Friday, 31 August 2012

Birdbook II/Coin Opera II update!

So a brief update is very much in order on our next two books, Birdbook II: Freshwater habitats and Coin Opera II. To accompany this, I've tried to find an image that captures both projects.

Birdbook II is very nearly ready to go printerwards. We've received a foreword from the fantastic Tim Birkhead, proofing has been done and it's just minor tweaks to go. For the uninitiated, this is the second book in a series of four, in which we aim to gather one poem and one illustration for every species of British bird. Each book covers a group of habitats. Volume II is looking great, helped in no small part by the return of Lois Cordelia, who has once again provided her beautiful artwork for the cover.

Coin Opera II, our second anthology of poetic tributes to computer games, is looking good too. With cover art by the very talented Mike Stone and a whole bundle of computer game-themed formal Easter eggs (including what may be the world's first set of 'boss' poems), this is going to be a mighty power-up from our initial micro-anthology, back in 2009. A foreword from Uncanny X Men writer and video games journalist Kieron Gillen, a spot more collaging and rearranging, a good old proof and it'll be off to press before you can say Hadouken.

More updates to come. Stay tuned!

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Thursday, 30 August 2012

YPN August Challenge draws to a close

The final of my 15 simple/weird formal exercises is up on Young Poets' Network today and the deadline for mini-collection submissions is tomorrow!

Here, then, to recap are the 15 challenges, with examples by yours truly:

1. Bookshelf Poem
2. Squid Poem
3. Censorship Poem
4. Helicopter Poem
5. Skeleton Poem
6. Jungle Trail Poem
7. Hollywood Remake Poem
8. U-Boat Poem
9. DVD Extra Poem
10. Manga Poem
11. Scoop! Poem
12. Google Search Poem
13. Vampire Aubade
14. Earthquake Poem
15: Chinese Whisper Poem

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Poets for Pussy Riot

Both Kirsty and I will be reading at this next week in support of the imprisoned members of Russian punk band Pussy Riot.

Poets for Pussy Riot
Wednesday August 29th 2012  - 7pm until late - Free entrance
at the Rich mix arts centre, main space venue,
35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA             020 7613 7498      
With the news that Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich of the Russian punk collective, Pussy Riot, were sentenced to two years in prison for a wholly necessary and valid political protest, contemporary poets in London will come together in a unique evening of readings, featuring original poetry and text, as well as the words of Pussy Riot themselves. This event is an act of solidarity through the medium of poetry - a celebration of the courage and spirit of fellow writers of this generation, writing for real political change in a country that needs it.
Featuring readings from over 30 poets including Tim Atkins, David Berridge, Becky Cremin, Kirsty Irving, Francesca Lisette, Chris McCabe, Reza Mohammadi, Sandeep Parmar, Tom Raworth, Jack Underwood, James Wilkes and many others. 
Email: for further details

Friday, 17 August 2012

Self-esteem tips from beautiful rich people

I've been out of the loop musically for a while now, so forgive me picking up on a two-year-old song, but what spell has Katy Perry cast over the internet that I can't find a single angry review of 'Firework'?

Perry seems to have rehabilitated herself since the days of 'I Kissed A Girl' (slammed by Gossip singer Beth Ditto as a "boner dyke anthem") and the ridiculously-defended 'UR So Gay', and decided that the real PR gold lies in Aguilera Hills. Xtina's 2002 song 'Beautiful' basically did 'Firework' with a stronger vocal range eight years prior to Perry's effort.

Let's compare the two videos:

Beautiful (2002)
Negative female body image (skinny girl examining self in mirror)
Negative male body image (skinny boy lifting weights, surrounded by pictures of muscular men)
Gay kiss
Suggested transgender issues (not clear whether the cross-dressing guy is meant to be a transvestite or a transgender woman)

Firework (2010)
Negative female body image (girl at pool party afraid to take off robe around her skinny friends)
Childhood cancer (how a bouncy pop song is supposed to help you cope with that, I ain't sure)
Gay kiss
White gay getting mugged by group of mixed-race men (hmm, really breaking down the barriers here) and using - get this - magic tricks to see them off. Sound advice for urban dwellers.

So I guess let's start with the kiss in each case. I was never a Christina fan and lyrically 'Beautiful' is still cloying and self-helpy in that all-American way, but hell, at least it was written by someone who understood what it was like to be gay. At the time, the video did piss some people off, for no reason other than that the kiss between two men was passionate and sustained. Aguilera has not been averse to the odd faux-gay stunt (snogging Madonna onstage with Britney while wearing a sexy wedding frock was particularly cynical), but this, as saccharine as it was, felt sincere. Aguilera herself never comes into contact with the characters, singing from a bare room while the action goes on outside.

In contrast, the characters in Perry's video, watched over by their firework-boobed guardian angel, seem chucked in to show that KATY PERRY CARES ABOUT UGLY PEOPLE AND CANCER CHILDREN. All they need is her singing and pyrotechnics to teach them not to care that people want to kill them, or leukaemia wants to kill them, or that muggers want to kill them, or that they want to kill themselves. Don't be a downer! Come and boogie your knife wounds away!

Perhaps if Perry herself had at least appeared in the video without a trace of makeup, it would have been a start towards sincerity or solidarity with the girl suffering low self-esteem, but no, she's painted, coiffed and gowned, placed above them all as a guidance figure and ultimately assuming a role of superiority in magically granting them the self-confidence to rise above their situation. It's dishonest. Life, our bodies and our minds simply do not work like that.

Money does, though, and brand awareness. And yes, both parties can be accused of this. Xtina got to reinvent the 'Dirrrty' version of herself with a serious ballad, just as Perry got to sing a clubworthy tune to try and get the gay community back on side after her unapologetic blunders. 'Firework' is more obviously cynical though, trying to crowbar serious issues into a jaunty soundtrack from an outsider's perspective. Gaga's 'Born This Way' did a similar thing, the difference being that that was worked more as a defiant call to arms than hurling a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul at people in varying states of despair. 'Born This Way' and 'Beautiful' are, crucially, sung from a first-person perspective, placing empathy high on the agenda, not forgetting our problems with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream.

Following Ditto's criticism, Katy Perry said that it was "tacky" to criticise someone else's music. It's not. That's how progress is made. It's tacky to colonise the suffering of other people in a 2-D way in order to make money.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Poetry Parnassus and the Paradox of International Poetry

Today we have a guest article by Andrea T. Judge, the incoming reviews editor over at the Sidekick Books site. Take it away, Andrea:

It hasn’t been long since Poetry Parnassus. The event took place between the 26th of June and the 1st of July, as part of the Cultural Olympiads, and it brought together more than two-hundred poets from all over the world for readings and debates. The scale of the project, even in retrospect, is staggering.

The event having lasted a week, and myself being constrained by the nagging trifle of having a job, I was only able to attend the events on the weekend, which disqualifies me from writing a proper review. This is just as well, because what I am interested in discussing here is not Poetry Parnassus itself as much as some aspects (and problems) of international poetry as they emerged from the festival.

I should start by saying that I thought the field day was a resounding success. The organisers did a superb job in bringing together a group of diverse and fantastic poets, including some real stars (my jaw pretty much dropped when I saw Gioconda Belli on the roster). All of the readings I attended were very interesting, and those I didn’t sounded just as promising. As importantly, the event offered myriad opportunities to pick up books of international poetry and find out information about literature from abroad, often by speaking with the foreign artists and/or editors in person. Myself, I walked away with a collection of contemporary Polish poetry and a pamphlet by a Persian author, two books that I look forward to reading in the coming days. So even though my arguments later in this article may seem critical of the festival, my final position should be clear from the start: great job, and do it again as soon as possible.

With these indispensable disclaimers out of the way, I was a little puzzled by certain of the invitations, particularly in light of what they meant in an event that declared itself as primarily international. Being interested above all in the European poetry scene, I did not look into many of the poets from North America, South America, or Africa (I’m aware that these represented the majority of the festival’s readers and I must stress once more that this article does not intend to review the festival as a whole). What struck me about the selection of the European poets was the fact that so many of them were already international by default. The choices always seemed to fall on poets who were fluent in English, professional translators from or into English, and often having lived away from their home country.

The prime example of this was Ilya Kaminsky. When I entered the site of the event, I found a list of poets by nationality. I immediately scrolled down to the link for Russia, as I am head-over-heels in love with the contemporary poetry scene from this country, and I was linked to Kaminsky’s bio. I had never heard of him before and I am unfamiliar with his work. A little reading told me that he was born in Odessa (which is in Ukraine, not in Russia, and that country has not been Russian since the fall of the Soviet Union), that he moved to the United States when he was sixteen, and that he writes in English. Presently he is, I quote from the bio, “professor of Contemporary World Poetry in the Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing at the University of San Diego”.

I mean no disrespect to the man, but he doesn’t strike me as the quintessentially Russian poet. When interviewed by SJ Fowler for the festival, he spoke of Horace, Borges, and Whitman, and he answered the question “What are your thoughts on contemporary Russian poetry?” by discussing the merits of people like Mandelstam, Mayakovsky and Kharms, all of whom died decades before today’s most interesting Russian poets were even born (for a comparison, imagine answering a similar question on contemporary English poetry by talking of Yeats and Eliot). He also said, when asked about the extent to which he represents his country and culture, that: “Poets are not born in a country. They are born in childhood.” This may be true, but it skirts the important question of how being born in a particular country enriches, limits, colours or otherwise affects a poet’s work. This is how contemporary St Petersburg poet Darja Suchovej writes of buying a present for a friend (the translation is my own, and so is the transcription of the name, which I’m sure I messed up):

Recently the Ozegov vocabulary was released,
the last edition, there’s a dream,
acquiring it in some alley,
among other things because you can’t find a word
in the old one with either 
гз or жз; in the four
volumes of the eighties’ edition, likewise:
and in the older pages yet of the Pushkin-Tongue
vocabulary (four volumes in turn)
there isn’t flatiron, computer, refrigera-
tor, and distributor, and dialer,
nor even leader. But it’s clear with the
xa, the нa, the e
End of the quotes. We had some canapé. We ate
them, without thinking, together with vodka.

This is the type of uniquely national flavour which makes it so rewarding to investigate poetic scenes outside of our own, and it is unquestionably related to the environments where the artist was raised.

The case of other attendants was similar, if not quite as extreme. Elisa Biagini, from Italy, is a translator from English and an expert in American poetry. She has lived and taught in the US (though now she resides in Florence), and she writes in English as well as in Italian. Evelyn Schlag, from Austria, studied German and English literature and writes novels set in places like Quebec, where characters meet American poets like Elizabeth Bishop. Valérie Rouzeau, from France, is a famous translator of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. So is Eli Tolaretxipi, from Spain, except that her specialty is on Plath and Bishop rather than Plath and Hughes (in her interview she cites four writers/poets, two of whom wrote in English, one in Swedish and only one in Spanish, and answers a question about her national poetic identity by saying that “rather than a country a poet has a home which can be anywhere”, which, again, misses the opportunity). Ironically, the poet whom I most readily associated with a European culture was Ryoko Sekiguchi, who represented Japan, but who lives in Paris and is a major voice in French poetry (I assume she must have a certain status in Japan as well, but I only know her work in French).

This is not to slight any of the above poets, much less the event’s organisers. I am not suggesting that these artists are not representative of their countries or that they were poorly selected. Rather, the argument goes the other way round – firstly, and as Fowler’s interviews suggest, these are poets whom by virtue of their international background are more likely to reject or downplay the role of nationality in writing than to foreground it. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, but in context of this festival, it left me with a bit of an unsated hunger. How does the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s televisual, hegemonic politics-of-communication affect the Italian language and what can poetry do about it? How did the Spanish language respond to and reflect the shift in the perception of homosexuality that took place in Spain over the last decade? What is the attitude of the Russian poetic scene towards all these new Romantic poets who are dying young, like Boris Rizhy, Igor Davletsin, or Dmitrij Bannikov? Could the increasingly academic nature of poetry in France somehow be reflective of the left-wing’s struggles to communicate with its base, thus favouring the rise of populist right-wing parties, and if so, what is to be done? These are all important questions which cannot simply be discarded by saying, as one poet did, that “a woman has no country” (this being a quote by Virginia Woolf, it was also rather wastefully made, which perhaps exemplifies my point – you don’t need to invite an international poet to London if you want to hear people quoting Woolf).

Secondly, to continue my argument, it may be objected that I am putting the cart before the horse. It is easier to communicate with poets from an international background, so naturally they would be the first to attend such events, right? This is true, but it only highlights the difficulty (and the real challenge) of dealing with international poetry – that it is interesting precisely to the extent that it is difficult to mediate with it. A festival such as Poetry Parnassus, despite some of its more grandiloquent terms (the “World Poetry Summit”? Seriously?) is, in this particular sense, hindered by its own size. While it is a great chance to meet individual foreign poets and be exposed to their work, it simultaneously risks projecting an anglocentric understanding of global poetry – which is the trap one must try to avoid. It is true that most poets today speak English anyway because, well, most people speak English. The question that is worth exploring, however, is what can be done with other languages that can’t be done with English. For all the commendable good will of the Parnassus, the great paradox of international poetry remains that the best people to ask are those who are most inapt to answer.

Friday, 3 August 2012

International Alternative Press Festival

This Saturday, The Camden School of Enlightenment is coming to the International Alternative Press Festival, at London's Conway Hall. The show's at 1:45 sharp and will include your dearly beloved editors, Jon and Kirsty, on the interface between poetry and computer games. It will also feature
Abi Palmer, with a new What's New, Pussycat? update on her favourite compulsive cat calendar critic. Tony Hickson, former paparazzo, knife-thrower and star of Byker Grove, will offer true stories and lifestyle tips. I shall be talking about Sir Henry Newbolt: Victorian balladeer, naval weaponry designer and menage-a-trois-er.

The festival is on Saturday and Sunday 4th-5th August, and other spoken word events include
  • live storysketching
  • Listen Softly, an afternoon of storytelling with words and handmade fabrics, presented by Ceri May
  • left-field poetry collective Vintage Poison, maybe in collaboration with Michael Horovitz
  • Structo magazine's So Bad it's Good - Adventures in Terrible Writing
There will also be workshops on felt-making, set design, linoprinting and bookbinding. And then, of course, there are all the weird and wonderful comics and artworks that are the main point of the festival. Come and have fun!

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

August Writing Challenge on YPN

Back in April, I wrote a series of 15 simple formal ideas (some original, some derivative) with example pieces for National Poetry Writing Month. This month, the Young Poets Network is going to be publishing one every two days as a prompt for young writers, with an accompanying mini-anthology contest.

Day 1, together with a fuller explanation, is up here.

Poetry International Web Profile

This month, I'm featured on Poetry International Web alongside two other poets - Shazea Quraishi from Pakistan (now living in London), and the UK's Helen Ivory.

Here is the feature profile, in which I am generously described thusly:

His accomplishments include not only the writing of formal, voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished poetry but (along with his partner, Kirsten Irving) a boundary-breaking small magazine and a standard-setting small press – and an array of websites built by him to support all this activity.

They've also put up three poems: The Procedure (from School of Forgery), Eisenstangen (a version of Rilke's Der Panther)  and Meat.

A short piece on Rimbaud's unhealthy influence on me

I was commissioned by new literary journal B O D Y to write a short article on a poem that has had a particular impact or influence on me/my writing. Here is the resulting article. I call Rimbaud a "sexy, amoral Tintin". With nits.