Wednesday, 16 May 2007

George Ttoouli - Shiny Big Tower with a Light on Top

helen mort, the shape of every box (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 21pp, ISBN 978-1-904551 29-4
adam o'riordan, queen of the cotton cities, (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 19pp, ISBN 978-1-904551-33-1
abi curtis, humbug, (tall-lighthouse, 2007), 18pp, ISBN 978-1-904551-32-4

Three new pamphlets in my hand. What do I like about them? They look nice - only about thirty inner pages, but two of them have a spine (Adam's and Abi's), so they've become quite elegant, even sexy; and the white jackets on all three are even sexier: sullied quickly. The books feel naughty, like kissing behind bikesheds.

Changing topic quickly: Les Robinson of tall-lighthouse is a bit like a lighthouse himself. Very tall, with big lensular lenses in his glasses, behind which his shiny intelligent eyes blink at regular intervals. He works hard, from what I've seen and he clearly loves what he's doing and tall-lighthouse have so far always put on a damn good show when I've been to see their poets. And boy do they do a lot of shows. Shows is what it's all about - they've gone for the direct sales approach to shifting units, which means they get to spend a lot of time doing what they like. And everyone I've seen at their gigs seem to like them, especially Les Robinson, who carries the pneuma of the lighthouse with him wherever he goes.

Two of the three pamphlets are part of their pilot scheme, which aims to publish 18 new poets under 30 in the next three years. Abi Curtis and Adam O'Riordan launch the series, though Helen Mort's stapled pamphlet is testament to the support the press has shown towards young writers since forming in 2000.

pilot is a worthy project, especially when there's barely a peanut to go round for most poets under 30, especially poets outside of London. (Plenty of opportunities to hear young poets reading, but not a lot of chances for making royalties or getting paid for gigs; some might argue there aren't many opportunities for any poets, let alone young ones and my response to that is, "That's why there are so many new investment bankers," or, "This is only a blog, so don't expect any well-thought out arguments.") The scheme is a way of drawing attention to what the press are doing anyway: making poetry trendy, drawing in young, open-minded readers to the kind of poetry and events that make them want to go again.

The genius (or USP) of tall-lighthouse is that they promote some very interesting young (London-based/southern) poets very competently. Their events attract lots of other young aspirational poets, as well as established poetry editors and older poets; even a few poetry lovers, have been known to show up at their gigs. Their pilot launch poets have buzzed well (despite not getting that much press that I'm aware of - only the flyers and emails that land in my lap, or word of mouth), with at least 60 people at the event this week (Tuesday 15 May). Roddy Lumsden is editing the series, with a bit of support from the Arts Council England, though only for his own fees. Les has been adamant about tall-lighthouse being privately funded and supported by sales and they've stuck to that so far as much as possible. Again, a bit of a unique selling point: poetry that people will pay for, not poetry that's tainted by funding stipulations or similar outside inputs.

And what about the poetry? (Yes, I know, but this is a blog, not a to-the-point 300 word review which says nothing useful). The three poets are promising, each in their own way. 'Promising' makes it sound as if they sit about saying they'll do something when they've a bit more time and have grown up a bit. Which is reductive. OK.

Helen Mort: a Clare Pollard in the making, precociously brilliant by a sillily young age, she has been winning awards (e.g. the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, five times, including top 15 out of 100 three times) for poetry while most of us were still learning algebra. Many of the poems are about love, or anti-love; there are jilts and bad dates, hot intimate moments and these moments recollected as the heat radiates out of them.

Her poetry is a smooth aural experience, nice sounds to bite into at time. But there's also a sense of that watery rhetoric that lots of new poets tap into because it has an authentic ring to it and once or twice it became a little heavy-handed and self-conscious. The poetry is direct and clear, despite and it's an occasional poetry sparking from personal incidents. The connection to Clare Pollard's early work is by theme, though stylistically this is more reserved, subtle writing. And the selection is very refined: overly familiar phrasing, sound glitches and anomalies of conceit have all been milled out of the grain.

There are a few glib moments where the language tries to condense certain phenomena to pithy phrasing; sometimes it works quite well ("You're dry land seen from a ship") and sometimes it doesn't work so well (water slipping "through your fingers / like faith"). The key point here is that the poetry reaches for - within the established tradition - the best words in the best places and, quite often, grasps some very strong representations. However, the effort is a hard task: you're in competition with the majority of poets writing in the mainstream today, so it's easy for me to see Mort's voice under the wing of established voices. Given time, she may well be there alongside poets like Pollard, Elizabeth Garrett, Katherine Pierpoint, Andrew Motion...

Stylistically, my own tastes weren't fulfilled by this poetry, so I shouldn't impose with what I wanted the pamphlet to achieve. But it had m ethinking that sometimes a winning streak can tie writers to a particular mode - the mode that brought the success and attention. These successes bring affirmation and confidence, while implicitly restricting the growth of a poet's vocabulary and style. Kissing toads won't always magick princes - sometimes you need to lick a tree frog.

Abi Curtis: a dense opening to the pamphlet, but one that steadily begins to delight. There's something slightly archaic - no hieratic - about this poetry. Phrases like, "I called on orange-haired Frazer / to witness Humbug up-ending horizons" has all the epic bathos of Joyce in it, while also being something weirdly fresh in context.

There are plenty of surprises, where I found the thought processes enlivening and, particularly in 'Tantric', astonishing, in the way it leaps:

We moved across long sands
and light-heavy lakes in the direction
of an outrage.
I want dialects
moving through me, the alien shapes of lips
in running rivulets of Hindi and Sanskrit.

The language becomes increasingly brazen through the collection, loosening and taking risks. The work delighted me at times, able to capture claustrophobic and breathlessly open experiences, all with a very personal eye, looking at the self in private and social contexts. There is a lot of intimacy here, again, something that marks out a young poet, perhaps, dowsed in the Keatsian wonder of relationships (or other juices). A good read, definitely a poet that will be snapped up soon for a first full-length collection.

Adam O'Riordan: for the poet think Hugo Williams in his heyday. Cute, posh, slightly formal, witty, charming, smiles just rarely enough to seem awkward and willing, but shy. It's easy to think he's got the persona down pat, anyway. Much is made of the fact that he studied under Michael Donaghy, so rather than be cynical, I should be fair and take the personality as genuine. But damn is it going to sell books (lucky git).

His poetry is very confident, brash even. It runs at language and ideas, dragging the eye along. The layouts are sometimes playful, the language often daring, but there are underlying structures, syntactical and rhythmic, tying most pieces together, some more obvious that others, such as 'Manchester':

Your little merchants, hawking Lucifers and besoms
to set a small flame guttering in a wet-brick basement:

in the straw and wood shavings a mother's lullabies
bear their freight of love and typhus.

The sense slips away almost, with the strangely specific word, "besoms," evoking an old era of witchcraft and devil worship, like Hugh Trevor-Roper crossed with Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. It's got childhood memories of home, distorted fantasies, alienation and a huge amount of playfulness. The couplets are quite lovely though, pulling the piece together as a whole.

But there's a sense sometimes of the poet having read a definition of postmodernism and gone for it, in all its ephemeral goddarned playfulness. Lists of brands, casual references to contemporalia, the barely coded intertextuality and, most of all, the bizarre notes at the back of the pamphlet (three of them, mostly obscure, hence demanding more work from the reader than if they'd not existed). It's a fun touch, like icing and a glacé cherry that had me wary of whether there was enough substance under the decorations.

Again, this is poetry used for some familiar ends: love poetry, relationships, again with the occasional poems responding to personal events. But there's some excellent captures of landscape, some political touches, a certain moral vein running underneath all of this. The work is more diverse than the other two pamphlets, with lots more play with types of voice, styles, poetry on a range of themes. These leads to a couple of confusing moments, such as the poem about Mike Tyson as a boy, which just doesn't quite fit in for me.

But all in all, tall-lighthouse's pilot series, and all their young poets, are worth keeping an eye on. There's hardly anywhere else to go to find the next generation of young talents (not counting the Next Gen list, some of whom were in their fifties). The Gregory Awards, perhaps. But many of these establishment lists are fiercely traditional and conservative in tastes. My eye's on the Generation Txt poets, on tour now.

And check out tall-lighthouse too.

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