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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Two Recent Live Events

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Hey! As well as reading at GameCity in Nottingham, I’ve co-run two live poetry events over the past month, both in locations as yet untested (so far as I’m aware) by London’s writers and spoken word artists. I also rustled up (and I do mean rustled up – timing was very tight) the above flyers for each of them.

Metamorphic Rock, the programme for which I organised with Abigail Parry, took place at The Huntingdon Gallery in Shoreditch during an exhibition of rock n’ roll photography by Bob Gruen. The conceit for the poets and poems we commissioned was re-imagining New York’s Chelsea Hotel in its heyday, taking a rock icon or related subject and refashioning them according to the poet’s stylistic predilections. Along with the exhibition, one corner of the large, boomy space afforded to us had been furnished with a bed and decorated to look like a teenage pop fan’s bedroom. We had work new and old from John Canfield, Harry Man, Holly Hopkins, Sophia Blackwell, Roddy Lumsden, James Trevelyan, Mark Waldron, John Clegg, Alex Bell, Alex MacDonald and Matthew Caley.

Seven Player Co-op took place at the recently-opened Four Quarters Bar in Peckham, which is rammed with working arcade machines and consoles. Kirsten Irving, my co-organiser, discovered it and liaised with the owners about putting on the event, which featured readings from contributors to Coin Opera 2and a quiz with prizes. Our seven players were the hosts, plus Gabrielle Nolan, Emily Hasler, Samuel Prince, Harry Man and Cliff Hammett, with a surprise guest appearance from S.J. Fowler.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been so closely involved with putting on readings like these in London, largely because they’re such a demanding pursuit, and over so quickly. It’s hard to find venues that aren’t upstairs rooms in pubs, and hard to build an audience for a one-off literary show, particularly with no budget and no partnership with any of the more heavyweight arts organisations and their networks. But it can be done. And what’s not hard is finding willing, skilled, enthusiastic performers who’re a joy to watch.

Here’s a snippet from S.J. Fowler’s ‘Golden Axe’ poem, dramatically underlit:

B O D Y Literature

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I posted a retrospective on my previous appearance in B O D Y back in April. April! Really? That’s half a year ago!

Those poems were translations. But this time the editors have published an entirely original (as far as anything I write is entirely original) poem of my own, entitled The One and the Other. This was originally written as a commission for a project that may be indefinitely delayed. The poet behind the commission, Anthony Adler, wanted us to use for the titles of our poems previous winners of the Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year. Hence the poem was originally called ‘Natural Bust Enlargement with Total Power: How to Increase the other 90% of Your Mind to Increase the Size of Your Breasts’. This is now the epigraph.

Yes, it’s a real book.

I’ve submitted this poem to a few other magazines in the past and not been particularly surprised when they didn’t take it. I mean, I find it slightly disturbing myself. I’m also aware that the male poet deploying breasts – or rather, the word ‘breasts’ – imagistically is getting tiresome. I even had a poem in School of Forgery about the sort of faux restraint in doing it. Murmur ‘breasts’ and your poem has that much-desired ‘erotic charge’ because no one can see you licking your lips salaciously.

I think I’m more in favour of being filthy, or – as with this poem – at least exploring the idea of breasts with a forthright obsessiveness. The One and the Other, although it purports to know a great deal about its subject matter, is really a male voice imposing its ideals, an insidious vizir pouring poison into the ear of the female addressee. I think that’s why it makes me uncomfortable.

To add another layer of complexity, in the meta-fiction of my next collection, this is a poem written by a female persona. So it’s me doing the voice of a woman doing the voice of a man affecting knowledge of a woman’s relationship to her body. Whatever next?

Poetry London

Not exactly quick off the mark with this, are we, Jon?

I won first prize in the Poetry London competition this year, and they published my winning poem, ‘Nightjar’, in the Autumn issue. I also read it at the issue launch, which was held at ZSL London Zoo, near the emus.

On the poem itself: I wrote it for the as-yet-unpublished third volume of Sidekick’s Birdbook series. This was originally projected to be four books published over four years, containing between them a new poem and a new illustration for every British species of bird. My co-editor, Kirsty, and I each permit ourselves a single poem per book. I wrote ‘I’m Naming the Swifts’ for Birdbook 1: Towns, Parks, Gardens and Woodland and ‘Sandy Swallows’ (about sand martins) for Birdbook 2: Freshwater Habitats.

‘Nightjar’ is an exercise in camourflage – I try to work the title into the poem in as many ways as possible without actually outright using it. But it’s really about something being there and not there at the same time, particularly in the context of the mind, of circling a thought or idea that you can’t name or understand. The epigraph is just an explanation of some German slang, “You have a bird”, which means “You’re mad”. If generally having a bird implies madness, what would having a particular species of bird mean? Having a particular species of madness, I suppose. And in the spirit of the thought-fox, I imagined that a thought-nightjar might be something forever moving, sounding, flickering between trees, never letting you quite glimpse it.

Cartridge Lit

I have two new poems up at Cartridge Lit today. As far as I’m aware, this is the only literary journal that specialises in game poems and other game-related writing, and the fact that it’s updated frequently with work of quality suggests that the genre is starting to take off, in the US at least. They’re even publishing an e-chapbook in the coming month: Prepare to Die by Jess Jenkins.

The poems are paeans to two characters from the same game, and the game isn’t even out yet. Nuclear Throne, developed by Dutch duo Vlambeer, is available on Steam as an ‘early access’ prototype. This means you can play it while it’s a work in progress, with the developers adding a new update every week, partially responsive to player feedback.

Nuclear Throne is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where disfigured mutants – the remnants of humanity – gather to swap stories of the fabled throne, and occasionally set out to find it. It’s a roguelike (or, pedantically, a roguelikelike) game, which means that the levels are procedurally generated and different each time, and death always means starting over, not from a checkpoint or save file. It’s bloody difficult. I’ve only reached the throne twice, and neither time survived the encounter.

The poems celebrate my two favourite characters: a sad assemblage of bone and sliding flesh called Melting, and a very small, spidery, gun-chomping robot called Robot, who may once have been a person. As with a lot of the characters I write poems about, they are doomed and broken, but always up for one last scrap.

Drawn to Marvel

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American poetry is a whole ‘nuvver thing and I barely know where to start with it. There are high profile exports like Timothy Donnelly and Michael Robbins, and then, beyond them, billions and billions more poets, some very interesting indeed. I paid through the nose for Cunt Norton by Dodie Bellamy, and it was worth it. I’m also going to be reviewing two pamphlets of computer game poems by separate US poets, published by separate US presses. But honestly, I’ve barely touched the dust on the surface.

Anyway, I have two pieces (‘Dearest Wolverine’ and ‘Chamber’) published in this absolutely massive anthology from Minor Arcana Press, edited by Bryan D. Dietrich and Marta Ferguson. They’re both poems that first appeared in my Silkworms e-pamphlet, Thra-koom!. Fellow Brit Harry Man also makes an appearance, with a cut-up entitled ‘J. Jonah Jameson’, and literary stars like Albert Goldbarth and John Ashbery are likewise present and correct.

Oh, it is a very generous collection indeed, with a Foreword, Editors’ Note and and Introduction, followed by nearly 300 pages of poems. With that, though, comes the observation that it might have benefited from tighter editing. Once you’ve read Michael Marton’s brazen and memorable ‘The Sex Life of the Fantastic Four’, there’s really no need for any other Fantastic Four poems. Similarly, all the very well known superheroes you can think of – Batman, Superman, Spiderman and, yes, Wolverine – are over-represented. You have to dig around for work that probes more deeply into the Marvel/DC universes.

Most of the pieces play, as you’d expect, with the tension between our ‘real’ world and the idealised world of comics, or juxtapose poetic tropes with those of superhero fiction. A few – the more successful ones, in my opinion – have clear ambitions to tamper with the mythology. I do wonder sometimes – chiefly for the benefit of my own work – about the purpose of poetry engaging with pop culture in this way. I think at least part of it is putting in a claim for public ownership of certain intellectual properties, taking them and making them malleable in an age of copyright lock-down. If corporate juggernauts want to sell us their stories and make us care about their creations, then they must submit to the human impulse to tear off, reshape and share.

The Emma Press Anthology of Fatherhood

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A poem of mine, Tiberius and the Kid, is included in the latest anthology from The Emma Press, which was published on 29th May, just in time for Fathers’ Day in the UK.

Firstly, on the matter of the poem, it’s part of a new-ish book I’m putting together which has nothing to do with anything else I’m writing. All the poems are about a character called Kid Jupiter, a cartoon tyrant prince based on Caligula (via interpretations by John Hurt, Malcolm MacDowell, Albert Camus and Tim Turnbull – not the more generous and realistic Balsdon/Barrett characterisation). It’s children’s poetry, with an emphasis on word games and rhythm. Tiberius and the Kid concerns Kid Jupiter’s relationship with his adoptive father, who is also his predecessor as emperor. It includes phrases like ‘jumped-up jake’ and ‘terminally gruff’.

Secondly, on the matter of the publisher, The Emma Press is one of the most distinctive small presses to have emerged in recent years, unashamedly leaning towards an aesthetic of sweetness and light and focusing its energies on gift books. They want to publish “the kind of books you want to carry around in your pocket or handbag, to dip into on the train or while you’re waiting for the bus as well as have on your e-reader or phone like you would an mp3 of a favourite song”. Their launches usually involve bunting.

Among those who remember the Daisy Goodwin years, this may set faces to stone. Those plush pink books that framed poetry as micro-therapy or health snack may have sold well, but seemingly did so by declawing the medium, tying a ribbon round its neck and calling it ‘Mr Fluffy’, while Goodwin herself was the golemification of something generated by a BBC spreadsheet. But Emma Wright’s press is better than that. The charm is natural, rather than part of a design spec, and the aesthetic exists to serve the books themselves, as objets d’art, not as a method of prescription.

In fact, both The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Poetry and A Poetic Primer For Love and Seduction: Naso was my Tutor are far more focused, thoughtful compilations than Penguin’s bloated The Poetry of Sex, and, unlike that book and those administered by Goodwin, do not rely on famous or long-canonised poets for stuffing. Fundamentally, Emma Press books and pamphlets feel young and genuinely interested in making friends, rather than a cynical exercise in persuasion.

The Rialto #80

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A poem of mine, Mifune, is published in issue 80 of The Rialto, which is available to order from here. The first thing I’d like to say about this poem is that I have no plans for it to appear anywhere else, ever. It will certainly not appear in a second collection.

The second thing I’d like to say about it is that it’s about Toshiro Mifune, an actor best known for appearing in Kurasawa movies and for channeling animalistic rage and petulance. His characters were often moody, wildly unpredictable, frenetic and dangerous. I’ve imagined him as a malevolent spirit caged in film reel. I wrote the poem one afternoon in the Genesis cinema in Whitechapel because I was thinking of entering a competition and didn’t have anything else suitable.

The third thing I’d like to say about it is that I submitted this, along with a few other poems, to The Rialto upon being kindly invited to do so by Fiona Moore, who shared editing duties on this edition. These days I very rarely submit anything to any publication without being invited to do so. This isn’t because I’m confident of being asked; it’s because I have very little idea how to go about selecting work for submission to any magazine that lacks a particular remit. I enjoy putting together selections for smaller projects that have a narrow specification – like The Mimic Octopus – but well-known journals like The Rialto, The Poetry Review and Poetry London, which exist to publish ‘the best’ poetry, leave me in a state of some perplexity. What is it they want exactly? Their own editors regularly admit to not knowing, via the various interrogations they’re submitted to. Guidelines will sometimes suggest you read the journal first to get an idea of what they publish, but that leaves me none the wiser – some good poems, some poor ones, usually, with little uniformity of character. (Isn’t it inexplicable and endless variation that adds up to blandness, rather than arch-regularity, which is beautiful, if menacing?)

I don’t know for sure why I get hung up on this issue of specificity, but I think it has something to do with wanting to know what I’m applying to be part of. If I’m invited, well, at least that means someone has some idea, presumably, that they would like me to be part of this thing they are working on, and that’s good enough for me. But in the past, when I did send poems off more freely, I remember the strange anticlimax – the feeling of almost having cheapened myself – when some freak creation of mine would be accepted and made to sit among so many others without any particular relationship to them, like a poor shy kid thrown into a new school. People sometimes talk of ‘finding a home’ for their poems. I don’t think being published somewhere is the same thing.

But this poem, Mifune, didn’t fit in with any of my other poems anyway, so it’s nice that he gets to hang out somewhere.

Revision Diary #1: ‘Seasonal Cartoon’

‘Seasonal Cartoon’ is a draft poem I wrote, I think, about two years ago, originally with linebreaks. These were removed in order to make it a narrow, column-like paragraph, a shape it now seems to have lost through being copied between various documents. The title has also been revised a few times. Here’s the version that’s sat untouched in a Googledoc for months:

Scrooge is at the strip club, clutching the brim of his top hat, each bent finger the leg of an albino crab. He is half-buried in his scarf and winter coat, both of which are blotched here and there with candle wax, snow and ink. The stage is a bleak, flat nest, feathered with lightly crumpled notes and, where Scrooge sits, a single dull farthing. Most of the other patrons are bankers with girlfriends. The song is ‘Money For Nothing’. The dancer’s name is Tuti. She was born in Singapore. She has just whipped off her bikini top and to Scrooge’s horror, in place of her knockers are two matching apparitions of Jacob Marley’s face.

Now, obviously the whole poem turns on one very creaky, obnoxiously signposted pun. In my defence, this was intentional; the piece is intended for a sequence of poems pretending to be something other than poems, in this case a tacky cartoon on the front of a Christmas card. Hence also the ho-hum title. I don’t want these imitations to be remotely tricky to guess, and in the context of the sequence, the pun could be forgiven.

However, nothing really excuses:

(a) The Dire Straits reference. The thematic link is obvious, but it’s not doing anything else.

(b) The weak attempt to humanise the stripper. I suppose I must have been conscious of how the strip club is often deployed as the setting, with the strippers as furniture. But Tuti? From Singapore? It’s nothing more than a facile gesture.

© The time it takes for a poem with a very simple, blunt punchline to blunder apologetically through lots of so-so description. If we’re really seeking to imitate a Christmas card here, the effect of the joke should be as close to immediate as possible. Obviously I wanted to get another, smaller gag in there – the idea of the dedicated miser tossing the stripper a mere farthing. I also like the description of his fingers, which is at least wintry. But ideally, this poem should aim to be as short and spare and bleak as possible.

It also needs a new title. The rules of the sequence forbid me from straying beyond the bounds of a precise description of the thing being imitated, but hopefully I can do better.

Here’s what I’ve come up for the revised version:

Season’s Greetings

Scrooge in the strip club,
his pale, crab-leg fingers
clutching his top hat brim.
On the stage before him,
a single dull farthing

and the stripper, stripping,
with Marley’s face gurning
from both bouncing tits.

I expected this to take me a stupidly long time, but I managed it in about 10 minutes. Must be because it’s 4.15 am in the morning and there’s a thunderstorm outside. Anyway, the revised version is much improved. The title now, as well as being a little snappier, performs the double function of making plain the imitation while also commenting ironically on the situation described. The poem itself retains the narrow, card-like shape I aimed for by turning it into a prose-poem, but uses functional line breaks that facilitate easy reading.

Why did we ever need all that stuff about hats and scarves and bankers? Everyone knows what Scrooge is supposed to look like. Everyone knows what kind of people are supposed to go to strip clubs. Ditching the reference to ‘Scrooge’s horror’ was an easy choice as well. The image of his white knuckles ‘clutching’ intimates that he’s spooked. ‘Two matching apparitions’ – also redundant. We know what Marley is, and we can know that breasts come in pairs.

Removing the word ‘knockers’ also leaves readers just a very small amount of work to do, and that might be the single most decisive change here, the thing that changes this piece from a prosaic description with a joke at the end to what is, to my mind, a decent, dark poem. Why ‘tits’? Because ‘breasts’ seems coy and over-mannered.

And no characterisation for the stripper? No, sorry. The central conceit of the poem hangs itself on the squalor of rich men ogling nameless girls and there’s no sense in trying to take the edge off it. This would not do at all as an excuse for routine shallow depictions of women, but I think it’s permissible in the case of one as brief as this.