“A poet of fantastic inversions.” Poetry London

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

“Voraciously experimental, precociously accomplished.” Poetry International

Single Poem Roundup: Crowson, Crowcroft, Blackstone

Part of ‘Uncertain Objects‘ by Sarah-Jane Crowson, which accompanies her poem.

Time for another look at three recently published poems, from three different poets in three different journals: ‘Small decrees of dust: A love song with moths’ by Sarah-Jane Crowson, published in Stone Circle Review; ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ by Kate Crowcroft, published in Berlin Lit; and ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ by Callie S. Blackstone, published in Rust & Moth. I readily admit that having decided to write about the first two I went on an afternoon scavenge for a third ‘Crow’ poet. I thought of Claire Crowther, whose work I admire, but couldn’t find a recent online publication (though the exercise reminded me that her Solar Cruise should be bumped up my to-read list). In the end, having skimmed through a dozen or so different contents pages, I decided I should content myself with a softer associational link — though the reappearance of moths in the title of the journal helps to make it a neat set.

These are all poems about love, of one sort or another — though look what happens to the personal pronouns as each unfolds. Blackstone’s ‘When asked to map the downfall of our relationship’ follows the most straightforward course; it announces its subject matter right away, then gives a bleak, lightly fragmented account of a trip to a lighthouse. But the first ‘you’ only occurs at the end of the first stanza, and there’s just one more after that (“The expensive sandwich shop turned you away”), plus a single ‘us’ and two instances of ‘your anger’. By the end, the addressee has become ‘he’, no longer a subject of the poem but an antagonist.

This is one of the ways the poem undercuts its own mode. That is, it sets itself up as an introspective piece — the speaker poised over a map, hesitant (“my fingers hover”), busy in thought (“images blur together”). It has the hallmarks of a tender address to an ex-lover (“I can sing about you”). The first two stanzas are of equal weight, the lines of decidedly average length. But then the first stanza break cuts off the word ‘you’ from ‘and me’, and it becomes increasingly apparent that something is wrong. The repetitions start to signal distress, emulating the manner of someone trying to make themselves heard (“the place that was my surprise, the place was my surprise // surprise, surprise!”, “I can’t, / I can’t”, “this was supposed to be / this was supposed to be”). The stanza shapes become ever more irregular, sentences run into one another, and as evidence of the male partner’s demanding, abusive and controlling nature stacks up, the lighthouse (“small, suffocating”) starts to look uncomfortably phallic — symbolic of a non-consensual sex act. It seems to me Blackstone first adopts the style and a genre of poem she knows many will find more palatable, using it as a way to smuggle in the tale she wants to tell. This is also reflective, of course, of the way awareness of our own mistreatment creeps up on us. For a moment or two, we think we’re in a love story — then the lighthouse looms into view.

Crowson’s ‘Small decrees of dust’ begins with a prominent ‘us’, and a flower-soaked scene of romance:

The lilacs watched us from the fragrant garden–
heavy and bewildered like a drowning.

OK, the proximity of ‘drowning’ and ‘bewildered’ gives it an uneasy edge, but fragrant gardens and heavy lilacs are strongly suggestive of physical intimacy. And yet the ‘us’ never appears again, nor ‘you and I’ (‘you’ is completely absent). I’d expected the poem to keep the couple locked in its gaze, since this is normally what love songs do, but instead there are a succession of sudden shifts. The second couplet is in italics, implying we’ve moved to a different vantage point — perhaps years have passed. The speaker of this couplet then appears to be interrupted by another speaker in the third, who completes their sentence:

That time before the world was boxed
in a whisper before…

before the darted glance, distorted.

Asterisks between the stanzas act as quick cuts, switching up the persona again. There is an ‘I’ and a ‘she’ who never quite settle into distinct figures, though they seem to be united in the closing phrase, “our hair unleashed, / rain-drenched, unpinned, unlocked”. Thematically, the poem quickly cools: there’s only a very short distance between that first fruity couplet and talk of a profound lack of intimacy (“It came to her that she had been alone for so long / that she had become a statue“).

This disjointedness — more complex and jarring than the gradual reveal of ‘When asked to map …’ — is in part a stylistic choice, tying the poem to an accompanying visual collage which mirrors certain images from the poem: the statue, the moth, the twisting of plant and human bodies. But what else is going on? To my mind, this structure evokes the way we look on ourselves from different angles in moments of doubt and hesitance, holding up the mind’s eye like a phone-camera when taking selfies. The person on the phone screen becomes a different entity, someone whose thoughts we can narrate in the third person. It’s also at that moment, posing, that we become statue-like, frozen in the headlamps of our own scrutiny.

The moths in the poem begin as “quiet words”, but the eyes of the lovers also turn into “moth wings”, disinterred from their context (“like a land that is locked, or lost”). So moths here are pieces of memory and language which fade away, but in doing so whirl and flare (they are “ecstatic with decay”). I think this makes ‘Small decrees of dust’ a poem about trying, fitfully, to love yourself, to gather up the evidence that will allow it, including the evidence of having been loved by another.

As intimated in both the syntactic arrangement and imagery of its title, ‘The Other Cheek Turn’ also sets out to mix things up. For some reason, I find myself thinking of it as half way between the other two poems. The first two lines require a double-take (or did from me, at least), since the well-known trope is of a face being struck — a woman striking a man’s after he confesses his betrayal, or a man striking a woman’s to cow her. Here it’s either the face or its expression of “a love so tangible” which is thought of as potentially dealing a blow. This convolution is immediately followed by a much more straightforward, almost cloying declaration:

Your face stalled in a love so tangible
it wouldn’t strike me when I asked it to. Hard
to learn how loved we are
when it’s unfamiliar.

Just like Crowson’s first couplet, there’s an unsettling element — in this case, the allusion to physical violence — but this stanza nevertheless seems to describe a moment of conventional romantic passion. And just like in Crowson’s poem, the sense of a ‘you and I’ vanishes immediately after this point, until the end, when a note is left saying “I want you / to know what is real and what is / not”. (The line break after ‘I want you’ momentarily gives the impression of a love letter, but the rest of the sentence reveals that the writer of the letter seeks control of the narrative). The speaker of the poem goes wandering, conjures a ‘he’ who may or may not be one half of the ‘we’ in the first stanza. It’s more plain here that time is reeling by — there is coffee with a friend, and this out-of-nowhere image:

… the neon
overalls of emergency
workers moved quick
in honeyed light

It reads like an unravelling — the rainbow becoming particles, then neon and honey. Like in Blackstone’s poem, there’s a line of reported dialogue which is blunt, off-register. Here, though, it’s the considered advice of a confidante. Crowcroft’s speaker seems, to my mind, to be trying to find the right groove, to be testing propositions and coming up against further uncertainty. They lie “in sheets — arrhythmic” at the close of the poem, giving in to … what? Perhaps “the charge” is not an accusation but a burden, or even an electric current, so that what the body must accept is a kind of tremendous confusion of the sort that comes from being in love. (Devil’s Elbow, by the way, is a double-hairpin bend in a now disused road in the Scottish Highlands, so the idea here is of someone walking almost back and forth, turning on themselves, in the effort to follow a marked route).

In all three poems, the traditional pose of the love poem quickly gives way to something more febrile, some more insistent energy which leaves me reaching to pull together the fragments. They make me think of how treacherous even simple settings and journeys can turn out to be when the senses are fully activated.

Single Poem Roundup: Williams, Hovda, Crymble

Let’s look at three recently published poems from three different authors and three different online journals. I’ve picked: ‘Heirloom’ by Phillip Crymble, published in issue 13 of Bad Lilies; ‘How to Tank in Overwatch 2‘ by Sara Hovda, published in Cartridge Lit; and ‘Static’ by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone, published in issue 3 of COMP, an interdisciplinary journal.

Is there anything linking these poems? After a short ponder, I thought: something to do with loss, moving forward, having to leave those we love behind. Williams and Humberstone’s ‘Static’, a poem-comic hybrid, gestures to the passing of time constantly, through the images of tidal movement which serve as a backdrop to the words. The speaker has lost touch with seemingly everyone else; they are positioned as a lone radio operator in the opening lines:

Do you copy?
Do you copy?
Is anybody there?

At or around the mention of living in ‘a digital age’, however, the implication is that it is communication technology itself (symbolised by the phone with its redundant/unused compass) which is the cause of this loneliness. The concept of radio and televisual static is married to the texture and sound of the sea through the panel layout, and right at the beginning we see footprints in the sand, leading into the swash.

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Reckless Extravagance

This post is duplicated from my Substack, Stray Bulletin.

Part one of a mega February-to-May catch-up.

Saucy Seaside Postcards

I’ve published a large number of poems over the last decade which have never been collected into one single-author volume. Some are part of Sidekick anthologies and very happily nested there, while others are intended for future books that may or may not materialise. For now, I’m experimenting with making some of them into digital postcards and adding them to the jukebox/gashapon machine on my website. I’m also trying to line up their publication with relevant dates. So ‘Pangolin Documentary’, for example, went online on World Pangolin Day 2023 (18 February) while the below poem (originally published in Aquanauts) was given the postcard treatment in time for John Steinbeck’s birthday:

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Frayed Ends: On the Longevity of Digital Poetry

Change, change — that’s what the terns scream
                                        down at their seaward rocks;
fleet clouds and salt kiss — 
everything else is provisional,
                                        us and all our works.

 —  ‘Fianuis’ by Kathleen Jamie

This paper was originally delivered as a talk at Poetry, Representation and the Archive, a symposium hosted by the University of East Anglia on 25th May 2023. My practice and research mostly concerns the amalgamation of poetry and poetry books with other forms and genres of text, including digital and interactive works, and here I want to discuss digital poetry in particular. I want to talk about the problems inherent in preserving it, and some ideas I have about how its life can be extended.

First of all, I’m going to roughly define ‘digital poetry’ as poetry which is “digital-born” (Ensslin, 2014, p.19); that is, written and designed for publication on or within a digital platform. This does not mean it is totally incapable of being transferred to or translated into a non-digital medium (I will come to talk about this in more detail) but rather that some element of the additional functionality of a digital platform is anticipated in the design. Digital poems are, therefore, poems which physically move and change, often responding to user input. They are poems which are brought into being and animated, at least in part, by computer code which an app or program (such as an internet browser) is used to interpret. There are other, overlapping terms in use – ‘e-poetry’, ‘hypertext poetry’, ‘interactive poetry’, ‘code poetry’ and so on – but ‘digital poetry’ is, at present, the most useful umbrella term for this kind of poetry.

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Still Life With Octopus / Tania Hershman

The poems in Still Life With Octopus slip down very easily — sometimes a little too easily, like they’re elastically escaping their tank. You think you’ve got them in focus, and then they’re gone. Not literally, of course; you can head back to the top of the page and comb them again, looking for the knot to unpick, but sometimes it keeps evading you. Take ‘What You May Be Offered’, for instance. It begins:

A man in a van stopped to ask
if I wanted a mattress. I said

no …

And it ends with the narrator in the same place, engaged in the same activity, one full day later, “wondering / what [else] someone might offer me”. The mystery here (and it’s not an unwelcome one) is what’s going on beyond the level of the starkly anecdotal. Who is this man? What does he have to do with the book’s broader themes, or its central sequence, in which an octopus is presented as a sort of younger conjoined twin living inside the narrator’s chest cavity?

Objects are fused with the body in other poems too — the book has a light, breezy tone but not infrequently deals in mild horror. In ‘What Plays Today’, it’s a radio trapped “between my ears”, which sometimes screams. In ‘And a Clock’, the mouth is stuffed with both the clock (which is broken) and a load of feathers. It’s a dream-poem, but the dream is clearly a nightmare — a tree comes alive in it and asks “Tell me who // this me is”. A few pages on, night itself comes to stir the narrator and ask for company, and a little way further on from that, a flickering light takes on the persona of ‘My Moon’, and likewise imposes itself as a fully self-willed entity in need of a place to stay. These briefly-sketched characters manage to come across as both creepy and innocent. In ‘I am interested’, the narrator even announces themselves as a stranger in their own body, intrigued by its mechanisms.

Still Life With Octopus begins and ends with poems titled ‘Arrival’, and is full of things arriving or becoming, or suggesting they might like to be more deeply involved with one another somehow — the theme of tying, sewing, stitching recurs as well (‘Psalm for the Seamstresses’, ‘Tied’, “I tie it with string” in ‘When the Time Comes’, “reel / her in” in ‘Tango’, ‘How to Make a Buttonhole Hand Stitch’), and the octopus as symbol of fleshy entanglement is never far away. Body parts — chiefly, internal organs — and their relationship to one another also come to the fore more than once, and the closing ‘Arrival’ poem reads as a set of Ikea instructions for (mis)handling human/animal intimacy:

put me down
until I lift me

put me aside
until I can lean

put me out
until I desiccate

I guess, then, that the man with the mattress for sale in ‘What You May Be Offered’ is trying, in a timid sort of way, to cross a boundary, to join in with the awkward intermeshing that is taking place elsewhere, to “start with pieces, end with objects” as the seamstresses do. There’s a weird, slightly menacing craving for ease and harmony throughout Still Life With Octopus that’s barely even hinted at in the cover blurb, but which is certainly present in the animal totem Hershman has chosen — and even, perhaps, in the title. ‘Still Life’ — a contradiction-in-terms, no?

(Read next: Lyonesse / Penelope Shuttle).

On Frogs

Link to audio/podcast version of this post.

This poem was first published in issue 19 of Gramarye, the Journal of the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. ‘Gramarye’ is an archaic word meaning mystical or magical learning, related to the word ‘grimoire’, which refers to a spellbook. Frogs in folklore seem to be strongly associated with magic, and the poem alludes to probably the most well-known example: the Frog Prince of the Brothers Grimm faerytale, who is turned into a human by a princess’s kiss or, in some versions, by sleeping in her bed. Suppose, though, that this prince was not under the spell of a malevolent witch or magician, but that of age and booze? Suppose that his transformation back into a prince was a matter of perception (his own and that of the princess) at the very moment she makes a move on him – a matter of reconnecting with the sexual potential of his own body?

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Long Poem Magazine #28

I’m finding most, if not all, of the poems published alongside mine in the latest issue of Long Poem magazine instantly appeal to me, before I’ve even started reading them, and I think it’s because of the length stipulation. As its name suggest, Long Poem is for poems of 50 lines or more, and this requirement all but demands that a poem have a well-developed structure, a sense of being made brick by brick, in a way that’s much harder to detect in an array of short pieces.

It helps that each piece is preceded by an introductory paragraph which sets the thematic context for what follows in much the same way as a book blurb. Here’s the intro to my own contribution:

This is the final version of a poem I’ve been trying to write for more than ten years, ever since I learned that the writer Charles Cotton was said to have gone into hiding from his debtors in one of the many natural caverns of the Peak District. It’s also the first of a set of ‘labyrinth’ poems – pieces where the form is adapted from some kind of puzzle or toy, in this case a roll-and-move race game like the Game of the Goose or Snakes and Ladders. That form seemed very well suited to describing the experience of becoming absorbed in a system or subject, or even an intense personal or bodily encounter; there is a pronounced tension between the idea of a numerically ordered sequence of events and the stumbling, back-and-forth movement dictated by dice rolls and penalty squares. But it took a very long time for this compositional strategy to occur to me – at one point, the poem was shaped like a set of stalactites and stalagmites, and had to be read with the page turned 90 degrees. At another, it was written in a row of block stanzas, in such a way that the last word of every line of every stanza was also the first word of the equivalent line in the stanza to the right of it. Apart from anything else, the poem’s current form is much more readable.

And here are the first few lines:

I say it’s the first of a set of labyrinth poems because this one is titled ‘A Labyrinth’ and intended to stand at the beginning of the sequence. The other two that were published earlier this year in Raceme no. 13 are both called ‘Another Labyrinth’. There are two more still to come. One is particularly difficult to find a home for, but we’ll see what happens.

Playing Poetry Exhibition

The Playing Poetry exhibition is on display at the National Poetry Library from now until 15th January, and includes one of my digital ludokinetic poems, Erratum (a work in progress), as well as Adversary, a prototype poetry card game I made with Abigail Parry, pictured above. There was a neat write-up in the Financial Times this week. I’m very excited that this area of literary crossover is starting to flourish, after tentatively making the prediction that it would in Dual Wield. The challenge from hereon in is going to be keeping pace with it!

End of a Fantasy: The Panic Behind Literary Reactionism

“Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

“[Contemporary] fiction is about society,” says Clare Pollard, in a short essay asking how writers can respond to the present moment. I wouldn’t have thought this statement at all controversial, but somehow it prompted a fierce rebuttal from A. Natasha Joukovsky on ‘literary moralism’ and “the Rampant Conflation of Fiction and History”, full of much more dubious statements. Social reform is distracting novelists, Joukovsky says, from their aesthetic responsibility to beauty. Fiction and history are ‘discrete’ – never the twain shall meet. The success of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has nothing to do with its politics, but is due to it being “stylishly written”. While Pollard’s essay is addressed to people for whom writing and reading are ways of negotiating the world, Joukovsky’s is squarely aimed at those who consider themselves capital ‘w’ Writers – members of a sacred order – and so rounds off with a list of commandments, in the form of a hodgepodge of aphorisms that have little to do with the preceding argument.

At first I found all of this merely haughty, its passion misplaced. Once I started to look at the parts that were being quoted admiringly on social media, however, I began to recognise the animating concern behind the essay’s proclamations. It all clicked into place during an exchange online with one particular supporter, who insisted that ‘talent’ and ‘politics’ were two separate qualities, that one can admire a work of art purely for the ability it displays without having any sympathy whatsoever for its creator’s outlook. I said – and I tried putting this in various ways – that any work of art which seeks to represent or engage with some aspect of reality has a political dimension to it, and admirers of that work of art almost certainly find something useful about that political dimension. In response, my interlocutor served up a series of familiar ‘culture wars’ talking points: so anyone who admires Céline is a Nazi, then? Are Chaucer and Shakespeare persona non grata because of their outdated views? And the coup de grace: this is all just one step away from Stalin and Pol Pot! 

I’ve been through all this before. It’s the same conversation I’ve had with certain members of the Transformers fandom when they decry modern Transformers comics for ‘forcing politics down our throats’ and look back misty-eyed on the 1980s Sunbow cartoon, with its good vs. evil storylines. There are people who currently earn their living making Youtube videos every week which repeat this argument with respect to each new fantasy film or TV series that comes out. Until recently, they say, art and pop culture were reliably apolitical, at least on the surface. Their qualities were ones which could be admired and enjoyed irrespective of the state of the intrasocietal conflict. But now everything is tainted by a modern fanaticism with meaning well, or rather, with being seen to mean well. As my interlocutor put it, citing Martin Amis and Milan Kundera, we live in an age where the talentless “take revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic”.

This is not an argument which withstands much unpicking. Suffice it to say works of art and literature have been occasioned by moralistic, empathetic and societal concerns for as far back as we can collectively remember, and while the presence of blatant finger-wagging in a work is often a weakness, it can also be a major part of its enduring appeal (try to imagine Father Brown without Chesterton’s Christian humanism, Dickens without his parade of grotesques, or Swift having any reputation at all). I’m more interested, however, in the psychology behind the argument, so often delivered in a tone of impotent fury by people who seem well aware they’ve already lost the battle.

I suggest one cause is the need to reconcile a belief in one’s innate goodness with an inability to act or speak decisively on urgent moral questions. Exposure and addiction to social media has the marked effect of stripping away comforting illusions. It’s much harder to believe you belong to a clear moral majority when most of the people you interact with tell you you’re in the wrong, harder to believe you’re a great thinker and agitator when dozens of strangers are able to make fun of you at the drop of a hat. Likewise, the number of places we can retreat to in order to bathe in our own innocence, to put out of mind our evident complicity in an unjust global society, has greatly diminished. That all art has a political dimension – and, not uncommonly, a complex and troubling one – is something we were able to ignore as long as nobody talked about it. But now that kind of talk is everywhere. And what, indeed, does it say about us if we continue to look for solace in the work of artists who had reprehensible attitudes, or committed unforgivable acts?

There’s no simple, one-size-fits-all answer to that question, but wouldn’t it be such a relief if it were “Absolutely nothing”? Hence the zeal for separating art from social responsibility, for making it a safe space. It mirrors exactly the desire of members of fandoms to preserve the version of a media property that existed in their childhood. Fantasy has started to realign with metaphor; it no longer means an escape from the real world. As a genre, of course, it was never free of real-world politics, but as children we were able to pretend otherwise, just as any number of artists and arts aficionados have been able to hide behind a belief that art (or beauty) makes its own damned rules.

One fantasy still pointedly persists, however, and serves as a call to action. It is the idea that those who are in favour of re-examining the political implications of a work are traitors, weaklings and monstrosities. On the one hand, we are smug and self-satisfied, breaking into the palace and trashing our own cultural heritage. On the other, we are totally joyless, unable to experience art and media as anything other than statements of agreement or disagreement. I’d like to think the panic and pain of reactionaries would be eased if they knew that in general others suffer from the same needs, fascinations and anxieties as them, but have chosen to navigate these in a different, less embittering way.

It may not help at all though. That different, less embittering method of navigation is based on an acceptance (difficult as it is to maintain) that everything is in flux, that even that which is figuratively and literally set in stone can be torn down and replaced. If you see someone raging about ‘postmodernism’, this is what they mean. If everything can be replaced, then it means we are involved in a continuous negotiation to maintain that which we value, and on that score (so their thinking goes) the plebs cannot be trusted.

So the real anxiety that grips these reactionaries, I would suggest, is the scale of their own responsibility; to have to decide for ourselves what kind of culture is really worth having and then to make the case for it convincingly is a serious undertaking. Are you able to explain why Shakespeare is a great writer, or were you just relying on the logic that stature proves greatness, accompanied by some blather about artfulness? If so, Shakespeare being dropped from the school syllabus deals you a blow – an absurdly minor one, but one you feel nevertheless. Live by hierarchy; die by hierarchy. Those who do not really know or think about why they value the things they value – or who are perhaps aware that their only reason for doing so is blind adherence to ‘the way of things’ – have every reason to be deeply afraid of the current appetite for cultural renovation. Their cited ideals of ‘talent’, ‘stylishness’ and ‘aesthetic beauty’ are, it turns out, eye-of-the-beholder stuff whose only foundation is settled consensus. When that consensus appears to come under threat, the last recourse they have is to eulogise or don sandwich boards.

Or, I suppose, present as an unsung cultural elite. Just before dispensing her nuggets of writing advice, Joukovsky implores us to join her on her ‘high horse’, promising “The view is superb”. But the previous paragraph sees her complaining about having to read “a litany of mediocre novels by palpably anxious authors that read like they’re trying to win oppressed-identity bingo”. That doesn’t sound very appealing as a view. That sounds like something Scrooge would say.