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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

The Mimic Octopus

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The Mimic Octopus is a new anthology of the imitative and derivative from 13 Pages, edited by Richard Osmond and Will Harris, with illustrations by Aisha Farr.

It includes a poem by Anthony Adler which mimics the form and content of my ‘Near Extremes’ poems from School of Forgery, as well as a contribution of my own, ‘The Submission of Alan’. While most of the imitations and pastiches in the anthology are respectful, affectionate, even admiring, ‘The Submission of Alan’ is from a sequence of poems I’m writing which use the imitative mode as a form of criticism (or ‘imitation as impertinence’, as I put it when reading at the launch last night). The target of the criticism is the predilection establishment-sanctioned male poets have for writing sleazy poems about women, particularly when these are dressed up as some else, like, say, revelations about the nature of beauty.

This particular poem is a travesty or burlesque of a section of ‘Missing’ by Alan Jenkins, in which he pictures a former lover planning to betray him while she bathes. It’s from Harm, which won the 1994 Forward Poetry Prize, and which I picked up cheaply in Scarthins, Cromford. Jenkins came to my attention because he was one of the more prominent figures on the board of the Poetry Society a couple of years ago, when they managed to oust (and later, under pressure, reinstate) their director and expend worrying amounts of public money hiring a well-known law firm to spin the story in the press so that it became about two warring women who had to be separated, rather than reconfiguring the Poetry Society to serve some alternative purpose.

Retrospective: Medieval Welsh Translations on BODY

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I’d like to write something every now and then about poems I’ve had published in the past, since at the time I hardly said anything, and because most of the online and offline publications that have posted or printed something of mine are well worth further exploration. BODY, for instance, is a seriously international publication that’s free to read and puts up performance texts and videos alongside work from poets across the world. It’s got a slick website too.

The pieces they published are only a half or a third mine, since they’re translations – in this case, of work by medieval Welsh poets Dafydd Ap Gwilym and Gwerful Mechain (the links here are to the poems). I’m (still) frustratedly monolingual, despite efforts in recent years to upgrade, so my approach to ‘translating’ poetry is this: I run the originals through Google Translate, in whole and in part, and marvel for a while over the weirdness produced. I read other translations, as many as I can obtain, and try to map parts of them to the raw automated translation. I read and reread the original texts, often aloud to myself, to try to get a measure of the rhythms and sounds employed. I read around the poem, if there’s any commentary on it, or interesting biographical information that surrounds it. Then I take my best shot, I suppose in much the same way someone might attempt a portrait from a series of colourful descriptions.

I don’t actually think dead-on accuracy matters that much. Translations of poetry are always necessarily defective as pure translations, so their purpose must be to create something new – albeit related. It’s more worthwhile to think of them as collaborations of a sort, or ‘reimaginings’, to borrow the cinematic term. It turns out, for instance, nearly everyone else has a preferred translator of Celan which differs from mine – I like the Ian Fairley versions to the point where I can hardly be bothered with the rest. It might be that’s because I like reading Fairley as much as (or more than) I like reading Celan.

As for these Medieval Welsh poets – well, I happened on them because I’ve been on the look-out for obscene poetry from the past and from other cultures for some time. They’re hardly obscure poets, and the poems I’ve chosen are among their most famous, but the existing translations I found are all somewhat grim and ponderous in the face of what seems (to me) to be their obvious exuberance and comic energy, so my versions attempt to bring that out, at the cost of metrical fidelity. And though the authors are separated by more than a century (Ap Gwilym was around in the 1500s, Mechain in the late 1600s), these pieces seem to go together as a pair.

I also wrote a short essay for BODY about a poem by Rimbaud in which he remarks on a barmaid’s ‘enormous tits’, which seems not entirely unrelated.

Pull Out All The Stops

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**Update** Link to the poem read out on Radio 3

I’m peripherally involved in the South Bank Centre’s Pull Out All The Stops organ festival/extravaganza. I’ve written one poem which is currently on display in the Clore Ballroom as part of a free exhibition that runs until 13th April. It’s loaded into a typewriter! I’ll also be reading this poem on BBC Radio 3 tomorrow as part of In Tune, live from the Southbank Centre itself. The show starts at 4.30, and I’ll be on sometime around 5.30.

The piece is called ’Warning Notice in the Key of Bm’, although I was thinking more of the chord of Bm when I wrote it – lots of ‘b’, ’d’ and ‘F/sh’ sounds. In fact, each stanza starts with the syllable ‘be’, just to hammer the point home. It’s written in fairly strict terza rima, but with the same two slant rhymes looped round and round. The subject matter is, loosely, Ralph Downes and his approach to designing the Royal Festival Hall organ; or the genius as monster. Downes was an individual with his own radical ideas about organ-building, which were inevitably met by fierce opposition from traditionalists. If that all sounds very quaint and parochial, it at least makes for a neat metaphor for the inevitable conflict between new ideas and old habits – “Beware the man with music in his head …”

I’ll also be performing at Pipes V Mics, a free event at the RFH this Sunday, alongside organists and beatboxers. I’ve been writing a collaborative piece with Abigail Parry called ‘Obliteration Fugue’. It really is a fugue! We’ve written it in four overlapping registers, from the refined soprano to the bass/base, and it’s essentially a creative deconstruction/destruction of the monstrous organ itself, which will be lurking in the background while we’re on stage.

The Harlequin, Issue 4

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Five poems of mine are published online in the latest issue of The Harlequin. Here’s the optional commentary track:

Ash is the third of four ‘between-element’ poems to be published. The first two were Dust in The New Statesman and Steam in The White Review. Ash is the element between fire and air, and like the others, she’s personified as a vagabond-girl. The form in all these poems is based around a final consonant sound that repeats at the end of every line, and a set of four penultimate consonant sounds arranged in a pattern. The title/name also repeats at the start of each stanza, and the whole sequence even fits into a bigger over-arcing sequence! This is because they’re all written by a persona of mine who is obsessed with organisation and patterning.

‘Nothing, that is, but the mind of man’ is the first in a sequence of insomnia poems that take place throughout the course of a single night. This one focuses on the initial moments after lights-out. ‘The band really cut loose for this one’ and ‘Not to be loose or hump-shunted’ are the last two poems in the same sequence, when it gets to morning and begins to get light again. The titles are supposed to evoke the kind of fragmentary, drifting thoughts that present themselves momentarily while you’re lying awake trying to think of nothing.

Defeat is the sort of self-indulgent poem I let myself write occasionally if I feel like I’ve paid my dues in technically adventurous, concept-focussed work. There’s nothing tricksy here – it’s about defeat, and frustration, and the feeling that you can never work hard enough, do enough, learn enough, armour yourself enough to not be broken down again at a moment’s notice.