Sunday, 30 January 2011

Talking About Poetry

As someone who tries, more than occasionally, to review poetry books, I've spent a lot of time - much of it in some sort of face-clutching intellectual agony - trying to work out how to best articulate my response to the work. 'Best' here meaning that people (a) know what I'm talking about, and (b) are able to believe me. The latter, you might think, wouldn't be a problem, but it is. With criticism, it really is. If you sound hazy when it comes to the details, inexact, or flood your prose with grand, overblown assertions and generalisations, you come across as a salesman or politician, not a critic.

And it's not easy to avoid. I know that. Poetry is hard to talk about. That may be (I think it is) one of the main reasons why it's regarded as 'difficult'. What's missing isn't necessarily a person's ability to enjoy poetry, but rather to explain their enjoyment - or the lack of it - in terms that allow them to hone in on what they like and block out what they don't. Pop music is conveniently divided into genres. Imagine if, instead, no one could instantly articulate the difference between, say, Hallelujah and My Name Is. Think of the perennial (albeit diminishing) distance between the younger generation, who are tuned into the latest terminology surrounding music, and the older generation to whom all modern sounds blend into one uncomfortable mash.

Even if we ignore genrefication (or rather, write it off as ultimately undesirable, for different reasons) the fact is that a wide range of people are able to comfortably discuss the differing qualities of film, fiction, art, computer games, television and comics, both in the national media and in every corner of the internet. They can debate it. They can rage about it. This is the kind of engagement that gives these arts the feeling of being public, of being owned by everyone, rather than elitist and out of bounds.

Meanwhile, on the poetry front, discussion is too often limited to 'the state of things' or general feelings about form, the 'mainstream', publishing, performing, et cetera. While there are many who will put their back into writing reviews, those reviews rarely elicit so much as a passing comment from anyone else, and then it will be: "Good review." Kirsty and I recently received a polite email back from a book blog saying they didn't feel able to review our books because they had no one who was properly able to engage with poetry. In the age of the internet, when a 15-year old can set themselves up as a film reviewer, a literary blog doesn't feel able to talk about our books. I'm not admonishing them - this is simply how it is.

And then I look at recent articles by prize-winning, much respected poets in national newspapers and realise the problem goes all the way to the top. This is Don Paterson, explaining what it was that made the winner of the inaugural Picador prize - which has received a ton of press coverage, by poetry standards - stand out against the shortlist:

"But there was something in Richard Meier's turn of mind, the precision of his ear, the quiet strangeness of his imagery, the tenderness and clarity of his address ..."

This is his new star, the future of his list, and this clutch of incredibly vague and cliched assertions is the best he can do? What does Richard Meier write about? What's his 'thing'? What sorts of techniques does he employ? The best Paterson can give us is 'something'.

Next comes Jackie Kay, in the wake of Jo Shapcott's Costa Book Award victory, explaining how poetry is enjoying 'a beautiful renaissance'. What is it, then, about Shapcott's book that tells us the event us truly upon us? 

"... a rare thing, an uplifting book about death and mortality ..."

Okay, fair enough - Kay isn't attempting to sell us the book. This is only part of the picture, the rest of which will be built up over the course of the article:

"Christopher Reid's heartbreaking tribute to his wife ... Derek Walcott's remarkable White Egrets won the prestigious TS Eliot prize .... Carol Ann Duffy ... has reinvigorated the poetry world... a buzz in the world of poetry, showing that poetry is a force to be reckoned with ... the age of generosity is spilling out of the world of poetry ... the poetry pamphlets handsomely produced by ... small presses ... are flourishing ... Faber has just produced some extraordinary poets ... This might have to do with the poet's uncanny ability to speak for us and for our time ... From the pamphlet and the small press to the lit fest, new things are happening in the poetry world ... a proliferation of authentic and original voices, chiming with the voices of the entire population ... These readings are unique events, in the sense that they are electrifying ... There is no doubt about it, whatever the convergence of reasons and coincidences: poetry rocks."

She quotes others, including the Poet Laureate, to the same effect:

"People are coming at the poetry world from all different perspectives. Just last week I met a neurologist who said he had a great poetry reading group at work ... Poetry is very confident now, and it does feel like it should be a guest at the table."

Amid her article, there are some salient points about the rise of women poets and black poets. Why this isn't the subject matter of the whole piece is slightly beyond me, since the rest reads like a full page advert aimed at investors, hyping the poetry industry as a new mover and shaker. Figures are cited that supposedly prove an upswing in attendance and enthusiasm. The Picador prize is mentioned again, for no discernible reason except, perhaps, to reinforce the fact that people think it's worth mentioning. What is absolutely glaring in its absence is any articulation of what the poetry in question is actually doing; what it's embracing, rejecting, brawling with, studying, deconstructing, destroying, reinforcing. All that matters, apparently, is that people are 'getting it', even though neither Kay nor the Guardian can explain to us what exactly 'it' is.

The problem here is this: all these blandishments and upbeat noises cover up real issues, debate and conflict within poetry that, were the separate strands to find their voice, would be far more enticing to the average Guardian reader (and others beyond), since they invite negotiation and navigation. The soft sell results in nothing but the reader noting, perhaps with a warm feeling, that poetry is doing all right for itself, before moving on. The idea that these sorts of articles are, as presented on their face, news items is laughable; everyone involved knows it's vital publicity, but it's publicity done badly. Covering up the struggles within British poetry and passing it off as a happily united front is the exact opposite of what its advocates should be doing.

So why do they do it? One could ungenerously conclude that, given Duffy's surprising assertion that "there's little competitiveness in the poetry world" and Paterson's unsubtle put-downs of nay-sayers, that this is the old guard reinforcing their ivory tower by denying the existence of alternative poetries - or rather (this is more my theory) are guided by their own vision of a coherent, all-encompassing texture of contemporary poetry that naturally ignores the many ill-fitting jigsaw pieces.

But the best explanation, to my mind, is that people just don't know how to talk about poetry. They don't know how to make it a proper subject for discussion. So they flail around for figures and bold statements, hype up contests and events and name-drop, name-drop, name-drop, in the hope that all this will provoke someone else to kick off the real talking for them.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The General Update

Just to keep everyone posted on Sidekick/Fuselit activities, here's the SitRep. We're currently awaiting proofs of Birdbook and are part of the way through putting together the hard copy version of Fuselit: Contraption.

The former was beset with difficulties in getting a 1.24 gigabyte pdf to the printers (and yes, we tried the various rapid transfer devices, as well as breaking it up, compressing it etc), while the latter is currently being roadblocked by my design ideas being way too 'out there' for the internet to be able to help me with. There's one particular visual concept I'm googling at the moment that has given me page after page of people skirting around the issue, as well as that perpetual irritation: the gateway page generated by whatever you put in the search bar, posing as exactly what you're looking for but offering nothing of the sort.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, just imagine you were looking for cursed and painted horses. Upon googling 'cursed painted horses', you will find any number of sites that claiming to be or 'The definitive cursed painted horses site'. When you go to them, they're nothing more than poor search engines displaying results for horses, paints and curses, but never the three altogether.

This is only one of any number of obstacles that seem to be generated every day by a hateful world in response to our quest to make great literary knick-knacks. In response, we've turned our stubbornness settings up to 11 and increased the setback threat level to 'severe'.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

SaltPlus reading tonight!

Along with Roddy Lumsden, I'm co-hosting SaltPlus, a fantastic night of Salt poetry at the Phoenix Artist Club (same place as the Seance on Tuesday) tonight! Come along for an outstanding night of poetry. Here's the deal:

Salt Plus is a new monthly reading series featuring both poets on the Salt list and other poets, new and known.

The first event has sets from Liane Strauss, Mark Waldron and Chris McCabe. Three of those featured in the forthcoming Salt Book of Younger Poets will also read - Dai George, Kayo Chingonyi and Siofra McSherry.

7.30pm-9.30pm, Phoenix Artist Club, 1 Phoenix Street (nearest tubes Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square).

Facebook event here!

Monday, 10 January 2011

Dr Fulminare's Dark Science Seance

Ever the humble innovator, Dr Fulminare, former leading light of the foolhardy Guild of Alchemists and current raconteur, freelance necromancer and head of Sidekick Books, invites you to join his minions for a Dark Science Séance, to launch the experimental poetry anthologies Pocket Spellbook and Korsakoff's Paper Chain.

What be these? Well see here:

Hosted by Dr F's indentured servants Jon Stone and Kirsty Irving, with readings from contributors Cliff Hammett, Amy Key, Edward Mackay, Dec Ryan, James Wilkes, Chrissy Williams and Adham Smart. There will also be the only-thus-far planned full read through of the text reresurrection adventure story that is Korsakoff's Paper Chain.

Prepare to see science and superstition, those unlikely bedfellows, thrown together with nary a care! Hell, we're going to splash out and get snacks for you folk too!


Saturday, 1 January 2011

2010 Retrospectacular / 2011 Plotorama

Happy new year to everyone, particularly those to whom I have not yet wished it.

I don't think I've had good reason to write a retrospective of a year before because nothing very much seems to have happened. But some time in mid-December, I started miserably trying to account for all the months that had drifted by, and realised that actually, it's been quite a good year for Kirsty and myself, as poets and poetry activists if not so much in our professional capacities. So I'm going to do a quick run through 2010, and then talk a little about our plans for 2011.

In January and February, we were still working on getting Cut Out & Keep off the ground as a regular online journal, as well as promoting the first two Sidekick Books micro-anthologies and putting together Fuselit: Tilt, in much the same way as we begin this year putting together Fuselit: Contraption. I found out a poem of mine had placed highly in the National Poetry Competition (although the ceremony wasn't until March), and after a lightning-quick weekend editing session involving (possibly) dozens of emails exchanged between me and Helena Nelson, my debut pamphlet, Scarecrows, was ready to go. The reception it received, coupled with the prize, doubled my confidence in a very short space of time and created some much-needed momentum. I was offered more readings in the next few months than I had been in my full and awful 27 years up to that point, and I still feel genuinely thrilled to have been able to do sets at events like The Shuffle, Days of Roses and the Torriano Reading Series. It all feels rather jammy, in fact.

National Poetry Awards ceremony. I'm the smuggest one.

In March, we were finally able to make Tilt available to buy, and reams of positive feedback followed, with initial demand far outstripping our ability to make a paltry ten or so copies a week. Kirsty appeared for a reading and interview on Sydenham Radio, while articles we published on Dr Fulminare's Irregular Features included ruminations by K on the endings of poems, and Chrissy Williams on her new job at the South Bank Poetry Library. We also dusted off our guitars to play a one-off gig called Suffering Jukebox, alongside other bands, including Dec Ryan's The Shingles, and it was there that a plan was hatched to put on a Leonard Cohen tribute night.

In April, said tribute night came to fruition, with poets and songwriters a-plenty, as well as NME/Guardian journalist Gavin Martin giving a short talk. But we spent most of April writing a poem a day in the much-maligned tradition of NaPoWriMo.

In May, Kirsty read at The Golden Hour in London, as part of its nationwide tour and we both took part in Roddy Lumsden's Lardermania event, writing and reading poems about food (I chose um ... 'tongue' and K went for ... 'ants').

In June, we went to Edinburgh for Happenstance's 5th birthday party and to be special guests at Rob Mackenzie's Poetry at the .... Happenstance, who published Scarecrows, went on to win the Michael Marks Publishers' Award, the only prize in this country for a pamphlet publisher. K had a poem published in the first issue of George Ttoouli and James Brookes' sumptuously produced Polarity and something of mine turned up in Dwang 2. I was also the Friday Feature poet one week in Todd Swift's well known Eyewear blog, and he said some flattering stuff about me.

So far, so good, eh? In July we went on holiday. Not for the whole of July, but that was the main achievement.

In Conwy with chums. Cheap hols ahoy!

August was something else. In August, we joined up with Days of Roses (Dec Ryan and Chris Horton) to celebrate Fuselit's 5th birthday (apparently a lot of stuff was being birthed in 2005 - Eyewear was also 5 this year) and to launch the 16th issue of Fuselit, Jack. It was a free event with cake, and we sold out of almost everything we'd brought to sell. Silkworms Ink published my e-pamphlet Thra-koom and Mercy's Twelve Angry Zines project included extracts from past issues of Fuselit, as well as new poems by Kirsty and me.

In September, Kirsty read versions of her poems in English and German to an audience of ninjas in at the first Kunoichi Taikai in Hannover. Then she went on to sell copies of Coin Opera and Obakarama to them at a little stall. She also read at Roddy Lumsden's Broadcast Old, New, Borrowed, Blue event, while I did my first of three talks about the more cerebral side of 1980s cartoons at Camden School of Enlightenment. After a lot of tinkering, we uploaded up a brand new site for Fuselit in anticipation of the coming change of format.

Technically, it's 'bujinkan', not 'ninja training' or 'ninjing'

October saw the release of the third Sidekick Books micro-anthology, Pocket Spellbook (which was originally supposed to be out in April/May). Scarecrows was reviewed favourably in Poetry London and Kirsty and I both contributed to the Liverpool Biennial Audio Guide released by Mercy. I made my third appearance in under-30s poetry e-journal Pomegranate, and both of us read at the insanely popular Clinic Presents.

November was almost too much for us. It was back up to Edinburgh for an experimental night of poetry, art installations, computer gaming and ... some sort of music (dubstep?) under the banner of Golden Hour vs Plastic Forks, while a weekend of intensive writing produced our collaborative, pseudonymous pamphlet No, Robot, No! There was also the second Camden School of Enlightenment, and we managed two in two months with the release of a fourth micro-anthology, Korsakoff's Paper Chain. Best forget we also nearly lost our luggage at Gatwick.

Finally, in December, About a Minute, the inaugural exhibition at The Gopher Hole opened, featuring six new poems by me as part of a piece called Staring Into Space. It's running until early February, so there's still a chance to catch it! Kirsty and I also turn up in the much anticipated Stop Sharpening Your Knives 4, edited by Jack Underwood, Sam Riviere, Nathan Hamilton and Emily Berry.

Retrospectacular over. Plotorama begins.

NOW, what of 2011? First of all, we'll be booking a venue for the official launch of the two micro-anthologies. That's priority 1. Priority 2 is getting our first full-size anthology, Birdbook I, to the printers. It's huge and scary, and no doubt still needs the last few errors knocking out of it by a thorough proofing. We want it out this month, since many artists and poets have been waiting nearly a year to see their work on the page.

At the same time, we're working towards a February release of Fuselit: Contraption, which will be brought out simultaneously as an e-broadsheet, and in a limited edition of 100 print copies. There's a whole truckload of extra stuff going into this issue, fingers crossed, that should see us increasing its cross-medium appeal and readership, while keeping the old spirit going. What's more, there'll be badges. Or stickers. One of the two.

In February, we're also appearing at this event, which means we're going to have to scrabble around for anything that might be considered 'love' poems. Some time around, before or after then, there'll also be the rescheduled Orbiting event, which sees poet Richard Evans coming up to London to headline a fundraising literary auction event. Kirsty and I will both be reading at that too.

After that, we'll be pushing to finish and print Coin Opera II, the full-size sequel to our first micro-anthology. Some amazing poems lined up for this one, some of which (as with those in Birdbook I) are already finding their way into collections and other scheduled publications.

Rather than continue with micro-anthologies, the next set of books we want to aim towards will involve full collaborations between poets and illustrators. Not a case of illustrations based on or inspired by the poems, but something more even-handed. I'm envisioning intense talks - editor, poet, artist - about the structual integrity of each pamphlet, deep into the night.

There are a couple more projects, as well as personal missions, that I'm going to keep quiet about for now, at least until they're set in motion. We've certainly got plenty to keep us busy, but I'm hoping there'll be a few more surprises along the way as well. Cheers!