people have been grieving over the death of one of the last Major Poets of this age, Seamus Heaney. Though I suspect he's not that much of an influence on younger poets, certainly he was on a lot of poets my age. Not me, however; much as though I like some of his poems, I can't say I ever hung on his every word. My influences were outside the mainstream, at least once I got to Manchester, and often not even English (I even prefer Appollinaire as a war poet to Wilfred Owen.)

If we can away from the frantic search for the next Major Poet, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to acknowledge the presence of various streams in British poetry that have always existed but haven't fitted into this singular narrative where there always has to be a Top Dog, a capo di capo of poetry, and start to be able to look over at what the other people are doing as simple another part of the rich tapestry that we're all making together.

Friday, September 06, 2013

My Objection to Competitions And Other Thoughts

I'm not a big fan of competitions. Competitions encourage the idea that there are winners. And if there's winners, there's losers. Especially in poetry, the idea that you can win competitions with a certain kind of poem means that the conservative notion of poetry as a kind of compressed narrative which doesn't rock the boat or challenge expectations is preserved. The same is true of slams as far as 'spoken word' is concerned. It's not necessarily the crowd-pleaser that wins, but the judge pleaser.

Then again, competitiveness encourages poets to compete with one another rather than exist as a supportive community. It's a form of capitalism, whichever way you put it: and slams are even more so, poets competing in a kind of bear-pit of 'verbal dexterity'. Not that it doesn't produce good poets; but that it produces lots of losers, who with a helping hand might find their own poetic stream to swim. Like capitalism, it produces conformity not diversity. Poetic revolution it is not.

Which brings us to another thing. A friend of mine came to a poetry workshop with a poem written in the shape of a square. A 'shape poem' as it were. Not unusual in the world of poetry; but I suspect rather unusual in the common or garden poetry meeting. What would happen if someone came to your writing group with a shape poem? Who would be the first to say 'that's not a poem'? There is a whole tradition - dating from as early as the beginning of last century - of concrete poetry, 'sound poetry' and experiments with the look of poetry on the page. How many people are even aware of this history, much less have an opinion on it?

Fortunately, that person met me: because I myself know about this history I can say to someone who brings something like that. "actually, you're not an aberration, you're not completely out on a limb, you're not mad, have a look at this, and there's that, and you might be interested in this..."

Sometimes, it's not about 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry; and while standards exist for each type of poetry, they are never entirely objective. A good competition poem would make a bad experimental poem etc. That's why I think categories matter; not as a way of dividing one poet from another, but so that those who do things in a different way, are not totally isolated and made to feel 'mad.' Going to poetry events where everybody is telling you how wonderful Carol Anne Duffy is, while you're reading Robert Creeley, can feel terribly isolating.

Poetry is the glory of "things being various"; and ought to be a community not a bearpit. Which might be terribly utopian and naive of me; but I can't help but dream.