Work under my name has slipped inconspicuously into the latest issue of Poetry London. I say ‘under my name’ firstly because both poems are collages, assembled from the thieved morsels of other writers’ work, and secondly because I think of them as being written by The Salvor, one of the characters in the book I’m working on.
The Salvor is only interested in reforgery; he doesn’t even really believe it’s possible to write or speak with one’s own voice, except inasmuch as one’s own voice is a secret recipe whose ingredients are the fragments of other people’s voices. You might say that is indeed the case, and that his position isn’t remotely controversial.
Anyway, The Salvor’s section of the book consists entirely of poems collaged from old British comics. The ones appearing in Poetry London this summer are made from Misty, a spooky girls comic, and The Perishers, a strip which ran in The Mirror for 50-odd years.
I’ve published two poems in this series previously (just in case you want to collect them): ‘Mars 1988′, a collage from The Eagle, in issue 152 of The Rialto (now out of print but borrowable from The Poetry Library), and ‘2000AD’, a collage from,er, 2000AD, which was published in the anthology New Adventures in Form (Penned in the Margins, 2012).
Additional note: this is the first time I’ve ever sent anything in to Poetry London! I have been published in two previous issues though, as a competition winner. If I keep it up, one day I might make cover star – hopefully before I lose half my face in a furnace accident or forget how to raise one eyebrow.
Carcass doesn’t want to have sex with me. Tonight I took off my clothes and put his scaled paw on my breast and he snatched it back with a high-pitched chitter. I tried pinching my nipples for him, swaying and rolling my hips a bit. He backed into a corner, muttering in his own language. As I reached down between my legs, he lunged forward and smashed my lamp, before springing from the window onto the next building, and away into the night.
I cried in the corner for a few minutes, wiping my nose on my dressing gown sleeve. Then I read a bit more of the book I found in his coat pocket. It’s in Carcassese, but I think I’m getting some of the phrasing. There are pictures of dead birds on most pages. I kept it so he’d have to come back.
‘Love Carcass: An Interspecies Erotic Memoir’ starts today! A poem-a-day Tumblr by my Sidekick cohort Kirsten Irving.
Just a note to say that as part of my ongoing attempts toward coherent self-organisation, I’m consolidating another Tumblr into this one and changing the title to ‘Share Your Toys’. This Tumblr will still keep an intermittent log of published work, but now there will be other posts as well.
‘Shock-construction’, a poem I wrote which should really have an exclamation mark in the title, has won second prize in The Elmet Trust Poetry Prize, judged by Steve Ely. You can read it, along with the first prize winner and other winners, on The Elmet Trust’s website, (I note that there’s an issue with the online formatting which means that the lineation of Penny Boxall’s winning poem hasn’t been faithfully replicated, although my poem is very simply structured and therefore unaffected). (“Actually, your poem is very affected, Jon. Ho ho ho.”)
As per the rules of the contest, the poem was in part inspired by Ted Hughes’ ‘The City’, which begins “Your poems are a dark city centre.” The other parts of its inspiration include the historical fact of shock-constructed cities in Soviet Russia, and an idle thought I had about whether there could ever be such a thing as a counterfeit book. But the whole thing is about judgement and the failure, or limitations, of judgement. Of course it is!
The second-placed poem: ‘Shock-construction’ seems to be a self-deprecating commentary on the humiliations and anxieties experienced by the aspiring writer, perhaps addressed to a publisher, editor or competition judge. As an entry to the Elmet Poetry Prize, this might be seen as ingratiating.
Ha! ‘Anxieties of an aspiring publisher’ might be closer to the mark when it comes to the contemplation on counterfeit books. You could also read the line about faked love as a dig at the emotional authenticity sought in poems, particularly competition-winning poems. I wonder if Steve Ely saw himself as the ‘you’ at the end of the poem, the film critic realising the screening is a con, realising that the medium itself is a con, and me as the poet-actor behind the silk screen of the paper, gooning for him, a desperately bad performance, daring him to get up and walk out and write a one-star review, so impertinently and gracelessly that he thinks, “Well, I won’t then. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you second prize instead. Second prize, Stone! The one nobody remembers! And you won’t get to pretend to be the drop-out, the ne’er-do-well. You’ll have to make do as the not-quite-first-rate-but-A-for-effort student. Then just see how your little game works out for you.”
Eh, probably not.
This contest also reminded me, by the way, that I really am genuinely very fond of Ted Hughes’ work. Some time after I entered, I found an original copy of River, with Peter Keen’s photographs, at Snoopers’ Paradise in Brighton. It’s one of my very favourite books.
Here’s my (thumbed) copy of 154, published by Live Canon, whose poetry competition closes in *looks at calendar* three days’ time! Ah, so much to unravel! Live Canon are not actually a poetry publisher per se; they are an acting ensemble who perform poetry theatrically. Part of the prize for being shortlisted in their competition is to see your work performed by them live on-stage at the prizegiving ceremony. In fact, the prizegiving ceremony is essentially a public performance of top-rated poems with a winner crowned in the closing moments. I’ve attended twice, though I’ve never been shortlisted myself, and found it a refreshing alternative to poets performing their own work. There’s a strange, bubbly kind of curmudgeonliness directed by poets towards actors-reading-poetry, in part because it’s sometimes used as a cheap ploy for attention (“Say! That’s the Hound out of Game of Thrones reading Ted Hughes! Now I like Ted Hughes!”) at the cost of the integrity of the poem itself. When the Forward Prize readings in 2014 were staged with celebrity actors brought on to ham their way through the shortlisted poems, there was a sense in which the deserving poets were being denied their moment in the spotlight.
But outside of publicity stunts, there’s really no reason why we can’t have both variations. Actors-reading-poems doesn’t always work, but then, neither does poets-reading-poems.
Initially, Live Canon only published the competition shortlistees, I believe, in anthology form, but in the last year they’ve started producing unique collaborative book projects, usually linked to a seasonal event or time-appropriate theme. 154, for example, was published around the time of Shakespeare’s birthday, and paired with a day-long live performance of each of Shakespeare’s sonnets, followed by a contemporary reply or take on them by a modern poet, staged at the V&A. Needless to say, these were hugely varied and lots of fun.
I also contributed to their Christmas anthology, New Poems for Christmas, along with Kirsty. We sent them our ‘Stocking Filler’ poems from the previous year’s Sidekick advent calendar. So, uh, there’s a poem in there that adoringly compares a toy soldier to a dildo.
As with Laudanum (see previous post) and the Emma Press (see many previous posts), I feel really well vindicated by Live Canon’s enterprise and their efforts, because I’m all about the anthology/collaborative book form as a major form for poetry in the 21st century. I expect we’ll see the major presses start to take on the form with even more appetite over the next few years.
This is Asterism, edited by Tiffany Anne Tondut, who has modestly left her name off the cover. It’s ‘an anthology of poems inspired by punctuation’, and guess what? I made the team! (”I made the team” immediately in the running to be 2016′s most irritating euphemism for “Look, I got published again”). The poem of mine included is called ‘–’ and it’s about the dash. Not the hyphen (-), and not the em-dash (—), which I never use and which can, frankly, get fucked, but the good old en-dash dash,the single most useful tool in the transcript editor’s punctuation kit. When people write, they tend to write in grammatically sound sentences. When they speak, they speak in chopped up fragments of sentences. When you write down what people speak, you need your pal, the dash, to sew those fragments together.
(The dash is also a cause of some frustration to me as a web designer and occasional blogger
there’s no key for it on the keyboard, so you have a choice of either lazily employing the hyphen in its place or remembering to use special characters as you’re typing).
This is one of two posts I’m putting up today concerning relatively new small presses putting out anthologies. Laudanum, publishers of Asterism, are brand new. This is their first book. When Kirsty and I started Sidekick in 2009, the poetry small press scene (as we knew it) was all about single-author collections, and we felt we were making a kind of foolish, gung-ho stand in concentrating on collaborative works. Now you have the likes of the Emma Press, Live Canon and Laudanum on the scene, it’s like reinforcements have arrived. The thing about anthologies is that the small indie publisher loses two of its most important demographic pie-slices – the ecstatically proud friends and family of the author, and those who queue to buy the author’s book after a barnstorming live performance. An editor who produces a book simply does not have the same cache with his or her non-writerly acquaintances – it’s not ‘your’ book – and nobody does a gig in order to sell copies of the anthology they appear in.
All of which (segue incoming!) makes the launch event very important, so if you’re free tonight, Laudanum are launching Asterism, amid a flurry of readings and intoxication, at the Betsey Trotwood in Farringdon, London, from 7.30. You can hear my dash poem out loud and try to guess where the dashes are in it (hint: there are only two).
I have won this year’s Poetry London competition, judged by Sean O’Brien, and I’ll be reading the winning poem at the following event in September (that’s me on the right, see, with my name underneath my face):
The poem is called ‘The Self-Made Man’. You can read it on the Poetry London website
but before you do, understand that web formatting has not been kind to it. It’s not supposed to be double-spaced and the stanza breaks have been missed out. To read it as intended, you may have to wait until the print edition of the next issue hits the shelves.
In game design, they have a thing called a design document, which describes in detail the game’s structure, components, selling points and so on, and I thought this would be a useful format through which I might go into some detail about the poem. So here goes:
‘The Self-Made Man’ is a poem written originally as a birthday present for my partner, Abigail Parry. As requested, it is a poem about a monster. But what monster? Vincent Price’s Hammer character, the Abominable Dr Phibes, in one sense, but in another sense, the kind of men who find they have the power to shape the world, and become addicted to that power.
Possibly a monster poem. Possibly a political poem. Shades of dramatic monologue.
Readers with a taste for the uncanny, gothy/gothic imagery, and allusions to the stage as a place of both artifice and transformation.
First-person, as told to a confidante or diarised. Introspective, but self-satisfied.
Halting, shorter lines, sometimes with space to emphasises pauses. It should feel like a voice working its way toward complete conviction.
(SPOILERS) The poem borrows images and ideas from the film The Abominable Dr Phibes. In the film, Phibes reconstructs his face after an accident (off-screen
– his ‘real’ face is a final reel reveal). He then proceeds to exact elaborate, flashy revenge on the medical staff who failed to save the life of his wife, culminating in a scene where he hides a key inside the heart of a doctor’s son. The key is needed to unlock the boy’s bonds and save him from death by acid. Phibes looks like a shabby magician, and he also plays an organ which descends into the floor.
In the poem, the facial reconstruction is the first centrepiece. This needs to be built up carefully to mirror the methodical nature of process it describes. The business about his wife is dropped
– this is superfluous to the poem. Reconstructing his face and his voice leads him to realise that anything can be manipulated to his liking. Phibes’ organ, in the poem, is his conviction. He does not see himself as an evil sorcerer, but a craftsman and illusionist. The world is his stage. At the end, his heart is descending like the Phibes’ organ, with the key inside it. (The key to what?)
Fluidity of fact/truth as empowerment, as drug. Our potentially limitless malleability as blind spot. Monsters are real etc.
Other notable points
In the film, Phibes kills someone with locusts. This is alluded to in the line about ‘minute and delicate jaws’, but it becomes a way of describing how small manipulations effect change (a ripple effect?).
The title is from one of the posters used to advertise the film. The wordplay is now reversed, or rather, brought full circle. It describes a literal ‘self-made man’ but also the social creature we call a self-made man, which is also what the poem is about.
Hopefully, the poem avoids over-stressing the mask imagery – this is very well-worn territory.
I have a poem, ‘Yardang’, published in Urban Myths & Legends: Poems About Transformations, edited by Rachel Piercey and Emma Wright, and published by The Emma Press. It’s hard not to note how apposite the theme of this anthology is, particularly given the emphasis (which Wright notes in her introduction) on unwelcome, disturbing forms of transformation
– forced shapeshifting as punishment, or as part of an experiment.
Fear of irreversible change seems to be the driving force behind all the major political narratives of the past twelve months. I was hoping to do a little pontificating about personal change here instead – how I find artistic consistency a strange and incredible feat since it seems like a different would-be genius takes over my body every other day of the week, and as a result I expend far too much energy trying to refine my strategy for maintaining something akin to a steady trajectory. How completely impressive but also threateningly inhuman I find any portrait-profile of a poet that recognises a ‘great project’ or single over-arching goal throughout their work (how do you avoid constantly changing your mind about something like that?). How, despite the aforementioned chaotic internal shapeshifting, I feel like the public me is a hopelessly sluggish changeling who is always tinkering with exactly the same ill-defined contraption as the last time you spoke with him. How deft and speedy the personal and artistic evolution of others seems to be in comparison
like that David Bowie gif which did the rounds, flickering from one face to the next. How I know this to be at least somewhat illusory, because I have myself been accused of being the same omnipresent, quick-switching climber as my own tormentors.
I’m not sure how much of this is symptomatic of the broader exasperation with too-slow, too-fast change. In the past, when I’ve tried to understand political conflict, in a very general way it has always looked like movement versus inertia. Usually small-c conservatism versus a radical liberal agenda. Now, with the EU referendum and the rise of Trump (it exasperates me even to have to type his name), there is a sense in which all sides are trying to stop the clock. Brexiters and Trump supporters want to halt free movement and stymie the advancement of multiculturalism, while Remain campaigners and the non-Trump-supporting portion of the US fear the mobilisation and growing influence of the far right. Nobody wants their country to be forcibly transformed; everyone suspects their enemies of wilfully visiting an unnatural transformation upon them.
Even the success of Corbyn in the Labour leadership elections has elicited genuine horror from a political faction (you can call them the centre-left or Blairites or anything you wish) who consider it a hostile takeover of their party, and who have subsequently behaved as petulantly as the worst elements of every other group that feels unjustly sidelined. It’s as if a series of heavy blows have been dealt to the philosophy that through slow and careful calibration you can keep all styles and varieties of discontentment in check. If that strategy no longer works, then at some point you have to work out who, or what, you are going to actively oppose and seek to repress. Naturally, at that point, the differences between us become starker and uglier. Tentative alliances fall apart.
I suppose my concern is that we’ve reached a point where all movement in any direction causes hurt and ructions. I feel like I now have a pretty good handle, for instance, on the frustrations of Brexit voters who want a cap on immigration, and I can sympathise with them. When the IMF says that immigrants are “overrepresented in higher-paid (as well as lower-paid) jobs” because they are better educated, and that immigrants therefore have a net positive effect on productivity and economic growth, the corollary of that is that they are indeed taking jobs from UK natives. But what is going to happen to working class communities if productivity and growth fall? And are Labour, or anyone else, supposed to now subscribe to a lie about the positive effects of (further) restricting immigration in order to regain the trust of working class voters, sanctioning resentment towards immigrants in the process? Obviously not. So where is that vote going to go except to UKIP, and possibly parties even further to the right?
I cannot envisage a top-down strategy that will work for any of the mainstream political power blocs right now. The referendum, as well as the US election, will be decided on feeling; that is, whether there are sufficient numbers whose desire for control is so desperate that they will take extreme action in order to satisfy it. It’s the same principle, so far as I understand it, as self-harm. But you cannot simply give these people more control without taking it away from others. There just isn’t enough control to go round.
A yardang, by the way, is a kind of slanted rock formation carved by desert winds. Hence the opening line of ‘Yardang’ is “The jackal wind is changing me”. With the exception of this and the near-identical ending line, the poem uses a shifting chain of synonym end-rhymes all the way through, so ‘degree’ moves to ‘extent’ to ‘scope’ to ‘reach’ and so on
– gradual adjustment.