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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Prac Crit & Beatrice Garland

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A reminder to myself that I also do critical writing! A short close reading of ‘The Academy of New Words’ by Beatrice Garland appears in the latest edition of Prac Crit, a rather slickly rendered online journal of poetry and criticism with a separate viewing pane for the subject of the critique alongside the critique itself.

I was initially unsure about this when approached by the editors, Sarah Howe and Vidyan Ravinthiran – I’ve written a lot of reviews in the past, of varying quality, but my approach tends to be quite – well, not close up. I talk more about groups of poems or patterns of poems, or better yet, try to identify and articulate the character of a whole book. In fact, the phrase ‘close reading’ slightly scares me, since I’ve always associated it with a very learned, academic approach to critical prose which requires a background in post-structural theory and god-knows-what-else.

This is somewhat ironic, because the poem I evaluate in this essay features as its principle conceit the idea of an ‘academy’ that is designed to have oversight and control of language but which rapidly becomes nothing more than a home to studious professors. I think that’s ironic anyway. Is it? OK, maybe just coincidental.

New Boots & Pantisocracies

I find it incredibly, incredibly difficult to write knowingly political poems. I’ve been trying for years. The reason it’s difficult, putting it simply, is that my approach to poetry is to feel my way forward, whereas my approach to politics is to reason my way forward, and it all gets a bit oil and water.

The poem of mine published in The Emma Press’ Campaign for Poetry was accidentally political. I mean, it was a deliberate allegory that happened to work for politicians just as well as anything else.

Now I’ve managed to find my way into New Boots & Pantisocracies, the blog set up by W.N. Herbert and Andy Jackson to document 100 poets’ reactions to the 2015 UK election over 100 days. My contribution is number Two Fat Ladies, 88, and goes by the title of from The Shapeswitching Suitboys: Incentivampire’.

Yeah, it’s a rhyming children’s poem. I envisage it as being part of a set – the Shapeswitching Suitboys are contemporary folkloric monsters based on modes of political thinking that are particularly ugly. Incentivampire isn’t Ian Duncan Smith exactly; he’s more the collective spirit of every political soundbite that talks about individual aspiration and hard work as if it’s the answer to systemic cruelty and inequality. Like the rest of the Suitboys (who I haven’t fully devised yet), his defining feature is that in he can appear in the guise of a benefactor.

I wrote it as a childrens’ poem because at the back of my mind I had the notion that you have to find ways to warn children about sinister ideologies, and encapsulating them in cartoon characters is one way to do that. I suppose the accompanying danger is that you caricature someone’s view unfairly, but you can avoid that if you make it clear your cartoon character doesn’t represent any person so much as he or she represents a disastrous way of thinking.

BEAR INTERVENTION! / Lives Beyond Us

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Lives Beyond Us is the first big Sidekick Books anthology/treasury without my name on the cover. The editors this time around are my Sidekick teammate Kirsty, who curated and edited the poems, and PhD film scholar Sebastian Manley, who commissioned and edited essays for the book.

I do, however, have an essay published in it. An essay that becomes, at points, a poem, or three poems, if you like. It’s called ‘BEAR INTERVENTION!’ and it uses Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel as a springboard for exploring the idea of the bear as a variant of the trickster archetype, via The Jungle Book, Paddington, Shirokuma CafeThe Golden Compass, and even Cabaret. No, there are no bears in Cabaret. You’ll have to read the essay to find out what the deal is with Cabaret. I will divulge that it involves a jolly song called ‘Sexual Betrayal’.

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I also worked on the design and layout of the book, including the cover, which uses photocollaging to depict a house cat watching a scene from Hitchcock’s Sabotage in which a cinema audience watch Disney’s Who Killed Cock Robin? You see, it’s us watching an animals watching us watching an animal. I never get tired of explaining this conceit and expecting people to nod appreciatively.

The book is peppered with colour illustrations and movie stills, the former of which I bought from the Dover Pictura collection. The mixture of these plus some unusual formatting in the poems made the typesetting something of an epic journey. Feedback so far re. the aesthetics of the book is very good. Let’s hope booksellers and their customers agree.

We threw a launch party for Lives Beyond Us at the Genesis Cinema last week, with a free film quiz and short readings. Full account here

Emergency Action

I was saving up this poem to send somewhere, perhaps, one day, somehow, potentially, but in light of Craig Raine’s excruciating performance in the LRB this week, I’m publishing it online now:

CRAIG REALLY WANTS YOU TO KNOW

where his hands have been.

Picture that part – that inlet or islet
that only you know, that no other bed-pilot
could dream of reaching, even

were he or she to circle
his or her murmuring plane until dawn,
that miniature crashpad inside a micro-zawn
obscured by a freckle

no darker than the encroaching tan-line,
entirely secreted except on certain nights
and only then when particular rites
are performed – the sweetest part, the most obscene –

his fingerprints are on it
and it likely stars in a sonnet.

Giant Strange @ Roulade #2

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Roulade is Wayne Holloway-Smith and Llew Watkins’ one-night-only live walk-through magazine, and for the second issue (theme: Hubris) they had me round up a team of poets to create giant concrete poems in the shape of kaiju from the Godzilla and Gamera franchises.

I’m going to say that again in bold caps. GIANT CONCRETE POEMS IN THE SHAPE OF KAIJU FROM THE GODZILLA AND GAMERA FRANCHISES. Abigail Parry took on GEZORA, the mutant alien cuttlefish from the film ‘Space Amoeba’. Kirsten Irving went extreme with three-headed golden dragon KING GHIDORAH. John McCullough opted for Gamera’s nemesis, the bat-creature GYAOS. And I tackled benevolent insect-god MOTHRA, star of her own film before she became a longstanding frenemy of Godzilla.

For those who don’t get the appeal … I’m not even gunna explain it.

Llew and Wayne printed the poems out on A0 sheets, and we arranged them in a corner of the venue, Husk in Limehouse, which we then adorned with a burning cityscape, replete with toy helicopters. John’s rendering of Gyaos swooped down the stairwell, while Gezora encroached from the bay and King Ghidorah let rip among the skyscrapers. The title of the installation was ‘Giant Strange’, which Abby rendered in tape letters on the opposite wall:

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For a finishing touch, we shut off the main lights and spotlighted the poems, then added a soundtrack comprising a compilation of the various monsters’ roars (taken from the films they featured in) mixed in with the aural atmosphere of a city under siege. Helicopters! Fire engines! So much screaming! You can listen to the effect loop here.

At some point in the future I’d like to commission more of these and collect them together into some form of publication. But it would have to have humongous pages. For now, here’s a version of my Mothra piece as a downloadable pdf, with a preview image beneath!

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Double Bill

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Catch-up seasons continues!

One and a half poems of mine are published in Double Bill, a new anthology from Red Squirrel Press. It’s the sequel to 2012’s Split Screen, both books being edited by Andy Jackson and concerning themselves with popular culture, predominantly TV, film and music. Whereas I was familiar with much of the subject matter of Split Screen, however (a lot of the shows it covered were repeated on BBC2 in the mid-nineties), Double Bill reaches back toward an era I don’t remember, and consequently, many of the poems are delightfully strange, particularly when they presume knowledge or a frame of reference I don’t share. I prefer this experience to the one of reading a poem that nudges you conspiratorially – “You remember this, eh? You and me? When that happened?” I like to see poems acting as vessels for preserving pop culture artifacts – or rather, something of the experience of living alongside them. It is a good use for poems!

My contribution to the book consists firstly of ‘Biography’, a page-length account of the life of football manager Brian Clough composed solely of website extracts I got from googling ‘Cloughie’. Clough was before my time, so I had a word with my granddad, an ardent Derby supporter, to try to get a sense of the man from someone who’d been there during his brief reign. His verdict was … succinct. So the lines are succinct. As a character and a mythic figure, Clough seems to characterised by bluntness.

The second poem to bear my name is ‘Renga! A Dialogue Between Worlds?’, a renga exchange between myself and Kirsten Irving. The subject we were given was ‘manga’. I asked Andy Jackson whether he meant manga the medium, as in Japanese comics, or Manga Entertainment, the UK licensor and distributor of a multitude of Japanese animes. He said, “Take your pick!”, and we plumped for the latter, since it seemed to make more sense when weighed against Pixar, the subject we were paired with.

Every short stanza of ‘Renga! A Dialogue Between Worlds?’ takes place in a different anime property, with characters hotheadedly shouting across to one another. You could buy the book and try to work out which stanza corresponds to which anime, or you could cheat and check out the tags I’ve used in this very post. 

The Best British Poetry 2014

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Got some major catching up to do here. It’s a good job I don’t have any competitors in the ‘news on Jon Stone’s recent publications’ stakes.

A short poem of mine, ‘Endings to Adventure Gamebooks 17’, appears in The Best British Poetry 2014, edited by Mark Ford and published by Salt. My name also appears on the cover, since I was parachuted in to handle a large part of the admin and some of the formatting of the book. At the time, I was living with BBP series editor – and my own former editor at Salt – Roddy Lumsden, who had been unwell for much of the year, and I sat in our shared front room frowning over the tabulation of long, intricate, structurally audacious poems by Dom Bury and Sarah Howe.

There are two exciting aspects to the selection of ‘Endings …’ – for me, anyway. Firstly, it’s based on a famous scene in Final Fantasy VII, and is the first time a game-poem of mine has found its way into a mainstream poetry book that seeks to represent the full breadth of the medium. In other words, game-poetry has arrived. (Maybe).

Secondly, it’s from a sequence I’ve been working on for years and years, which I’m convinced is hot stuff, but which I’ve struggled to find a home for. True enough, this particular poem was previously published on The New Statesman website, but it’s almost like it slipped in unnoticed amongst a raft of other game-poems when we were generating pre-publicity for Coin Opera 2.

The sequence owes much to the same Fighting Fantasy adventure gamebooks Nathan Penlington has drawn from for his Choose Your Own Documentary tour. These print-based interactive fictions were written in the second-person and would usually contain one ‘happy’ ending amidst an array of grisly deaths for reader-players who made the wrong choices. Turning to a numbered section, you would find a brief description of your demise, followed by the words ‘GAME OVER’.

Poems in the ‘Endings to Adventure Gamebooks’ sequence are constructed like these numbered sections, but describe the deaths of various fictional and historical figures, including Tintin, Rudolph Hess and the U-boat captain in Das Boot. They make use of a migrating end-rhyme that shifts gradually throughout the poem, always ending in the ‘OVER’ of ‘GAME OVER’. Here’s another example from the sequence, this one on the last days of Chamfort:

53.

The bullet is insincere, the blade contrary,
swayed by an esteem-drunk jury
(for such a weakness there exists no cure).
“Pas aujourd’hui!” they seem to chirp.
Your signature in blood, at least, is sharp.
But dying too, you find now, is farce.

So you write, lighter by about half a face,
never more alive, never less.
Only when a few plays and you are all that’s left
do you depart, as if spending the last of your gift
giving life’s unctuous court the slip.
Foolishness and wit alike submit to sleep.
La mort – un dernier fou à suivre.
    Game Over.

I haven’t run the French past any native speakers yet, so it’s probably spectacularly wrong. Or mundanely wrong. Take your pick.

Robert Burns Anglicised Megamix Mash

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Composed for the Beer Boutique’s Burns Night Rampage. Drink a finger for every reference to boozing.

 

Here’s a bottle and an honest friend!

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Oh, nought but love and sorry joined.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

Here brewer Gabriel’s fire’s extinct.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

We’ll make our malt, and we’ll brew our drink.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Will ye go to the Highlands with me?

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

And aye we’ll taste the barley bree.

 

O there, beyond expression blest –

The devil’s away and the devil’s away –

The dew sat chilly on her breast.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

Come, bumpers high, express your joy.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Believe me, happiness is shy.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Morality, thou deadly bane.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Go fetch me up a pint o’ wine.

 

By word, or pen, or pointed steel!

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

O leeze me on my spinnin’ wheel.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

Strong ale was ablution. That I shall swear!

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

For a big-belly’d bottle’s the whole of my care.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

 

The devil’s away and the devil’s away,

And in your wicked, drunken rants –

The devil’s away and the devil’s away –

Warlocks and witches in a dance.

 

With two Scots pounds (twas all her riches) –

The devil’s away and the devil’s away –

He mutters, glowrin’ at the bitches.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away

 

Down headlong hurl, wild-eddying swirl –

The devil’s away and the devil’s away

Pimps, sharpers, bawds and opera-girls.

The devil’s away and the devil’s away

 

The devil’s away and the devil’s away.

Thou man of care and ceaseless sigh –

The devil’s away and the devil’s away –

Thy drink thou can’t part with and neither can I.

Bird Superminis

So these little things have been our hot cakes over the past week. Each is a small, slender book containing a mere handful of poems, all concerning their cover star. Some of the poems are classics, some new.

I wanted to talk just briefly about being a cover designer. I’m not a cover designer. Not really. But I do design book covers sometimes. So maybe I am! I don’t know. I designed these! I got down the concept after trying a few experiments, and then I made them up in Flash – Flash, because I still don’t know my way around Illustrator, whereas I’ve been using Flash since the 90s.

Designing covers is frequently maddening in the same way writing poetry is. I might find something that works well, that looks just so, only for the effect to diminish rapidly through repeated usage, or simply by staring at it hard enough. No one is paying me and saying, “Good job!” or “What were you thinking??” so the final judge is me, and that’s too much responsibility! Is it finished yet? Is this a good idea? Is this plagiarism? I, I, I, I, I don’t know!

Then you look at, say, the way Faber do their covers, and you think, “For goodness’ sake, it’s just colours and a font!” And you look back at your own latest creation and lo, it seems as a garish, over-festooned clown car that will wound people in the eyes. Almost every single cover I’ve seen to print I would like to take back and tinker with some more, and I console myself by thinking of future projects, saying this time, this time, I’ll do it right.

Still, that blackbird might be one of the best things I’ve done ever.

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