Thursday, 30 April 2009

Three Poems by Cliff Yates


A cow chomping grass outside the window
left open all night even the coldest. Fresh air
she said, brushing hers in the full-length mirror.
Her hair was shiny and probably still is.

As she brushed it got shinier. Where
would you rather be, she asked. I had no idea.
She assumed this was to do with happiness
but it wasn’t, I just had no idea. By that time

there were two cows, you could hear their huffing
as well as grass tearing. They seemed hungry
but not desperate. I can’t imagine a desperate cow.
Maybe that’s a failure of nerve, she said,

turning towards me, for the son
at that moment had entered the room.
He had her eyes and was towelling his hair
tall and moist from the shower.

10 Easy Pieces for Piano


Everyone watches the child walk
through security and spread out her arms.
Today she’ll fly. You can always tell an Italian.


The Cuban landlady sings: ‘when you’ve had black
there’s no going back.’
Her Slovakian cleaner has no papers.
We have an appointment, remember?


My hearing went and my head exploded I’ve never had that before.
Remember Klaus? He sent a postcard: hey British how you doing.


We missed the headlines on that day:
man with backpack on CCTV.


In Hintersee Gasthof the framed cartoon
the king, the farmer, the bishop, the worker
and top of the pyramid the man in black:
‘Der Jude - er nimmt das Geld’.


Where does the roof end and the wall start?


She said she found herself joining in
throwing flowers at Hitler. When he’d gone
she rushed into church, feeling
she’d slept with someone she shouldn’t have.


Anna went to collect her rabbit
‘that’s not my rabbit’ she said.
He held it by the ears, back legs spread-eagled
and put his hand around its balls.


This is my second favourite café in Vienna.


Fried egg on toast, tea and chocolate biscuits
and a letter from a friend...
I don’t know whether we had a good Christmas
but if I write about it I’ll find out.

Today I drew a horse, a Chinese horse
in mid-gallop. Best thing I’ve done all week.
A complete accident

like the chocolate biscuits, a bit of shading
or a line or two here and there
makes all the difference.

You go so far
then do something else, and suddenly
here’s life in it.

Cliff Yates is the author of Henry's Clock (winner of the Aldeburgh first collection prize and the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition). A new collection, Frank Freeman's Dancing School is forthcoming from Salt.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

James Wilkes: Reviews (1)

Robert Steinbeck, The Leaping Pebble: a Philosophical Novel, ed. and foreword by James Lewes, Gertrude Felix and Ray Harms (Edinburgh: Stott Books, 2002), 198pp.

Speculative biomedical ethics meets dancehall reverie in this elegant folio reprint of the hard-to-find private press original (1908). Editorial cuts by Lewes et al. are largely faithful to the author’s intent, unlike Kendal’s bowdlerising excisions of 1934 (though see Selene Camphor, ‘Kendal, Steinbeck et le problème de proprioception’ in Études baltiques 65 for an alternative view). Relocating the scene of the ambiguous sexual encounter from Behlersee (Schleswig-Holstein) to Battersea (Wandsworth) is an interesting move, though it does make the appearance of the famous black stork a bit anomalous.

For anyone with even the slightest interest in whether the neural correlates of consciousness might be understood via a bedsheet tied to broomhandles on which coloured images flurry, settle, detach like film of ashes, this is a must. Otherwise wait for the stage adaptation. If chatroom gossip is correct, this will be set in Thessaloniki circa 2030, and opens with Ludwig (Robert Redford) attempting to fence DNA stolen from a medieval saint’s fingerbone.

This review is forthcoming in City State: New London Poetry (May 20th 2009, penned in the margins). Gists & Piths will be serialising a number of James Wilkes' reviews over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Friern Barnet Honours Young Poetry Star

In an unprecedented move, planners at Friern Barnet Town Council have decided to rename a housing complex after one of Britain's greatest young poets. At the age of 26, Luke Kennard was the youngest poet to be shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize for Best First Collection. The move by the Barnet Borough district town hall coincides with Luke attaining the ripe old age of 27, to chime with his third collection, The Migraine Hotel.

A spokesperson for Friern Barnet Town Hall was unavailable for comment, but would have said, "We understand that the move may be considered controversial, as most people don't read poetry and won't have heard of Luke, but we want to encourage our residents and visitors to Friern Barnet to view the urban landscape as one big canvas, upon which they, and fellow residents and visitors, are able to create and recreate what they can actually see."

To ensure people passing Kennard Mansions don't miss the importance of the young poet's name to the area's plans for creative nurturing, Barnet Borough Council have insisted on renaming the adjoining street to match the housing estate. As of going to print, Friern Barnet Library, which is just a few streets away, hasn't yet catalogued any copies of The Migraine Hotel, but Chipping Barnet Library does have Kennard's second collection, The Harbour Beyond the Movie, in stock.

We asked a number of residents of Kennard Mansions and Kennard Road for their opinions of the name change. Here's what they said.
"Oh yes, I'm so excited I ran down to the fancy dress shop on the corner of Glenthorne and bought myself a wolf costume. It's great, but it cost me most of my month's pension." Eddie, 88, retired.

"I think it's a lovely idea. The children have never read a poem before, especially not by a poet who died so young. What do you mean he's not dead? You mean some poets are alive...? Oh, they will be disappointed." Margaret, 47, housewife.

"Get out of my dream space, or I'll set the dogs on you." Name not given, early thirties, poet.

"Well, personally I would have gone for a poet that rhymed a bit more, but I've nothing against it, I suppose." Angela, 52, marketing manager.

"This has buggered up my satnav. I'm well pissed off with the council." Gavin, 22, retail assistant.
Finally, Friern Barnet Town Council are undertaking a public survey to inform their plans to replace the nearby JG Ballard installation. Formerly situated on the plot at the end of Kennard Mansions, the installation used to feature a crashed World War Two bomber in a glass maze, surrounded by naked, headless mannikins in provocative poses.

Suggestions so far include: a pile of burning books that never turn to ash; a giant teddy bear with Tony Blair's face and bloody fangs; a sculpture of the Last Supper, featuring a selection of G20 leaders; a children's playground with no right angles or children, the bare swings frozen at acute angles; a pyramid of live grenades surrounded by 'Danger of Death' signs.

So have your say now! Put your comments in the space below, as to what you'd like to see replace the former installation.

Luke Kennard's third collection, The Migraine Hotel, is out this week as part of the Salt Modern Poets series. This is the only actual fact in this article, except for the existence of Kennard Mansions and Kennard Road, in Friern Barnet.

Mercian Lit Festival Frenzy

The Bard, maybe...

Just heard from Katy Evans-Bush that there's a reading this Wednesday in the Shakespeare Centre, as part of the Stratford Poetry Festival. There'll be four published poets, Katy among them, as well as the opportunity to read out your favourite poem, if you get there early enough to sign up. It's for Oxfam, so the £10 ticket goes to a good place.

Also on the bill later in the festival is a special double bill hosted by David Morley. (Not the Bear Hunt event for under 5s, though I wouldn't be surprised if he'd had a hand in that too.)

Thursday 14 May, 6.00pm & 7.30pm
in The Studio, The CAPITAL Centre


A unique showcase of poetry from the bright young things of the Universities of Warwick, Birmingham, East Anglia and Northampton - taught by the poets who take the platform later this evening. FREE ADMISSION.


The poet David Morley introduces three major poets: GEORGE SZIRTES, ZOE BRIGLEY, LUKE KENNARD

George Szirtes won the prestigious TS Eliot Award for Reel. His New and Collected Poems were recently published by Bloodaxe. Zoe Brigley won a Gregory Award; her first collection The Secret was a Poetry Book Society recommendation and long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize. Luke Kennard was, at 26, the youngest poet to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize with his second collection The Harbour Beyond the Movie. Tickets: £7, Students: £2. Ticket price includes a free glass of wine or juice at the interval.

The Bored, possibly...

And if lit-fests weren't already ten-a-penny, also in May is the Third Coventry International Festival of Literature. Events too numerous to list here, but in particular is Iain Sinclair's visit:

Saturday 9th May, 12:00pm, Waterstones, Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre:

Book signing by Iain Sinclair.

2:00pm, Central Library:

Poetry reading by Iain Sinclair. Sinclair has lived in (and written about) Hackney, East London, since 1969. His novels include Downriver (Winner of the James Tait Black Prize & the Encore Prize for the Year’s Best Second Novel), Radon Daughters, Landor’s Tower and, most recently, Dining on Stones (which was shortlisted for the Ondaatje prize). Non-fiction books include Lights Out for the Territory, London Orbital and Edge of the Orison. In the ’90s, Iain wrote and presented a number of films for BBC2’s Late Show and has, subsequently, co-directed with Chris Petit four documentaries for Channel 4; one of which, Asylum, won the short film prize at the Montreal Festival. He edited London, City of Disappearances, which was published in October 2006. His most recent book is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, published in February 2009. “ORBITAL will be read 50 years from now. This account of his walk around the M25 is on one level a journey into the heart of darkness, that terrain of golf courses, retail parks and industrial estates which is Blair’s Britain. It’s a fascinating snapshot of who we are, lit by Sinclair’s vivid prose, and on another level a warning that the mythological England of village greens and cycling aunts has been buried under the rush of a million radial tyres” — J. G. Ballard. FREE.

The main festival takes place from 13th-16th May, at the Belgrade Theatre, including Anthony Owen's book launch on the 14th which I'm going to pass up in favour of the G-Z-L event (and I'm going to keep referring to it as that, because it makes them sound like an off-shoot of the Wu-tang) at Warwick.

There'll be fringe events with local writers through the two weeks before that weekend, though, including an earlier event with David Dabydeen and Warwickshire's Green Man, Barry Paterson, along with two other Heaventree poets, including Anthony Owen and Martin Brown.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

JG Ballard

Just heard that JG Ballard passed away, yesterday morning.



Guardian Blogs



Rest of the Google News links

One of the greatest C20th British novelists.

Friday, 17 April 2009

One More News Item: PalFest 2

With thanks to Gloria Dawson for sending this through:

The 2nd Palestine Literary Festival launches in Jerusalem on 23rd May. The website went live on Wednesday. Founded by Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, this year the festival will be held in 5 cities and towns in Israel and Palestine, no small feat considering the difficulty of movement caused by Israeli walls and checkpoints. At a pretty dark time for the 'peace process', it's incredibly important to sustain a good cultural life for those who have suffered many years of occupation and exclusion.

Recent News...

This is almost in danger of becoming a regular feature, but here are some recent new items floating about the web...

- Coach House Books (who published Christian Bok's Eunoia) have had one of their stable shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize - Jeramy Dodds' Crabwise to the Hounds. The two audio poems by Dodds on their site are great: The Epileptic Acupuncturist and The Gift.

- David Hart's new pamphlet (Nine Arches) launches in Birmingham in a couple of weeks. It's a square book, which makes me happy anyway, but G&P's sneak preview of the long poem, with photographs, has left us with our jaws on the floor. (Well, mine anyway. Simon had to sell his lower jaw on the black market when his first collection failed to keep him supplied with lentils.) Review pending, methinks. (Of the book, not Simon's jaw, or lentils.)

- An inexplicable email arrived via my other blog, advertising a short short story competition run by the Tehran Art & Cultural Complex. The website is helps not a lot in elucidating of the problems of the competition meaning.

Sample: "This competition features in the genre of short-short stories, is a common language of all the people in regard of admiring the literature, because the story in any culture and geographic could reveal the tangible image of life, reflection, and dreams of an individual. By intellectual world in this contest, means all internal and spiritual perception of a human being, therefore for those which is conceivable, could be the subject of short-short stories in this competition. Participating in this contest or helping to the intelligence is an assistant to the literature."

Clearly fans of machine-translation tools.

- Meanwhile, Andrew Bailey sends over a wonderful little link - The Eater of Meaning. I wholeheartedly recommend using this tool to create short short stories to enter into the above competition. (Click the picture to see the chaos in action.)

- Baroness played in Birmingham last week and made the Editors extremely happy.

- And Max Cannon at Red Meat has put out a notice about the Alternative Comics Apocalypse. Here are two reasons why you should support him: bug-eyed earl and milkman dan.

- Link to Avaaz added in the sidebar.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Amazon Under Fire

This in a couple of days ago from Alex Pryce @ Poetcasting: news that Amazon have turned up the heat on 'adult'-themed books, clipping sales rankings. I'm still reading through the articles, but here's what Alex says:

"Some of you may have noticed the fuss about Amazon's removal of sales rankings from LGBT books (or those it considers LGBT themed, including feminist textbooks). If you don't, this site has a good summing up of the story so far."

This blog has a set of further links, one of which points out the first complaint about Amazon's policy came up a couple of months ago. Mark R. Probst, was on the case a few days ago, just before the twitter/facebook storm started raging. He received this response from Amazon in response to his question as to why hundreds of books had lost their sales rankings:

"In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."

Amazon are currently claiming it's a result of a 'glitch', or even a clumsy French employee (blame the French why don't you?), to which twitter users are responding with '#glitchmyass'. It's not a policy, they say, but the fact that it was pointed out on the quiet two months ago suggests not; they class many gay and lesbian books as adult, even though, according to authors like Mark Probst, the books don't have sexual content.

Alex also points out: "Cathy Ryan's first collection, 'I Dare You' from tall-lighthouse is among those to lose ranking position." You can listen to some of Cathy's poetry at Poetcasting.

"Goes the Logic" - George Ttoouli on Simon Turner on difficulty in art

Reading Simon's review of Geraldine Monk and Tim Atkins in issue 2 of Horizon, I've had this overwhelming desire to extend his ideas on 'difficulty' in art. (It will become apparent that this article is really about reader empowerment, but I am first writing out my logic-springboard.)

As Simon writes, "more often than not there is a shade of judgement in the use of the term: poetry is difficult when it refuses to give up its secrets in one sitting, when not every page is left justified, when the poem doesn’t round off neatly with a twee and epiphanic observation from the author’s own life."

I'm not entirely satisfied by this. Too often the 'avant' is dismissed by the school of quietude (to borrow Silliman's term, which makes life easier for me, but doesn't mean I'm politically allied to it, though I'd guess neither is he from recent asides - the 'Seth vs. Ron' link) in terms that mimic the easy dismissal of 'experimental writing' by the SoQ: 'difficult' is a shallow term, one that shouldn't be trusted. Why should I then trust a similarly simplistic rebuttal - even if I agree with the idea?

I think the argument warrants a full scale trebuchet behind it. Let's put it into terms that count. Here's one example of difficult: a DJ at an 'alternative' music night (yes, all attempts at definition of genre are bullshit) opens his set with 'Paint it Black' by the Rolling Stones. All present are in agreement that it's a great song; they rock out. His next track is a cover of 'Paint it Black'. So are the next 45 minutes of music. By different bands. Remixes. His own remixes. Versions cut with a dance track. Every version of the song he could find, for nearly an hour. After the fourth or fifth version, the crowd is becoming abusive. Several versions down the line, the dancefloor is clear, questions as to the DJs state of mind, mental health, need of being forcibly removed, are discussed. Two or three of the DJs friends are still laughing. After half an hour of versions, even the DJ's friends are beginning to get tired.

At some point, people might actually tune into the song and think, 'I used to like that song. Why?' At that point, the art kicks in, yes? You know, at that point, you're experiencing a real dialogue with the art. No art without participation, as the Arts Council England might point out, if it wasn't so busy counting heads.

For 'difficulty' then, I'd prefer to advance the notion of 'unexpectation'. I think most of my arguments with 'straighter' readers boil down to matters of expectation. I like poetry that surprises me, because it doesn't operate on the terms I've become accustomed to - it forces me to participate. Just as the crowd at a music night expect a DJ to play a set of tracks - some new, some classic, some that create a certain energy, others that give you time to go to the bar and refuel, and a Spice Girls track at the end of the night to clear the place and let the staff close up - similarly, people are used to reading poetry in a certain way and for a certain kind of meaning.

Take for example, this phrase of Simon's in reviewing Monk: "using the full spread of the page, á l’Olson, as a primary component in the generation of meaning". Ignoring the hilarious, though horrible, bit of frenchaise referencing, do people really expect a poem to use the full spread of the page to generate meaning? Even your 'average, diversely-attuned reader' (or ADA readers) doesn't come to a page of poetry expecting poetry to generate meaning in that way, though well done to Simon for pointing out how well Monk does it. As ADA readers, we do expect to be pushed to reinterpret our personal biases, perhaps, or to hang our preconceptions by the door.

What I'm interested in is trust and empowerment. When a reader comes to a poem, or book of poems, and says 'I want it to do this for me' and then throws the book across the room when it doesn't, the reader has failed, not the poetry. When a reader comes to a poem and says, 'this poem wants me to read it in this way' then the reader is doing well from the off. Pretty good, anyway, in my books.

From there, the reader can say, 'Yeah, I read it in this way and got something from it,' or, 'So I tried to read it on the terms it was asking, but ultimately it didn't leave anything but sand in my mouth'. That's a fair review. I'm trying to draw a distinction here between 'elevating oneself to the level of the poem' and being willing to see what a text wants from me, what kind of demands and rewards it might be offering. From there, any reader, ADA, common, dyslexic or merely a lonely, unadjectivised reader, is entirely justified in burning that book, or giving it to a local charity shop.

Again I say, I'm not arguing for 'right reading' here. Leave that to reprographics people. This is about the right for a reader to trust their instincts. In that regard, I'm certainly not arguing against someone who's read the full gamut of poetries available to them and chosen what they like. I do that a lot myself.

If you so happen to choose a 19th Century Romantic aesthetic over a 1960s Black Mountain aesthetic because you've read both and list one way, not t'other, fine by me. If you look into it and decide the SoQ's for you, or the Avants, fine! (You're an asshole if you choose wrong, but that's OK, I still like you. No, I take that back. Simon tells me I should take that back. Oh, nevermind.) You've done your work. You're (hopefully) open minded enough not to close down all other texts of a type of writing entirely. Sure, don't spend too long on the areas you know you've a history of boredom with, but don't get zealous about it: the differences in artistic experiences validate your personal tastes.

So it's the fear of the unexpected I have a problem with. Sure, too often, 'difficulty' is mistrusted because readers feel they need a PhD in The Phallic Symbolism of the Ampersand in the Poetry of Philip Larkin; or Correlations between the Rise of Reaganism, Thatcherism and the Lyric 'I' in Late Twentieth Century British Poetry; or The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse; or Using Prairie Polyculture Systems to Understand the Long Poems of Elisabeth Bletsoe, etc. (Yes, better rein that in, having too much fun - but any others, please add them to the comments.) I don't like being made to feel stupid by a text either.

If readers can be taught to accept the unexpected, to interpret intention (and suddenly the image of Will Smith in 'Men in Black' shooting an eight year old cardboard cut-out in the head for carrying a textbook on particle physics springs to mind) then they can also be empowered to say what they want about a text's qualities, no matter how average or outside they feel from a system.

My main worry is that readers are deliberately excluded by certain critics and writers on the basis of their 'lack of knowledge'. Readers are made to feel insecure, inexpert, inadequate, insufficiently skilled, when it comes to making certain judgment calls on texts. It worked for the Chicago school in defence of their absurd deregulation of the financial markets (as Naomi Klein has said elsewhere) and it's used time and again by cliques of writers to defend varying degrees of shoddiness, or simply as a lash-out response.

And it damages readers. I feel like I need to start a campaign: "Reader! Do you feel like you've been pissed on by a critic, or a writer, for being too common to get what they were writing about? Well, never fear. It's OK to think a writer is shit, if you put the effort into reading their book and still didn't get it!" But that word 'effort' is loaded. At what point is a reader justified in rejecting a writer's work?

I have my biases and I don't hide them, but I do try to mediate them. Some negative critical arguments are justified, measured. If a reader can put their back into an attack and not simply fling about clichéd appraisals (e.g. 'reads like a cryptic crossword clue', or 'doesn't have any rhyme', or 'why is it all left-justified?'), then I'm wiling to give that reader the right to their expression.

Ultimately, there needs to be room to allow for all kinds of reading and writing: lazy reading, skim reading, automatic writing, validated reading, invalidated writing and the kind of reading habit that is prepared to take a text on its own terms. All of these are subjective assessments and the reader decides when to commit their time and energy, and how, as does the writer.

Writers should take responsibility for the fact that their writing is sometimes skewiff and not blame readers. And readers should be prepared to have their criticisms levelled if they aren't willing to appraise a text to the point they can rustle up a cogent response. (It's a bit late in the day, but I guess I should distinguish between a 'recommendation' - I liked/disliked - and a 'review', which weighs up a text's strengths in some kind of context.)

Difficulty, for me, is less about the quality of a text, more about the attitude and preconceptions a reader brings to, or the relationship the reader establishes with a text. If you can't overcome that barrier between your own version of reality and the reality a poem presents to you, then you're living a pinprick away from reality. Good luck maintaining the illusion, but from where I'm standing, you're missing out.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

The Assault on Ian Tomlinson

Above is the troubling footage which will form the backbone of the Independent Police Complaints Commission's investigation into the death of Ian Tomlinson on April 1st. Here is a link to WritetoThem so that you can email your MP, urging them to raise the issue in parliament, and call for an open and fully accountable inquiry into the incident. This is vital, as not only was the information given out by police in the immediate aftermath of events highly misleading, but the IPCC's own initial planning for the inquiry suggested that they would be 'managing' an investigation headed by the City of London police force - who were heavily involved in the policing of the G20 protests. You can read more here and here. The Guardian, who first covered the story, have extensive coverage on the front page of their site.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Four Poems by Tom Yates

The Seeming

There are no gates between our minds,
your thoughts and mine are one;
the light upon each continent
shines from a single sun

Between our bodies the same space
that fills our false outlines
exists in daylight, and by night
each boundary unwinds

into a whirlpool where each being
is a syllable
leading towards and away
from the centre of the smile

that brought us life and death and time.
Beyond you there is me,
beyond me, only you. And you’re the wine
I drink to wash away my memory.

From the Balcony

Brighter than sun reflected on the river
swallowing you like parting lips of fire
what is it that will not speak or die?
Is it another layer of the lie

we wrap ourselves in against the growing day,
stranger to you and stranger too to me?
Is it a stormcloud passing through the sky,
the end of a breath, a wave upon the sea

rising and falling with the turning moon?
Is it the sigh in laughter and in wine
that leaves behind a chasm of tangled threads
and fuses sleep and waking in our heads?


Over your head, I see the black ladybird
crawling across your window to the curtain,
a full stop printed on a sky of shifting cloud.
I curl up in your armchair, looking down

from the walls of silken hangings showing
kingfishers in the rushes of a river
whose banks are crumbling. Beside the mirror
a box of candles with whose lighting

the play will begin to end;
our limbs like live wires interweaving
until we are a river for the vibrating
from which we surfaced into this island;

your breath and mine two petals rotting
back into the soil that gave us being.

The Lamp at the Door

I am your death; I’ll bring you to the edge
where you are neither yourself nor another,

where those who were your sister and your brother
are clouds in sky that come and go with wind;

where you will find that through you from the father
streams ecstasy, and in that current all beings

are born and die on laughter’s tiny wings. After you
there’ll be another with another name,

your life and hers like drops of falling wine.

Tom Yates studied English and Creative Writing at Warwick University and now lives and works in London. In 2008 he was one of three poets chosen for the Jerwood/Arvon Mentoring Scheme for Gifted and Talented Writers. He won the Poetry Society's Young Poet of the Year Award in 1998 and 1999 and has been published in magazines and anthologies including The Gift: New Writing for the NHS, Phoenix New Writing and The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Tenth Anniversary Anthology.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

"a very remarkable collection of trees"

The Editors discuss Nathan Thompson's the arboretum towards the beginning (Shearsman, 2008, £8.95)

GT: Dude,

Seeing how we haven't yet started that review and Nathan sent us that collaborative piece he did with Rupert a few weeks ago, do you think we can get the ball rolling?

How about this for kicks - cos I know you said you had a lot of ideas about word placements and so on - what do you make of the use of the word 'arboretum'? I noticed Luke Kennard also used the word in his first collection a number of times, and a quick google of "exeter arboretum" (exact phrase) came up with this: So they both studied at Exeter and they both drew inspiration from the arboretum, would be my fairly educated guess. But what the hell does it symbolise in Nathan's work? A place of safety or diversity? This from the above web link: "The Arboretum was begun by the original owner of Streatham Hall, R. Thornton West, who employed the firm of Veitches of Exeter and London to plant a very remarkable collection of trees."

I like that as a description of Nathan's book: "a very remarkable collection". 'Remarkable' in this instance meaning, for me, that it sets out its own limits in opposition to other poetries (including Luke's, which is remarkable in its own way) with great precision, calling attention to itself, or specific points within its boundaries.




ST: Hey man.

My first encounter with Nathan's collection was through a slightly hyperactive haze of caffeine and Day Nurse, but thought it was wonderful. As for the question about the arboretum, my own feeling is that it doesn't matter quite what it means in a purely semantic sense. Think of it as a free-roving signifier that means whatever it has to mean at any given moment.

What does interest me is the degree to which Nathan's work is feels like part of a wider trend in recent poetry towards what I would tentatively label the 'Harwoodesque'. There are a few poets - Michael Ayres, Peter Hughes, Ian Davidson - whose work shows the influence of Harwood's elusive style of storytelling, and Nathan's collection is very much part of this set.

(I would hope that these poets are part of an advance guard, who will usher in a new era when Harwood's work is more widely appreciated for what it is: one of the great contributions to 20th century poetry. But that might be too much to ask).

Anyway, in particular, I like the way in which various elements of a wider narrative - the arboretum amongst them - keep drifting in and out of Nathan's poems, so that the reader is left to put the pieces together. The process is strangely collaborative, if that makes any kind of sense. We are not spoon-fed a linear tale, but have to pick our way through the signs and symbols he puts in our path. Much like navigating a wood. Or, indeed, an arboretum.


GT: Okies.

I thought for a moment you were going to sidestep my question completely with a kind of 'arboretum schmarboretum', but well recovered.

The Harwood point is probably key. I haven't met a poet who didn't like his work (maybe I don't move in circles where those people go, though for circles probably you could read 'sewers'), but the more important point there is the influence he's having. There's something here of the nicest (in tone) parts of Harwood. I get the sense of Nathan building a jigsaw out of several mixed up, partial jigsaws. So yes, rather than inherently meaningful symbols, there are things presented as symbols from which the reader can draw meaning.

(If I had to concede anything positive to postmodernism as a concept, I suppose that would be it. It would be grudgingly conceded, and still won't make me want to use the term as anything but an insult to intelligent critical thought. Sorry, putting the muzzle back on that personality.)

But the nature metaphors - the wood, the arboretum - don't quite stand up for me as analogies for this collection. There's something decidedly not-urban about it, but equally something not-rustic. I guess the part that strikes me most is the cultivated sense of reality. It's as if the narrative voice is always reaching to try and impose (in the nicest possible terms, even when he's burning down every civic edifice in the town) a subjective view of reality.

Nathan's got a good handle on the idea of an unreliable narrator. It reminds me of Bill Pullman's character in 'Lost Highway' - "I like to remember things the way I want to remember them, not how they actually happened." Only there's a fair bit of beauty here, gentleness, mixed in with the darker sides. Perhaps a tone of oblivious violence, or clumsiness might be a better description, mixed in with a zippehdidoodah approach to life. The first image that ever attracted me to his work was, "scattering glass like the slow explosion of surprise fennel" from 'Lilly's Planetarium'. Like smashing a chandelier to make it even sparklier, even though there's a whole room full of people underneath it.




ST: Yo.

A point that Jonathan Bate makes in The Song of the Earth seems important here: that the form of the pastoral is predicated upon the loss of an imagined Eden. It attempts to sing the praises of nature or the countryside, even as it registers the fact that such a pre-lapsarian condition of unity with nature is always already past. Bate says this much more eloquently, but essentially Arcadia can only ever be discussed - invented, even - from the vantage point of Rome. The idea of nature poetry is a condition of 'high' or 'late' civilization, so there's no real disconnection between the highly cultured and worked nature of Nathan's poems, and the reading of them - metaphorically, at least - through the lens of ecology. But that's a little knotty and pedantic, and doesn't really help to move the discussion on.

Oddly enough, I was thinking of cinema a great deal when reading these poems. Nathan's is an intensely cinematic poetics. By that I do not mean that his work is simply visual - though it does have an impact at the level of the image - but rather that the narrative techniques of cinema (bascially, editing as a narrative tool) are applicable to Nathan's technique. He builds narrative through ellipses and jumps - just as in Eisenstein's theory of montage, disparate images, when juxtaposed, can create a new meaning, a third meaning - rather than leading the reader by the nose. David Lynch is actually quite instructive in this context.

This cinematic quality is present at the level of the smallest building blocks of the poem, too, not just within the bigger (narrative) picture, and Nathan's use of what I would call juxtapositional simile throughout is very interesting (by that, I mean the technique Pound employed in 'In a Station of the Metro': "The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough".) In traditional simile, the second image - the 'like' component - is subsidiary to the primary image, and as such is alive only insofar as it is yoked to a dominant 'real' image. In juxtapositional similes, both images share the same degree of weight and significance, and by drawing them together without the glue of 'like', the meaning of both is amplified, without either image being rendered secondary to the other.

Here's a favourite of mine, from 'service': "winter steaming off the corrugated roof singing and rattling a kettle on a ringed hob". There are clearly two distinct events taking place here: it is raining (likely heavily), and someone is making a cup of tea. But the reader, given the absence of 'like', is free to read the images as connected, or as discrete. We are not, importantly, hidebound by the 'like'. The absence of 'like' frees the images and, paradoxically, makes them more real and concrete. Indeed, that feels like one of the great strengths of the collection: the degree to which the real, the objects of the everyday, are brought to the fore, even as they are dislocated and rendered dream-like by Nathan's structural jiggery pokery.

Sorry, that was a little long-winded. Over to you. By the way, why don't you sign off your emails Yours, Ttoouli? If I were you, I would.


GT: Well, why don't you sign your emails off at all? The temptation for me to put in 'Up Yours, / Ttoouli' would be too great, whoever I was emailing. Even my own mother.

Your point about juxtaposed simile is really important and it won't be unnecessary repetition for me to go through it again in detail. It's a basic building block here which I hadn't yet framed clearly. I've seen that kind of shaping and spacing used in different ways - to capture a sense of whispering (David Morley's Mandelstam Variations), or of waves (Carol Watt's Wrack), but here there's something more quantum about it, forcing the reader to fold two units of sense together, as if they've been spliced to be read simultaneously.

Interesting we were looking at Brian Joseph Davis the other day. Some of that folding springs to mind, particularly the Greatest Hits stuff, where he crams an entire album of songs into one track. Nathan's work is less violent, less about cacophony than, as you say elision and cinematic montage. I'm particularly taken by how this creates multiple meanings, in, say, 'laws of attraction': "sweetening the philistine edges / of your dimly lit ornamental music // I expect the frogs will be at it for some time / winking like ellipses in brilliant prose". There's the immediate juxtaposition of an evening scene, waterway, mating frogs, and the internal scene, the intimate artistic experience.

That leads me to a point about prose techniques deployed here. The middle section especially takes on characterisations - the female love interests, the love rival - the vasectomist - and the arsonist. The way these things recur are like plot threads. Things like the stolen harmonica, aforementioned, show up repeatedly. It's as if the poetry is appealing to the prose reader in me, who attaches sympathies to objects and characters, and desires to know the outcomes to their predicament.

That seems to be the effect of the whole book. It builds sympathy for the narrator's subjective passion for the world, but maintains a kind of delicate longing, aims towards resolution - 'will Petrarch get his Laura?' kind of thing, in lines like, "she is elusive as tinnitus" ('purloining a fritillary') or with the general presence of the arsonist and the vasectomist - destructive or negative voices that have to be overcome in order to reach the love song at the end. Although that in itself implies a strange failure, or reversal: "this will be / the last winter before the graves open / for the Queen of Hearts"; and the last lines, "goodnight my love / I meant it all" seems to ram home the point.

Keats is checked early on in the collection and a helpful signpost, a poet who almost never allowed his subjects to attain their fantasies. Here the fantasy seems attained and then let go of, as if the whole collection has been building a narrative tension, only to turn its back on a resolution: "it's time to click my heels / and go to Kansas". It's like a mild send up of the happy ending, the 'no place like home' of Hollywood. For all the subjectivity, the various plots, played sympathies, defamiliarised representations of reality - i.e. all the brilliant technical displays - there's a flesh and blood heart pumping this stuff along, a genuine sentiment.

Right, will stop there. Back to the grind.

In comradeship,



ST: I don't sign off my emails because whenever I use my name, Satan gets a little bit more of my soul. It's in the contract I signed, which is why I is as clevva as I is, and stuff.

There's not much I can really add to your last round of comments - they got to the heart of the matter succinctly and eloquently - but I would add that in many regards, Nathan's focus upon the processes of subjectivity (I noticed this most of all in a poem entitled 'projection digressions', which is kind of an internalised account of a train ride along the coast) places him much more within the sphere of classical modernism rather than that of its upstart offspring postmodernism. Your comment concerning the genuine sentiment underlying Nathan's work ties in with this: underlying the poems, too, is the assumption that the self is a given - fractured, certainly, and often at war with itself, unsure of its motives, but definitely there, in some form or another throughout.

If I could add anything, it would relate to the matter of humour, which neither of us have hit upon as yet, and which I would see as vital to the essential humanity of Nathan's writing. It's a hazy, woozy, absurdist kind of humour, more akin to Guy Maddin or Jacques Tati, but it is humour nevertheless. Most overt in this regard is 'casting calls are almost complete', which runs in its entirety:

the black cat in the arboretum is to be played by a black cat

because out of all the applicants she was by far the most beautiful
There's a wonderfully deadpan tone to this that I love, and it recurs at other moments too ("you know it's been good when / 'all night' is closed"). There is, of course, a natural affinity between poetry and comedy: both rely upon the subversion of expectations; both often relish the joy and excitement of language for it's own sake; both rely upon leaps of logic - comedy with the unexpected punchline, poetry with metaphor and simile - that rope together disparate realities to create a new unity: the gag, or the image. Both are, most importantly of all, essentially impervious to analysis: however much you pick apart lines like "He may have ocean madness, but that's no excuse for ocean rudeness" (Futurama) or "The spruces rough in the distant glitter / / Of the January sun" (Wallace Stevens, 'The Snow Man'), they'll never fully give up their secrets. They simply are. That's why we keep on reading, I guess, however jaded we get, because there's always something to surprise us. Nathan's work certainly fits the bill.

Right, shall we try and trim this into a cogent review?


GT: Nah, sod it. I'll just lop off the subject headers, chop it together and bung it up.

You can order the arboretum towards the beginning from Shearsman Books. You can read some of Nathan's work at Gists & Piths.