Saturday, 25 December 2010

Santa Baby: How not to do it

Merry Christmas everybody! Instead of romping about in the snow, I'm here, snarking about festive songs. Start as you mean to go on...

As Christmas songs go, 'Santa Baby' is one of the best known, and certainly one of the most covered. So why can't anybody other than Eartha Kitt get it right?

For those unfamiliar with the song, 'Santa Baby' takes the form of a flirty letter to Saint Nick requesting presents, but not so much toys and sweets as convertibles, jewellery and all manner of mercenary sundries.

Only Eartha Kitt brings so much more to it than simply flirting. Less coquette and more drag-a-licious villainess, she winds her very adult voice around such fantastic lines as "I want a yacht and really that's not a lot" and "Forgot to mention one little thing/a ring./I don't mean on the phone..." She's not trying to pull Santa - she's trying to con him out of his boots. And she's succeeding.

The song brings to mind Kitt's equally camp and morally dubious classic, 'Just An Old Fashioned Girl', in which, in a similarly gold-digging vein, she states that she wants for very little in life - just an "ooooold-fashoned millionaire" - and claims "I'll ask for such simple things when my birthday occurs/two apartment buildings that are labelled 'Hers and Hers'." She throws herself into the character of the unapologetic femme fatale, stating her requirements, rather than begging and showing a little ankle.

And that's the difference between Kitt and those who cover her work. There have been various terrible attempts, but this Christmas I sat and watched swingdoor pop group Sugababes do nothing short of garotte this fantastic song. Like every other contender for Kitt's crown, they writhe and giggle like Ann Summers 'schoolgirls', smirking and trying to act 'sexy'.

Bear in mind, please, that the Sugababes are three pretty girls in their twenties. It's quite an effort to make them unsexy, but apparently all it takes is for them to try to be sexy! That and inject a sultry song with as much genuine playfulness and character as a musty toupee.

And pretty much every other version does the same. The artist (or their choreographer) looks at the lyrics of the song, has a vague recollection of it being quite slinky and goes, "OK! Sexy! Why didn't you say? I'll wear a fur bikini and wiggle while giving myself a Lolita voice! Instant hit!" (pedants will tell me that Lady Kitt is scantily clad in the video, but bear with me)

They'll carry on covering 'Santa Baby' ad infinitum, and missing the point all the while. I guess at least performance royalties may make their way to Kitt's estate, but it's upsetting to think that so many people will look no further than the Kylie or the Pussycat Dolls, and won't go listen to that magical original. Genuinely intriguing and engaging performance requires character. Character, more often than not, requires experience of conflict or having overcome difficulty. And by difficulty, I don't mean a whole 12 weeks of singing for a bunch of billionaires. You can read aspects of Eartha Kitt's amazing life story on wiki, or read her biography in order to find the key to her trademark Catwoman purr, but perhaps it's best simply to enjoy her music.

In fact, don't listen to me extoll her virtues when she can do it perfectly well herself. Enjoy and have a good holiday!

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Spandex issues 1-3

The first issue of Spandex managed the rare feat, some months ago, of making headlines in the Sun, the Metro and various online news sources. That's good going for any comic, let alone an indie production sold chiefly through the author's website. The 'story' was in the premise - the world's first all-gay superhero team, although creator Martin Eden has been at pains to emphasise this isn't just a gimmick:

"I feel that a lot of gay comics or TV shows are still in a bit of a niche – even things like Queer As Folk. Look at how most gay characters in EastEnders eventually get written out, because the writers don’t know what to do with them. Spandex is a straight-forward story, the characters face things that any comic characters would face, but they just happen to be gay."

That last statement is only half-true. There's certainly the usual monsters of the week, inter-team relationships/breakups and warring egos, but Eden is also selling himself short. I'll come back to that later on.

Happily for an independent production, Spandex is in full colour, and makes great play of it; the second issue features a fight against an army of pink ninjas and the team are represented - naturally - by a rainbow motif, with each team member assigned a colour that roughly fits their demeanour (the calm, collected one is blue, the joker is orange, the mysterious french one indigo, etc). I'm not entirely sure how this gels with the aim of making the characters' sexuality incidental (nor, for that matter, is this intention best served by names like Glitter, Butch and Diva) but it certainly gives the book a healthy shot of personality. Out of all the comics I've purchased in the past month or so, it's probably the only one that would have been significantly more difficult to read if rendered in black and white.

Beyond the colour, the art takes a little more getting used to. Like Bryan Lee O'Malley in the first volume of Scott Pilgrim, Eden is still finding his feet as a comic artist, which means misshapen fingers and awkward poses pop up more than they should. But the spare and simple lines mostly do the job, while both composition and panel layout are surprisingly dynamic and sophisticated.

The storylines, meanwhile, vary in tone quite wildly over these first three issues. #1 plays more like a parody of the superhero genre, with lines like "Oooh, I'm tingling!" and "We so need a better catchphrase", while the team battle a 50 foot lesbian. By #3, the mood is far more sombre and the plot more like a science fiction parable. There's plenty of sex and swearing, but it's always handled with a light touch - a million miles away from the posturing faux-outrageousness of, say, X-Force: Sex and Violence. In fact, Spandex is considerably more open and less patronising in sexual matters than most mainstream comics, where plunging necklines, corsets and leotards pass for practical battlewear and characters get it on only in order to advance the 'mature' subplot. Where else have we seen men having to deal with involuntary erections while wearing skintight pants? Or a back-up strip that juxtaposes fighting alien invaders with the hero's alter-ego visiting an STD clinic?

Alas, Spandex hits the same stumbling block as many similarly self-aware 'remixes' of the superhero genre - a dearth of originality in the character's abilities. There's a super-strong character, an invulnerable character, a teleporter, a speedster, a ninja, a half-cat mutant and even a gay Multiple Man. Only Prowler, who has the ability to 'connect' to other gay people in the immediate area and utilise their combined knowledge and strength, seems to have been given an ability that hasn't already been done to death. And while there's more to the characters than their powers, it seems odd to take such a staple of superhero comics and make it the dullest part of the fiction. Even the way they're introduced seems to lampshade this lack of interest, with an enemy commentator struggling to remember which is the invulnerable one and which the strong guy.

On the other hand, the mundanity of these power sets serves to underline the genuinely subversive qualities of the comic. Most superhero fiction follows the thematic creed set out by Stan Lee in Spiderman: "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!" Spidey, Batman and the X-Men all yearn for a 'normal' life; but their special abilities bring with them obligations, and with those obligations comes the suffering and sacrifice, the hard grit of living. Their powers are, we suppose, outlandish interpretations of our own unique talents and privileges. It's a fictional model that presumes its readership to have either stand-out ability or socio-political power and to struggle chiefly with the balance of social and personal responsibilities. And no wonder - the vast majority of comic readers and creators have traditionally been straight, white males. It was always hard to buy the X-Men as an analogy for oppressed minorities when their 'burden' gave individual members more - rather than less - power than the fleeing, wailing humans.

Spandex, like Mark Millar's Kick-Ass, flips this emotional core on its head and in doing so, hits closer to home. It recognises that for most people, straight or gay, it's difficult to conceive of the life of a superhero being one of hardship and heartbreak; instead, it's a fantasy, an attractive alternative to real life. But while Kick-Ass dons his wetsuit to escape the banality of being 'normal', the Spandex team use their secret identities to evade a more fraught existence, and to exert the kind of control they don't have over their lives. You only have to look at Diva, the traditional buxom blonde in tight, revealing costume, who flies in through her bedroom window at night and turns back into a regular-chested 'dumpy woman', frizzy hair scraped back into a high ponytail. Then there's Liberty, the team's transvestite leader. As well as taking drag to its natural extreme by becoming a glitzy, extroverted superheroine in the day time, in issue #2 she's also revealed to be an arch-manipulator, contriving situations in order to keep her superhero team colour-coded and regular in number (one death early on means a replacement needs to be found - in yellow) and spying on her team-mates' bedrooms through close circuit television.

This isn't postmodern tomfoolery for geeky giggles and it's a far cry from the 'What if?' realism of Watchmen. It's a way for Eden to explore gay issues in an engaging and challenging way, without the cumber of worthiness or the confrontationalist tenor of hard-nosed activism. If that isn't apparent from the camp hijinks of the first issue, it should be obvious by the time a character tells a villain he's already come through the darkest time in his life and that her fear-based powers cannot affect him. What should be a tired scene based on a weary trope carries a fresh poignancy for its explicit links to the experience of rejection and self-loathing. Writers of graphic fiction seldom use their work to articulate their concerns in such a way, and based on this evidence, the medium has rarely been put to a more socially responsible use.

Spandex site
Interview with Martin Eden

My Life as a Crap Artist

I've spent far too much of the little seasonal time I have trying to draw one single, simple drawing of a swift. It's for our next book, Birdbook I: Towns, Parks, Gardens & Woodland, an anthology (full-size this time) of poems and illustrations about ... well, birds, obviously. Way before we started looking for other poets and artists to involve in the project, I said to K: "I'm doing the swift. Art and poem. No question. Don't even put it up on the list. It's mine."

Swifts have been my favourite birds, see, ever since I was a cub scout and I collaged one for some project or another. They are, to this beholder's eye, incredibly beautiful, both close up and in flight. I also think they're just plain cool. I had a character in a novel who had the special ability to fire swift-shaped semi-corporeal shadows that flew around screaming. I try to conceive of games with swifts as protagonists. I designed a Beast Wars-era Transformer that transformed into swifts. I will happily read almost any recently published article or paper on swifts, even if it's regurgitating what I already know about them, even if it's really about the type of parasites that live on them.

So it gets to early December. I have the poem more or less done and am promising K - who has spent what feels like most of this year rounding up and chasing down artists and poets for this book - that the picture can be thrown together and dropped in, oh, any time. There's just one thing I've forgotten - I'm a crap artist.

I wasn't always a crap artist. When I was in school, I would draw things and teachers would coo about my artistic talent, while other kids would ask me to sign sketches in the expectation that they would be worth something 'when you're famous'. When I look back at the picture books I made in those early school days, I was probably a better artist than prose writer ("'Yeah well I smell bad magic' Said Jon" was about the standard). Then I did an art GCSE (A*!) and for A Level (B, just shy of an A). But if I'm honest, I don't think I improved much over that period.  A Level art in particular was a doss. We horsed around. We drew or painted the odd picture. I discovered the teachers liked my chalk drawings, so I concentrated on that. We spent a whole lesson taking items off one teacher's desk and masking taping them to the front of it while he sat there. We did some life drawing, which I was also pretty good at. The instructor only had two ways of responding to your work: he either took your pencil, rubbed out what you'd done and redrew it while explaining that things in the distance looked smaller ("This is called 'perspective'") or he glanced at it and did nothing. I always got the nothing. I would do one two minute sketch in pencil and then two or three more in chalks on sugar paper in different styles.

At university, I concentrated more on writing, but had grand ambitions of writing a novel in words and pictures. This was an early attempt at a cover for it, still in a phase where I thought chalk was my forte:

(For some reason, it's been mirrored). In any case, I soon began to realise, as I persevered with images for the novel, that I was nowhere close to mastering any kind of style and wasn't even a competent draughtsman. I could copy, mildly caricature and change the colours, and err... that was about it. I didn't even know where to begin when it came to backgrounds, which is why in the above image, for example, the images are laid on top of three panoramic photographs of the now demolished Waveney Terrace at UEA.

I also now had come across, and the seeming millions of artists across the Western world - many of them teenagers - who are actually quite good. Or really good. Or amazing. I knew then that I'd gone from being 'famous one day' to being an absolute no-hoper.

I tried, somewhat desperately, to find a style I felt comfortable with, one which I hoped would save me the trouble of going back to the years of studious figure sketching I'd obviously missed out on. Here's me trying to ape Yoshitaka Amano, the artist behind the Final Fantasy series of games. I admired his technique and foolishly thought that it would be easy to replicate, since it was often little but watercolour washes over sketchy, swaying pencil lines depicting semi-floating figures. Unfortunately, I also knew bugger all about using watercolours properly, despite a few earlier (mostly disastrous) experiments.

I also knew nothing about oil painting. My first attempt was the final project for my art A level, and its obvious rubbishness was the main reason I got knocked down from my A. My second (and only other) attempt was a very brief blast on A5 during my third year of uni, inspired by that painting of a miserable guitarist by Picasso:

You can see I more or less gave up. But hey! Just because everything I've relied on so far is actually quite difficult, requiring years of practice, doesn't mean the next thing I try won't turn out to be a doddle. Such is the optimism that has informed my approach to visual art for near enough the past decade. Here's me thinking the future is in digital manipulation of better artists (pre-Banksy):

Note the swift! All these pictures so far, by the way, were intended as components in my extravagant semi-visual novel. I still want to write something like it, but the project has ended up permanently on the back burner, waiting for me to somehow conjure up the requisite artistic and storytelling skills.

Swift imagery again in this attempt to follow Max Ernst into surreal collage:

And more Max Ernst influence still. I decided that I wanted to work with 'material' and persuaded people to give me their old clothes to cut up so that I might produce abstruse silliness like this:

That white thing is derived from a swift again, by the way.

Unable to commit to any style, let alone get a proper grip on one, I decided at some point that I could make a good fist of writing comics. Or rather, some sort of comic/poetry hybrid. Only I'd forgotten - I don't know how to draw backgrounds! So naturally, I decided the easiest thing to do was photograph every area where my comic should take place and drop the characters into them. Problem being that rather restricted my locations:

This is a superhero comic and their secret base is ... my bedroom. Also note that I was too lazy to ink. These are just pencil sketches, scanned in, with the contrast ramped up to maximum.

Things improved slightly when I got back into Transformers. Everything is more angular in Transformers, and I found I could produce a one page comic in, oh, a month. Wonderful for a property you don't own and which most of your friends think is a bit childish:

We're getting to the stage now, though, where I'm starting to feel maybe a little confident again. That last strip isn't too bad, and I found, probably some time around three years ago, that I was quite comfortable using a brush and ink pot:

Since then I've started to feel, every now and then, like I'm getting close to being something you might call an 'artist', rather than just someone who occasionally goes back to art to see if it's magically got any easier since the last time. It's still embarrassing how hard I have to work to manage even simple cartoons - most of the images on the Dr Fulminare site, for instance, took many attempts. Any art I do for Fuselit is a major task and something I'll contemplate giving up on at various points in its creation. A particular frustration of late is that even if something looks good in pencil, inking can ruin it. Heck, even scanning can take all the shine off. The idea of being able to quickly knock out a decent little sketch is still a bit of a daydream. So is the notion that if I spent a long time on something it will end up intricate and complex and glorious. It will be a long time before I feel I can call myself either an artist, illustrator or cartoonist in the same way I'm fairly comfortable thinking of myself as a poet.

But I do want to persevere, even amongst all my other commitments, and so I've persevered with the swift drawing, albeit that I've gone through many poor attempts before arriving on an extremely simple one I'm happy with:
My 'vision' was mixing images with cut up words from an out-of-print book on swifts I have. I also wanted to do a really clean simple version of the bird. This guy looked great in one of my miniature sketches - like a villain drawing his cloak around him - but when I blew him up and dropped the context in, he just ended up looking fat. Swifts are not fat.
So I replaced him with this pair. But they're too simple. It looks like I knocked them up in half a minute (it was more like twenty minutes) and neither of them suggest much of the swift's relative power, or marvellously severe expression, or their perfectly evolved arrangement of flight feathers, which are studied for the purposes of military science (ie. making tiny, highly efficient spy planes).

I was really attached to this chap for a few days. I thought maybe I should play the 'cartoonist' rather than the 'artist' and give him some items which suggested personality. So here he is with what are meant to be a map, goggles and pilot scarf, stopping off on a cliff to check his migration route. But I had a lot of trouble working out how he could possibly end up in this position. Swifts have backward-facing claws and can't grip 'around' objects - they can only cling vertically. I know - I'm overthinking it. But it still bugged me and the wings still aren't right.

This is the pencil sketch of the drawing I finally went with. The scan has bleached out the lighter shading. I'll leave the final version for a debut in the printed book but in the mean time, I hope a progression of improvement can be followed through the last four images. I mean, I hope I'm not fooling myself. I am getting a little better, aren't I?

Friday, 17 December 2010

Orbiting literary auction event tonight - amazing new lots added!

EDIT: This event has been cancelled and will be rearranged for early 2011! Unfortunately, the snowfall means performers outside of London can't make it in tonight.

Brave the snow tonight for a warm welcome at the fantastic Orbiting event at London's Poetry Cafe (nearest tubes Tottenham Court Road, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Cirucs) - readings by top poet Richard Evans, Jon and myself and Goldsmiths alumni, as well as music by Tim Hoyte.

7.30pm start, £6/£4 concessions entry.

PLUS a literary auction, just in time for Christmas, of the following items (all in aid of the Clare Lewis Nest Egg Fund)! New items added today!

• Handwritten sonnet by Toby Littl with signed postcard
• John Cage manuscript
• Signed poem by Stella Duffy
• Edited A4 page from a recent James Miller novel: Sunshine State
• Handwritten poem ('Night Photograph' title poem of her first collection) by Lavinia Greenlaw
• Signed first edition of The Importance of Music for Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw
• Signed first edition of Maurice Riordan collection
• signed copy of Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road collection
• handwritten poem by Matthew Hollis
• signed copy of Tom Lee's of Greenfly, collection of short stories
• signed copy of Daljit Nagra's collection of poems, Look We Have Coming to Dover
• signed copy of Maura Dooley's collection of poems, Life Under Water
• signed copy of Stephen Knight's collection of poems, Dream City Cinema
• signed copies of Blake Morrison's And When Did you Last See your Father, and The Justification of Johann Gutenberg
• signed copy of Francis Spufford's memoirs, The Child that Books Built

I'll bring the Lebkuchen - you bring the festive spirit! K x

Friday, 10 December 2010

About a Minute

I've contributed to this new and excellent exhibition, which opens today:

15 artists, architects, designers, poets and writers interpret the potential of a minute

About a Minute is the inaugural exhibition at The Gopher Hole, a new project space in Hoxton founded by aberrant architecture and Beatrice Galilee. For their first show, The Gopher Hole invited carefully chosen conceptual artists, architects, designers, poets and writers to respond to a premise – the idea that today, a minute is all we seem to have.

Increasingly hyperactive consumption of data, information and images has trained the brains of a generation to multi-task, skim, tweet, comment and status-update, but has eliminated the notion of patience or pause. The sheer volume of things available at the touch of a button or swipe of a finger has lead to a saturation point, where boredom and irritation arrives sooner than we may like to admit. Galleries are easy victims of the phenomenon. Visitors may spend a few moments to asorb an artwork, half-read a caption and move on. This leaves both curators and artists in a conundrum. How does one respond to the knowledge that no more than a minute may be spent with a painstakingly crafted exhibit? After all, it can take less than a minute for everything in the world to change.

Participants: Rachel Armstrong, Shumon Basar, Diane Cochrane, Economy, Glowacka Rennie & Robin Dutson, The Go West Project, Elaine W. Ho, Sam Jacob, Christian Kerrigan, Pedro Gadhano, Ralf Pflugfelder, Postworks, Jon Stone, Sunday Collective, Luke Wright

My contribution is 'Staring Into Space', a collection of six poems written to reflect the content and composition of about a month's worth of daydreams I noted down (or recorded on a dictaphone). Daydreaming can do strange things with time, including compressing it so that you conduct an entire fantasy narrative in the space of a minute or so. Visitors are invited to stand and daydream themselves, then record their daydreams in a book provided.

My favourites among the other pieces include a collection of 'translated' chairs (the originals were described using a minute's worth of words and the descriptions then used by architects as the basis for a new design) and a layered picture which visitors are invited to tear a piece from, causing a gradual decay over the course of the exhibition.

It's running from now until early February on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, at The Gopher Hole, which is downstairs at El Paso restaurant near the corner of Old Street and Curtain Road. Nearest tubes are Old Street and Liverpool Street. Please go and have a look round!

No, Robot, No!

Earlier this year, Forest Publications approached Kirsty with a proposal to contribute to their very successful chapbook series. Kirsty isn't quite ready to publish a debut pamphlet yet, but we reached a compromise whereby the two of us would put our heads together to come up with a pseudonymous themed pamphlet. The end result was No, Robot, No, attributed to Eve Bishop and Roy Marvin, and it's available for a rather affordable £2 (with an extra quid for postage, I think). Both of us had already written a number of robot poems, most of which were previously unpublished, and we wrote four new collaborative poems specially for this collection, including a reprise of the 'domino' poem technique from Dr Fulminare's Bardgames.

"Two mysterious figures conspire to produce a mechanism of collaborative poetry on the subject of our anthropometallic friends. Whether in the guise of hairdressers, assassins, patients or pets, synthetic heroes and villains travel through this pamphlet in confusion and curiosity. From famous film and literary automatons to intimate portraits of the droid in the street, No, Robot, No! is a zoom-mode look at the everyday lives of superbeings."

“Such heroic nonsense!”Megatron
“Oh, yes, that’s very good, I like that… Oh!”C-3PO
“[tinny roar]” – Mechagodzilla

About the Authors:
Roy Marvin is a community service bot who writes poetry during his oil changes. He has only 500,000 more time blocks to work before he graduates from waste disposal to park patrol. He can’t wait to see his first real squirrel.

Eve Bishop is an ex-assassabot who collects boxes. At the time of writing she has 50,936 boxes.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Christmas Press Release

Since we've got Korsakoff out just in time for Christmas, I've whipped this up. Please spread far and wide if you are willing and able!

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Orbiting: 17th December: Reading & Literary Auction

Rather unique and important poetry event this. Important because we're raising money for something that will make a big difference to someone's future. Unique because there'll be an auction of various items, many of which have yet to be announced, but already including a signed John Cage MS and a handwritten sonnet by Toby Litt. Here's the Facebook event and here are all the details you need:

Friday, December 17 · 7:30pm - 11:00pm
The Poetry Cafe
22 Betterton Street, Covent Garden
London, United Kingdom
A night of poetry and prose


Featuring poetry from Jon Stone, Kirsten Irving, Richard Evans
And Goldsmiths Alumni
Music from Tim Hoyte


7.30 start, £6/£4 Concession


Including edited manuscripts, signed works and handwritten poems by
major writers!

Items kindly donated for the auction include:

• Handwritten sonnet by Toby Litt with signed postcard
• John Cage manuscript
• Signed poem by Stella Duffy
• Edited A4 page from a recent James Miller novel: Sunshine State

More to come!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Korsakoff's Paper Chain

There was a time when I thought we'd never get our editing heads round this beast. Korsakoff's Paper Chain is our chunkiest micro-anthology yet at 72 pages (although it will be utterly dwarfed by the full-size Birdbook I, which is coming soon) and is full of complex, clever poems, as well as broken text and linking commentary from Dr Fulminare himself.

Ten poets - David Floyd, Charlotte Geater, Aiko Harman, Sarah Howe, Edward Mackay, Richard O'Brien, Adham Smart, James Wilkes, Chrissy Williams and Tony Williams - contributed to this book, which sees a piece of text from a 1958 issue of Meccano magazine reduced to fragments then rebuilt, then destroyed, then rebuilt, ten times in total.

The front cover artwork is by the talented Sam Szulc and another top artist, Liam Yeates, provided us with some wonderfully vigorous endpaper art.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Sidekick Books Artist Profile: Monika Cilmi

The first in a series of profiles of selected contributors to Sidekicks books projects. Today I'll be talking to Monika Cilmi, whose calligraphic birds grace many pages in the upcoming anthology Birdbook Part I.

Born in Italy and living in England, Monika Cilmi works as an art tutor and workshop leader in various Colleges in London, and is represented by Tokani Art Agency. She is a visiting lecturer at University of the Arts London and at Middlesex University. She has exhibited her art in Italy, England and Germany and has won prizes for her work. Monika's work features in International Contemporary Artists Volume 1 (ICA Artists, 2010). She is planning projects with galleries in New York, Canada and Germany, as well as a solo exhibition at Colorida Galeria, Lisbon, and publication in an upcoming art dictionary.

A brief interview:

Sidekick Books:
Who or what would you say influences your work?

Monika Cilmi: Japanese art and philosophy, particularly zen brushwork and calligraphy. I am also influenced by the importance of the relationship between body, mind and nature, following my latest research.

SKB: Does the subject matter you use vary wildly, or do you find yourself returning to certain motifs and ideas?

MC: The subject matter is always the same but it is always interpreted and expressed differently through my research on gesture and the use of various materials and tools.

SKB: What convinced you to take part in the Sidekick Books projects?

MC: A passion for nature and birds in particular, but also the opportunity to use my unique style to create the illustrations.

SKB: Do you prefer to work alone or collaborate, and why? If the latter, what would your dream collaboration involve?

MC: I often prefer to work alone but I also enjoy collaborating with other artists. My dream collaboration would be with a composer, musician or dancer for a project that can combine sounds, movements and visual interpretation.


See more of Monika's work at

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Robots in Scotland!

What have we been up to?

Well now, after a whirlwind weekend of writing and compiling, me and Jon have crafted a pamphlet of collaborative and experimental robot-themed poetry. Forest Publications are releasing it through their chapbook series as "No, Robot, No!", under the pseudonyms Roy Marvin and Eve Bishop (10 points for naming those refs!).

We travelled to Edinburgh to engage in further Forest fun last Wednesday. The night, Golden Hour vs Plastic Forks, involved music, art and a nook of poetic goodness in which we cavorted and frolicked on the themes of technology, the future, dreams and computer games, joined by the likes of Happenstance's Helena Nelson, Rob Mackenzie, Ryan Van Winkle and Dave Coates. Great stuff. More robots.

Thanks also to the lovely Megan and Ben for putting us up and treating us real lovely, with croissants and mammoth pizzas and top charity shopping. We love you guys.

Sour side to our Scottish trip came with a heartburn-expensive plane ticket mix-up and a lost bag. Bag was returned tonight, though. Thank you Claire from BA!

In Sidekick Books news, we just got the proof back for our second book this year, Korsakoff's Paper Chain. We're going to do a twin launch with the awesome Pocket Spellbook when we hold the copies in our grubby paws. No robots confirmed as yet. Equally, robots not ruled out altogether. More to follow on that!


Sunday, 7 November 2010

Stay away from that Trapdoor! (but go to Camden!)

Camden School of Enlightenment
is once more waving its learned and friendly hand! On Tuesday 9th November, pop down to The Camden Head (nee Liberties) for:

Dominatrix of demotic erotica Sophie Cameron. She intends to dispense some much-needed Sex Education for Northerners, the mucky pup.

Jon Stone returns for the second instalment of his microlecture series deconstructing cartoons of the 80s. This time he's taking us spelunking through The Trap Door!

Dali-esque darling Alan Wolfson! For the final show of his all-too-fleeting residency, he's going to relive his Life in Plastic (it's fantastic, apparently).

Our Dead Poet will be Ivor Cutler after a quick rinse and wring through the mind-mangle of Will Hames.

Concealed rather obviously within one of those acts, we'll have the ukulele magic of Caroline "Fourstrum" Grannell, and maybe more pluck-me madness from our friends at UkeyLove

Floor spots are available - sign up at 8 if you can enlighten us on the theme of your choice. See you there! And did we mention it's free, all free?

Facebook event page here!

Also follow host Mike West, alias @camdenlight, on Twitter. Recent gems include:
Corporates: please stop calling people "champions", unless they've actually won at the Olympics or killed a knight in single combat.

"Have you swiped your nectar card?" It knows full well I haven't, the sarky get.

For less rapier-witted, but nonetheless enlightening updates, we too have joined the Twitticism Brigade - jump aboard at @SidekickBooks!

Monday, 1 November 2010

Save the Forest!

For the uninitiated (and you're missing a treat), The Forest is the umbrella name for a collective of incredible individuals based in Edinburgh. Hosting a plethora of fun and unusual arts events for free and serving delicious vegetarian food in the Forest Cafe, which is run by volunteers, these guys work their socks off to provide a welcoming ecosystem of arts and culture, promoting the interesting and offbeat and keeping creativity alive in these snip-snip-riddled times.

Here are just some of the things going on at the Cafe: art exhibitions, music nights, poetry, workshops, haircuts and booze (together!), a record label and independent prose and poetry press with lovely handmade pamphlets and games galore!

We have personal reasons for loving the Forest. They gave Fuselit a grant to buy our first laser printer, leading to the more interesting look the magazine sports these days, as well as giving us a grand launch for our Nude issue a few years back, and we're heading back this month on (I think) the 17th November to do an event (more details to come) with a cavalcade of quickfire poetry alongside regular poetryfest The Golden Hour, helmed by Forest stalwart and Crashaw Prize-winner Ryan Van Winkle, who'll be launching his debut collection from Salt. And that's just one of the huge list of shenanigans coming up at Bristo Place.

It's a scary thought that all this fine work might have to come to an end. Here's the situation in their own words:

The Forest has provided a free arts and events space for over a decade and we’ve never asked you to pay to play or to pay to view. We are the only truly autonomous arts and cultural space in Edinburgh and have hosted thousands of free events, exhibitions and straight-up parties. If you don’t know what we do, or have done, you can look at this website. Now, we are in the unique position to either buy our building or fold. All we need to do is raise £500,000. If all our friends and friends of friends donate only £10 — you will have a space in Edinburgh’s historic centre forever. Well, forever is a long time, but for a long time. As long as people are interested in open source community arts spaces. You’ve been directed here by one of your friends because they love this space for good reason. It has nurtured many a soul. Please help us exist for as long as we can by donating just £10 if you’ve been to a free event here. Less if you just like the idea and more if you really really love us.

x Forest

In a nutshell, there it is. It's not a great deal of money if everybody chips in, but it will mean that one of Edinburgh's most community-spirited entrepreneurial arts venues stays open to foster the excitement and pleasure that such a marvellous city and its guests can bring.

You can donate here safely and securely via Paypal, or by credit/debit card. Go on - if you do, I promise not to make any poet-tree puns (oops). Well hell, donate anyway for your love of arts!


Find out more about The Forest at and

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Taking Part

Alexandra Joensson and I are going to be presenting at Taking Part: Arts, Culture and Civil Society, which takes place at the South Bank Centre on 29th October and Goldsmiths College on 30th October.

The focus of the conference will be on the role of the arts and cultural production in civil society. For instance, should they be deployed to promote cohesion or to help marginalised groups of people? Or does this simply instrumentalise practices which should rely on their own values to measure their worth, rather than the extent they can be put to use.

We'll be presenting our project X_MSG: Speculations in Social Software and Sex Work Activism, an experimental effort to set up a dynamic many to many text message network in partnership with the sex work worker's co-operative x:talk. The system is designed support the political activism and radical pedagogy of the group, whilst also adapting, reflecting and restructuring (according to) elements of their internal politics.

We'll be present on the Saturday, first in the Short Snaps session (i.e. Pecha Kucha without the copyright infringement) and then in the New Media workshop for the afternoon. With luck, they'll be someone from the South Bank Centre's Global Poetry System there as well, who we can have a right good natter with. Should be fun!

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Poetry London 67

There's a short review of Scarecrows in the new issue of Poetry London (buy from here!) in a round-up of recent pamphlets by Christopher Horton. The magazine generally has a strong reviews section - not so much of the tortured puffery that the modern poetry review is famed for. Jack Underwood is particularly harsh, I think, on Matthew Caley's Apparently, calling it 'blokey' and 'emotionally remote' (with qualifiers) but it's certainly refreshing to see reviewers speaking their mind. Here's a little of what Horton says:

"If at times the sheer frequency of the cultish references and deliberate absenting of narrative threatens complete fragmentation, the sheer dexterity of the language still appeals. Stone has a tendency for spell-like pastiche, appropriate to his often dark subject matter."

Liverpool Biennial Audio Guide

For the tiddly amount of £2.50, you can download Mercy's Liverpool Biennial Audio Guide, which takes you on a tour through 20 imaginary installations, located at various points around Liverpool city centre. Each track can be played separately on a computer, or after downloading to your MP3 player, and is read over soothing mood music. Contributing poets include Byron Vincent, Ross Sutherland, Jack Underwood, Michael Egan, Eleanor Rees, Luke Kennard and Lizzie Nunnery. Kirsty and I also contributed, although we seem to go wholly uncredited! Ah, well.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

My Little Duck/Bimbo/Brat

For Jon, it was Transformers. For me, Christmas and birthday joy was brought about by My Little Pony. A bit too sweet and imbued with a sense of saccharine caring-defeats-those-not-exactly-threatening-bad-guys (if you're satisfied with bumbling comedy witches and purple goo that makes you grumpy), but they were brightly coloured, looked a bit like real horses and had fun tattoos on their arses. With the relaunch of MLP, which began a few years ago, something disturbing started happening.

Firstly, I acknowledge that MLP, in retrospect, sucked. But among the myriad girl-targeted franchises from my youth, it was in fairly sucky company. I never owned a Barbie and Care Bears were only on the the peripheries of my cultural knowledge. I was obsessed with MLP. They were cheap, so I was allowed to collect quite a few through gifts and pocket money, they were blank canvases, so the stories you placed your toys into could be as creative as you liked, and my brother managed to shut me up for hours on one occasion by cunningly suggesting I write down every single pony's name that I could remember. It's been hard to admit, but when you look back and compare the franchise to parallel boy-targeted ones, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Bravestarr etc., it was the fluffiest, most docile and unchallenging idea to sell to girls. I romanticised the first full-length movie for years until I rewatched it and realised that, with the best will and rosiest goggles in the world, it's utter drivel.

However drippy, though, there was chunky charm in the toys I played with, which would have been early-80s G1 ponies. This was my first one, Cherries Jubilee:

I want you to take a good look at the body shape and general look of the pony. Solid, in proportion, fairly equine. Little rump symbol to reflect their name. Slightly Disney-big eyes but, I think, displaying a kindly, almost comradely, sisterly or mentor-like expression. This toy says "let's run about Dream Valley and have magical adventures and maybe battle a couple lame foes. Sure, plait my mane if you like. Unlike a real horse I won't kick you in the face. We look out for each other here."

Names were fairly sweet, innocent fayre, but at least interesting, adding a splash of individuality to each pony. Early pony names included Twilight, Moondancer, Apple Jack, Glory, Firefly, Medley, Sunbeam, Butterscotch, and of course, the queen, Majesty.

On to the relaunch that kicked off around about 2003 (thanks to Dream Valley). Started promisingly enough.

Look! Similar bodies! Fun names! Great - now kids today can enjoy the same silly, psychedelic quests I enjoyed. Also, a great alternative to Bratz (an aggressive, Chucky-like tribe of pouty, optically monstrous mini-bitches who aim make-up, fashion, pretentious names and snootiness at pre-teens as a template for life. Gak).

But nay. Some team of marketing types (the bogeymen I blame a great deal of terrible things on) decided in the latter days of the last decade to do THIS to the sweet, sisterly/mentorly ponies.

That's right. They made them into Bratz with hooves.
Not so much "Happy Hooves!" as "Like, OMGee!"

Exhibit Two, a pony in theory from the old skool, known as Gusty. We could only identify her by her rump mark, Sarge.

I mean, seriously. It's not just me, is it? They've been (there's no way to put this without looking a bit creepy, so here goes) both infantilised and sexualised. The legs have been made more cartoonishly shapely, the muzzle shortened and cutesified and the eyes, well, they're HUGE. It's a little bit JonBenet Ramsay.

Wiki has a good description:
"The ponies' bodies were shrunk, their heads became larger, and their eyes took on a more child-like appearance. The hair styles of these ponies were also changed ...The current line of My Little Pony is referred to by collectors as G3.5. They are called 3.5 as they are the same characters as the G3 ponies but are more distorted in appearance having almost human like faces ... Many customizers seem to feel that the G3.5 ponies make excellent custom bases for those wanting to create a custom of the Red Queen from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland."

Frankly, I think they look more like overly made-up ducks with four legs than the Red Queen, but I see their point. Apparently many of the changes with the ponies were enacted in order to 'give them more personality'. The whole point of toys that don't have 10 batteries and loads of creativity-killing functions is that the owner works out their personality!

The range of ponies was recently reduced, as with Bratz, to a core group (ruining the illusion of an entire fantasy kingdom of cool magical horses), and were named Pinkie Pie (the pink pony above, nicknamed Smexiepie by G3.5-hating MLP fans), Rainbow Dash, Star Song, Sweetie Belle, Toola Roola, Cheerilee, and Scootaloo. Rainbow Dash and Star Song retain a bit of the mystery of the old names, but can you seriously tell me that any of the others would be out of place at a strip joint?

I'm not the best at structuring arguments, and there's plenty of room to tell me that I'm a) reading way too much into this, b) way behind - gender-biased toys have been available for decades and c) worrying way too much when kids will form their own, personalities, independent of their toys, but I'm creeped out by this general move towards a childlike-yet-adult aesthetic in girl-marketed playthings. It's not just that the proportions of MLP version 3.5 are ludicrous, or that their names are patronising, unambitious and utterly uncreative. It's about planting an idea about the importance of looking pretty and sexy in the minds of kids who should be thinking up daft stories and running around on imaginary quests in an escapist landscape. It just feels like 3.5 is about pacifying girls, making them overly aware of gender roles and the body through exaggeration and grotesque stereotyping.

I may be turning into my mum, but I hate seeing little girls in heels, just as I hate seeing a grown woman say "you do that tough task - you're the man".

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Woo! Magic for all!

I'd begun to think it was all a dream! But no, we are still publishing books under our Sidekick Books imprint, and to prove it, here is the cover of the third microanthology, Pocket Spellbook, which rather does what it says on the tin. Find out more here.

Thanks to all our contributors for helping us keep the show rolling, and especially to Saroj Patel for the wonderful cover artwork. I believe Kirsty is going to start running mini-features here on the various artists who are taking starring roles in our next few books, so keep a curious eye out.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Pomegranate 12: Ice!

I have a poem in the latest issue of Pomegranate, alongside new work from James Midgley, Joe Dunthorne, Sam Riviere, Nicholas Lui and others, and a review of Identity Parade by John Clegg. The editorial lightly takes me to task for not paying attention to the theme of 'ice', so I thought I'd write a belated ice-themed piece in honour of the continuing strength of this singular poetry e-zine:

Murder Weapons, Series 3, Number 7: Icicle

Always plunged, not swung as with the sickle
or ice-axe, and never ever by lackeys
but by oneself, hilt-deep into the silk
centre or through a window in the skull.

It is the best of all weapons to slake
a certain thirst for mingling colours:
Plump Berry and Terrible Alaska.
A favourite of compassionate killers.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Critical Close-Up: Felix Dennis

I've been (indirectly) challenged to explain exactly what I see is wrong with Luke Wright's poetry and I think I can understand where the commentator is coming from. Last month I appeared to be making broad swipes at Wright under the banner of 'telling it like it is' but without going into any specifics. Not very useful to the average reader in working out whether I had a point or not.

But while I see the force in a request for proper 'critical' reviewing, I'm not going to start with Wright - for one thing, it's silly to keep on at him as if he's some kind of poetry bogie man, and for another, I had to walk out on his performance the other night to catch a train, so it isn't really doesn't feel right to follow that up with a dressing down. Instead, I'm going to give Felix Dennis the once-over, since there is (I hope) a suitable distance between us, and I'd like to start with something easy.

Before I do that, a short word on why I think the 'critical review' is not very popular. Leave aside everything I said in the last post but one about negativity not making you many friends. There are two main problems: firstly, why waste time deconstructing something you don't like? We only have limited resources for critical analysis; surely these should be spent making positive cases for work that is criminally underrated or ignored?

Secondly, how persuasive can one hope to be? Without playing on an audience's predispositions, positivity is less suspicious, more appealing, more influential, than negativity. At worst, an overly critical piece will galvanise supporters of the derided work, actually increasing its popularity.

That said, I think it's important to discuss what we don't value in poetry as much as what we value. I've found that people are usually quite ready to talk about what they dislike at social gatherings or in small groups, but that this doesn't translate to written or recorded words. Perhaps that's because we're aware of how easy it is to expose our opinions as ultimately groundless or highly personalised. Perhaps. In any case, I think it's worth a shot every now and then.

Felix Dennis is the millionaire owner of Dennis Publishing, and his poetry has been critically endorsed by the likes of millionaire Stephen Fry, millionaire Paul McCartney and millionaire Tom Wolfe*. He claims to be one of Britain's best-loved poets, and in an interview with the BBC on National Poetry Day, he had this to say for himself:

"I'm a popular poet in the sense that my books tend to sell in the thousands, and sometimes in the tens of thousands, rather than in hundreds. Technically, I attempt to integrate structured poetical forms into modern day poetry."

His website also allows you to 'browse a timeline of Felix Dennis' life' and construct a playlist out of the several thousand poems he has uploaded. He's the author of 'How to Get Rich', which contains such sage wisdom as:

"I am convinced that fear of failing in the eyes of the world is the single biggest impediment to amassing wealth."

His wikipedia entry is remarkably similar to the biography in all his promotional material, citing his recovery from a mysterious illness as preceding his entry into the world of poetry. The poem I'm going to talk about is called 'A Sonnet for "Whores"'. It begins like this:

A ‘whore’ they call you in their spite. For shame!
Should men not importune you, (fools and boors),
Who then would stand to shoulder half the blame —
And more than half? God bless, say I, all ‘whores’.

Read the full text.

What's good about it?

As with all Dennis' poems, he knows his way around iambic pentameter and pure rhymes, which enables him to tackle the sonnet form with some success. This is evidently what he means when he says "I attempt to integrate structured poetical forms into modern day poetry". Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he means that, like Glyn Maxwell, Tony Harrison and countless other modern poets, he aims to marry traditional forms with modern themes and syntax. This is fair enough, so long as he's not suggesting that there's anything particularly radical about this.

The inverted commas around 'whores' at least prompts the reader to reflect on the way the word is used, its particular application to women and its use as a tool of oppression. 

What's bad about it?

It may be the most patronising poem I've ever read about prostitution, simultaneously romanticising the whole sorry industry and affecting a kinship with the abused women at the centre of it via the final line's 'we shall'. Genuine empathy is conspicuous by its absence; in its place we have mere unctuousness, a faux-rousing clap on the back for our ladies of the night for 'shouldering' first half, then 'more than half', then 'this world's' blame.

The rhyming is incredibly heavy-handed and dull, with not a single pairing anything less than done-to-death. The twice-repeated 'shame' and 'blame' is particularly wearying.

And is this really 'modern' poetry at all? Who still says 'For shame' with anything but a measure of pantomime? 'Fools and boors'? 'God bless'? 'Come, Aphrodite's daughter'?!? This is pure poncing/strutting/clowning about in a blazer. There's no sense whatsoever of a concern with making language new, or engagement with a difficult subject, or even a joy taken in the words used. Instead it amounts to thin pastiche of 19th century Romantics.

The only image or sensory element the poem seeks to plant in the reader's head is the 'tigers at the kill'. I don't think I've ever seen tigers at the kill, so I thought instead of something out of The Jungle Book and tried in vain to relate this back to what Dennis is talking about. Who or what do the tigers represent exactly? Our lives' drudgeon? Reality? 'Murderous strife'? It seems rather melodramatic to suggest that prostitutes - and not wives or lovers - manage to save us from being torn apart by wild beasts. Rather unfortunately, it also appears to hint that sex workers provide some sort of service to society by being easy targets for Jack the Ripper-types.

Finally, the idea that the word 'whore' is used out of spite rings false. I would say it's generally used in a casual and dismissive sort of way. That's why it's such a powerful weapon of sexism - because it's available to those who are merely unmoved and insensitive, rather than actively aggressive.

(* Some of these may be multi-millionaires or even billionaires.)

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Give Hughes and Heaney a rest

It's National Poetry Day, and there are dozens of events happening all over the country. But as ever, celebrations of poetry are somewhat marred by a rigid conservatism that wastes all the biggest opportunities - a failure of nerve and imagination at the highest levels. The New Statesman has published a lost Ted Hughes poem about the night Sylvia Plath died. The kind of interest this sort of coverage looks to arouse is the same that Heat aims for when it prints pictures of gaunt celebrities sans make-up - an almost scavenger-like fascination with the pain of public figures.

Then there's the news that Seamus Heaney has won the Forward Prize. The shortlist this year for best collection could hardly have been more of an exercise in reinforcing the current hierarchy (it also included the editors of Poetry Review and Cape and one of Heaney's former pupils) and so Heaney winning is the logical conclusion of this exercise. Rather than use the prize as a way of celebrating and nourishing the genuine diversity and range of British poetry, all that is going on here is the cementing of a contrived narrative for the benefit of the 'confused' consumer and future historians. What is any art, after all, without giants - however cynically constructed?

Don't bother with the New Statesman. Don't buy Heaney's book. Go to any one of the innumerable small events taking place today and next week and throughout the year and so on. Go to a library and get out a bunch of books by poets you've never heard of before. Discover and celebrate your own heroes.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Clinic & Magnifique

Two Fuselit-related events coming this week. On Thursday, Kirsty and I will be reading at the following event:

I'm particularly looking forward to the zine workshop!

Then on Friday, Fuselit will be fielding three readers as part of Broadcast's Magnifique event, alongside fellow London literary journals Brittle Star, Pen Pusher, Rising and South Bank Poetry. Our readers are all recent contributors to Fuselit - Gabrielle Nolan, Declan Ryan and Christos Sakellaridis.

It all kicks off at The Betsey Trotwood, 56 Farringdon Road, at 8.00pm. £5 entry.

Facebook event is here.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Teaching the regularity of the world

I'm embarking upon a project examining the potential of jokes and other forms of 'paralogics' as engines of social change and upheaval, and as humour and innovation are hardly foreign to the realm of Fuselit, I will be posting some of my speculations and investigations here.

The below is pilfered from a 11+ sample paper on non-verbal reasoning. For the benefit of those outside of the UK, the 11+ is a test some unfortunate children have to take to determine if they are fit to go to the higher stream 'Grammar' schools.

It's an element in paper which asks children to analyse the relationship between the first pair of shapes, and then make a pair with the same relationship.

So here the answer the answer is 'b' – the smaller of the two shapes appears as am even smaller, filled in shape inside the bigger shape. What are we learning through doing such tests? Surely it's how certain relations, certain principles, can be cross-applied from one context to another. One way of viewing this might be to say that it's teaching the principle of analogy, another that of universal law.

Now this one excites the philosophy student in me:

The correct answer, according to the sample paper, is 'e', where the shape is left unchanged bar acquiring a chequered pattern. However, we could also make a case for 'c', where the. Why? Because with the two images on the left, the shape which changes is symmetrical along the horizontal (and vertical) plane, and so we cannot tell if it has been flipped upside-down or not. How can we possibly go for 'e' over 'c' then? Well, it appears that this problem is a visual application of Occam's Razor, the principle which states that given any number of equally likely possibilities, we should always go with the simplest. We do not know that the shape has been flipped upside-down, so we should assume it hasn't.

But what's more interesting is this question contains within the potential for creating a test for paralogical reasoning. By paralogical reasoning, I mean forms likes jokes, sophistry and wordplay. These forms which can bring out amazing possibilities without subscribing to our normal notions of logic and sense. All we have to do for this question is say the answer is 'c' – that we should assume, if nothing is there to the contrary, that objects have been transformed, that we should subscribe to the wildest notions that are available to us.

Perhaps it would be possible to compose an entry paper to a radical and subversive academy, which turns normals notions of sense on their head. But could such a paper ever be marked – wouldn't the most talented students subvert even the modest assumptions such papers must be founded on?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Friday Pickle: To Diss or Not to Diss

Some time ago, the editors of the newly revitalised iota toyed with the idea of inviting submissions of articles which would be published anonymously. The response was an immediate heated debate of what this would entail - much-needed serious critical analysis of poetry from commentators now freed of a fear of black-listing, or lunatic hatchet-jobs and hate tirades from people too cowardly to put their names to their opinions? And is the distance between the two merely a matter of perspective anyway?

One of the biggest stumbling blocks contemporary poetry faces is its lack of an independent critical community. Most who know enough about poetry to form a cogent argument about it (or write about it in any fashion that doesn't expose crushing ignorance) are already practicing poets. Even those who begin with no intention other than to write critically will likely give in to the temptation to give the actual art a go at some point, if only because the distance between writing critically and writing creatively is so small - nothing like the distinction between writing critically about film and going out with a movie crew and several million quid to shoot a movie. The old line about the critic as failed artist fails to ring true with anyone but the most stung creator - critics are, in the main, trusted by the general public, while poets writing about poetry are not (and often with good reason).

Without this independent critical community, the very idea of reviewing negatively (or over-critically) in poetry is taboo. It's unthinkable to the young, aspiring poet because the author of the book they're reviewing could later turn out to be the person who decides whether or not they're accepted onto a course, or published in a journal, or up for an award. It's awkward for longstanding members of the poetry community because if they haven't met the person whose book they're reviewing, they're almost certainly a friend of a friend. And it's a serious risk for anyone because to utter real criticism from any position outside of permanently assured critical and commercial success might well earn you the reputation of a sore loser (not least because there are any number of genuine sore losers out there). Anyone who waded through my recent unsatisfactory attempts to land a shot on the performance poetry scene will have noticed that while the responses were generally mature, I was still accused of sour grapes.

Finally, it's a problem for poetry as a whole because all fracases, however intelligent or good-natured, can be regarded as bald men quarreling over combs. We have enough trouble getting poetry taken seriously on any level - why cavil over which is better or worse when nobody else cares?

Then there's the issue with negative reviewing itself. Nearly all poetry requires a certain degree of open-mindedness, and arguably the more genuinely original and groundbreaking it is, the more it demands the critic leave their expectations at the door. Thus, while Hollywood dross can be comfortably savaged by the serious critic, it's extremely difficult to do the same to a poetry collection without sounding like you're just not engaging with the material properly or fairly.

I'm not just talking about reviews here, mind. This applies to all levels of critical discourse, however informal. Think about how often we take a swipe at a terrible TV programme or articulate what we think about certain politicians. For some people (I'm not sure how many) enthusing endlessly comes easy, but for (surely) most of us, not being able to make a dismissive jibe or poke holes in something makes it difficult to talk about at all with any real gusto. Maybe it's because I'm British or something, but I find I'm at my most florid and unselfconscious when taking the piss. I have a huge number of genuine enthusiasms but somewhere between my heart and my mouth, they mostly dissolve into trite, workmanlike recommendations and thumbs ups.

And to be honest, I get rather tired of the trite, workmanlike recommendations and thumbs ups that seem to be the only way most communication about poetry can take place at all. There is an awful lot of work that needs to be congratulated and deserves wider recognition - that I do wholeheartedly believe. But there's a sense of muted desperation about how frequently we have to lightly applaud it, perhaps because sometimes it's the only indication we can give that something exciting is occurring. Imagine if this week's Milliband furore had been confined to a round of hearty congratulations to Ed and commiserations to Dave - would anyone really give a damn what happened next?

There are two broad philosophies that are often extolled (or rather, quietly recommended) in the world of poetry when it comes to behaviour: that is, kicking against the pricks and leaning a bit of humility. I've found myself leaning, at various times, towards one or the other, but lately I've been finding both equally dissatisfying. The prick-kickers seem destined to get nowhere, forever engaged in personal disputes only they care about, drawing up battle lines that make no sense to anyone else. The humility, meanwhile, is too often false, and on a larger scale only works in favour of those poets who are best at networking, since they end up with hundreds of mates all happy to do their PR for them and no one prepared to voice the opinion that they're not all they're cracked up to be. Where on earth can one sensibly stand?

Monday, 27 September 2010

Rice Planting Songs #29 -35

Maybe you thought I'd given up on rice planting songs. Have no fear - one case gave me the opportunity to string five together, and then last week was quiet, meaning I only had to write two.

Rice Planting Songs #29-33
Dragon Shipping 13.09.10-17.09.10

More urgent matters:
undercuts, countless welding
defects and spatters,

defects in casting,
paint applied over dust and
grit after blasting,

grit in the engine,
stiffeners missing, large pits
ground into the skin,

ground, warped inserts, bent
plates, deep wounds and whole sections
out of alignment,

outsized panelling,
glaring gaps - and that's just his
written opening.

Rice Planting Song #34
Fusion 20.09.10

Twins in matching suits -
whether or not they're fraudsters
they're sure in cahoots.

Rice Planting Song #35
Exception Var 24.09.10

Short, savage cloudburst
followed by judgment dry as
a book's skin of dust.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Poetry Whinge-Bastards

Perhaps you recognise some of these characters?

MR. A hasn't so much as glanced at a poetry book since English classes. He learned to appreciate some of those poets (ah, Philip Larkin!) but since no one has taught him to appreciate any others since then, and since he's incapable of getting to grips with anything without the guidance of an authority figure or received opinion, he lives by the creed that nothing beyond what he was taught can possibly be of import or interest. After all, if Simon Armitage (who?) or Paul Muldoon (que?) were any good, surely Jeremy Clarkson would have said so.

MR. B has a vague awareness that some black youths - probably the same ones who ride around on BMX bikes, right? - read something called 'slam poetry', and is under the impression that this is what's become of the whole scene, thanks to a succession of politically correct governments showering these drug dealing, ghetto-blasting street urchins with free cash. He knows that slam poetry kind of sounds a bit like hip hop and isn't sure why anyone even makes a distinction - after all, it's all about uzis and bitches, isn't it? Edgar Allen Wordsworth and T. S. Betjeman must be turning in their graves at what's become of their art!

MR. C doesn't really like any poetry, or read any, but is firmly of the opinion that British poetry has gone to the dogs since the poets 'stopped rhyming'. The fact that poets still rhyme all the time is irrelevant - after all, it's not as if he could identify a sonnet, or even a couplet, that didn't start 'O!' or contain three words with an extra 'e' on the end. Any poetry that doesn't lend itself to being read out in an RP accent by a bellowing thespian might as well be cut up prose.

You can see examples of these and more in the comments section of this Guardian article, which is about the new Bloodaxe anthology, Ten. After you've skimmed through them, it's worth reading W. N. Herbert's excellent response. Both follow these comments by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt regarding Arts Council funding:

"The debate has got to move on from the kind of box-ticking targets approach that says that in return for your grant from the Arts Council, you will get so many people from particular ethnic or social backgrounds."

Now, I do think there are flaws in the Arts Council's current approach. It's not right, for instance, that the three main UK poetry publishers are handed huge amounts of money each year to publish the same lists while publishers that regularly take on new poets - poets that need much heavier promotion for their books to break even - seemingly have to fight for the scraps.

But the phrase 'box ticking' is, in this instance and nearly every other instance it's used, a shorthand for positive discrimination, ie. making an effort to make sure Britain's cultural and ethnic minorities are proportionally represented in a particular area, rather than sitting back and leaving it entirely up to them to beat the odds and right the imbalance that sees white, middle class males dominate almost every area of eminence in this country through a self-sustaining system of covert cultural protectionism and ignorance. So whenever box-ticking or positive discrimination is mentioned - let alone defended - it seems to draw in a bitter, bigoted crowd, spouting off about this supposed onslaught of free passes handed to ethnic minorities (but which, strangely, never seem to be reflected in who actually gets all the powerful jobs).

Since the article is also about poetry - something else that the same people purposefully avoid understanding or engaging with sensibly because of their own profound sense of inadequacy - the idiocy attraction is squared. Hence the arrival of the rogues gallery listed above and what Herbert rightly dubs "a kind of hyper-philistinism".

I'd like to make it clear at this point that Kirsty and I have never even applied for Arts Council funding, and run all our projects off the back of the jobs we do full time. Part of me does feel that anyone should be able to do this, but on the other hand, I can't deny that it hobbles us somewhat. We can't pay contributors. We haven't been able to set any production/release dates in stone (because you just don't know how much work will get in the way). We can't afford to hire any help with basic admin tasks. We can only afford minimal promotion/publicity (which, ironically, on a large scale, adds to the ignorance which sees people making such ludicrous statements as "the last `modern` poet who was of any worth was Larkin", because our chances of getting our work noticed by such closet dwellers is nil).  That the Arts Council exists at all, of course, is testament to the fact that our society recognises that art makes a serious positive social contribution without being a viable business. It takes a special kind of pigheadedness to insist that art is only worthwhile if it makes money, or that the sort that doesn't make money is in no way held back by its practitioners having to find some other means of income. The principle, if not the reality, of an Arts Council is sound, and the same can be said of positive discrimination.

I'd also like to make clear that there's nothing wrong with not liking or understanding poetry. We can fail to understand it in the same way people fail to understand, say, computer games, or astrophysics, or maritime law. We all have our areas of ignorance that we're entirely comfortable with. You don't need to have a grasp of everything. It's not even possible.

But what typifies the kind of comments you'll find on that Guardian thread is a self-centeredness bordering on solipsism - the assumption that: "If I don't understand something, it's not worth understanding. If I haven't heard of something, it can't possibly be noteworthy." I can't put it better than Herbert:

"Whether it’s rhyming in poetry, dressing nicely for the theatre, clapping or not clapping at the right moment in the concert hall, or knowing what you like when confronted by ‘modern’ art (anything in the last hundred years being out of bounds), this is all about behaviour and not content, about etiquette masquerading as principle, about received opinion over original thinking."

Contempt for poetry hides behind the idea of elitism - that poets are writing for an exclusive circle, not for 'everybody'. In reality, such contempt is grounded in the very elitism it claims to abhor - demanding that every poet (every artist even) write for the small group of 'normal' people represented by that commentator, entirely hateful of the idea of a panoply of different poetries writing for a panoply of different audiences. It's no wonder such comments go hand-in-hand with the uninformed assumption that a book of poets from a variety of ethnic backgrounds will have some kind of 'hip hop' flavour.

Incidentally, the thread also introduced me to MR D, who seems to think that poets can't possibly need money because all they need is a paper, a pen and a photocopier, who doesn't realise that the only reason he knows about the existence of Chewits, Bosch dishwashers and The Last Airbender is because someone paid hundreds of thousands of pounds on advertising campaigns. Heaven forbid he should learn about ten young, talented and dedicated poets the same way.

Now, this is, of course, just another rant, and doesn't go as far as suggesting what we might usefully do about it (which Herbert does do). But I find myself at something of a loss because I honestly think that many of those involved in poetry already are doing everything they can to make it as open, as multifarious and as accessible as possible. The variety is there. The attitude is there. I guess, therefore, the only change I might have to suggest to anyone who's with me on this is: we don't always have to be such good eggs about it. Sometimes maybe it's worth stopping by on an internet site to call one of these characters out on their stupidity. I like that poets and creative people are, you know, nice, but I also like seeing someone stick it to a total arse. In moderation, of course, but I actually think we could use a bit more of that right now - someone to do for poetry what Richard Dawkins did for atheism. No?