Why is my website called ‘Various Toys, Some Transforming’? Or, to put it another way, why do I find it fitting to think of poems and books – certainly those poems and books that I’ve been involved in making, but others too – as toys?
It’s not because I don’t take them seriously. Very much the opposite: I find it hard not to think of writing as wielding a kind of volatile power, with all the attendant responsibilities. What and how I write are linked very closely, therefore, with my ideas about doing good in a general way.
Paper Light Trap is an in-progress project – 1:1 scale calligrams of moths written in monosyllables, and envisioned as spy messages. I also use them as business cards.
Erratum, also in-progress, embeds poetry in a simple top-down puzzle game.
I’ve found I’m drawn toward hybridity (things that are not quite one thing or the other), sequencing (interconnected sets of things), and collaboration (things that emerge in conversation with others). And what is common, I think, in these three inclinations is a rejection of certain conventional dynamics: author as authority, book as totem of authority, book as closed universe, genre as self-governing country.
What I have in mind instead is distributed authority, enmeshment, and exchange. To conceive of a literary work as a toy is to conceive of it first and foremost as a site of reader activity and autonomy – something which is made for the reader to test and turn over, collect and calibrate, modify and personalise. This is a mode of interaction which is conducive, I think, to collective self-knowledge and self-realisation.
I am, conversely, suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that casts writing as moral instruction, demonstrative performance or intoxicant. These all seem to envisage a dynamic of leader and follower, where the author wields a sorcerous influence over the reader. I hope we can agree that the elevation of writers into godlings and mystics is not something that does society (or the individual writer) much good. Better to think of writing as a tangledness, the unpicking of which is a means of growing and becoming.
The Birdbook quartet (2010—2015) collects poems and illustrations from dozens of different writers and artists, – one of each for every British species across the series. The covers are paper-cuts by Lois Cordelia, depicting Dr Fulminare, a character who features across many of the books I’ve been involved in making.
The Headbooks series (2017—2018), also the work of numerous contributing artists, combines factual information with concrete poetry, remixed public domain images and ‘do-it-yourself’ pages for the reader to fill in. I also designed and illustrated the covers for this series.
For that reason, I aim to fade into the background of my own writing, to hand over control to characters and fugitive voices. I aim also to connect these characters and voices up in irregular ways, and to foreground their relationship to (and roots in) writing that isn’t my own. And I aim for a formal instability, or awkwardness, or stitched-together-liness that has echoes of the spell gone wrong.
Poetry has become my primary medium because poetry is an art of combination. Rather than events taking place one after another as they tend to in fiction, dragging the reader along like a hooked fish, there is a multidirectional array. And the combinatorial logic of poetry is easily extended: you start by combining words, then lines and stanzas, then your own poems, or your poems with other people’s, then books with other books, and so on. You nurture a system. And while a system grips less tightly than a story, it also leaves more room for others to play.
The ‘Fakes’ section of School of Forgery, headed up by my collaged interpretation of Joe the Condor, concerns itself with counterfeits and approximations.
My loyalty, I suppose, is to the outskirter and the imposter, the overlooked person looking in on the party and the kidnap victim looking out. All who are squeezed. To think of writing as toymaking is to think of it as supplying such persons with secret tools. A toy can appear inoffensive and of no practical use, but contain a key or other subtle device. It can be an object of talismanic or oracular power. And it can be a scale model of a much more advanced machine.
read next: Ludokinetic Literature
For Roulade #2, a one-night-only live walk-through magazine, I recruited three other poets to create a tableau of a city under siege from Japanese kaiju. The kaiju were giant calligrams, or concrete poems. Read ‘Mothra’ here. I also mixed various sound samples from films together to create a sonic backdrop to the exhibition, which you can listen to here.
Warning Notice in the Key of B Minor
Poem commissioned by the Southbank Centre as part of The Breathing of the Bellows, a project celebrating the refurbishment of the Centre's 7,866-pipe organ. If you are registered with the BBC website, you can listen to the poem being performed here.
Staring Into Space
december 2010 — february 2011
A sequence of poems and images recording daydreams, accompanied by a book for visitors to use to describe their own daydreams, for About a Minute, the inaugural exhibition at The Gopher Hole in Shoreditch. The pieces were later developed into the sequence Death Daydream Season.
I could kiss, say,
site by jon