Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Hidden Forms

I was chatting with someone yesterday who described how he has lately been working with speech recognition software to edit his poetry. He takes one of his old poems and reads it into the computer. The software then invents its own version of the spoken poem as text. He repeats this process until he arrives at something he likes, or can work with.

I put that idea together with this one, from this article over at n+1:

Paintings, apart from the very occasional tondo or altarpiece triangle, all start out as rectangles... Its impolite rival and savior is now called postminimalism, but it went by many names: body art, performance art, conceptual art, land art, protest art, process art, anti-art art... Not having been there, we learn about these new art forms from the leftover paraphernalia. Books and museums show us black and white photographs, gallery invites, artists’ statements and manifestos—all of minimal visual interest—and the putatively unrectangular event gets reduced, through a ruse of history, into that very familiar rectangle: the 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of copy paper in a course packet.

It's amazing how unimaginative the process of poetry composition often is. Sitting with paper and pen - often described as the most liberating tools because they're cheap, readily available and can be used in most environments - is the stereotype, the cliché of composition. Strangely, not a lot has changed over the centuries. We've seen phases of oral composition and recital, but that's about it. Poetry on paper, or poetry out of the mouth. Public poetry, such as Gwyneth Lewis' poem for the Wales Millennium Centre, can seem downright experimental in light of the endless trend of paper and pen poets. It's fairly likely, though, that it was composed on a sheet of paper first.

The computer, another kind of paper, was a revolution for writing in some ways. One which many writers seem to reject - any number of them, from Peter Scupham through to A S Byatt, still compose their first drafts in the traditional manner. Those that embrace the technologies delve into the weird like gizmo-addicts - speech recognition software, machine translation tools and text scramblers are bells-and-whistle devices, fast action methods for older techniques of cut ups and language distortion. But the downside of computers is being forced to work within their parameters.

I always get annoyed when a process's limitation, which has been insiduously working upon me, becomes transparent. Some of the new ones are obvious like spelling and grammar checkers. They drive me mad, particularly the automatic capitalisation of new lines (a great, heterogenising act if ever I saw one) - I've heard some creative writing tutors even teach their students how to get rid of it.

It can be used in your favour though. Mario Petrucci used an automatic spellchecker's suggestions on WC Williams' 'This is to say' to make his own poem. Arguably, they bring everyone who can't type or spell competently up to a certain level of mediocrity. It also means they don't bother to read their work through carefully, leading to a neglect of language, perhaps even encouraging laziness. (The rise of blogging may be a sympton of enabling this neglect further.) It also brings people with a bit more deftness down a few pegs, particularly people who aren't so hot with technology and software and find themselves struggling to translate their weird and wonderful page drafts onto a machine.

Cross-platform poetry winds me up. Moving a poem from computer to computer, program to program; even trying to make a poem appear cleanly in blogger without some compromise of layout or font, is an effort beyond what it should be. As one West Indian poet said to me (about the after effects of colonialism on his homeland's language, though it seems relevant), "That's hegemony at work." In response though, poets like Charlie Dark create one-off poems (I think he called them 'dumplings') that he only reads at the particular event he's at and then never again. A kind of theatre improvisation poetry perhaps. It's a rebellion against the infinite array of storage chips, the Google Archiving, the digitisation of life.

Or there's the art-poems, painted straight onto their exhibition surfaces. In Athens during the German occupation, people could be executed for writing grafitti. In that context, a single epsilon, symbolising the Greek work 'eleutheria', or freedom, became challenging, avant garde. A kind of art poetry - the context created the depth of meaning. Banksy-style modern poets perhaps lack the context, but the form of placing your poetry onto walls, into the public domain, is similar, shaping the poet's awareness of audience, the font, the content.

Forms of process can both enliven the imagination and also leave it running in the same hamster wheel as everyone else. I started writing this with a vague sort of optimism at having heard about a new composition and rewriting method. Will it lead to great swatches of charged imagery, or just a fizzle of sparks in a snowstorm? Here at the end, fingers on the keyboard, eyes aching from a day staring at screens, followed by more screen-staring to muster this into the world, paper and pen don't seem so unappealing a recourse.

But at the same time, not much has altered - where is the next advance on the page, or the screen? What other ways do we have to resist? The page is the mainstream when it comes to the tools of the craft. More questions than answers, as usual.

Cirrus by Chris Torrance

18/06/2005 gibbous moon in daylight

back of my left shoulder, from turf

terrace observe soft high cloud

perfectly organised & gentleing slow

so slow you could snare one, tether

it to the lawn – pet cirrus – rosy

hint on white soapbar cirrus, anxious

redstart cirrus, mysterious unrecognisable

calls cirrus, wheatsheaf cirrus,

pub garden cirrus, soft fruit crop

cirrus, the rhythm of the

shopping list cirrus, the openair bard

at evening cirrus, choir of the

hours, angels, under cirrus vault,

satnite, warm night, cirrus circus,

swifts in sizzling back streets

scour the tarmac, sepia shade corner shop,

dead insects inchdeep on the sill,

weary old bulbous moonface cirrus,

cmon this is as good as listening to

Charlie Parker cirrus, these two

macho blackbirds duelling, cirrus

like a comb or razor drifting above,

fall streaks, two tweaks of

a wrens tail shrilling, airship trailing

gossamer filaments, jetstream fallout,

washboard nave of the barrelvault cathedral,

white light night, curls in a hairdo

cirrus swallows fly under, bending

the bow the Archer rising cirrus, serious

Sirius below the belt, amphitheatre

of satnite ranking goodtime rockin

under the cirrus flambo night, sweet

cirrus I cant bear to

bring this poem to an end

first published in SAW magazine

Friday, 25 May 2007

Simon Turner - The Turtle-Islander, Re-emerged

Gary Snyder, Danger on Peaks (Shoemaker Hoard, 2004 [pbk 2005]), pp 113, ISBN (10) 1-59376-080-9 / (13) 978-1-59376-080-9

Danger on Peaks has been a long time in the making. Snyder's last collection of entirely new material was Axe Handles in 1983, since which time we've had an uncollected (Left Out in the Rain), a new and selected (No Nature), and (finally!) a full publication in 1996 of his magnum opus Mountains and Rivers Without End, which had, up until that point, been threatening to live up to its title more literally than its author could have planned.

Of course, that 20 year gap implies a massive gap between collections in terms of content as well as time, but what's remarkable in Danger on Peaks is the sense of continuity with Snyder's previous work. However, this is not to imply that Snyder is simply going over old ground (literally: landscape (ground), and its relationship, often fraught, with human habitation, is a central concern in Snyder's work): in actual fact, Danger on Peaks shows a poet as formally restless as he has ever been. The haibun (a Japanese form mingling prose and poetry), in particular, is a new and repeated formal adoption throughout this collection.

As ever, Snyder is at his best when sticking to the facts, and his poetry truly comes alive when attending to minute solid detail. The sequence of not-quite haiku, "Brief Years", is a particular delight (and reminded me of an earlier sequence from The Back Country, way back in 1968, entitled "Hitch Haiku"), and proffers up such joys as the following lines:

Out of cracks in the roadcut rockwalls,
clumps of peach-colored mimulus
spread and bloom

The rhythmic surety of the first line is highly musical, and reveals the genuine rooting in technique which the seemingly casual style of his verse tends to (deliberately) conceal. Just listen to the syllables knocking against each other; terribly Olsonian of me, I know, but it's in those little details of construction that the power of Snyder's poetry resides.

Close attention to detail also characterises my favourite section of the book, "Daily Life", which does pretty much what it says on the tin. The best of these 'diary' poems - "What to Tell, Still", "Winter Almond", "Really the Real" - reveal the mixture of the casual and the intensely worked which has been the calling card of Snyder's verse from the get go. "Really the Real", in particular, is intensely rewarding. The poem describes a drive - "Heading south down the freeway making the switch / from Business 80 east to the I-5 south" - and in the process also enacts a journey through the poem's details, culminating in the payoff line, where Snyder and his travelling companion end up in "what you might call, / really the real, world" - the 'real' here either denoting a world beyond the illusion of man made landmarks like the interstate and the cities it connects; or the world beyond the poem. What is seemingly casual and improvised as a poetic structure is in fact extraordinarily complex, the use of the present tense - ings resound throughout Snyder's poetry like a kind of chorus of the present moment - creating a sense of motion, of process, even at the same time as Snyder acknowledges that such a process is just a trick of syntax. Not bad going for such a seemingly colloquial poet.

If Snyder is a poet of the present moment, then he is at the same time intensely aware of 'deep time', a geological conception of history that stretches back long before humankind appeared on the scene (one poem, "Loose on Earth", portrays humankind as "a quick / / explosion on the planet", here for the barest fraction of time in comparison to the planet itself). Many of the poems in Danger on Peaks return to the big issue that has run throughout Snyder's poetry: that of humankind's relationship with nature, our capacity to damage and exploit it, and ways towards an alteration in consciousness that would halt such exploitation in the future. Negative human attitudes to nature, according to Snyder, are essentially the product of a Western mindset, which persists through science, religion, even language itself. These "woman-and-nature-denying authoritarian worldviews" are picked apart in a number of poems, and the best of these - "Sharing an Oyster with the Captain" - takes Francis Drake to task for failing to 'see' the natural landscape of California, imposing instead an idea of what the land should mean, what it could yield materially (the ideological gap between human (mis)use of land, and the land's own natural state was a recurring motif in Mountains and Rivers Without End).

The best of Snyder's 'political' statements generally build from small accumulated details: the broader strokes in his work are products of the perfectly crafted lines and images. Where Snyder's work is less successful is in the slightly hectoring, coercive rhetoric which has crept into his writing from, say, The Back Country onwards ("Mother-Earth: Her Whales", from Turtle Island, is a particularly graphic example of what happens when Snyder abandons - albeit temporarily - his strengths as a poet). Thankfully, there is less evidence of such a rhetorical style here - with the exception of "After Bamiyan", the weakest poem in the collection - and, considered in totality, Danger on Peaks is arguably Snyder's strongest body of work since Myths and Texts. I particularly liked the prose sequence on Mt St Helen's that opens the collection, as well as his experiments in the haibun form. All told, well worth the wait. Watch this space in 20 years time for a review of the follow-up.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

George Ttoouli - Shiny Big Tower with a Light on Top

helen mort, the shape of every box (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 21pp, ISBN 978-1-904551 29-4
adam o'riordan, queen of the cotton cities, (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 19pp, ISBN 978-1-904551-33-1
abi curtis, humbug, (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 18pp, ISBN 978-1-904551-32-4

Three new pamphlets in my hand. What do I like about them? They look nice - only about thirty inner pages, but two of them have a spine (Adam's and Abi's), so they've become quite elegant, even sexy; and the white jackets on all three are even sexier: sullied quickly. The books feel naughty, like kissing behind bikesheds.

Changing topic quickly: Les Robinson of tall-lighthouse is a bit like a lighthouse himself. Very tall, with big lensular lenses in his glasses, behind which his shiny intelligent eyes blink at regular intervals. He works hard, from what I've seen and he clearly loves what he's doing and tall-lighthouse have so far always put on a damn good show when I've been to see their poets. And boy do they do a lot of shows. Shows is what it's all about - they've gone for the direct sales approach to shifting units, which means they get to spend a lot of time doing what they like. And everyone I've seen at their gigs seem to like them, especially Les Robinson, who carries the pneuma of the lighthouse with him wherever he goes.

Two of the three pamphlets are part of their pilot scheme, which aims to publish 18 new poets under 30 in the next three years. Abi Curtis and Adam O'Riordan launch the series, though Helen Mort's stapled pamphlet is testament to the support the press has shown towards young writers since forming in 2000.

pilot is a worthy project, especially when there's barely a peanut to go round for most poets under 30, especially poets outside of London. (Plenty of opportunities to hear young poets reading, but not a lot of chances for making royalties or getting paid for gigs; some might argue there aren't many opportunities for any poets, let alone young ones and my response to that is, "That's why there are so many new investment bankers," or, "This is only a blog, so don't expect any well-thought out arguments.") The scheme is a way of drawing attention to what the press are doing anyway: making poetry trendy, drawing in young, open-minded readers to the kind of poetry and events that make them want to go again.

The genius (or USP) of tall-lighthouse is that they promote some very interesting young (London-based/southern) poets very competently. Their events attract lots of other young aspirational poets, as well as established poetry editors and older poets; even a few poetry lovers, have been known to show up at their gigs. Their pilot launch poets have buzzed well (despite not getting that much press that I'm aware of - only the flyers and emails that land in my lap, or word of mouth), with at least 60 people at the event this week (Tuesday 15 May). Roddy Lumsden is editing the series, with a bit of support from the Arts Council England, though only for his own fees. Les has been adamant about tall-lighthouse being privately funded and supported by sales and they've stuck to that so far as much as possible. Again, a bit of a unique selling point: poetry that people will pay for, not poetry that's tainted by funding stipulations or similar outside inputs.

And what about the poetry? (Yes, I know, but this is a blog, not a to-the-point 300 word review which says nothing useful). The three poets are promising, each in their own way. 'Promising' makes it sound as if they sit about saying they'll do something when they've a bit more time and have grown up a bit. Which is reductive. OK.

Helen Mort: a Clare Pollard in the making, precociously brilliant by a sillily young age, she has been winning awards (e.g. the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, five times, including top 15 out of 100 three times) for poetry while most of us were still learning algebra. Many of the poems are about love, or anti-love; there are jilts and bad dates, hot intimate moments and these moments recollected as the heat radiates out of them.

Her poetry is a smooth aural experience, nice sounds to bite into at time. But there's also a sense of that watery rhetoric that lots of new poets tap into because it has an authentic ring to it and once or twice it became a little heavy-handed and self-conscious. The poetry is direct and clear, despite and it's an occasional poetry sparking from personal incidents. The connection to Clare Pollard's early work is by theme, though stylistically this is more reserved, subtle writing. And the selection is very refined: overly familiar phrasing, sound glitches and anomalies of conceit have all been milled out of the grain.

There are a few glib moments where the language tries to condense certain phenomena to pithy phrasing; sometimes it works quite well ("You're dry land seen from a ship") and sometimes it doesn't work so well (water slipping "through your fingers / like faith"). The key point here is that the poetry reaches for - within the established tradition - the best words in the best places and, quite often, grasps some very strong representations. However, the effort is a hard task: you're in competition with the majority of poets writing in the mainstream today, so it's easy for me to see Mort's voice under the wing of established voices. Given time, she may well be there alongside poets like Pollard, Elizabeth Garrett, Katherine Pierpoint, Andrew Motion...

Stylistically, my own tastes weren't fulfilled by this poetry, so I shouldn't impose with what I wanted the pamphlet to achieve. But it had m ethinking that sometimes a winning streak can tie writers to a particular mode - the mode that brought the success and attention. These successes bring affirmation and confidence, while implicitly restricting the growth of a poet's vocabulary and style. Kissing toads won't always magick princes - sometimes you need to lick a tree frog.

Abi Curtis: a dense opening to the pamphlet, but one that steadily begins to delight. There's something slightly archaic - no hieratic - about this poetry. Phrases like, "I called on orange-haired Frazer / to witness Humbug up-ending horizons" has all the epic bathos of Joyce in it, while also being something weirdly fresh in context.

There are plenty of surprises, where I found the thought processes enlivening and, particularly in 'Tantric', astonishing, in the way it leaps:

We moved across long sands
and light-heavy lakes in the direction
of an outrage.
I want dialects
moving through me, the alien shapes of lips
in running rivulets of Hindi and Sanskrit.

The language becomes increasingly brazen through the collection, loosening and taking risks. The work delighted me at times, able to capture claustrophobic and breathlessly open experiences, all with a very personal eye, looking at the self in private and social contexts. There is a lot of intimacy here, again, something that marks out a young poet, perhaps, dowsed in the Keatsian wonder of relationships (or other juices). A good read, definitely a poet that will be snapped up soon for a first full-length collection.

Adam O'Riordan: for the poet think Hugo Williams in his heyday. Cute, posh, slightly formal, witty, charming, smiles just rarely enough to seem awkward and willing, but shy. It's easy to think he's got the persona down pat, anyway. Much is made of the fact that he studied under Michael Donaghy, so rather than be cynical, I should be fair and take the personality as genuine. But damn is it going to sell books (lucky git).

His poetry is very confident, brash even. It runs at language and ideas, dragging the eye along. The layouts are sometimes playful, the language often daring, but there are underlying structures, syntactical and rhythmic, tying most pieces together, some more obvious that others, such as 'Manchester':

Your little merchants, hawking Lucifers and besoms
to set a small flame guttering in a wet-brick basement:

in the straw and wood shavings a mother's lullabies
bear their freight of love and typhus.

The sense slips away almost, with the strangely specific word, "besoms," evoking an old era of witchcraft and devil worship, like Hugh Trevor-Roper crossed with Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. It's got childhood memories of home, distorted fantasies, alienation and a huge amount of playfulness. The couplets are quite lovely though, pulling the piece together as a whole.

But there's a sense sometimes of the poet having read a definition of postmodernism and gone for it, in all its ephemeral goddarned playfulness. Lists of brands, casual references to contemporalia, the barely coded intertextuality and, most of all, the bizarre notes at the back of the pamphlet (three of them, mostly obscure, hence demanding more work from the reader than if they'd not existed). It's a fun touch, like icing and a glacé cherry that had me wary of whether there was enough substance under the decorations.

Again, this is poetry used for some familiar ends: love poetry, relationships, again with the occasional poems responding to personal events. But there's some excellent captures of landscape, some political touches, a certain moral vein running underneath all of this. The work is more diverse than the other two pamphlets, with lots more play with types of voice, styles, poetry on a range of themes. These leads to a couple of confusing moments, such as the poem about Mike Tyson as a boy, which just doesn't quite fit in for me.

But all in all, tall-lighthouse's pilot series, and all their young poets, are worth keeping an eye on. There's hardly anywhere else to go to find the next generation of young talents (not counting the Next Gen list, some of whom were in their fifties). The Gregory Awards, perhaps. But many of these establishment lists are fiercely traditional and conservative in tastes. My eye's on the Generation Txt poets, on tour now.

And check out tall-lighthouse too.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Poems by Nathan Thompson

I've converted the poems to images to preserve fonts and layouts, for lack of a better way. Click the poems for a readable image. If anyone has better suggestions for how to lay up poems like these, please let us know.

I'm glad the sun is shining on you and you're smiling


Lilly's Planetarium

the arboretum towards the beginning