Thursday, 13 December 2012

Dalkey Archive Press Call for Submissions!

The Editors just saw this tasty bit of literary history in the making. John O'Brien, founder and editor in chief of world-renowned leftfield literary press the Dalkey Archive Press, has published his first prose-poem! Titled 'Employment', the work runs with an unusually playful and aggressive tone, deploying a well-known corporate formal structure to deconstruct rising unemployment rates in recession-hit Western economies. It is also, we believe, a covertly ingenious approach to the unremittingly boring tradition of calls for submissions.

We reproduce the piece in full here, assuming it to be published under a creative commons licence. However, you may wish to read it at source, to verify whether we have taken it out of context.




December 11, 2012

Dalkey Archive Press has begun the process of succession from the founder and current publisher, John O'Brien, to a publishing house that will be directed by two-three people along with support staff. With the recent decision to expand our London office and make London the base of European operations, the Press seeks to develop its staff there. Who will take on leadership positions at the Press over the next few years will be the result of this transitional process. The pool of candidates for positions will be primarily derived from unpaid interns in the first phase of this process, although one or two people may be appointed with short-term paid contracts.
    The Press is looking for promising candidates with an appropriate background who: have already demonstrated a strong interest in literary publishing; are very well read in literature in general and Dalkey Archive books in particular; are highly motivated and ambitious; are determined to have a career in publishing and will sacrifice to make that career happen; are willing to start off at a low-level salary and work their way upwards; possess multi-dimensional skills that will be applied to work at the Press; look forward to undergoing a rigorous and challenging probationary period either as an intern or employee; want to work at Dalkey Archive Press doing whatever is required of them to make the Press succeed; do not have any other commitments (personal or professional) that will interfere with their work at the Press (family obligations, writing, involvement with other organizations, degrees to be finished, holidays to be taken, weddings to attend in Rio, etc.); know how to act and behave in a professional office environment with high standards of performance; and who have a commitment to excellence that can be demonstrated on a day-to-day basis. DO NOT APPLY IF ALL OF THE ABOVE DOES NOT DESCRIBE YOU.
      We certainly seek people with relevant experience, but just as important or more so, we seek people who know what a job is, are able to learn quickly, are dedicated to doing excellent work, can meet all deadlines, and happily take on whatever needs to be done. Attitude and work habits, along with various skills, are just as important as experience and knowledge.
    Any of the following will be grounds for immediate dismissal during the probationary period: coming in late or leaving early without prior permission; being unavailable at night or on the weekends; failing to meet any goals; giving unsolicited advice about how to run things; taking personal phone calls during work hours; gossiping; misusing company property, including surfing the internet while at work; submission of poorly written materials; creating an atmosphere of complaint or argument; failing to respond to emails in a timely way; not showing an interest in other aspects of publishing beyond editorial; making repeated mistakes; violating company policies. DO NOT APPLY if you have a work history containing any of the above.
     The areas of work for which the Press seeks candidates are the following, perhaps in the order of importance, but with all initially being equal to one another, and in the order that have the most promise for long-term employment:

1. Personal Assistant to the Publisher, part of which will be to learn how to raise funds for the Press, travel with the Publisher to other countries when necessary, meet all key authors the Press publishes, learn the history of the Press and its culture, work closely with all of those the Publisher must work with, be a liaison between the Publisher and other staff, know what the Publisher needs or wants before he does; in brief, do whatever the publisher needs done so that he can concentrate on major projects that this person will also be involved in; this is best suited for a younger person who wants to learn publishing directly from a founder;

2. Development/fundraising: maintain a fundraising/grant-writing schedule/calendar; write all grants and make solicitations from individuals; develop an annual fundraising plan; travel to meet funders;

3. Office Manager: keeping of financial records and ensuring all bills are paid in a timely manner; coordination of intern staff; generating weekly cash flow statements; ensuring timely responses to all website requests; day-to-day assignments from Director as assigned; doing all and everything that will make work for others easier;

4. Production/layout/design: manage all aspects of the production schedule, ensuring pub dates are held firm; layout of all Dalkey Archive books; work with printers; create promotional materials; work closely with designers and may also do design work;

5. Editor: assist publisher with contracts and acquisitions; generate reader reports; copy-edit; proofread;

6. Publicist: arrange for reviews/publicity and plan events for Dalkey Archive books and authors;

7. Marketing Manager: liaise with the Press's distributor, WW Norton & Co.; work with the Press’s publicist to ensure publicity increases sales; develop marketing plans;

8. Web Manager: maintain the Press’s website and update content as needed.

By the end of--or even sooner--of the internship/trial period, both the candidate and the Publisher should know that the Press needs the person and would be making a major mistake not to maintain the person for the future.
   Applications will be ongoing, and internships/positions will be filled when and if the right people are found. Candidates should assume a start date of mid-to-late January, depending upon which position is being applied for. Early applications are encouraged so that you will not be disappointed a position has already been filled.

   To apply, send the following to John O’Brien, : a letter explaining the basis of interest in the position, why you want to work at Dalkey Archive Press, why you're qualified, and why we would be foolish--in light of your knowledge, skills, and experience--not to want you to be an important part of the Press. Also attach a current CV including three references and their contact details. Assume that you will begin to be evaluated as soon as your application arrives. And also assume that you will be one of the unpaid interns until you are ready to take on all the responsibilities of a position.  Incomplete applications will not be considered.
We will not be able to acknowledge receipt of applications or provide feedback about your application. We will contact only those people whom we wish to ask further questions of or that we intend to interview. Do not contact us about your application.
      Candidates from EU countries are encouraged, but if English is not your first language, you must have a very high level of both verbal and written skills.


Perhaps the language does become a little monotone about halfway through. And there's a lack of prosodic control, although this does speak to the relentlessness of the capitalist drive to accumulate and its unsustainability in a world littered with the carcasses of environmental exploitation, lives ruined by burn out on the treadmills of venture investing, and the casualties of shock doctrine.

It's a good thing to know that leftfield presses, even at the height of capitalist fundamentalism and the normalisation of structural violence by the powerful, even as the resistance to these mechanisms seems at its loudest in the chanting of not just the 99%, but the 2bn people on the planet living in poverty - it's good to know this bastion of literary experimentation and structural challenge, is upholding a long and, well, long, tradition of publishing house rigour and, well, rigour.

Clearly this is a call for submissions to a new magazine or anthology being launched by Dalkey Archive Press! It is probably called 'Recession'. The first issue invites creative responses on the theme of 'Employment', taking on the formal tropes of the job application, playing with the medium of the reference letter, the constraints of the curriculum vitae and the cover letter.

The Editors of G&P wholeheartedly encourage its readers to send in ten, or even twenty submissions to this exciting new project! For ourselves, we'll see if we can reach thirty applications, although you know how time-consuming these things are and we've a full time blogzine to run, which has already put paid to our personal lives, social skills and even allowed some of our leg muscles to atrophy.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Palette and Page: form and OuLiPo

George Ttoouli ruminating like a ruminant on issues of poetic form...

I had an interesting argument with someone recently (Jonathan Skinner in fact, and I don't know whyI need to be reticent about his name, he's a man of vast intelligence), that led me to thinking whether form is different to constraint, or that shape is different to constraints. This in response to a discussion of Oulipian procedural constraints as different to traditional ideas of poetic form. I see these elements as contigently dependent, or overlapping, in the manner of a Venn diagram, to the point that those brief elements you might argue lie outside of the nearly-equalised sets of the two terms, in the manner of two spotlights not quite perfectly overlaid, could easily be accommodated into equalisation through a little bit of thinking.

So, while the procedural constraints of Georges Perec's La Disparation might not appear to be a 'shaping' factor, or formal rule, it does restrict the words he may use in the way that, say, asserting the length of a poem called a 'sonnet' can. If a sonnet is a rule that starts by cutting out of the morass of blank page a small edifice, the size of a room of one hundred and forty syllables, or seventy stresses, or ten by fourteen, and cetera, a lipogrammatic rule begins by placing its restrictions on the palette with which the poet can build, resulting in a poem of any size or shape, formally speaking.

The argument might then be a distinction between the 'form' of a poem as being that which takes shape on the page; and the 'constraints' of language whereby the means for making those shapes are curtailed. However, to complicate this, words come with little rule packages for how they can be deployed on the page: they are verbs, they are nouns, they are articles definite and indefinite. "Slowly accommodation the the and" makes bugger all communicative sense, non? However, it is still acceptable in a certain poem (is 'earned by context') if we choose to bend the rules, or break them. That's a given, and part of the point: form earns content, gives content context.

If we constrain the language palette, therefore, creepy little feelers spread out into our capacity to shape language on the page: with the lipogrammatic removal of the letter 'e', we lose the definite article; and syntax gallops in wyrd unfixity, an unabling form aggrandisingly visual in all outbursts. Syntax is the order of language in relation to communication units. Is syntax a constraint, or a form, or the hazy space whereby these two mentally distinct concepts conjugate? (I defy you to find a definition of syntax that doesn't include either the word 'form', or 'rule', or both, and which isn't rubbish.)

If we think of form as a translation of a set of rules into a repeatable abstraction (not as difficult as it sounds*) and that constraints can only be communicated in the same way, or even only refer to the individual rules when the word is taken at face value, then one can start to ask, 'What are the constraints of a sonnet?' If one tries to do the same with procedural poetics - 'What are the constraints of the lipogram?'- a distinction does emerge, of sorts. Constraints begin to fall into the category of rules alone, rather than the wider form; hence constraints are a subset of form. And lipograms begin to manifest more specifically as a type of form, rather than a constraint.

This still leaves a blank in the map where the idea of 'procedurality' lies. Joseph Conte, in Unending Design, suggests certain poetic forms gravitate towards categories of procedural and serial, infinite and finite, predetermined and free. Procedurality is therefore a loose grouping of approaches to form, or forms themselves, as demonstrated by specific poems, where the constraints are set in advance (referring to palette, not shape on the page) of writing. Oulipian forms, such as the beautiful-inlaw and outlaw, demonstrates this as a crossover problem also. Harry Mathews' 'Husserl's Curse' is also a sestina; is this the blending of two distinct practices of rule-making, the one being the palette, the other the page space? Or is it that the two can now go hand in hand, since traditional form has been under sustained testing, attack and experimentation for long enough that we no longer need to see a full distinction?

I sound a little more definite in parts of this than I intended, so hope this won't put off any responses.

* E.g. what is the form of a chair? A floor to arse interface, comprising a construct to provide distance from the floor (legs), a horizontal surface to support the arse (seat) and a vertical surface to support the back (back). Remove the back and you have the abstract form of a stool. Add wheels and a spinning column thing and you get a swivel chair. With inclusion of materials, design aesthetics and so on, you get a specific, (non-Platonic, although arguably the ideal of 'chair' is a non-existence objective) manufacturable chair. The 'form' is translateable into set of written instructions so that another chair may be constructed by someone else. I see this as no different to explaining what a sonnet is, or what a lipogram is.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Blinking to miss it: Isolated Examples of Imaginative Transformation in the writings of Luke Kennard

George Ttoouli has just finished reading Luke Kennard's novella, Holophin...

This is one of those notes to self that feels fresh enough in my thinking that I want to share it here, in case someone else has input. (I'm increasingly using G&P to air ideas I've not got straight in my head, for which, trad-mag readers, I apologise. Go find a weekend supplement, they're more reliable.)

Firstly, Luke Kennard's novella, Holophin. I'm going to try and restrain myself from gushing praise, as Luke is a friend and has had enough PR from me. Read someone else on it: Annexe and also the trailer (rumour has it, Tom Chivers literally hung out of a plane at 25,000 feet to get that footage). It is, of course, wonderful reading, imaginatively fresh, technically surprising... etc. etc. I'm not entirely sure what the crazy chapter between 14 and 15 actually means, but it looks pretty.

Two isolated incidents I want to refer to:

1. In Holophin:

"the ... School's tutors have been re-hired as Learning Resource Managers. The Research Institute is no longer free - a luxury we cannot afford in such straitened times"

(I've elided some of this and not referenced precisely because some of this might constitute a spoiler otherwise.)

2. In Planet Shaped Horse (Nine Arches Press):

"The gate has no lock, but is operated by credit card, // charging you £1,500 each time you swipe to open it" (from 'Snob').

[The latter quotation was embellished by Luke in performance to something like, "£1,500 the first time, then £3,000, rising to £9,000 when you swipe to open it" so more obviously a reference to UK university tuition fees.]

Something I remember Luke saying in response to writing from personal experience: whatever happened to making stuff up?

Here's a writer who's also a university lecturer dishing out poetry about a man recovering from mental health problems waiting in a halfway house, and a[n] SF novella about a world supported by little dolphin stickers, with no little resemblance to Ghost in the Shell crossed with a war between Apple and Microsoft computing and a minor dash of Terminator thrown in for good measure. Plus fairytale, and maybe even The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. I'll stop there, the influences and connections are so manifold as to become meaningless after a while - it is an original synthesis of familiar tropes in a way that utterly delights. (Oh, more gushing...) But it reads fresh, the characters are made up, as far as I can tell, the world distinct from the genre comparisons, despite the odd homage. (This pitches into an awkward discussion about how easy it might be to demonstrate originality, when it's taken to mean organisation of language, rather than structural, or contextual organisation, but let's save that for another day.)

Anyway, two references to the privatisation of education, but transformed into the context of the two books' worlds (which I've elided in the first quote, but read it yourself and decide). I got these references and responded to the satire because it's an issue close to my heart, of course. Does it stand up, or is it a cheap shot at the real world, at contemporary society, which takes you out of the SF?

SF operates in a tension between utopia and reality. The reality we are living, what we understand of the world, its physics and society today, is the reader's point of reference for engaging with the [impossible / extrapolated / speculated / dys- / u-topian] world of an SF story. (SF doesn't have exclusive rights to this, of course, as Planet Shaped Horse demonstrates: an alternative reality world where everything is surreal but plausible through a distorted subjectivity.) Holophin falls into the category of speculative fiction in the main part - a dystopian world loosely based on technological projections and the replacement of nation states by corporations. You could argue there are elements of pure fantasy SF in there, in the context of the implausible energy and material resources that would have to drive Holophin's society (which only gets one minor reference), but let's leave that alone.

Well-executed satire is satisfying, right? Only it does leave you with that bitter taste of reality washing back in after a cool clear dram of escapism. That's called morality, or if I were feeling ungenerous, moralising, but done here in a delightfully Hogarthian way, a non-puritannical 'let's make entertaining stories and be good people at the same time!' kind of thing.

Is it satisfying enough? Here, the transformation of satire on privatisation of university education is entertaining, sure, but that's just one of the three elements of great writing: "magic, story, lesson" as Nabokov put it (PDF link); or in reverse order, 'educate, entertain, enchant' as Peter Blegvad rephrased it. Along with satire, the education of social critique, we want story, the context of the world, but what about enchantment? That feeling of flow that keeps us out of reality and in the story's new world, forgetting all the research I should have been doing this morning, not going to the library to work, because I was reading this book.

I think that came out of the urgency of Hatsuka's story: her relationship to her parents, the tension with Max, the super rich room mate. Then another kind of 'dropping out' of the story arose with a thread centring on depression - something else this shares with Planet Shaped Horse - a treatment that reminded me of Eggers' film version of Where the Wild Things Are, emotionally affecting enought to make me stop and think for a moment, also dropping me out of the flow of reading.

This is all beginning to get a bit incoherent. I have been trying to say something about how Luke has managed to transform elements of his personal experience - for example, university work, no doubt some emotional life as well, to help breathe life into the characters - into something highly entertaining, morally positive, and, within the whole, a sustained degree of enchantment also. Some moments that are so hilarious they put all the cheap chuckles of a 'comic writer' like Bill Bryson into the recycling bin and throw a petrol bomb in after them - equally, moments that drop you out of the story, because you can hear yourself laughing.

Maybe we need these moments - it's not a flaw to say you left the flow of reading, the page-turning. But you're acknowledging those moments when the story made you think, or feel; moments when you remembered you were human. The idea of being fully in the flow of a story would be meaningless without little reminders of the world you have to return to; it might even be a negative thing; you might start believing that you could escape the real world, your problems, rather than only leaving for a while to gain some perspective. (Maybe that's the problem with apathetic social idealism: it isn't facing up to the problems, it's trying to escape. Oh, another can of worms - I'm leaving them in to feed the trolls.)

OK, enough. If someone knows what I was trying to say, please fax it to Luke's departmental office at the University of Birmingham. They're barely funded by taxpayers money these days, so consider it an act of resistance against the Nautilus future I'm trying to prevent (read the book to get the reference). I'll close with a list of names I came up with at one am to describe the colour of Holophin's cover - more suggestions welcome:

Lurid 9

Wallflower Comedown
Grape Grope (sadly, this one exists)
Broken Fuschia
Summer Pervert

Ripe Stains

Culpability Pink

Bubblegum Vulva  (blimey, so is this one)


Holophin was printed in a limited edition hardback run of 300 copies. Less than 100 remain - I know this because I have copy 203 (assuming Tom is as OCD as me and only sends them out in the correct numerical order; also he tweeted about having sold more than two-thirds). It will be out as an e-book in a few months, but trust me, the hardback is beautiful. So is the text, of course. It deserves to sell millions. I haven't read so much joy since Heartsnatcher.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

News - Links - Miscellania

A few resources, following time away and a bit of conferencing (I would write about that, but I have 20,000+ words of uncondensable notes, some of which is slanderous, other parts gurningly idolatrous), which I was hoping Simon would fill here, but he's been up to other things (see end), or possibly not.

- James Womack is running a series of fascinating etymological posts on his blog, Trunt. I was particularly taken by 'blade' after a discussion about the value of originality to ecopoetics last week.

- The aforementioned project Sophie Mayer has been cooking up is live: I Don't Call Myself a Poet. A fascinating database of fixed interviews between students poets at varying stages in their careers. I'm in there (and didn't, unfortunately, send Sophie corrections for the two errors in there), of course, but ignore my casual ranting. There are an astonishing 68 interviews so far and plans to grow this, not just through Sophie's teaching, but an invitation to tutors elsewhere to inspire their students to do the same. (Which reminds me, I should get in touch about that, classes starting in a few weeks.)

- A somewhat anodyne article on Ballard over at the BBC Website, but justified because there can never be too many articles about Jim.

- Forthcoming Radio 3 programme about John Cage, which includes a segment by the wonderful Marjorie Perloff.

- Saul Williams is returning to the UK in late November. I'd really like to get to this, but it's a teaching night, so I'll have to work something out with my students first of all.

- Luke Kennard has not abandoned poetry, but has taken a brief detour into prose: Holophin.

- Peter Riley's grumpy and insightful critiques continue in great spirit over at the Fortnightly Review. Given my participation in Poetry Parnassus as a buddy, and the fact I went to the Poetry Pyjama Party and had a great time (it was completely empty for the first 20min, then people I knew wandered in and we all lay about on the cushions eating sweets and reading poems to each other) AND the fact I spent all of August working on a 6500 word chapter on Riley's Alstonefield for a collection of essays, I feel this link wins me enough good karma to kick a deer to death (to paraphrase Mike Niblett...).

- And finally, in case you thought, like me, that Simon was merely being lazy for most of August, then we were wrong. 'How’s My Driving?' HOW'S MY DRIVING?!? If anyone has time on their hands and is willing to catalogue the random titles Simon spat out of his combobulated mouth in biogs and interviews in the run up to 2010's Difficult Second Album and post them here, I would be very grateful. In fact, on Simon's behalf, please send in titles for his next collection based on his mugshot photograph. An opening suggestion: Attack of the Man Hand. (Incidentally, I just noticed the article went live in July, so who knows what Simon's really been up to in August?)

Friday, 17 August 2012

'lyric urgency' vs. 'stratified histories of place' (Skoulding)

George Ttoouli on Keats vs. Critchley / mystery vs. expression

A new web project by Sophie Mayer kicks off in September, which you'll have to wait for. More details when it launches, but I was skimming through the draft interviews and was struck by a number of poets who claimed to have started writing because of reading Keats – myself included. This got me thinking about inspiration and background. For many it's the poets we encounter in school, often the familiar, white, male curriculum names like Keats and Wordsworth, which decide if we'll chime or not with the wider world of poetry. And of that familiar library, Keats stands out when you're young and impressionable.

Something Zoe Skoulding says in her editorial to the latest Poetry Wales: “Perhaps there are certain kinds of poems that are more easily written in youth, if lyric urgency is considered the ultimate value of the poem. However, age offers something else... a nuanced identification with the stratified histories of place.” Keats has that lyric urgency in abundance, a young poet who speaks to young poetry readers. He chimes, he captures youthful activity, even while his technical skill remains immature at times (though highly advanced for his age, but noticeable more in poems peripheral to his canonised odes and narratives) and his leaping at emotion is often uncomplicated by experience, still fixated on the passions and disillusionments of coming of age.

This led me briefly into wondering about the problems inherent in poets who aren't culturally rooted in British Romanticism, but are curricularised by a British Council-driven literary mould. My recent tastes stem from immersion in more experimental writing, kickstarted by university library shelves, which were stocked by the staunch, brilliant, alternatively-bespectacled perspective of Peter Larkin. (Names like Geoffrey Hill, John James, JH Prynne; Frances Horovitz, Marianne Moore and Lyn Hejinian, which I read randomly, with no sense of connections, movements, history. The gaps in my grasp of aesthetic grouping, in literary inheritance, are still vast.)

A sidenote emerges from this. The curriculum didn't teach me about poetry that is self-conscious about its processes, its intentions, that states within it an aesthetic manifesto. Take Olson's declaration of 'SPACE' in Call Me Ishmael, or (another recent joy to read) Emily Critchley's broadside on his masculine opening of the field (in the Spring 2012 issue of Poetry Wales), 'Some Curious Thing II': “& the extent to which SPACE is constructed in gendered terms is an interesting question / it is always an interesting question to write back the projection of body or SPACE or / urban creatures, who look suddenly cute snuffling round in the trash”. Critchley's subject is, in part, social organisation and social thought, but primarily you get a sense of the theory of space, of poetics, of a particular brand of feminism. The poem doesn't just enact space in its extravagantly long lines, its almost-prose, but discusses that formal tradition of projectivism and gender in theoretical terms. In other words, it 'nuances' itself with a sense of historical positioning, to return to Skoulding's phrase again, with an exposition of source. It joins the river and doesn't pretend it was born a fully formed Sealife Centre. (I've also started watching dolphin documentary The Cove, which is astonishing, upsetting, and points to the political problems in hiding one's roots/sources.)

Keats goes for the jugular of the emotion, not exposing, perhaps not aware of, the concepts feeding his poem. The narrative and imagery carry the meaning; the source of these things is glossed, not the point of the poetry. But the prosody works within formal, conservative lines to convey very subtle enforcements of content; and the content is patriarchal, lusty, laden with the kind of stock fantasies that frankly, a male poet writing today ought to question. (I know, a gross oversimplification, but up to a point very few British canonised poets methodically counter the pentametric conservative social values that make me think of women in corsets and white men killing natives on a tennis lawn).

By contrast, Critchley and Olson, in these particular pieces I've mentioned, work from a structural challenge to the norms of poetic tradition, using the essay form, prosaic lines, a splattergun of page space (yes, that's a technical term), while also incorporating a discussion of their respective counter-approaches as an additive to traditional ideas of a poem's subject. The world is not seen or represented directly, in either series; instead, the camera's focus is on the interaction between ideas about the world and the point where the physical world meets those ideas. (And while Olson still hasn't shuck off that patriarchal stuff, he at least invites a degree of interrogation of his SPACES and now this discussion sounds like it's heading towards latex gloves and stripsearches...)

And I said to myself, mid-ponder, No, self-reflexivity seems a little too irritating, too much a metastatic contagion, with an emphasis on the 'static'. Yes the focus has moved one place along to promote understanding about human perspective, but there's the danger of total detachment from the world. Or something like that. I think I need to unpick that a little, because it doesn't mean either Olson's or Critchley's poetry leaves me cold – far from it. But that when it's mishandled, this technique of exposing one's own processes, one's thinking, one's skeleton, is at risk of losing its reference in the actual world.

Then, in the spirit of this kind of poetry, I started asking where this particular argument comes from. It's from reading Keats, isn't it? It's from being moulded by the kind of poetry that isn't interested in its own processes, in exposing its mechanical operations – what's the phrase from architecture? structural expression? – but instead progresses by a kind of mystery, or worse, mysticism, in how the language comes by its emotive and intellectual qualities. The one or the other should be decided by the purpose of the poem.

At this point I'm purely speculating, but isn't the 'mysterious' approach, as against the 'expressed' one of transparency vs. snobbery? Is there a conflicting political demonstration in which of these directions you choose to take your own poetry? Even 'leftist' poetry can have within it an authoritarian control, a sense of wanting to cover its traces - a condescension towards the reader. And sometimes right-leaning poetry works towards justifying its content with questions and an exposition of process, while also carrying a kind of elitist closure. Keats seems decidedly mysterious when compared to Wordsworth's deeper interrogations of process and the self's relation to environment, for example.

Again, a simplification, as I think this is one of the discussions that Simon and I consistently return to, although the conversation tends to sit on the tails of particular poets who do or don't fulfil our preferences, without travelling much distance into the wider picture. Perhaps that would be stating the obvious too much? But this also seems to be a criticism we've had of one poet we've encountered recently, [name deleted, we may get to this in full], who has the strength of a massive marketing machine behind them, but little discussion of where their poetics comes from. But for now I'll stop where I am and see if anyone has ideas for ways to take this further - reading, ideas, examples, etc.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Seeing Being Human...

George Ttoouli reviews a new theatrical production based on the Bloodaxe anthology, Being Human...

Simon has asked what I've been up to. In the words of Bugsy Malone, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. One thing is certain, I have forgotten how to review things. So, I did see Being Human, a theatrical production of selections from the Bloodaxe anthology of the same title, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry; but every time I try to write down my reaction to the show, I seem to fall into stock phrases.

Which is not exactly, but might be, a review of the poetry in the book. While there are many recognisably poem-y poems, surprises - both names and poems - jump out at you. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology – Staying/Being Alive – there's a marvellously wide range of poets on show, from Fernando Pessoa and Mohja Kahf to Tomas Transtromer and Selima Hill. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology, there's a thinner range of poetics on show. So, for example, Pessoa's nuttier verse is overlooked in favour of the somewhat didactic 'To be great, be whole'; and Kahf's resoundingly confrontational and very funny 'Hijab Scene #7' has its punchline and sassiness, but is a relatively conventional performance piece once the very contemporary content is set aside. Gregory Corso's 'The Whole Mess... Almost' and Transtromer's 'April and Silence' stand out for their surprising constructions, images, syntax, so experiment isn't absent, simply slightly muted here.

I'm specifically mentioning these poems because they comprise some of the selection for the stage show. Being Human uses three actors to perform thirty four poems chosen from the book (I counted 'em, they're listed in the programme) as a way of presenting a perspective on the human condition. A worthy ambition and here it's carried off with panache. The three actors take it in turns to perform one or two pieces, using light-touch props, mostly based around a domestic kitchen scene with a solid wooden table and simple lighting, which progressively (particularly in the second half) steps up into more mystical, placeless set pieces.

Edip Cansever's poem 'Table' (trans. Julia Clare & Richard Tillinghurst) is used three times to excellent effect to tie the thematic approach together; the first is literal, and passed me by as little more than a good poem and a matter of fact statement, but the later two renditions expand the meaning and significance of not just the poem, but the whole show, to beautiful effect.

The three performers, dressed in white, each have their own strengths in performing. While Elinor Middleton's voice at times lacks the strength of the other two, she compensates with emotional depth. She delivers the most moving part of the whole, which had most of the audience, myself included, sobbing. I've thought Paul Durcan's poetry to be a little hit and miss from what I've read, though very striking when it works, but Middleton's rendition of 'Golden Mothers Driving West' is utterly, heartbreakingly brilliant. Benedict Hastings has a strong, bold, actor-y voice, though at times I wondered if certain poems weren't quite pitched right, that his delivery sometimes missed opportunities for impact and meaning. Barrett Robertson, however, was just fantastic. His voice bombed out for the (less subtle) performance poems, at others dropped to a stage whisper that remained fully potent. His rendition of Cansever's 'Table' marked a turning point in the show's tone, into something dark, utterly essential to human experience.

The kind of poetry that crosses over into theatre these days tends to be performance poetry masquerading as stand up comedy, or a one-actor show with a bit of rhyme or thematic unity thrown in. I can't say I want to launch it all into the sun, but there's a way some people have of reading poems that doesn't just clutter the meaning with externally imposed rhythms, but pretty much destroys any audience engagement with anything in the poem, focusing attention on the performer's ego. I'll spare you a lengthier diatribe; the performances in Being Human will restore your faith in poetry in performance, and not just if you've had a bad run of open mic nights. Even the minor niggles I've pointed to above didn't detract from the over all wow-ness of seeing poetry made personal, relevant.

Yes, I could go on a little bit (as Jorie Graham once argued) about how a vocal rendition of a poem might emphasise one meaning over another, while a page reading allows many meanings to surface simultaneously, but that's a moot point. If you're making a decision to perform poetry, then the decision here is right: let the performance serve the poem. And the direction as to how to read each piece showed great attention to letting the language do the work. The actors used few semantics during each reading, once their poses and props were fixed in place, giving listeners a chance to create the poems for themselves. By the second half, I found myself disappearing into each scene, letting the images take over what my eyes were looking at.

OK, so I've glided fully into review mode, probably cruising at about a thousand feet now. I want to say something about storytelling, about how these poems use narrative extremely well, create their own scenes and pictures, but I'm mostly thinking of the performance of Paul Durcan's poem which achieved that the best. I want to say that the poems set scenes better than most drama I've seen lately – as with Transtromer's piece, or Corso's (a line about a prisoner painting the bars of his cell sky blue stuck in mind) – because some directors (film included) seem to think spectacle - CGI and lavish set design - can take the place of the human imagination. Well, you know what I'm trying to say about Being Human, which I should probably sum up in review mode as, Go see it.

Switching back to my G&P critical hat, though, I did want to point to one surprising aspect to the whole production in how it treated the conventions of theatre. The usual act of sitting in a seat, listening to actors speak lines written for the closed reality of the stage, in a way that often leans on the conventions of vocal training that drama drums up for itself when it's spent too long away from the real world... Anyway, you look at the stage, the constant (slightly militaristic?) thematic music in the background, the three thespians in their staged white clothes, and you expect something to come out of their mouths. A certain kind of delivery, a certain kind of conventional, RADA-trained performance. And suddenly they're saying the maddest things. Even the most familiar poeticisms feel enlivened by this staging – trained vocal chords, smooth, almost conversational tonality, control of physical movements and environment to give language its full due. When you put Being Human up against other attempts to perform poetry, like Daisy Goodwin's awful television series (sorry to any readers who had repressed those memories), or some of the overly-precious attempts that sometimes feature on Poetry Please, then this production shines.

Sure, you can't beat Paul Muldoon doing Paul Muldoon, but that's not what Being Human sets out to achieve. This is in the rhapsodic tradition, memorists bringing poetry to audiences that won't go out to see a lesser-spotted versifier; and it works extremely well.

As far as I know, the idea for these shows comes out of the mind of Jonathan Davidson, of Midlands Creative Projects. In his quest to make live poetry events tolerable, Davidson has pushed against traditional event formats and resisted going down certain paths, like slamming, or leaning heavily on celebrity to bolster audiences. Credit where credit is due here: this is pioneering work taken well beyond beta testing. An anthology that hadn't jumped up on my radar becomes an amazing theatrical experience here.

Just a few weeks ago, watching the Jubilee celebrations in all their glorious crassness, I couldn't help thinking about how well managed the stage was, the set up, but also that there should have been some poetry alongside all that kitsch synth pop. It starts to sound much of a muchness when it's crammed together like that. Nothing like interluding for five minutes with a spot of poetry; certainly beats idiotic, tax-dodging comedians attempting to read an auto-cue.* Anyway, if it does happen, someone should ask Jonathan Davidson to take care of the poetry segments. Judging by this show, he'd do an amazing job of it.


* Simon, run that bit past our legal team, would you, before this goes live?


There are more dates in the recent future, at Bury St. Edmunds and Ledbury Poetry Festival. The website is here. Don't bother trying to google the show, you'll get spammed with that TV show of the same name...

Friday, 22 June 2012

What Is 'What It Is Like' Like?

Charles North, What it is Like: New and Selected Poems (Turtle Point Press / Hanging Loose Press, 2011)

"Your recent letter is so stupid so utterly moronic its
a little difficult to believe it was
written by a human being let alone someone
who made it past second grade you
miserable bastard do you eat
from a plate thanks for your letter of January 5th
I enjoyed getting it"

North, from 'The Postcard Element in Winter', WIIL, 74.


"The greenish yellow of the gingkos downstairs against the dun of the building.  The dawn.  No the dun.  Dawn would be more interesting. - It's dun.  Overturned in absentia, pulverized and left to sit out in the flocked atmosphere above Broadway: a horizontal heap, that leaves the orange girder on the sidewalk while deconstructing the roof with (ah!) orange streamers."

North, from 'Aug.-Dec. for Jimmy Schuyler', WIIL, 139-40.

"Well, first of all, the one thing that we were all in agreement with was that there should be no program, and that the poem, as we imagined it, should be the possibility of everything we have as experience.  There should be no limit of a programmatic order."

John Ashbery in conversation with Robert Creeley, quoted in a Paris Review interview with Creeley, from The Beat Writers at Work (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 80.  

"If someone is hammering
below, smoothing out our street,
no one is fixing coffee in
a room gradually filling with paintings,
each transforming the room into
an awareness of its lack,
or mine, leaving music
as the prime consolation for the inability
to leave the body, except insofar
as music throws off her clothes
to reveal her secret self:
the absence of a secret."

North, from 'A Note on Labour Day', WIIL, 88.

"The scene he had thus encountered or constructed in his attentive, imaginary travels provoked a sense in him less of desire than of hopeful curiosity.  He felt that something new had been promised him, new, agreeable, and perhaps illuminating.  The promise immediately restored his gift for noticing small, attractive anomalies in the course of his ordinary life.  At lunch his place was set with a fork to the left of his plate, another fork to the right of his plate.  On his way to the beach, a short clothesline sagged inexplicably with the weight of a single stiff, fluffy diaper."

Harry Mathews, 'The Way Home', in The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Chicago and Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2002), 83.


August 25, 1970
"The wind is making a noise like a tennis racquet, the water is roughly rippled and the waves - if that isn't too big a word for them - stay in one place, just flashing their fingers at you.  Now the wind means business and sounds determined.  It takes the window in its mouth and gives it a good hard shake.  To which the birch scrub responds by bending way over, once, from the ankles."

The Diary of James Schuyler, edited by Nathan Kernan (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 86. 

                                                   "I'm increasingly aware of
the fragile fortifications between dusk and evening, as though
the former had been erected only for the latter to knock it down. . . ."

North, from 'Boul' Mich', WIIL, 218-219.


Joe Brainard, from Amazing But True (via Ian Pindar's blog)

"It was like blowing your thoughts over the chord changes of everyday whatever life.  Endless lines of words that you followed if only because you couldn't see their ends.  The connection with jazz here is obvious: improvisation.  Nobody had ever spoken to me of writing in this way.  I had thought the writer must first have it all in his head and only then put it into words, but no.  I began to see how it was really excitingly done: You wrote from what you didn't know toward whatever could be picked up in the act.  Poetry starts here."

Clark Coolidge, Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1999), 16-17.

"Some days have a soul.  Others
are pasted on like labels on
Italian tomato cans, cherry red, grass green
and an unearthly blue like a football team
on a billboard.  I know it's
supposed to be intimate."

North, from 'Poem ("Sad not")', WIIL, 273.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Simon Turner - New Links

Just a swift notelet to point you lovely people to some new links to sites that have caught my attention recently: Ian Pindar's excellent blog, and the equally excellent e-zine Wave Composition.  Seriously, just look at the list of interviewees in issue 4.  My poetry gland is swollen with joy at the prospect of reading them.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

CMTJ Collaboration Postcards

Via The Other Room and Andrew Bailey (who has a new Enitharmon book out, which I will be grilling him about some time in the future - I can't be more specific than that, I am not to be trusted with time commitments), I found...


I don't quite know what it is. Chris McCabe and Tom Jenks, collaborating for the third time (if so, where are the other collaborations?) on a series of references to classic British seaside resorts, mostly modernist British (or Anglo-American) poets and poetry, and characters from popular B&W television, or slightly more contemporary gameshows, including Family Fortunes, Frankie Howard and the Carry On team.

I think my favourite is Kenneth Williams playing William Carlos Williams (#10 TJ) but the first one, pictured above, is suitably silly also.

If anyone can work out what that bloody sausage/wiener is doing in there, I'd be grateful to have it explained. I wouldn't put it past them, based on what I do get, to have inserted it as an incredibly crude phallic symbol, but, well, but... I was hoping for something more intelligent I might have missed?


Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Ashbery, Iambics, and Ken Dodd - An Interview with C J Allen

Simon Turner: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. As per your agent's request, I'm going to avoid tackling your controversial time with the Bush administration's Propaganda Division, and head straight on to your current civilian role as a poet. I've noticed something of a resurgence of interest of late in poetic formalism: Penned in the Margin's Adventures in Form is probably the most visible example of this, but individual poets like Matthew Welton, Jeremy Over, Sam Riviere and Philip Terry (and plenty of others I'm sure) seem to be engaged seriously with questions of form's relationship with the construction of meaning, which suggests it's an exciting time to be a formalist of some stripe or other. Your own poetry seems to be comparably wide reaching in its formal devices - your new book has an exploded sonnet and a long sequence based on a chess game, among other approaches - so I wondered, really, if you saw yourself as part of this tide of formal experimentation, and, in addition, what draws you to play with form(s) in the way(s) you do?

C J Allen: Yes, those were crazy days in the Pentagon, but now it’s time to move on ... Form is pretty central to my poetry, I think. Matthew Welton comments somewhere that much of his time is spent thinking about how his poems are ‘organised’, & I feel similarly about my own work. I ‘came to’ poetry from two rather unliterary places, really: song and radio comedy. My teenage years were the heyday of the singer-songwriter genre & I spent most of the seventies listening to that sort of thing, writing my own sub-standard songs & playing them to occasionally generous & often quite justifiably hostile audiences in & around West Yorkshire. The Sunday afternoons of my pre-teen years were dedicated to listening to the likes of Ken Dodd & Al Reed on the radio & it was from that that I learned about the power of language harnessed to a keen sense of rhythm & timing. Both songs & jokes are ways of structuring & patterning language with a view to achieving a sort of heightened effect. And that’s essentially where I’ve landed with my poems. I need some kind of framework against which I can brace the use of words, as well as something to stop me saying everything, if you know what I mean. The sonnet, for example, has been serving this purpose for 500 years (and of course has the additional benefit of somehow managing to be the perfect ‘size’ for the expression of an idea). Almost all the poems in At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms deploy form of one sort or another. They’re more or less all metrical & scanned, several use rhyme & the two long prose-poems (‘Kasparov versus the World’ & ‘Lemonade’) are actually written in a loose (if somewhat buried) iambic pentameter. It’s a bit of a chestnut, I know, but form forces you to work harder with the language, pushes you to extend your immediate vocabulary & disrupts your trains of thought. These are all essential things for those of us who aren’t Shakespeare. So it’s not so much that I feel part of any movement or fashion for formal experimentation, it’s more that I don’t think I could write poems that didn’t use some sort of form.

ST: Yes, that's been my experience, too. There's a cliche, I think, that suggests that form somehow restricts your language and your choices - and in many ways it does, deliberately so - but it's equally liberating to use it: it opens up new channels of language and imagery that might otherwise have been closed to you. Free verse is sometimes - often, I think - a trap, which allows you to say what's already been said, in ways that can be over-familiar. That might sound counter-intuitive but it's been my experience, and anecdotally from other writers, I've noted the same thing.

Interesting that you mention music and comedy as the starting points for your life as a poet. I find that the most exciting work in any field tends to be that which acknowledges innovations in other media and forms. Burroughs (I think it was in The Job, a collection of interviews) noted that his cut-up method was nothing new, that it was old hat in modernist composition and painting, and film is basically collage turned to narrative ends. Do forms and genres beyond the bounds of poetry continue to inform your writing? Are there any particular artists, musicians, etc, whose sense of structure have been a particular influence on your writing?

CJA: I always wanted to be a painter. At first, I think, because I liked the silence & the aesthetically concentrated atmosphere of art galleries, & later because art students appeared to have the best time. I liked the smell of linseed oil & the way they hardly ever seemed to do anything. I envied what I thought of as their cool insouciance. Sadly, I was thwarted in my ambition by a complete lack of talent. My fascination with visual art has continued though & I’ve often written about it. There’s a poem in the new book, ‘Wooden Boulder’, which is based around a film and a sculpture of that name by the great British sculptor, David Nash. After it won the Ilkley Poetry Competition I sent a copy to him & it was one of the many unexpected pleasures of my writing life when he wrote back & we engaged in a correspondence about the work & the poem. I was also fortunate enough, a few years ago now, to be commissioned to produce some poetry that was used as part of a sculpture project in the Peak District. I worked with the sculptor Val Carman & came up with some verses that were engraved onto a granite piece she designed. That’s now installed at a permanent site at Curbar Edge in the Derbyshire Peaks. Knowing that what you write is literally going to be carved in stone really focuses the mind, I found. And going back even further, I wrote a piece for the Retina Dance Company’s production, ‘Eleven Stories from the Body’, which they somehow (I never figured out exactly how) interpreted in their choreography. Dancing to poetry. It really happened.

I still love songs of course & I still find songs inspiring, but in a more roundabout way these days. It’s more a question of tone than content, I think. Having said that, there’s a lot to be learned from the wry intelligence of Randy Newman’s writing, for example, & some of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics seem to have an enduring value for me. I don’t mean to suggest that song equals poetry. It doesn’t; not for me anyway. But there’s definitely something about, say, some of Hank Williams’ songs – the words + the music + his voice – that results in a quality for which there isn’t really another word apart from poetry.

ST: Simon Armitage blew the whole gaff, didn't he, when he wrote that book [Gig, apparently] essentially outing himself as a failed rock star, which suggests that most poets are failed somethings: musicians, painters, film directors, cat burglars. Has anyone since Dylan Thomas really yearned to be a poet, really felt that it's a calling? Maybe, though it's unfashionable to say so. I suppose that explains why poetry is such a draw: it's an attempt - at least, this is how I see it; it might not be true for anyone else, really - to put into words something which transcends language, that cannot be transcribed in conventional terms - hence poetry, which supposes a degree of a- or anti-logic in its processes, as opposed to prose which is, with some exceptions, essentially a linear, logical mode of composition. Poetry is always at some level a record of failure: every poem haunted by the ghosts of their Platonic ideals. I was struck by the fact that many of the things that you say drew you to painting are at odds with or extraneous to language: the silence of art galleries, the smell of the paint. Is that why poets are often drawn to painters and musicians as aesthetic models - that music and the visual image are somehow purer expressions of what poems aspire to, but can never quite achieve? Or is it simply the more pragmatic matter of trying to kickstart the writing process with some external material?

CJA: A lot of male poets do seem to have that rock star manqué thing going on, don’t they? Paul Muldoon (great poet with terrible mid-life crisis garage band project ‘Rackett’), for example. I like to think I got a head start on that part of my mid-life crisis in my late teens/early twenties. But did I ever ‘yearn’ to be a poet? Well, I always sort of liked the idea of being a poet, but in common with the overwhelming majority of the population I had no real terms of reference for how you made that happen; whereas whilst I don’t think I ever truly imagined I could do anything significant with my song-writing*, I knew it involved getting a guitar, learning to play it, writing songs & then finding somewhere to play them. All of which seemed if not likely then at least possible. In that sense my interest in poetry was brewing & bubbling away underneath it.

[*I did, however, achieve 45 glorious seconds of radio fame when I wrote & sold a jingle to commercial radio for Morrison’s Supermarkets in 1976.]

I certainly feel an affinity with your comment about poetry being at some level a record of failure. In my poem ‘Poem’ (from the 2011 collection Violets) I talk about a poem being ‘... a doomed struggle against the world, a series / of failures that add up to something more important / than its success.’ Which is partly about accepting the difficulty of the craft, the limits of language, partly about the obscurity of the contemporary poet & partly about acknowledging the fact that poetry is something worth working at because, if you get it right, it will endure. As the Bard says, ‘So long lives this and this gives life etc.’

I think poets, like all artists, are – almost by definition – interested in creativity as much as they are in the world. So they’re drawn to other art works as examples of the creative act. And this raises interesting ideas & questions. Can music say things that words can’t? Well, yes, but then words can say things that music can’t, & so on. A dialogue between different art forms – like Wallace Stevens’ meditation on Picasso’s ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ or John Ashbery’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’– address the human condition through a discussion of how we address the human condition. Strewth, I’ve given myself a bit of a headache there.

ST: Don't worry: headaches are part and parcel with thought. I don't know if you ever saw Futurama, Matt Groening's wonderful post-Simpsons science fiction comedy, but one of the characters in that describes an idea as 'a headache with pictures', which seems apt. It also serves as a perfect summation of many of the middle portions of the Cantos, but that's by the by.

While we're on the issue of art about art, I've noticed a trend in your work of poems that seem as concerned with the process of making the poem as they are with the material that goes into its making (or perhaps more correctly, poems which see their own processes as valid and indeed valuable sources of inspiration in their own right). You mentioned 'Poem' above, but your new slim vol. has quite a number of pieces that are comparably self-aware, that serve as ars poeticae (is that right? I'm a product of comprehensive schooling, so don't have the Latin), even when they're dressed in the guise of something else entirely (I was thinking in particular of some of your animal poems* - 'Snail Explains', for example, or 'Hens and Happiness', which is aside from anything else a fantastic evocation of how it feels to be in the poetry-writing mood - though of course there are poems that deal with the issue more explicitly, too. 'Lines' is a particular favourite, though I'm biased, as I love lists). It made me wonder about your writing processes: do you find yourself with an itch to write about a subject, only for it to turn inexorably into a meditation on writing; or do you begin with an element of poetry composition that you want to explain or examine, and then go about finding a means to do so with a seemingly tangential analogy?

[*That makes you sound like Ted Hughes, doesn't it? Sorry about that.]

CJA: I hadn’t thought of ‘Hens & Happiness’ as being about the excitement of feeling inspired. It started out as a poem about ... well, nature, I guess. (The natural world seems to crop up in quite a few of my poems – which is itself a complete mystery to me, since my relationship with nature is almost entirely theoretical.) Then, as I was writing it, it started to feel like it was a poem about romantic obsession. But, now you’ve suggested it, it does seem to have a lot to do with the thrill of creation. If I remember correctly that poem started out, as quite of few of them do, with a title. I keep a notebook in which I write down what I think are great ideas or titles for poems. Of course, hardly any of them ever are, so I usually end up with a notebook full of titles for poems that never get written.

I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down with a plan to write a poem on a particular subject. You mention ‘Lines’ – in which I basically give myself a bit of a talking to about the sort of poems I should & shouldn’t be writing. In it I make the point that I should be writing poems ‘in order to get past my own experience’. By that I mean I really want to surprise myself in my poetry. It’s an idea that loops back to what I was saying about the use of form pushing you in unexpected directions. If I can say something that surprises me or is in some way new to me then it’s more likely to be surprising & new to the reader.

A poem will sometimes turn in on itself & start talking about itself as a poem. I think it’s largely a late twentieth/early twenty-first century sort of thing, isn’t it? I don’t worry too much about that; art’s as legitimate a subject as nature or love or anything else. But art coming clean & pointing out that it is in fact art has been around for a while – think of Tristram Shandy, for example, or the way Turner draws attention to the material reality of the oil paint in a painting like ‘Rain, Steam & Speed.’

ST: I think, to my mind, all poetry, when you get right down to it, is probably about itself as poetry in some capacity. Even establishment figures like Hughes and Heaney (especially Hughes) are concerned with language as a subject and as a material fact at some basic level; indicative of a self-consciousness that informs every aspect of their work. To read their work in that way is oddly counter-intuitive, but it's a means of building bridges too: yes, Hughes is a nature poet, but he's also 'language-centred', too, which means he's simultaneously engaged with the 'English line' (ridiculous shorthand, but you get the gist) and the more radical currents in Modernism and its inheritances. A round-about way, I suppose, of saying that the self-consciousness inherent in art shades over seemingly insurmountable aesthetic differences. The examples you give above are telling, from that point of view: Sterne, long considered a forerunner of Modernism and post-modernism, but somehow achieving this at the birth of the novel as a form; and Turner, who's been co-opted as a sort of landscape painter for the National Trust, but whose work is supremely radical in so many ways - the later work particularly pre-empting Impressionism and abstraction. The best work in any field - or, more correctly, the work I respond to most - tends to include within itself a dialogue between traditional and experimental elements: figuration and abstraction; realistic representation going hand in hand with an examination of its failure or impossibility; the sonnet or the villanelle being used for troubling or disruptive ends. A too-absolutist position in either direction (conservative or avant garde) always feels like a failure of imagination. It's why Hitchcock's a better director than, say, late David Lynch: Hitch's best films are a dialogue between the restraints of his chosen form - the escape thriller, the murder mystery, the melodrama, the spy flick - and the weirder, socially-psychically deviant things that he wants to say; late Lynch, meanwhile, is characterised by extreme oddity at the level of form *and* content, so there's no generation of tension in the same way. (This is of course a personal reading of the situation; others may well disagree.)

As for your assertion / question relating to self-conscious poetry being a late 20th / early 21st century tendency, I'd agree, though I'm not sure where it's come from: maybe an inheritance from the New York School? It's definitely po-mo rather than Mo, right? Are the Big Apple-ites an influence on your work?

CJA: I’m with you on the Hughes/Heaney thing, Simon. Along with Thom Gunn, they were the three contemporary poets on the syllabus when I was at school, & I distinctly recall sensing the agreeable chewiness of their language – which seemed to be at the centre of their poems. ‘The Thought-Fox’ of course is one of the famous poems-about-poetry, isn’t it? I agree with you too about the inevitability of art explaining itself as art – either overtly or covertly. John Ashbery’s classic ‘Paradoxes & Oxymorons’ makes the case with enviable directness & clarity, I think, opening with ‘This poem is about language at a very plain level. / Look at it talking to you ...’ & ending with ‘...The poem is you.’ Which brings me nicely around to your question about the New York School...

It took me a while to get into it. When I first started getting serious about reading & writing poems – in my late twenties, so that’d be the mid-late eighties, I guess – I worked in an office above a bookshop. I’d nip down there during my – ahem – ‘breaks’ & browse the poetry shelves. That’s where I initially encountered John Ashbery’s poems – in books like Self Portrait ... & A Wave & As we Know. I knew Ashbery was regarded as a major figure in contemporary American poetry & I remember being staggered by what I thought of as the general bewildering incomprehensibility of it all. It didn’t really sound like anything else I’d read that called itself poetry. I was attracted & a little bit beguiled by the strangeness (I must’ve been, I bought the books), but still felt kind of locked out of the poems. Then one day, quite by accident, I happened to hear John Ashbery reading his poems on Radio 3. That slightly camp, slightly kooky voice of his intoning ‘At North Farm’ opened the door the palace. I’m no longer so troubled by the – scare quotes – ‘difficulty’ of Ashbery’s poetry. I enjoy paddling around in it. I like the whimsy & the humour too, & once I’d relaxed a little I started to see seriousness in so much of it, the unflinching approach to the big subjects as well as the affecting, human tenderness that underlies so much of it.

I like Frank O’Hara’s poems – altho’ I have to be careful I don’t read too many of them at one sitting; his deceptively low-key, conversational voice is so infectious. And James Schuyler consistently amazes. He’s quieter & more restrained but every bit as charming &, when he wants to be, every bit as devastating.

ST: Schuyler, yes! He's not read anywhere near enough in this country. Ashbery, of course, is known, and known as an influence, too, particularly on the work of Lee Harwood, but I'd see Schuyler as every bit as vital an underpinning to Harwood's poetry - especially in the later work, like Morning Light (even that title's quite Schuyler-esque). I remember when I first read Schuyler - I think the poem in question was 'Moon' - and it was like learning how to speak, a realisation that modern and engaged poetry didn't have to be difficult in the conventional sense; that it didn't have to turn its back on the everyday, in fact could revel in it as a source of beauty and transcendence. Have you read David Herd's book on American poetry, Enthusiast! (the exclamation is in the title, that's not me)? It's excellent on all counts, but the essay on Schuyler's particularly good. Well worth checking out. What Ashbery I've read I've loved (I got very absorbed in The Tennis Court Oath about five years ago), but he's so bloody prolific: I don't know where to begin. Just slow down, John, for five minutes, so the rest of us can catch up!

I know from experience I could go on for ever about the New York crowd, but as this interview's already threatening to overflow the banks of a reasonably-sized blog post, I thought I would round off with a final question: Let's imagine that the Oblivion Tea Rooms are not only a real place, but are, sadly, burning down: which one of its poems would you rescue from the blazing wreckage, and why?

CJA: I hadn’t thought of it, but, yes, I can see the connecting dots between James Schuyler & Lee Harwood. I must try & track down the David Herd book you mention. If you’re looking for a place to start with John Ashbery, then I’d probably recommend Houseboat Days or even something a bit later & a bit baggier like Can You Hear, Bird, ‘My Philosophy of Life’ from that book is one of my all-time favourite poems.

Okay, now for the Desert Island Poem moment ... Well, on the one hand it’s obviously tricky, because it goes without saying they’re all absolutely indispensible poems & the fabric of English letters would be irreparably damaged by the loss of any of them, but, on the other hand, it is only a bit of fun, isn’t it? I’m fond of the lead-off poem ‘A small, unremarkable oil painting of doubtful provenance ...’ because I think technically it’s the most accomplished thing in the book. By that I mean that I think you could tap it pretty much anywhere with a small toffee-hammer & not find a hollow bit. And I like the long poem ‘Kasparov versus the World’ because I’ve never really tackled anything like that before & in writing it I did find myself saying things about my life which seemed both true & surprising to me. The rhymes in ‘Notes from 1975’ & ‘Starlings’ please me – in an inexcusably vain & self-regarding way, but on its own that’s not a good enough reason to keep them, is it? So I guess if I cd only save one, it’d have to be ‘Poets’. It’s a list poem &, like you, I love a good list. It goes down well at readings & I’m a sucker for playing to the gallery, & it’s funny (at least I think so) as well as true.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Three Poems by C J Allen

Notes for a poem provisionally titled, ‘From the Lies of the Artists’

Imagination is a kind of glowing reality
that we can never touch.  Desire is always
a work in progress.  Everything is collage

Everything is bricolage  The difference
between you and your reflection is no matter
how hard you polish, your reflection has no memory.

Is the purpose of art to fix the fugitive
or to smartarse its way to oblivion?  Everything
Andy Warhol understood life was a series

of images that change as they repeat themselves.
Somewhere in the midst of love and debauchery
are reputations destroyed.  An inch of the world

doesn’t equal an inch of Rembrandt or de Kooning.
Rothko lost it.  Manet ate his cat.

The Wolves of Poetry

They say, ‘You have been spending all your time
in books.’  Accused, you flop into a chair.
The chair is made of books.  Sheer sentences
slide beneath you, frictionless, resistance
reduced to microns by their poetry.
‘Well?’ they say.  You think before you flinch.

The moon is up and browsing through the night.
It peeks in at the window.  They do not
like this one bit.  You tip the moon a wink.
The moon is like a token or a disc
of light inside a wineglass.  Should you tell them
the moon is almost certainly a book?

They stare at you with heavy, bookless faces.
You let yourself fall very slowly shut.
‘What do you know,’ they bark, ‘about the Wolves,
the Wolves of Poetry?’  You tell them nothing,
as if to say, the book is an abyss.
All they can hear is howling, howling, howling.


Her name was Eve.  She was almost
invisible at first.  At dusk,
when day goes into slow reverse,
I caught her having second thoughts
about what hurts and doesn’t hurt,
and sin.  The shadows grew quite long.

We sat alone.  There were no clocks.
We sort of drifted off to sleep –
not quite, we dipped our toes in sleep –
and when we woke we saw the light
had gone out of the world.  The light
had gone and there was nothing left
to fill the sky, and so we lay
awake, not knowing what to say.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Simon Turner - Be Afraid...

... for I have started a new blog.  Worried that I might be driving our already select band of readers away in their droves with my constant references to war literature, I've decided to start a blog dedicated to that field of research.  It's called Battle Lines, and you can read it here if you're that way inclined.  In Gists and Piths news, we've got some excellent material lined up, including an interview with CJ Allen and a review of his new book, the spectacularly titled At the Oblivion Tea Rooms.  As to what George has been plotting behind the scenes, God knows, but I'm sure he has some articles scheduled, too.  Watch this space.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Moving Backwards into the Future

George Ttoouli desurrects a few gripes about Poetry Prizes ...

The Elitism Mechanism

[To begin with, back story. Those of you overly familiar with the phrase 'Backward Prize(s)' please skip down to 'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'.]

The Editors have long been aware of mutterings across the blogosphere about the closed circle of prize-givings and self-congratulatoriness that takes place every so often around a number of institutions, including the Forward Prize, the TS Eliot Prize and various connected institutions. Equally, the Editors have mostly considered this discontent an unwelcome distraction from the real business of what exciting poetry is truly up to.

However, three particular articles, one by Ken Edwards and another by Rob MacKenzie, caught our eye in recent times, insufficiently to warrant an outburst, but another, the ink still steaming in the late April sun, by the eminent Peter Riley, has raised our level of irk sufficiently to trigger some public thoughts. (Well, for me at least, if not for Simon. Simon gets bothered by things like finding a fork mixed in with the knives in the cutlery drawer, or yellow JCBs parked too near to the kerb, or any number of disorderly arrangements of furniture.)

MacKenzie's post is a fairly innocent shortlist promoter, the kind which the Forward Prizes' promotional company no doubt list up in their annual reports. These kinds of posts are reaching for some kind of claim to zeitgeist, perhaps, wanting to appear to have their fingers on the poetry pulse, so strike me as somewhat self-serving in an unhelpful direction, but RM does at least point to the idea of the Backward Prize(s) as being a popular nickname, which is arguably a nice way of presenting a gripe.

This 'Backwardsness' is, I think, based on a reference to looking backward in an Aura Ding article about the lack of women on the shortlist, specifically for the Best Collection. The article's criticism comes from somewhere I consider within the Prize's clique (consider the authors of the Poems of the Week, the gender balance there, etc.), and its focus on gender issues strikes me as a guarded approach which aims to avoid commenting on the quality of the poetry, the familiarity of the names, or their recurrence on award lists, sidestepping instead into gender statistics. So the approach is static, a superficial skim off the top of the structures that allow for these kinds of hierarchies, although the historical analysis, while slight, supports the accusation of sexism. It's a start, but the obvious response is: What exactly does a balanced list of six poets look like? How would poets on a shortlist feel if they knew they'd only been picked because they were ethnically in a minority, or a woman, or otherwise? While the issue of gender imbalance is a serious one, given its recurrence over 20 years, it doesn't get to the root of the problem, the mechanisms behind the prizes, the publishers who feature regularly and the fact that sexism is one of a series of problems thrown up by the mechanisms. Motion's astute rebuttal, that the other categories are more balanced, offers a palliative towards thinking that the 'best' poets are merely coincidentally male, which turns the article into a form of apology for the shortlist's shortcomings.

If not the Danigaru article, RM may have referenced Ken Edwards' post, which more solidly critiques the problem of prize cabals from a personal / small publisher's perspective. The premise in Ken's response to the backwardsness is a fairly common complaint: a general elitism in eligibility, exclusion of small presses or new poets, or poets not already familiar to the public eye. The inclusion of D Nurkse and G Hill problematises a generalised criticism of the poetics, so KE points towards the type of publishers and repeat appearances of poets on the lists. He leaves out the London-centric nature of the publishers listed, which includes CB Editions and Enitharmon, but both of these presses are small and alternative in their respective ways, so a discussion of a homogenised poetics is difficult. Serial-winners becomes the main argument for KE, an uncontestable criticism of these prizes, that they often endorse the already endorsed.

When poets complain, I can just about hear the bitter taint in their tone, that they're not part of the cool club themselves. When publishers complain, it's a little more serious - they're not asking to be part of an elite, they're asking for the removal of elites; the chance to punch with equal weight in prizes, and also in the limited marketing channels, distribution channels, retail shelves and so on. A fair and free market means a fair and free market. Complaints about cliquery and mutual backslapping is one thing; complaints about a stitched up market is another: livelihood, competition, is regulated from the top, from those already 'up'. Of course, some publishers have no more aspiration than to launch themselves into that closed circle, while some poets would happily cover the ivory tower in petrol and strike a non-safety match off their own stubble (or boots, or a wall - notice the gender balance here) to burn it down. Generalisation is unhelpful, as it too easily points towards a self-serving attitude by those who speak up.

But someone must speak up if the system is to be reformed. KE's appraisal is a reasonable, grumbling beginning. There's a helpful explanation of his decisions about cost- and time-saving as a limited-budget publisher, and acknowledgment of opening himself up to accusations of self-marginalisation by not participating, which I find interesting. By not submitting at all to these kinds of things, he will never give himself the chance to move up in the world - at least according to the mechanism's criteria of quality. But if the mechanisms automatically discount his poetry list, why should he endorse it by participating?

Peter Riley's piece is of a different category. He takes up the issue of poetics squarely and firmly, and entertainingly, without committing to a particular stance. The ending is decidedly devious, leaving the lingering sense of having witnessed John Burnside compared to a slab of prize beef, alongside a serious call for transparency in prize-judging processes. The cattlemarket comparison is decidedly tongue-in-cheek, a left-socialist satirisation of how bad things actually are already, at that end of the market, for people who believe in culture and poetry as an essential component of society.

PR's call for transparency is of course an impossibility, open to all the rule-bending silliness of New Labour's accountability strategy. The impact of targets on schools and hospitals translates, in practice, to a string of stories about 'reactive subversion', a range of methods for 'hitting the target and missing the point'. My own experience of this, from academia, is in how creative writing departtments produce a range of 'marking criteria' for the grading of poetry, which amounts to a lot of intelligently phrased nonsense. The point of the criteria is to satisfy some kind of false notion of measuring the unmeasurable, justifying a growing commercial edifice in bureaucratic terms, pandered to by well-meaning staff so as to preserve the positive outcomes of creative writing in institutions. Nothing actually changes in practice, nothing becomes more transparent, but the motions are gone through because of an ideological belief in the subject's value.

A public outcry of the type PR calls for might well lead to a document purporting transparency in the judging of poetry prizes, but ultimately will be a redundant statement, as PR knows. Of all the things wrong with backwards prizes, the self-fulfilling quality mechanism employed by prize managers, with their narrow sense of contemporary poetry ("oh, he's won/been shortlisted for the prize before, so he must be good enough to be on it again", etc.), will still reign supreme, but in a less contestable fashion. Yes, the institution is flawed, and yes, PR's attack on the unequal distribution of wealth that emerges from the mechanism, is a valid standpoint - but only if you accept that the mechanism is a valid one for the rest of the poetry world.

If you accept PR's suggestion that only a dozen poets sustain themselves off the mechanism, then you can also accept that there are literally thousands of poets 'grubbing by', or taking up institutional posts, relying on other subsidiary income streams, yet still making their art. And this is since time immemorial, right? Patronage of a different kind, an older kind, has always supported an elect over the masses.

'The Allen Carr Poetry Method'

The thing I find most frustrating in all this complaining about prizes is the lack of substitution. The important part in having something denied is not to think obsessively about that thing being held out of reach, but where to spend the energy you're wasting on wanting that thing that isn't in your power to reach. The thousands of poets excluded from the elite mechanism of the largest poetry prizes in the country need to focus on firming up their presence in the public mind.

What I mean is: forget the prizes. Leave the self-congratulators, the poetry-bankers' internal circling of bonuses, to the mainstream - by which I mean a longstanding tradition that has ridden out the elimination of competition to climb to the top of a pile, rather than any kind of false accusation of homogenised poetics - let it get on with itself. Posterity will sort out the wheat and chaff however it likes. Sustainability and education are the main problems facing marginalised poets these days.

It's the difference between quitting smoking and taking up something better than smoking with the time freed up by not smoking and it's easier to get by with a bit of help from your friends. What I'm thinking is, instead of mourning one's chances of jumping on and off the bandwagon of capitalist meritocracy manifesting in the shape of the poetry competition, we should completely turn our backs on it. Collectively, give it no attention. The whole idea of prize-giving, as someone once said to me, is anathema to the idea of a gift-driven community, to the spirit that underpins and sustains the majority of poetry and poets. Yes, it's getting a bit ideological now, but bear with me.

If, hypothetically, a group of poets decided to set up a series of prizes only for poetry and poets who hadn't won, or been shortlisted, for any backwards prizes, once the bickering over eligibility was out of the way, all you'd have would be another chimera. By mimicking the structures of the existing mechanism, you position yourself in competition with it. Comparison would be the result: not only in terms of alternatives, but also in terms of equivalence in the new clique created.

The principle of poetry as gift, running counter to the idea of poetry as commodity (to paraphrase Michael Schmidt, "Do not speak of poetry's market; by all means speak of its audience"), points towards the damage caused by competition within this framework. Should one of your number actually break through, into the elite mechanisms, they damage the community they leave behind, even without holding that intention in mind. At the risk of sounding like a Robert Tressell narrator, I'd suggest elite mechanisms seek to destroy those smaller communities which threaten them most, even as they bolster and reinforce their boundary walls.

What we need is a substitute, or substitutes - wholehearted activity to help convey the gifts of the more wonderful poets than those listed by the elite mechanism. "What ideas have you got, George?!" I hear you cry. Many already exist:

4. Ubuweb

NB. The latter is subscription only, but that is just one of the essential models we need to promote and make acceptable as a response to the mechanism. The subscription model is insufficient on its own for most magazines and small presses in the UK right now, despite being an essential methodology for poetry's survival. Like all renewable energy strategies, a range of options must be deployed. New patronage models are needed, something akin to Kickstarter, or whatever else, where the Arts Council and philanthropy are failing to support culture sufficiently.

Alongside these eclectic sources, a range of educational and other databases exist, from Creative Writing institutions, poets working in schools, to Silliman's blog and any number of internet-based magazines, blogs and similar experiments. You know more than me, probably. There are literally thousands of micro-projects beyond these, like G & P, which are disparate, disconnected, plural, sure, but fragmentary. Also, there are already several organising nexuses, hubs, but they are blindsided from greater visibility in areas that count.

So a few things, are missing, things which the mainstream (as defined above) relies upon. This is by no means comprehensive - in fact, it's supposed to be provocative:

1. The Archive of the Now needs a database of educational materials targeting key stages representing a broad range of contemporary poetry, in the spirit of what the Poetry Archive already has to reach out to younger/newer readers. (Greater communication between those databases ought to be a given.)

2. Key texts opening up reading approaches without being top-down or antiquarian about its canonist selectivity (an anti-52 Ways of Looking at a Poem, anyone?)

3. A thorough linking/portalling of articles and materials through dedicated websites to open up access to the more experimental end of the poetics spectrum. Greater critical crossover is needed to convey analysis of 'difficult' art and techniques to wider audiences.

4. Digitisation of back catalogues of important resources and journals, open public access - from the English Intelligencer, to Blast, to any number of small press publications (something like this exists, I found a link, possibly through Openned, to an amazing site which was scanning anything they could get their hands on. Anyone remember what I'm talking about? I've lost track of it since a computer upgrade.)

5. An agency, similar to the PBS, to provide solid portalling and circulation to remind people what's out there, but with a broader remit. If you haven't encountered Modern Poetry, go and encounter it. It needs greater visibility, so needs consistent linking and bridging into wider territorities. It could do with a little more design and functionality, perhaps, but the low-budget necessity of individuals like Peter Philpott, or Ken Edwards or any number of other active poetry producers and promoters, still produces brilliance on levels beyond monkeyshining.

Above all, I feel there's a breach between the backwards prizes' reach and the distance covered by the rest of the poetry world, which needs bridging by some kind of agency. Behind the scenes of the mechanism lie lobbying groups who talk to curriculum setters, to government educational arms, to a whole range of powerful controllers of what can and can't be read in certain contexts.

The aim should not be to provide access to the mechanisms that endorse the elite, but to reach the audiences, especially new audiences, that might enjoy the wider richness. This sounds a bit like the Poetry Society, which used to have a more diverse output some decades back, and though the mission statement still stands, actions speak louder right now. More importantly, the state dependence of these kinds of institutions means an increasing PFI pressure, reduction in subsidy. I don't have all the answers, I don't pretend to, but the one assertion I feel should stand is this:

a successful substitution should not make use of the existing systems used by elite mechanisms; to be at its most successful, it needs to operate for readers, audiences, not money.

And finally, if any of this article sounds a tad too paranoid at times, pointing to a psychotic elite android mechanism intent on taking over the state, well, that's just part of my marketing pitch for when G&P launches its own Poetry Awards. But more seriously, I'm open to hearing alternatives, new or better ideas about what needs to be circulated more, or needs to be put in place.