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“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Discipline / Sandsnarl on Sale / The 2002 Academy Awards / Lyonesse

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.

DIARY

My resolution this year is to write in a slightly more disciplined, less sporadic manner, and to use the internet to cultivate a space for the things I write – which is to say, I mean to publish more and react less. It’s a familiar resolution; I’ve made it many times before, and it is terribly difficult to keep. Social media is designed to facilitate chain reactions. It sustains great Mexican waves of anger, commiseration or jubilance. When I give in to frustration and respond to that which frustrates me, it can generate a fire that lasts for days and I’m suddenly, in a small way, at the center of a conversation. Similarly, on those occasions when I have good news, I’m guaranteed to be kept busy accepting people’s good wishes.

But publicising work and disciplined writing of any kind is much more of a gamble. Lacking a habit or a formula, I find it impossible to draw any conclusions from the results: sometimes a thing burns faintly for a while, often it sits unattended. Very quickly, I grow bored with the project of attracting attention. I’m interested in making a kind of public garden, and contact and exchange with others, but not in producing objects for admiring. But then, as far as I can tell, that is what people (in the main) desire from writing published on the internet, or on social media at least: something to admire, which asks only that you perceive its glimmer.

Why do I have an aversion to glimmering? Something to do with thieves, foxes, rats, ruins, and all those other dank things I admire.


SANDSNARL SALE

Sandsnarl is currently on sale for £4 at the Emma Press shop, until the end of the month. That’s the same price as I paid yesterday to send one of the last copies of Scarecrows to the US. Unfortunately, I made nothing out of that sale, since I didn’t charge postage and Scarecrows also costs £4.


PROGRESSIVISM

It’s nearly 20 years since Halle Berry and Denzel Washington won Best Actress and Best Actor at the Oscars, with Sidney Poitier receiving an honorary award. At the time, John Cleese was quoted as saying, “It actually felt as if something in society shifted.”

And did it? Is racism significantly less of a blight today than it was then? Vanity Fair hosted a party on the night of the awards, and their write-up begins thusly:

In one corner of the room, Hugh Grant whispers in Nicole Kidman’s ear. She giggles. Nearby, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke greet Gwyneth Paltrow. Salman Rushdie huddles with his girlfriend, model Padma Lakshmi. A grinning Ron Perelman has his arm around Ellen Barkin, who is decked out in diamonds. Rupert Murdoch weighs an Oscar in his hand …

‘It seems everybody is here,’ says Rushdie. Nearby, Elvis Costello talks with friends as Mickey Rourke approaches Chloe Sevigny. Model Sophie Dahl, in a sparkly dress, smokes a cigarette as Hanks breezes through.


Whether Rushdie really used those words or not, the sentiment ‘everybody is here’ is extremely telling. The notion that racism could be dispelled by giving awards to black actors is only realistic so far as we believe in the possibility of benevolent rule by these few. As long as there is a representative mixture of people at the party – people who count – then society is moving forward, the logic goes. 

But at the root of inequality is the fact that most people, most of the time, do not count. We are not guests at the party. That’s not to say that there’s nothing momentous about occasions when awards culture catches up, but these are aftershocks at best. The real work goes on at ground level, and is performed by networks of activists, educators, artists and workers.  Their goal, and ours, must ultimately be to redistribute power in such a way that no elite gathering can think of themselves as constituting ‘everyone’. It would help in reaching that point if we were to disengage, even if only slightly at first, from spectacles of triumph.


POETRY

I’m currently reading Penelope Shuttle’s Lyonesse and hope to be able to write a short review soon. The subject of the book is right up my alley: a lost underwater country! Progress, however, has stalled because I keep being drawn back to one of the early poems, ‘The Gownshops’, which begins:

The Gownshops

of Lyonesse
took satin for granted, silk
was cheaper than salt,
but velvet rip-roared
like the water-lions of the west
who dealt the city its fate

Teaching Poetry / Village of Eight Graves / Battle of the Sexes

This post can also be read on my Substack, Stray Bulletin.

DIARY

I’m elbow-deep in preparation for the new teaching semester, trying to work out how much I want to depart from those approaches to poetry teaching I’m familiar with. I’ll also be teaching plays and publishing, but here I’m more content to work within the existing templates I’ve been given (or rather, more ginger about carving out my own path). Where poetry is concerned, I feel some disenchantment with the practice of showing examples of a form or genre to students, discussing the rules with them, and then asking them to construct an imitation. I’d like to teach them to use poetry as an explorative tool – that is, to get them to think of what is beyond the poem and to use the poem as a way of reaching that. Easier said than done. Perhaps this is not so much disenchantment with existing techniques (after all, we teach the use of tools by first asking students to perform simple actions with them) as it is a desire to break down preconceptions as quickly as possible, since so much beginner poetry seems concerned with the idea of being ‘poetic’ (as a stance, as a pose) or with reframing what is already known. I would like students to embark upon writing poetry with the notion that it leads to discovery, that it is like following a trail in a strange land. That way, its practice has uses beyond that of becoming a poet. 


FICTION

I’m currently reading The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo (translated by Bryan Karetnyk), the third Kosuke Kindaichi mystery to be released in English by Pushkin Vertigo. It was originally published as Yatsuhakamura in 1950, and made into a spooky film in 1977 (no English version available, as far as I know). One thing I’m enjoying, just one chapter in, is the minor obsession the main protagonist has with weighing his experiences against what one might expect from a work of fiction, as if he himself is not a character in a work of fiction. Here is a passage that (unintentionally, I think) made me laugh:

“After Mr Suwa left, we sat together in silence for a long while. It wasn’t at all like it is on the stage or in novels. Although we were blood relations, there was no outpouring of heartfelt emotion; instead, the fact of our being related made it only more awkward, as it meant we couldn’t fall back on pleasantries. At least, that was how I interpreted my grandfather’s long silence at the time. Unbeknownst to me, however, he was in fact experiencing such excruciating pains in his stomach that he couldn’t talk.”


CONTROVERSIES

Nick Buckley MBE was one of the ‘stars’ of Twitter yesterday, for a boilerplate ‘old man speaking his mind’ routine. From a quick skim of his feed, most of his opinions are the usual white-van-man fare, but it was a couple of Substack posts about men being the ‘real victims’ of women’s sexual superpowers that made him a brief sensation. The ridicule heaped on him, however, is almost as frustrating as his own skewed logic.

There is, after all, real pain behind his tenuous claims. Like many men, he clearly feels a mixture of humiliation, confusion and paranoia when faced with dress styles that accentuate women’s sexual features – as if he is being taunted. The message behind such dress styles, he implies, is something like “I am sexually available to a suitable man of status – so try harder, menial worker”. He says this is deliberate provocation, that it’s women’s choice and women’s fault. In return, he is told that it’s actually men’s fault, and specifically his own problem if women in sexy clothes make him feel small.

The truth is surely that no one involved in this game is fully in command of their choices or feelings. We all participate in, to differing extents, a system in which men are expected to compete for status and women are expected to offer themselves as a reward for that status in exchange for security. That’s more-or-less what defines patriarchal culture – power resides with men, but not evenly. All of us are made agents of that power by our being trained in ritual behaviours. Boys who brutalise girls, women and other boys don’t consciously do it for the sake of upholding this system, and neither do women (or men, for that matter) who dress to accentuate certain features of themselves. But that is, nevertheless, why these rituals are so deeply embedded.

So Nick is right, in a sense, that women actively participate in their own sexual objectification, but entirely wrong to suggest that men are mere bystanders, let alone comparative victims. We’re all brought up to enact these routines. Even though they damage us, often irreparably, the punishments we face for rejecting them completely are also severe. The hard work many undertake, therefore, is to transform them, through subversion, into a means of resistance. So there is little use in continuing to talk about the rights and dignities of men and women as if it were a competitive team sport, the one taking from the other.

Marble Broadsheet 8: Animals

Marble Poetry, edited by Aisling Tempany, produces both a journal and a broadsheet, as well as a number of pamphlets, all with a distinctive visual style – very impressive for a one-person operation. The theme of broadsheet #8 is animals, and features six poems, including Mandy Beattie’s charming ‘Catticus’, about an “emerald-eyed half-kitten and his tangerine snub-nose”, and a very short and very simply poem called ‘Dog’, which is by me.

‘Dog’ is the third of five animal-themed poems in a mini-sequence that I’ve managed to find a home for over the past year or so. Previously, ‘Frog’ was published in Gramarye 19, and ‘Woodlouse’ (lately retitled ‘Bug’) in The Rialto 80. ‘Cat’ is imminent as well, while ‘Fox’ has yet to find his place. Fingers crossed for him in 2022.

Meanwhile, here’s ‘Dog’:

The broadsheet is currently only available as part of a subscription from here. Other poets featured are Gaynor Kane, Ben Banyard, Rachel Bruce and Alice Stainer, with poems covering horses, spiders, cattle, cranes and … a second dog.

The Babel Tower Notice Board

The Babel Tower Notice Board is in its final month of publication. A shame – I’d only discovered it recently. I have an extract from a longer work published there as of yesterday. Lowly Gods is a rejigged update of material I wrote while on secondment in Hong Kong some years ago. It’s a combination of a kind of monsterpedia and a diary; for each day, an individual psychopomp/grim reaper is briefly described before some other observations are recorded. Each creature is the cause of minor ill effects in any human it brushes up against. Their visual appearances are loosely based on various buildings and non-human objects I used to walk past while wandering to and from work, or trying to find things to do.

THE LIVE ALBUM by Kat Payne Ware

Few collections I’ve read provide – or even attempt – a more satisfying marriage of form and content than THE LIVE ALBUM. Its presiding subject is meat, and in particular meat production and consumption – the queasy horror of flesh being cleaved and compacted, over and over, by rigid, cold machinery. Language, like muscle, is ever on the slide, stretching out and gathering itself, knitting and unknitting, so it makes sense that here the language is chunked off and portioned out in unsettling, sharp patterns.

There’s an overall structure to the pamphlet that is reminiscent of any chillingly practical chopping-and-sorting mechanism: the poems of the first half personify pork cuts, taking each in turn, while the poems in the second half run backwards through the meat production process, from ‘CURING’ through to ‘TRANSPORTATION’. Individual poems also wear their forms conspicuously, in such a way as to trouble, if not outright deny, any naturalistic reading; ‘RIBS’ is a sestina, making a virtue of that form’s tendency to sound increasingly forced. ‘FINNING’ is heavily footnoted, the footnotes operating as a second, separate ‘overflow’ poem. ‘EVISCERATION’ is severed down its centre, the gap filled by a block comprising repetitions of the word ‘NOTHING’. In this way, language is bent and brutalised so as to evoke the destruction of animals’ bodies.

In terms of voice, Payne Ware switches between a number of different registers, from formal instruction (“Automatically process each carcass by the individual / length. Printing of a health mark is possible.”) to lyrical and imagistic (“I spin my red wool / in the purificatory rite  / of a spider dropping / stitches onto steel / altars”). ‘CHEEK’ reads as a pastiche of a desire poem (“I fall apart at the touch / of a fork. Tenderise / me, treat me like a bad / good dog.”) while ‘STUNNING’ plays with the epistolary mode (“Dear Benjamin, you must have known / I longed to see the stars.”). It’s a familiar effect – the strange mixture of tones, the contrast of delicacy and bluntness, the sense, sometimes, of fragments bolted on to one another with a staple gun – but each part is skilfully balanced. The poems work individually, and chain together coherently (or rather, so far as there is incoherence, I took it as all part of the show). 

I found myself wondering if, overall, the collection operates as a protest against the meat industry, or if it means to. For me, TLA actually mitigates the degree to which I’m revulsed by the industrial killing of animals. I remember, as a teenage vegetarian, encountering Morrissey’s deliciously mournful line “It’s sizzling blood and the unholy stench of murder” and it somehow making meat seem enticing. Similarly, the formal play and ingenuity of TLA is arresting in a way that leads me toward an aesthetic appreciation of the processes illuminated. The problem is that I love seeing this done to language – I love to see it shaped, worried, treated as physical matter – so the language-as-meat metaphor works backwards to make me soften, if only slightly, my stance on factory farming. I have to pull myself away from the spell of the poetry in order to reconvene my objections. After all, the pork cuts in the first half are having a really sensuous time of it!

But this is just an observation. At no point is TLA didactic about its politics, and I expect that the impact would be different on someone who does not begin from a position of disquietude. Conceptions of savoury tenderness attached to both cooked pork and the contemporary lyric are swept away; the poetry here is tough, rather bloody and steely, and does not always go down easy.

Diagram 21.5

I have some work in the new issue of Diagram, one of my favourite US journals – extracts from two small, in-progress books that are part of the same world as Sandsnarl and Unravelanche. Prose or poetry? Both are in that weird hinterland between – I could never get them published as stories, but they also test the definition of the prose poem somewhat. There’s a short explanation offered beneath:

These works are extracts from imaginary books. That is to say, while I am actually writing them and hope to one day publish them as books, they are also components of a larger work of fiction, and belong to a world where their contents, while not being entirely accurate, are accepted as genuine first-hand accounts. That larger work of fiction is intended to be interactive and web-based, and visitors/players will be able to browse excerpts from these books and many others when they explore the city library.

(Good) Poems

This is a quickfire response to ‘(Good) Person Poems’, an op-ed by Rory Waterman published by Poetry London, and I’d like to start by saying that I’m glad this piece was published. It airs a grievance that is clearly deeply felt, and shared by others in the poetry community, and it’s better that such grievances come to the surface and submit themselves to examination, rather than simmer on in the background. The tendency, I’ve noticed, is for people to clot together in support or condemnation of a particular viewpoint, with little effective dialogue passing between the two sides.

I would invite everyone reading this to read the piece in full – it’s fairly short – but in summary, it is critical of a certain strain of poem whose concern, according to Rory, is in “making me admire the morality of its author” more than it is in being effective poetry, poems which are focussed on the virtue or deservingness of the poet as a human being, the language of the poem being merely a means of conveying assurance of that virtue. Rory treats this as indicative of a desire among a subset of poets to appear ‘unproblematic’, and links it to a mood of ‘sanctimonious certainty’ in a way that seems to place this piece firmly within the genre of anti-woke invectives.

Here are some problems I have with the way Rory’s criticisms are expressed.

1. We are not thinking of the same poets

As with many a screed on the state of poetry, no offending examples are given. Instead, Rory begins by describing an experience he anticipates will be familiar to all those reading: a poet is introduced bombastically, gives a pompous introduction, and proceeds to deliver a mediocre poem which is really all about themselves. The audience applauds – nobody points out that the emperor has no clothes.

It is, of course, familiar to us. But the lack of specificity conceals the fact that we are all thinking of different occasions, different poets, different audiences. It’s clear from some of the detailing that Rory has in mind in particular poets who are attuned to the present activist zeitgeist (“He then follows with some proclamation about equality, leavened with a declaration that he is working class”), but these details could be substituted for almost any other introductory proclamation. There’s nothing new about poets contextualising their poetry with an earnest and slightly melodramatic account of their inspiration for writing it – one that paints them in a flattering light – and half the audience figuratively waving their lighters while the other half quietly roll their eyes.

What governs our differing reactions is who and what we are able to emotionally connect with. I think it very likely indeed that I would have been among the eye-rolling contingent on an occasion when Rory was sincerely moved by a poet’s performance of selfhood. In fact, the latter half of the piece becomes insistently reliant on the existence of poems which make Rory “want to cry, or laugh, or both”, which I am fairly certain (based on the examples provided) provoke no such reaction in me.

2. You are not humanity. Humanity is not you.

The most egregious line of the piece is this, referring again to Rory’s preferred canon of poems: “By refusing the modern, statesperson-like ambition to give voice to a community or simplified grievance, they give voice to humanity.”

They do no such thing. They give voice to a certain range of human experience, as do the former category of poems. Certain experiences may be universal, but the way in which we experience them varies greatly, so that no poem can possibly speak to, or for, all of humanity. These kinds of claims are, and have always been, as wild as anything a feverish activist might announce of themselves up on stage. Worse than that, they are often grounded in denial of or dismissiveness towards experiences that are not known to the person making the claim.

3. The ‘flawed’ poet is also an affectation/infatuation

The piece argues that we ought to value ‘moral complexity’ in poetry – and who could argue with that? The problem is the strange assumption that there is inherently more moral complexity (and, implicitly, more virtuousness) in the poet who adopts a pose of humility or self-recrimination than in one who starts out from a footing of righteous anger or the desire to bear witness. There are many poets for whom frailty is or was a posture, some of them good, some of them awful. If the nameless poets Rory is thinking of in this piece really are hopeless, there is very little chance that their work will be improved by their being urged to rake over their own imperfections.

4. Longevity is a poor metric of worth

Rory’s parting shot is a familiar one: that none of those poets he rails against will be remembered in “in two decades’ time when they have succumbed to the ageist cult of newness they seem so keen to embrace”. Being remembered in two decades’ time is certainly desirable to all of us with egos to feed, but has little to do with the value of a work or the virtues of the person who wrote it. Much that is of value is localised, ephemeral. The likelihood that something will not exist in a few years is not a reason to dismiss it from your notice; very often, in fact, it’s a reason to appreciate it now while you have the chance.

Also, I wouldn’t place any great faith in future cultural arbiters. It’s likely that Simon Armitage will be remembered long after many far better poets have been forgotten, since fame in one’s lifetime is a useful (if not impenetrable) bulwark against sober reevaluation. One only has to notice the degree of resentment that meets any proposed renaming of buildings or replacement of statues. At a certain point, it seems, the story of the past is ossified, and any attempt to re-open the case file is considered to be recklessly destabilising. On which note …

5. What you’re seeing is not ‘certainty’

The phrase ‘sanctimonious certainty’ is what connects this to other tirades against the woke. It is in every case a misapprehension. People do not insist on things with vehemence when they are certain. The certain is what goes unremarked upon, what can be permitted to continue reproducing itself without any assistance. Certainty that their reputation and material wealth is under no serious threat is what allows poets to behave in bastardly ways while repudiating themselves in their poetry for minor character flaws. The Don Paterson of ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ was a far less assured figure than the Don Paterson of The Poem; at the earlier point, he had to tear into his perceived enemies (the avant-garde and performance poets) with some ferocity. Now he can largely ignore them while peppering his writing with blithe assertions.

The younger generation growing up today are far less sure of themselves, of the world, of their place in it, than those before them. This is reflected in their attraction to the declarative and affirmative modes, to ‘statement’ poetry, and in their need to locate themselves within a clear moral and political framework that retains some ambitions toward collective improvement. Poems of insistence are a means of advancing prospective stability – a stability which is not offered by the platitudes previous generations too often treat as wisdom. Many of these poets are trying to carve out a place for themselves in a literary culture that has traditionally refused to acknowledge the existence of their kind; it’s hardly surprising that the posture they adopt is one of passionate defiance.

6. So is there any kind of problem at all?

I think so, and it’s one Rory both touches upon (albeit imprecisely) and exemplifies. The problem is that the emotional resonance produced by, or interpersonal relatability of, a work of poetry is not a good basis for building critical consensus or having a productive exchange of views. If we want to have a conversation around what a poem does, how it works and why it is of lasting value, then we need to able to go beyond talking about what it makes us feel. Not that there is anything wrong with poetry producing an emotional resonance; it’s simply that it must be admitted these effects are hopelessly unreliable, that what one person finds incredibly moving another finds either flat, or merely technically impressive, or irritatingly trite. 

There is a great reluctance, it seems, in accepting that those parts of a poem or a poets’ oeuvre you thought to have eternal, universal pertinence are really limited in relevance to people of (for example) your own age and background – perhaps because it produces a feeling of loneliness, of disconnection. Or perhaps because it leads one to the inevitable conclusion that all the battles over meaning and cultural import must be endlessly refought, that nothing is safe. But the answer to that can hardly be to continue shouting at each other “Oi, your emperor’s got no clothes.”

Sweet Mystress

Today is National Poetry Day. I don’t often manage much to coincide with it, but this year the organisers asked me for a poem on the theme of choice for their website, so I have given them Sweet Mystress, a ludokinetic poem with a few puzzles and a secret ending. It’s in pat a homage to Myst, and re-uses sound files from the original game.

Sandsnarl Book Launch

I’ll be launching my new pamphlet, Sandsnarl, next Friday on Zoom, from 7pm, with support readings from Kirsten Irving and Richard Evans, my two oldest poetry squadmates. For now, here’s a brief introduction to the book:

Sandsnarl is a settlement steeped in sand – though where it came from and how long ago is a matter of tall tales and steely whispers. The sand itself makes accurate record-keeping impossible. It is drug, ore, plague and delicacy. The inhabitants of this region (or is it a fallen kingdom?) talk and think through its haze. Some alter their shape, as if shaved by it. Others seethe, resisting its rattle and buzz. These poems eavesdrop, extract, sift. Together, they make up a brief impression of time and place, a Buñuelian musical without the music.

Register for the event here.

Pre-order Sandsnarl from here.