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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

“Multifaceted, mega-fabricated, louche architecture.” Magma

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

*** Asterism *** Book and Event

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).

Poetry London / The Self-Made Man Design Document

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):

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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:

Overview

‘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.

Genre

Possibly a monster poem. Possibly a political poem. Shades of dramatic monologue.

Target demographic

Readers with a taste for the uncanny, gothy/gothic imagery, and allusions to the stage as a place of both artifice and transformation.

Perspective

First-person, as told to a confidante or diarised. Introspective, but self-satisfied.

Tone

Mounting megalomania.

Structure

Halting, shorter lines, sometimes with space to emphasises pauses. It should feel like a voice working its way toward complete conviction.

Plot points

(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?)

Themes

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.

Urban Myths and Legends

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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. 

Tomboys

Tomboys is a limited edition (74 copies) signed pamphlet published by Tungsten Press, printed by Frank Turenhout and Hans Dessens on Zerkall Butten and Zerkall Restauro. It comprises three colour-concrete poems in the shape of (and concerning) Revolutionary Girl Utena, Cowboy Bebop’s Radical Edward and Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

A single signed copy costs £20 and when it’s gone it’s gone.


Bowie-Burns Megamash

Written and performed by Abigail Parry and myself for Burns Night 2016 at the Beer Boutique in Putney, with mild guitar accompaniment.

(intro)

Ground Control to Major Tom,
Is there a bard of rustic song?
But with a frater-feeling strong, here heave a sigh.
Ground Control to Major Tom,
Alas, how chang’d the times to come!
Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne?


i.

One fond kiss, and then we sever;
One farewell, alas, for ever!
Never gonna fall for
Modern love. Walks beside me.
Modern love. Walks on by.
Believe me, happiness is shy,
And comes not when it’s sought.

Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Oh lordy. Oh lordy.
You know I need some loving.
The shrieking of nothing is killing.

Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.
I gotta straighten my face.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I –
Which came as some surprise. I thought you died
a long long time ago.
Hot tramp, I love you so.

And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.
Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘bout sound and vision.

Time, he flexes like a whore,
falls wanking to the floor –
catch the moments as they fly
and use them as you ought.
Catch the moments as they fly –
there’s a starman waiting in the sky.
Believe me, happiness is shy,
and comes not when it’s sought.


iii.

Do you remember a guy that’s been
in a masonic song?
I heard a rumour from Kilmarnock:
my love is like a red, red rose.

Great chieftain o’ the pudding-race,
I’m haggis, hope you’re haggis too.
(A mother’s lament for the death of her son.)

Beware o’ bonie Ann;
Your heart she will trepan
In wood and wild, ye warbling throng.

Her blush is very like the morning, orning, orning, orning, orning.
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky.


iv.

As I walked by myself, I said to myself,
And myself said again to me
Let the children lose it. Let the children use it.
Let all the children boogie.

Then I answered myself, and I said to myself
Whatever be my degree
You’re too old to lose it, too young to choose it
And the clocks wait so patiently.

I laughed and shook his hand
And made my way back home.
I’m the laughing gnome and you can’t catch me
Said the laughing gnome.
Ha ha ha. Hee hee hee.


v.

You’ve got your mother in a whirl.
Her grief-worn heart’s wild-eddying swirl.
She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl –
Dark-muff’d, outstretch’d, down headlong hurl.
Hey, babe, your hair’s all right.
Ye, like a rash-buss, stood in sight.
Hey, babe, let’s go out tonight.
The star’s shoot down wi’ sklentin’ light.
You like me and I like it all,
Through the ragged roof and chinky wall.
We like dancing and we look divine.
Gie fools their silks and knaves their wine.
You love bands when they’re playing hard,
When thowes dissolve the snowy hoord.
They put you down, they say I’m wrong,
So vengeance ‘arm, ensanguin’d, strong,
You tacky thing, you put them on
Beneath the milk-white thorn.

Rabbie, Rabbie, you’ve torn your kilt.
Rabbie, Rabbie, yon ale is spilt.
Rabbie, Rabbie, nae mair shall flow.

CONTROL ROOM, GameCity, Interactive Poetry

I made ‘Wounding Blisses’, an interactive poem/analogue fighting game, for CONTROL ROOM, an event I co-organised with Abigail Parry for the GameCity festival in Nottingham.

Before I expand on that short paragraph, a little personal history: between the ages of 12 and 15 (estimated) I wrote and drew detailed plans for a number of different games in the style of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, One Must Fall, Body Blows and so on, some of which I fully intended to send on to game developers. Content-wise, my efforts were diligently derivative – to the point where the female characters flashed their underwear while performing special moves and one outline bore the title ‘Fatal Klash’ – but I was remarkably prescient in one respect: I proposed that these games utilise the same technology as 3D cinema and television, so that the fighters seemed to project out of the TV screen.

I only mention this by way of noting that ‘Wounding Blisses’ is a sort of return to the genre after a 17-year break.

The subtitle to the CONTROL ROOM event was ‘Poetry Micro Arcade’, the broad concept being that festival attendees would ‘play’ the poems individually, like they might an arcade machine, and we’d have ’em queueing all round the block to figuratively plug their change into the slots. There were four interactive pieces in total, each manned by a different poet. Abby debuted the beta version of her digital riddle-poem ’Room Escape’. Made using the Twine engine, it’s a cross between a Muldoonian textual maze and a Myst-style puzzle box. There’s a particularly clever sequence where the player must turn the ‘lights’ in the game on and off, inverting both the text and the page/screen in order to progressively reveal more words, in a way that’s reminiscent of how the visual echo of a light filament gives the impression of floating symbols in a dark room.

Harry Man came up with ‘Jetpack’, an input-generated poem based on the 1983 game of the same name. Players re-arrange a kind of countdown sequence in order to create their poem and are then entered into a high score table.

Abi Palmer revived ‘The Alchemist’, a piece which supplements a player-chosen elemental poem with contrasting sensory stimulus – like the smoke from a blown-out match, or water being poured over the knuckles and wrists.

Then there was ‘Wounding Blisses’. The title is from a line in the Earl of Rochester’s ‘My Dear Mistress has a Heart’. Players pick from a roster of historical/mythical characters who came to ruin through affairs of the heart, including General Revanche (Georges Ernest Boulanger) and Phaedra. An opponent is then picked, followed by a stage (one of five abandoned, wrecked or desolate places from around the world), before the player and the game-master (me) take turns reading lines to each other that describe the course of the battle, in any order. The concluding lines are then picked from a random red or purple envelope.

In short, it’s designed (a) so that there are hundreds of possible variations of the poem, (b) so that the performance is an exchange, with both participants reading aloud, and © to mimic the structure of rounds in a physical dust-up, but with a surprise ending.

I came away from CONTROL ROOM feeling all evangelical about the potency of interactive performance poetry as compared to the usual stand-up-and-talk poetry reading. Because it involved so much repetition on my part, the words gained a kind of weight as the evening wore on – that is, the poem began to feel more real, more physical, even though it was constantly changing. And whereas I’ve always struggled, when reading from a stage, to get a lock on what the audience is thinking, it’s very easy in a one-to-one performance to make that connection, and therefore to hold someone’s attention.

I also really enjoyed it.

Feedback was largely positive, with several people coming over to my table saying, “I’ve been told I’ve got to play this.” This was a non-poetry audience who were being invited to listen to and recite heroic couplets, senryū, unrhymed tercets and other units of verse – there was no guarantee they would be particularly receptive to it. Younger players seemed the most unconvinced, partly because the twist ending to the poem is always that no one wins. I guess that’s what ultimately makes it a poem apeing a game more than a game with poetic elements.

More of this, I think, and about a decade after it catches on someone might even get a Ted Hughes Award for it.

The Birdbook series, and Sidekick Books in general

‘Nightjar’, which won last year’s Poetry London competition (see this post) is included in the new Sidekick Books anthology Birdbook: Farmland, Heathland, Mountain, Moorland.

Also included is an accompanying illustration of a nightjar, the style of which is based on World War 2 dazzle ship camouflage.

My thanks to the editors of the book, Kirsten Irving and … me! Yes, I have for some years been committing the dubious act of placing my own poems in anthologies I have edited. This is because Sidekick’s anthologies are not really anthologies in the traditional sense – that is, compilations of existing works or excerpts – but collaborative texts where we invite a whole load of other artists to join us at the party. ‘Nightjar’ was written for this book and this book alone, although as I’ve said, the delay in production meant there was time to also enter it into the aforementioned competition.

I feel like I have to stress that because there’s a general view of anthology-type books as primers or showcases that are intended to either provide an overview of a particular area of concern, or else lead the reader on to the more serious works that inform them. That’s to say, their composition is rarely analysed in the way a full single-author collection is analysed – for thematic threads, or accumulations of sound and imagery. Such threads or accumulations, if they are noticed, are often proposed as defects in some sort of project of ultimate variety, a black mark against the pluralist intentions of the editors.

The assumption, then, is that the natural context for any poem included in an anthology is the single-author collection it will subsequently appear in, or has already appeared in. In the anthology, it’s an ambassador or hotel guest. This is because mainstream poetry criticism, I think, tends to fetishise the poet over the poetry – it’s the same tendency that results in a particular kind of esteemed poet spending their career essentially writing just one book, ‘The Collected Poems of …’ but dividing it into slim chapters dispensed every few years.

I guess what I’m trying to identify here is one of the ways I feel Kirsty and I are trying to work against the grain in a way that I hope, with a bit of luck and a lot more work, will help to reshape deeply embedded popular perceptions of what poetry can do, and what it’s for.

On a different note altogether, Birdbook: FHMM is the last Sidekick book to be released in 2015, which has been our busiest year yet. That does not mean I get a break. Just in terms of Sidekick alone, what this means is that the year to date has been devoted largely to editing, design, production and shouting, “LOOK OUT HERE IT COMES!” It’d be sublime if this were all small press publishing were about, but it ain’t. Now the focus has to be pushing these books out into the world and into people’s hands in a manner that is not rude, blundering or financially ruinous.

This is something I find incredibly difficult. But here goes.