Wednesday, 30 April 2008

George Ttoouli - Computer Games vs. Poets

Following on from a recent exchange with Andrew Bailey I quickly realised it would in fact be a good thing to compare poets to computer games.

Here is the list so far, which can be considered open-ended and highly questionable:

Pac-Man - Wendy Cope
(Gobbles radio space like little white pills and every so often goes on a rampage through the ghosts of poetic history)

Mario Bros - Seamus Heaney
(Instantly recognisable, endlessly serialised)

R-Type - JH Prynne
(My own description of this game would be damn nigh impossible, with too many opportunities for instant failure, but I was pretty crap at this, much more in favour of Xenon II)

Galaga - John Clare
("a highly under-appreciated classic" - AB)

Ikaruga - The Cambridge School
("massively difficult, and probably wouldn't reward the input it demands to someone who'd picked that up immediately without having a history of serious exposure to this genre")

Defender - Beowulf

Dragon's Lair - ...
("flashy and impressive on first exposure, but ultimately reveals itself to be a hollow waste of your attention. Pick your own poet for that one, I'm not risking the sheer venom that may result." - AB)

Golden Axe - Simon Armitage
(repetitive but fun, easy to get through, with some nice moments and a good finale)

Here are some random games without names:

Rambo: First Blood
Space Invaders
Spectipede (anyone other than me that remembers this one is instantly soulbrother/sister material)
Escape from the Planet of the Robot Monsters
Planescape: Torment
Wipeout (the original, based on TRON, not the stupid handheld space-racer)
Wolfenstein 3D
Monkey Island
Altered Beast
Space Harrier
Jet Pac
Jet Set Willy
Bubble Bobble
Final Fantasy
Bomber Jack
Shadow of the Beast
Eye of the Beholder
Max Payne
Grim Fandango
Ping Pong (should this automatically go to Sappho?)

Suggestions, reasons & complaints on postcards, or failing that, in comments.

George Ttoouli - The Death of Poetry (Magazine Funding): A Polemic

[This was written about a month ago and sat on hold while I left the country, but seems timely now given a recent post by Roddy Lumsden about small poetry magazines at the Poets on Fire forums (to which it is, now I think about it, only indirectly linked). --GT]

'If you sit down, unimpassioned and uninspired, and tell yourself to write for so many hours, you will merely produce... some of that article which fills, so far as I can judge, two-thirds of most magazines - most easy to write, most weary to read - men call it "padding", and it is, to my mind, one of the most detestable things in modern literature.' -- Lewis Carroll

I'm on too many mailing lists, so my life has been perhaps more inordinately filled up with the floundering death wails of most ex-Arts Council funded magazines than your average poetry enthusiast's inbox (note I don't say lover here - lately, I've had a sneaking suspicion that my love of poetry has been seriously tempered over the years by a need for tolerance towards shoddy event management, partial clique-bathering and inconsistent editorial trends - and yes I know that makes me sound terribly ungenerous, but the clue is in the title of this article), but - if you'll permit the Carroll-inspired convoluted first sentence - really, who fucking cares anyway?

Yes, yes. I know, the old argument: poetry deserves to be supported by the state because most poets are socialists and they are good at heart, kind of like Big Issue sellers. OK, maybe I'm confused about the old argument, but I'm sure there are some commonly trotted out arguments that try to justify public spending on poetry, which tend to revolve almost entirely around the poets and the poetry.

Whatever those arguments are (please, this isn't a fascist blog, do feel free to trot out the arguments in comments), I'd like to sweep them aside because, frankly, all the arguments I've ever heard and forgotten or misremembered about why poetry magazines deserve support beyond their subscribers boil down to sidestepping the main point of magazine publishing. It's not about the content; it's about the production and the aesthetic approach to serialised publication.

Magazines are an outlet for particular tastes - editors saying, All youse guys' poetry tastes suck. I'm going to show youse guys what good poetry tastes smell like. I like poetry that mixes metaphors! Yeah! This is what makes a magazine like Magma successful. The editor changes every issue, so you can tell yourself, One day this might get better, one day, someone I like might edit an issue I don't have to burn in the back garden with all the rest. It is also what kept the completely subscriber-funded Bound Spiral going: the editor would only publish an issue when there was enough content of a sufficiently high standard to fill an issue. As a result, issues were sometimes years apart; at others, it was quarterly. The 'who' of the content didn't matter: it was the magazine's commitment to quality over time, not the editor's commitment to publishing mates.

The championing of taste and content is the death of interest in most poetry magazines; the magazine itself needs to be of interest, not the people it publishes. So when magazines profess a loyalty to particular authors, or styles, they deserve to be shot. When they trot out the same set of completely established, or completley unheard of names, they make an assumption that somebody, somewhere actually cares. And then the cheek of them to presume that, because it's poetry, they deserve to be state funded.

Style, production, quality! The reputation sells more than the content; the content barely defines the reputation. All style, all judging of the magazine by its cover. Why else do Golfer's Weekly, Car Monthly and Plumbers Annual all feature skimpily clad women on their covers? (Note, this is a made up fact containing guessed-at publication titles which may or may not exist, but this should in no way detract from the principle of the argument. Just look at Staying Alive's cover and then eat your words.)

I'm not really asking for the death of all poetry magazines; just those that are started by someone who thinks knowing how to use the photocopier at work and a stapler gives license to running 20+ issues of their mates gibbering in iambics about how much they love their pets. (Hopefully that isn't specific enough to constitute libel. Again, the sentiment is important, not the accuracy of the description of a magazine I received at work a few months ago.)

So we should applaud the collapse of poetry magazines run by people who know nothing about how to create a magazine - an original magazine. And we should applaud the magazines that survive the Arts Council's culling of magazine funding because that is a sign of their innovation as well as, no doubt, because we like to have our ideas affirmed, the innovation of their editorial tastes (though this is, naturally, a secondary byproduct which makes us very happy and keeps us loyal subscribers). Vive The Believer! Long live McSweeneys! Where are the British equivalents?

Nevermind that the recent cutbacks will consolidate the UK's reputation for being a poetry-dead climate, one in which poetry is not allowed to thrive in government-funded streams such as education or the arts. Nevermind that the Arts Council's justification for the culling of UK poetry magazines was based on research conducted in Scotland; nevermind this research ignores the differences between the poetry-reading cultures in Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland. Nevermind that the Arts Council is making dramatic cutbacks across the arts despite receiving a budgetary increase of 3% in 2008 and this despite the budgetary freeze in 2005. Nevermind the major structural changes in the Arts Council's head office, including a change in the head of literature and the departure of a number of key executives, after the round of dismissals and after some late, potentially unpopular, appointments were made. (Oh wait, thinks the reader, you mean the statements in this paragraph aren't concocted on the spot in an imaginative fashion? This blogzine is sounding more and more conventional by the second. That's it. I'm cancelling my subscription to the newsfeed.)

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Five Poems by Catherine Hales

on balance

a certain seepage will always occur
from meaning the best metaphors not
always the best insurance secure
all you want behind plate glass
with infrared sensors et cetera worth
a bomb a mask (example) making
death eternal you know the thing you
fine dust of test for fingerprints
then set up road blocks it's when
you part your lips that the problems begin


there’s no way round this       as the moment
splits from meaning the way the first snow
melts from my hair when I enter the house how
much longer will we be able to do this sit
in what’s left of the warmth of these october afternoons
drinking milchkaffee the play’s the thing on the canal
birches & willows angling in air as they have to above
ruffled water while swans arch in for the pickings
& the sparrows go for crumbs on the tables as though we weren’t
here at all
watching the light strike & burnish the late leaves I know it’s
not over yet

across the

singularities out there sucking light       so many
laid the foundation for a face-to-face

grinding millet lighting fires the tip of the mountain
outrageous to award a free kick for where did I hear

a shopping mall is now a lifestyle center
the woman walked out into the water weighted

from the window we could see rising from a bed of cloud
its beam marking the sands if we set out now

waves increasing frequency he went supernova
deep into the present mint crushed cumin

than venice
by the waters of       sofas empty bottles plastic bags full of
with a skinful of myself I just like to walk on my own if that's

the shriek of swifts dropping through air &
the photographer starts by painting the model's body

the archaeological record's real all our mythology's
ariel awol & caliban in his soul stale bread &

small pools caught in fists of petals disposal
fronts propelled by trenches of pressure accumulating

until she's invisible against the brickwork all this at my
take another look at yes & some of it lands in the

Seeing it through

A quiet astringent compromise of sorts –
It's surely the meek who suffer, several see
The dovetailing of memory into the brickwork, while
New debts are expunged by the needy
Mellifluous panic of a dawn chorus in the distance
Ascending from bare ruin'd notions of the
Bone, the idle and the clinamen. And finding this
In the sort of seedy restaurant that serves
Unwholesome pastimes on the internet, no doubt
There'll be consequences, and nothing would surprise
In a time of manifestos and mellow fruitfulness.
Bringing forward the attenuated circumstance
Of unrequited séances, the overall effect
May bewilder the uncertain, the queasy,
The flavour of the season. And various
Of their majesties may even attend the play
In soporific wonder though the span be meagre.

How, then, best to serve the appetite? A pre-dawn
Vertical insertion event with incontinent
Ordnance? That would do the trick to swell
A scene or two and send the orderlies running
For the wings. But is it to be trusted, things
Being not quite as they seem? A new
Menu item with an icon on the screen
Horrifies with auguries of germ warfare
If not nipped in the code and sharpish – o brave
New world that has such weasels in it. And where
Are the artefacts likely to be seen? A drifting cloud
Is just a drifting cloud; either situation
Is ugly, but one of them will be necessary –
The governance of profiteroles depends on it;
Until in the presence of the ineffable they squander
What resistance they've afforded to the wild,
Sarcastic narks surrounding the citadel. Wholly
To blame, and trusting to the power of integers,
The creatures crawl into their caverns and expire.


Catherine Hales lives in Berlin and works as a freelance translator. She co-edits 'Bordercrossing Berlin' magazine and co-organises the Berlin 'Poetry Hearings' festival. Her pamphlet out of mind appeared in 2006. Her poetry can be read online at Stride [here and here], Shadowtrain, Litter, Shearsman and Fire [here and here]. Her translations can be found at Litter and No Man's Land magazines, and her review of Sarah Rigg's Waterwork can be read here.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Extinction by Alistair Noon

So Diplodocus stood above recumbent T-Rex,
whose three-pronged avian claws and thalidomide armlets
pointed upwards. Triceratops charged into thin air.

Evening sun must have flitted through the treetops,
and from the opposite, leafless riverbank
coal wharves whined and clanked.


As the permafrost fled from Alaska
and the icebergs hailed New Zealand
– hell, how must the mammoths have felt –
autumn blizzarded in: beech and sycamore leaves
made low-level cyclones, jets graffitied slow lines
in the over-bright October sunlight, that year as last,
and pine needles lodged into the keyboards of laptops.

The last dog of the Western World, they say,
looked out of its shaggy hair:
Elohim, are you sure you know what you’re doing?


Friday at five, we’ve read, among the iBooks
and interlocking lozenges of the retro wallpaper,
the double espressos and mineral waters,
a young man would puff on his Lucky Strike,

leaning back in the corner, beneath a triple lampholder
with its brown lampshades and yellow light,
turning page after page of the book he was reading:

One email relates how male journalists at barbecues
would explain the aphrodisiac properties of tofu
to vegetarian women. It’s believed that birth rates
rose around Thai restaurants.

And experts have been comparing the lettering
on Lenin’s and Mao’s mausoleums
with those words on the wall whose sense eludes us:
“motörhead. new album”.


What else has come down to us?
That someone called Anthony strummed
as somewhere burned.
That Herod said Bring me the head
of Saddam the Assassin.
That there was no doubt about it,
it wasn’t no emissions
but Satan stoking the fires.


And Yahweh had said:
Here’s your light, here’s your dark.
They raised the all night Tescos.

And Yahweh had said:
Keep an eye on these beasts.
They put microchips in the heads of sharks.

And Yahweh had said:
Leave off murder.
They put heat ray guns on trucks.

And Yahweh had said:
Mind what you munch.
They fed their cattle their own brains.

Right then, Yahweh said,
you’ve got yourselves a flood.
You take a rest, they said,
leave it to us.


So Apocalypse didn’t take seconds but a century,
and needed no fire or ash.
Wet, warmer, with the atolls underwater,
they became the Etruscans, not quite
the nameless generations with scripts of bone and stone.
The tiger did not thank them, nor the bongo antelope.
We call them the Terminatores.


Southwest of Penzance our engine stopped,
clogged with pumice and ash, the sea’s new algae.
The sail kept still in the tropical darkness
till the current changed and we tillered to safety,
glimpsed shapes in blue light where, like a diver
ascending metre by watery metre,
lava had added again to its seabed cairn,
one more stone on the orbital image,
where insects and arachnids would float to on logs,
gulls nest, seeds and spores in their feathers
and flags take root on the next moon we would land on.


What else, before the ink faded and the Great Crash?
That a squirrel would scamper in and out of parked cars.
One day a sweeper might find it, send it to a landfill or incinerator
or leave it for the circling birds. That at night the rats would run
around the toppled reptiles.


Alistair Noon has been based in Berlin since the early nineties. Recent work of his has appeared at Litter, Jacket, Eyewear and Great Works (you can find links to these poems, as well as links to reviews and articles, via Alistair's myspace page). This June he will be guest-editing an online symposium on the work of Seán Rafferty at Intercapillary Space.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Trajectories by Alan Baker

Arriving by bus in a strange city

Waking in a room
with open curtains
on an indeterminate day

Rooftops gleam in morning light
like difficult decisions

A zone of newly-constructed space
through which adjacent lives might glimpse
a primary school class in 1966
round the piano, singing
'Drink to me only with thine eyes'

Jove's nectar must have been
what my father drank
in brown bottles by the fire and telly,
a tiny silhouette of the Tyne Bridge
on its label


The strange city
becomes accustomed to my eyes,
its trajectory of optimism
takes me to political theory
and the price of coffee in Derby,
where the railways lurk
like Banquo's ghost
at the feast
of business parks
link roads, junctions
airport runways

And I heard it, on TV
after the Hatfield train crash:
The head of the rail network
emerging from a meeting with fellow directors to tell the press:
'we've been thinking unthinkable thoughts'


Fox droppings, fleece on fenceposts,
beyond the field, in mist,
a road hums
with unanswerable knowledge
and bids us be on our way
while it attends to
encroaching cigarette butts
and men with tape measures

The attitudes of harm
are omnipresent,
life as a series of events, some connected,
and the world a theory, waiting to be proved.
 But let's get on with it, you say:
your life
or lives
from 'collateral damage: the movie'
to lists of Jews
to the evening news
and Bethlehem under siege
a front-door shuts
a car passes,
a kettle is filled,
conversation downstairs
and outside the window
tree-lined boulevards lead into spring
advancing sunlight reflects
a rise in the Dow Jones
0% finance
and everything Made In China


Speak to me only with thine eyes
thy lips, thy tongue, thy body
and that voice

I need that voice
like the world needs love

faced with CO2 emissions
and rising seas
I need
a kiss
a cup
and some kind of nectar


Forgotten hopes sidle up
like homeless people
we spare some change for

How long will it be like this?
the ratios of empowerment
bending the odds
spring sunlight jamming the frequencies
air everywhere fair, or might be
And I was therewhen the leather struck the netting
like a speculator opening an account
a blow-by-blow account
of how the world was won
to roars of 'Howay the lads'
as the crowd pours out of the ground
(so many, I had not thought Sunderland had undone so many)
scarves against the cold, beery breath,
winter lights on the ferry
where latecomers watch replays of missed penalties
ghosts of keelboats haul their coal,
and the Captains of Industry think unthinkable thoughts


Along the line of the valley
between Castle Rock and the Trent:
the railway, canal, factories,
once lacework, female labour,
depots and offices designed,
in the seventies
blues clubs and reggae,
and from this vantage
hindsight underestimates


Early evening
cannabis smoke drifts above the festival
stagestruck songbirds singing in the dimness
and the world is full of children,
some of them grey-haired and stooping

A big drag, and then it happened,
the road shining, trees bowing as we passed:
   the new Mazda 20v 1.8ltr 4WD with sunroof 

   because you care about your car 


I like the way you walk
 I like the way you walk
into my life
each day
like someone else's taste in music
their radio playing
'My Baby Wrote Me a Letter'
despatched by night mail
to a dawn platform,
where passenger trains arrive
at a world full of children
each contingent
upon each other
or so the language can say
in its brighter moments
among the jingles and slogans
realised as what words are for

 If you drink to me only with those eyes
I'll take the pledge with mine
O quench that thirst
it's from soul, the heart and soul

Get me a ticket for an aeroplane
an intercity bus, a fast train


Out across the midlands, low hills
motorways and lines of pylons, the airport
and its destinations, hitchikers at the junction
collateral and contingent,
their questions worn like new clothes
doled out to Jarrow marchers

Egg and sausage at the truckers cafe,
strong tea, and we're ready to set out


Alan Baker is the editor of Leafe Press, a publisher of innovative and left-field poetry based in Nottingham. Some of his other poems can be read online at Shearsman and Great Works.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Simon Turner - Writers' Journals and Plain Style: additional note

Further to my rather inconclusive comments earlier, I have managed to stumble upon a passage from Gerard Manley Hopkins' journals which illustrates my point about writers' journals: that they remain 'contemporary' in a manner which their poetry often fails to do. The passage is dated July 11th 1866:

"Oaks: the organisation of this tree is difficult. Speaking generally no doubt the determining planes are concentric, a system of brief contiguous and continuous tangents, whereas those of the cedar wd. roughly be called horizontals and those of the beech radiating but modified by droop and by a screw-set towards jutting points. But beyond this since the normal growth of the boughs is radiating and the leaves grow some way in there is of course a system of spoke-wise clubs of green - sleeve-pieces. And since the end shoots curl and carry young and scanty-leaf stars these clubs are tapered, and I have seen also the pieces in profile with chiselled outlines, the blocks thus made detached and lessening towards the end. However the star knot is the chief thing: it is whorled, whirled round, a little and this is what keeps up the illusion of the tree: the leaves are rounded inwards and figure out ball-knots."

The density of the writing here is familiar to anyone who has read and enjoyed Gerry's poetry, but what is remarkable in this passage is the degree to which it manages to evade the worst excesses of his verse. Yes, it is dense, but is dense in a manner which is more easily adaptable in a contemporary mode. This could well be a personal connection with little basis in any real textual evidence, but this reminds me of Peter Larkin's prose excursions into the woods: the density of description, the jostling of registers (Hopkins' writing in this passage is always moving towards scientific diction, but yet always holding back). Larkin is the more 'modern' of the two, obviously, but the journal places Hopkins far less obviously in his historical era than his poetry does.

The idea of the journal as a means of getting at poetic speed and vividness is by no means a new idea, either. Some of Ted Hughes' most valuable prose material relates to the composition of Moortown Diary, the poems in which were rescued from prose jottings the poet made on the spot as it were. They did not begin life as poems, and as such are released from the burden of finish and formal unity with which we often associate the poem, as opposed to prose. But the poems in Moortown Diary are by no means chopped up prose: they are poetry by virtue of the quickness of expression, the keenness and freshness of Hughes' eye and ear. They are poetry, that is, because of the energy underlying them, an energy more easily tapped because the poems were created before they were conceived of as poems. They might well prove to be his most important work, though I've no doubt I'll receive a barrage of complaints and counter-arguments for that one. If anyone's reading, of course...

Simon Turner - Writers' Journals and Plain Style

I have not been reading a huge amount of poetry of late, but what has caught my attention, for whatever reason, has been a number of writers' journals. And what has struck me has been the modernity of the style on display in these writings, as opposed to the style of their poetry, which can be seen to become quickly outdated. Though perhaps I don't mean modernity as such, but rather the contemporary nature of the writing. For example, Dorothy Wordsworth's Grasmere Journals, and Edward Thomas's 'A Diary in English Fields and Woods', written close to a century apart, share a great deal more in common than their respective poetries. Why might this be? I think it is at least in part due to the fact that in every era, there is a certain idea of what poetry is, what kind of language it should contain, and every subsequent generation after that era inevitably attempts to overthrow those conventions, only for their own innovations to become dry and academic modes later on. So, the revolutionary poetries of Wordsworth, Coleridge, etc, developed into the high Victorian rhetoric that Eliot and Pound found so objectionable. (In their own quiet ways, less overtly modernist writers like Robert Frost and Edward Thomas were also attempting to shift poetic language away from the dead rhetoric of the Victorian era, though with markedly different results to their disruptive peers.) Later, Larkin and his Movement chums, with their simplicity and approachability, seemed to offer a way out of the complexities and tendencies towards elitism inherent in high modernism. Yet again, however, this reaction birthed its own counter-argument, and Larkin in particular has become something of a bug-bear for the alternative end of the poetry world due to his rejection of foreign poetries, his small minded Englishness, and his closing down of poetic possibilities. He would have been appalled by everything that makes the modern poetry scene so enthralling - from Prynne to performance poetry - and that can only be a good thing.

Anyway, back to my main point - if I had one at all. As I have attempted to show, in my deeply partisan overview above, poetic styles tend to go out of fashion pretty quickly. Journals, on the other hand, last longer, give or take a few aspects of phrasing or vocabulary, precisely because they are not intended for public consumption. Like it or not, every time we set out to write a poem, we are - consciously or otherwise - aware at some level that there is a poetry 'scene', that there are certain expectations for the modern poem (wherever we might stand on the mainstream-alternative axis), that 'thees' and 'thous' and 'myriads' went out with ruffs and top hats. In many ways, this is a good thing - no one wants to read a magazine full of poems who have no idea of the innovations which have occurred in modern poetry in the last hundred years - but it is equally rather restrictive in a number of ways, too. I generally don't get blocked in any serious way, thankfully, but whenever I do, it happens when I've sat down at my desk with the express purpose of writing a poem. The moment that happens, when I put on my poetry hat - and I have one too: a dark green and red tartan beanie - spontaneity flies out the window. The journal, on the other hand, existing as it does outside poetic style and the vicissitudes of the publishing market, allows for far greater freedom. One is less concerned with striving after meaning and perfection, and as such real poetry is often more likely to be found.

There is no doubt more to be said on this topic - I'm aware that I've quoted nothing from the journals I've mentioned - but that will have to wait for a day when I can muster more intellectual energy, I'm afraid. Saturdays aren't built for literary criticism.