Saturday 30 April 2011

Simon Turner - Marginal Notes (4)

I love Paul Nash's paintings, and love Bomber in the Corn most of all.  Aside from its brilliant composition - a blood-red sun sitting in a corona of white like the yolk of an egg; the smashed hull of German bomber mirroring the neat lines of what might be trees or rocky outcrops on the horizon line; abstract shapes to the left of the sun-haze, which might be birds or retreating planes - I love the sense in the painting of a whole tradition of English landscape painting coming crashing down to earth, its ruins as tangible and absolute as the razor-edged corpse of the bomber itself.  The painting, coming twenty two years after the First World War in the midst of the Second, feels like a metonymic concentration of the fate of Georgian poetry in the trenches: the continuation of pastoral Romanticism confronting the horror of mechanised warfare.  Confronting and, of course, surviving.


Don McCullin's late landscape photos are drenched in, haunted by, his earlier studies of war.  The viewer can not help but read these deserted wintry landscapes - empty woods hazed with mist with a river running (stumbling, really) through them, and wild squalls of ivy clambering every tree - with an eye that's irrevocably muddied and mutilated by what's gone before.  Like McCullin somehow is trying to show us, the uninitiated, what it's like to see these things, and to be haunted by them, with no end in sight.      


When it was first exhibited in 1918, CRW Nevinson' Paths of Glory attracted opprobrium for its unflinching depiction of dead Tommies.  Asked to take it down, he refused, and enacted an angry compromise: brown paper pasted over the image with 'CENSORED' scrawled across it.  Censorship is, of course, self-defeating: what lies behind the brown-paper covering is never as horrific as what the viewer expects - indeed, hopes -to find.   

There are quite literally no words to describe this...

Another New Addition to the Links Sidebar

Well, this is exciting: a web journal of new left-field poetry called Ekleksographia, connected to the equally exiting Ahadada Books.  A recent issue is devoted to all things post-Oulipo (edited by Philip Terry), so they immediately won over my obsessive-compulsive heart.  All hail Ekleksographia!

Friday 29 April 2011

Dream Language Strikes Again

(with thanks to Rochelle Sibley)

Simon Turner - On Bomber County

Paul Nash, Bomber in the Corn (1940)

Some time last year, I wrote an article for Horizon Review which - though ostensibly a review of some new poetry collections - tried to make the case, however clumsily and repetitiously, for two recent books (Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist and Andrei Codrescu's The Poetry Lesson) as exemplary of the kind of hybrid lit. that David Shields was himself arguing in favour of in Reality Hunger.  I was, perhaps, unfairly perfunctory in my readings of the books actually under review, and my spaniel-like enthusiasm no doubt hampered the development of a cogent, and indeed recognisable, argument.  But I stand by my judgements of Baker and Codrescu, and by the broader suggestion that hybrid lit. was the wave of the future, and that non- or quasi-fiction was a far more vital force in literature than either thorough-bred fiction or poetry.  If a poetry blogger can't make ridiculous and vatic assertions without any kind of substantiating evidence to support them, then who can?

The reason I bring this up now - aside, of course, as a self-congratulatory salve for my bruised and delicate ego - is because, on the back of reading some recent studies of war poetry for another (forthcoming) review on this very site (you lucky, lucky bastards), I realised that I'd neglected to mention in the Horizon article a very interesting, albeit flawed, slice of hybrid gold which really deserved to be included: Daniel Swift's Bomber County: interesting for a number of reasons, flawed primarily for one.  Swift's book is, put simply, an investigation into the literature of aerial bombardment during World War Two, taking in the civilian literature of the Blitz (Virginia Woolf, Louis MacNeice and Dylan Thomas all get a mention, as do others) and, perhaps more radically, because it's less well-known, the poetry of the conflict as seen from the air, focusing upon established poets (Randall Jarrell amongst them), along with amateur unknowns plucked from the archives.  Add into the mix a dollop of military history and a personal journey on the part of the author, aiming to discover what happened to his grandfather during his final bombing raid, and what results is a fascinating, erudite, but frustratingly incomplete work.

Why frustratingly incomplete?  Because in the process of building his argument, Swift repeats the old adage that WW2 produced no poetry (or at least no poetry to match up to the work of Sassoon, Owen, Graves and company).  This is, of course, dramatic license on Swift's part, as he then proceeds to discuss a number of very good poets (Jarrell included) who emerged from the war, and who undermine any easy generalisations about that conflict's supposed literary lack.  But there are still a number of shocking absences from Swift's survey, not least of which is Keith Douglas.  Douglas' stock, since his death in France in 1944, has been steadily rising, thanks to the championing of his work by Ted Hughes, the dedicated editorial and biographical efforts of Desmond Graham, and, more recently, some exemplary critical study of his poetry by Tim Kendall, who devotes two chapters to Douglas in his Modern English War Poetry (2006), a vital book for anyone with even a passing interest in war poetry (you can read a PDF of the chapter relating to Hughes and Douglas here).  Which, in short, is to say that Douglas is hardly a marginal figure, so his absence from Bomber County (at the very least he could have made a parenthetical appearance) is puzzling.  Of course, no work of literature can be exhaustively encyclopedic, but in making his case for the literature of bombing, Swift somewhat overplays his hand.  Had Douglas (and less celebrated names like Alun Lewis, Henry Reed, Sidney Keyes and Vernon Scannell) been allowed entry into Bomber County's critical purview, then, paradoxically, Swift's key thesis - that the literature of aerial bombardment represents the most authentic and vital imaginative response to the conflict - would be bolstered, providing the author with the opportunity to compare and contrast between disparate accounts of what was, let's remember, an unprecedentedly varied war, both geographically and experientially.  

Of course, I don't want my (comparatively minor) gripes to dissuade you from reading what is an excellent work of literary criticism on all other fronts, as well as being a more than necessary addition to the canon of critical studies of war literature.  Just remember to keep a copy of Douglas' Complete Poems or Alamein to Zem Zem to hand as reminders of just which pieces of the jigsaw are missing.

Thursday 28 April 2011

A New Addition to the Links Sidebar

The Millions, which I stumbled across via a link on the 3AM blog, looks to be a very interesting litzine. So far I've only read this very interesting assesment of the critical momentum that's racked up around Tom McCarthy in the wake of Zadie Smith's rather over-enthusiastic assertion, in an influential essay in 2008, that he represented the future of the novel.  If this piece is anything to go by, then The Millions should be well worth checking out: a shame I didn't know of its existence sooner.       

Simon Turner - Scott Pilgrim vs Readerly Conservatism

So, my recent activities - watching movies, reading books, drinking too much coffee and staying up late thinking about all the movies I've watched, books I've read and coffe I've drunk - have led me to the following ill-considered thoughts.  Bear with me, minions, there is method to my madness. 

It occurs to me that as a species, people are more capable of accepting visual and aural extremism than we are capable of stomaching their literary equivalent.  Take the internet (yes, I know it's an intangible concatenation of information, and so therefore can't be 'taken' anywhere: I meant 'take' in its figurative, idiomatic sense, dur): it is, to all intents and purposes, an immense - even infinite - interactive modernist collage of words, music, film, competing discourses and languages meeting and clashing and intersecting minute by minute, second by second, continually evolving into new forms and modes . . . and we're fine with this.  We use it on a daily basis without our heads exploding, and so far the world hasn't come to an end.  Which I think is quite an exciting fact.  Yet we still think Ulysses is difficult, and complain of the breadth of reference in the Cantos.  And if you thought Gertrude Stein or Kurt Schwitters pushed language into new and startling dimensions of quasi-meaning, then you've never tried reading the comments thread on any political story on any newspaper's website, let alone checked your spam folder lately.

Mainstream cinema, too, is crammed with visual and narrative ideas that would send many otherwise sensible people screaming for the Carpathian hills if they stumbled across comparable tehniques in the printed medium.  The sheer density of narrative and editorial technique in Christopher Nolan's Inception, for example, is truly dizzying, even upon subsequent viewings: we're given worlds within worlds, dreams within dreams, a brilliant extrapolation in visual terms of the literary device of the unreliable narrator (which fact makes Inception something of an unofficial sequel to Nolan's own Memento), and, to cap it all, the whole movie operates as a self-deconstructing allegory for the processes of film-making.  That it manages to be riduculously involving and exciting as well, leaving most of the Hollywood competition in the dust, is just icing on an exceptionally well-made, multi-tiered cake.       

Which brings me on to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright's movie adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's much-admired indie comic book (hence the photo up there at the top of the post, and my oh-so-clever title).  Scott Pilgrim isn't quite in the same league as Inception, but then it's a smaller scale movie with an indie heart, and is trying to achieve something very different.  What both Nolan and Wright share, though, is a sense of the narrative possiblities of film, and both have an almost instinctive sense of how to go about achieving this.  Nolan's method - and I think we can call it a method, as he's an established film-maker now - is to inject seemingly low-brow material (superhero adaptations, sci-fi blockbusters, noir thrillers) with a degree of seriousness not normally associated with the genres in question, so that The Dark Knight ends up resembling The French Connection or Heat far more than its Joel Schumacher-helmed predecessors; whilst Inception is what The Bourne Identity would have looked like if, instead of beng a taut political thriller, the movie had consisted of Matt Damon in an unfurnished room reading French philosophy, whilst a tiny ant-mounted camera zoomed in through his ear and began to scan the strange beguiling landscape of his mind.  

Wright, meanwhile, and this relates to my post earlier in the week, energises the language of cinema by injecting it with narrative devices from other media.  The comic-book elements in the film (sounds appearing as words; the screen being broken up into frames; swooshes and lines to represent movement) are understandable, given that it's an adaptation of a comic, though these provide a dynamic visual energy which is extremely arresting.  What's more noteworthy, though, is that Scott Pilgrim's narrative impetus is provided by videogames to an unprecedented extent.  Videogames have, until recently, been viewed - wrongly, in my opinion - as the unruly cousin of other screen-based media, best not mentioned in polite company by the more serious narrative forms of tv and cinema.  Execrable adaptations of beloved games - Bob Hoskins in Super Mario Bros. springs to mind - haven't helped, and nor has the sometimes (but not always) rushed and perfunctory quality of movie tie-in games.  But I think the tide is turning, and Scott Pilgrim is evidence of this: an intelligent, narratively forward-looking movie that employs videogames, not parodically, but simply as another tool in the film-maker's kitbag.  Wright's use of the visual and story-telling language of videogames in Scott Pilgrim feels like a big deal precisely because he doesn't make a big deal of it.  Does that make sense?   It does to me, though that's rarely an accurate guide.        

So where does that leave poetry?  Really, if I'm being honest with myself, in exaclty the same place it was before I began this post.  It would be churlsih, of course, to suggest that poetry and literature more generally ought to follow in the footsteps of cinema to re-energise its forms and techniques, but one can take examples from other media without slavishly aping their methods.  I'd like to read something that excites me in the same way as the best of cinema can, and often does, without coming freighted with the seriousness and academicism that weighs down a lot (but not all: and it's just an opinion, mind) of experimental and linguistically-innovative work that I've read.  Maybe I'm lapsing into a second adolesence, but it would really Kick-Ass (sorry) if a poet or novelist would do something that got to me to the same extent as Wright and Nolan's work.  The other alternative - and this is only conjecture, a kind of modest proposal if you will - is that the written word is really on its way out, we're just whistling in the dark.   The future is cinema, videogames and comic books, and we're only just learning to swim with the tide. 

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Some dream advice from Allen Ginsberg

"Your poems / must contain / at least / three words / of inexplicable / origin or / they won't / be poems / at all"

[Addendum: Some ambiguity has arisen as to this post, so a little clarification is required: the above is not a quote from the published works of Mr G, but something the 'poet' 'told me' in a recent dream, along with some other stuff which I can't remember.  The phrase seemed to have a resonance beyond the usual silliness that dream language throws up, offering a kind of micro-manifesto for compositional methodology.  It doesn't feel like an apologia for Surrealism or automatic writing, but simply reiterates the Romantic ideal that some component - some, not all - of the poem should arise from somewhere beyond ourselves.  Homer called it the Muse, Jack Spicer thought in terms of radio dictation, but it's all the same pre-linguistic music in the end.  I also liked the fact that the advice could also be seen as an inexplicable poem in its own right, too.  Hope that clears things up.  For those who are interested, Allen Ginsberg is the only the second ever literary figure to appear in my dreams, the first being James Joyce.  Public figures do crop up quite a lot, but they're usually from fields other than my own.  Here's a quick rundown of the most memorable:

Many of the Pythons: Michael Palin, John Cleese (playing Moses), and Eric Idle;
George W. Bush;
Bill Oddie;
Julian Barratt;
Pixies (the band, not the folkloric creature of woodland glades);
Metallica (that's another band, youngsters: they did an album once called Load that lived up to its name); 
Batman (he's popped up quite a few times);
Spiderman (ditto);
Christian Bale;
Bart Simpson;
Vincent Price;
Henry Rollins.

There: a pretty good indication of my mental map.  Welcome to my nightmare!  S.T.]


Tuesday 26 April 2011

Simon Turner - Form and Novelty and Ghostwatch: Some Thoughts

Earlier on this evening I was speaking to my illustrious co-editor, and for those who care (not many of you, I'll wager) much of the conversation - the parts I can repeat here, anyway - revolved around questions of narrative tropes, their impact in the socio-political sphere (media representations, the restrictions of totalistic ideology on dialogue and thought-processes, the usual spiel), and the means available to the individual to escape them: basically, we were riffing on what George had posted earlier in the week, because our lives are that self-absorbed.  Then, obviously, we got on to Thor

George promises me that he'll post in depth about Kenneth Branagh's interpretation of the Marvel superhero, which he claims is something of a masterpiece of the genre, at a later date.  I'm pleased, as I've not seen the film yet, so any comments I might have would be entirely speculative and apocryphal in character, so I won't try.  But George's enthusiasm for the movie - bear with me, this is leading places - got me thinking about the question of narrative and form in purely artistic terms, and how forms tend to revivify themselves through the incorporation of alternative modes and techniques.  Indeed, in its early stages of existence, any form (the novel, say, or cinema itself) might neccesarily have to leech its ideas, at least to a certain extent, from pre-existing forms, just to get the ball rolling.  Early novels, for example, took journalism and autobiography as their starting points (see Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year and Robinson Crusoe, which both use the trappings of existing non-fiction forms to tell their wholly fictional narratives, not because Defoe was a post-modernist before the fact, but because the novel, being so young, didn't have any conventions yet, so ready-made conventions needed to be imported for the stories to be told).  A little later, letters became a staple mode for the novel to adopt (hence Richardson's Pamela, and the creation of the epistolary novel, a long-running subspecies of fiction that shows little sign of abating). 

The advent of modernism(s) in the 20th century, meanwhile, saw an explosion of possiblities in all of the arts, and one of the consequences was that the novel became increasingly omniverous in its approach to borrowing forms: Nabokov's Pale Fire takes the shape of a scholarly exegesis of a long poem (also included); Mark Dunn's Ibid, meanwhile, is composed entirely of (fictional) footnotes to a destroyed (and equally fictional) manuscript; whilst Leanne Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, ingeniously tells its story of a relationship falling apart through the photographic form of an auctioneer's catalogue.  It's a truism to say that poetry refreshes itself through translation, but form can stagnate as well as language, and can just as easily be translated across boundaries into new contexts and continuities.

The run of movies, stretching back to The Blair Witch Project - and beyond - that use the visual language of 'found footage' to tell their stories is a good example of this process.  There's nothing more tired than a haunted-house horror (Paranormal Activity), or the monster-on-the-loose-in-New-York schtick (Cloverfield), but both cliches are energised by being recontextualised through the imported, realtively new forms of, respectively, handheld camera footage and closed circuit television.  (The use of cinema verite techniques such as these adds another frisson to proceedings, as such methods draw attention to the act of looking and recording, making these movies self-reflective texts by default.)         

I say 'relatively new', because a lot of this kind of thing had been done before - and to much more devastating effect - by the BBC in 1992.  Ghostwatch - available in its entirety on Google videos, for anyone who wasn't traumatised by the original broadcast - remains the most controversial moment in the corporation's history, and goes down as the only program on record to cause PTSD in some members of its audience.  Ghostwatch, shown as part of the Screen One series of films on Halloween Night in 1992, took the (fictional) form of a live boradcast purporting to investigate 'the most haunted house in Britain' (in Northolt, but it had to be somewhere).  In the studio, Michael Parkinson, a living legend and an entire nation's favourite Yorkshire uncle, acted as master of ceremonies, whilst the show's field reporters were Sarah Greene (of Going Live! and the subject of a million schoolboy crushes) and Craig Charles (of Red Dwarf and, hopefully, NOT the subject of a million schoolboy crushes), on location at the house in question

Ghostwatch is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least which, in the light of George's postings about anti-narrative, is its wilfully counter-intuitive approach to storytelling.  By neccesity, the pretence of a live broadcast needs to be maintained, so nothing really happens for the first 45 mintues or so.  Indeed, some very smart games relating to narrative truth and reliability are played midway through, and a number of curveballs are thrown at the audience in quick succession, which makes the final act of the piece all the more troubling.  Aside from the often disturbing content of the narrative itself, Ghostwatch is troubling precisely because of its refusal to draw a clear boundary between fiction and fact: it's not a question of its being a 'hoax' - it was clearly billed and trailed as a drama; I was 12 and knew it wasn't true, but was frightened nonetheless - more the fact that it draws attention to the narrative tropes of 'factual' television years before Big Brother blurred comparable boundaries in a 'factual' setting.  One comes away from Ghostwatch a more sceptical human being, distrusting everything the tv tells you is true.  For that reason alone, it's a radical treasure.  In essence, Ghostwatch did for tv what Hayden White did for historical study: shatter its conventions and reconstruct them anew.

Eyepopping hyperbole: the blogger's best friend.  That's all for now folks.  I've some longer - and, hopefully, more intellecually rounded - posts in the pipeline.  To anyone who's interested, feel free to use the comments to point the Editors towards any other texts - film, fiction, poetry - that revivify their chosen medium through the importation of new or antithetical elements.  Let's build a hydrid canon...

Problems of the Real

George Ttoouli rambles out loud to break the deadlock howling through these electronic halls.

Recent conversations with students about the purpose of stories have been interesting. I co-teach a class on narrative and anti-narrative with the inestimable auto-didact Peter Blegvad. Over the past few years I've been trying (and failing, according to some of the students) to construct a cogent understanding of anti-narrative.

Not, as the name implies, the opposite of narrative, but an extension of. The territory brought me into investigating conventions and traditions in opposition to experimentation and concoction. The idea of where experimentation lies, however, is problematic.

Perec's La Disparation, for example: a radical process of language generation, yet with arguably conventional results. Or by contrast, the idea of using bullet point lists, diagrams, or similar, to interrupt traditional flows of pure narrative. The technique appears in Bridget Jones' Diary, in Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.

(Neither technique, I should add, are 'original' - whatever that means. Perec was building on Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby, while list forms and diagrams within text are more prevalent. At some point, arguably, both techniques were original in the context of the novel, but the waters of experimentation vs. tradition are muddied by the adoption of the best techniques by later practitioners, effectively conventionalising them. That leads to the thought that 'experimental' is a temporal, or relative tag. Foucault's Pendulum was the first novel I recall using diagrams in a way that delighted me, spoke to the feeling of surprise I crave as a reader. Yet no doubt I'd seen it before in Tolkien or elsewhere. Similarly, Jonathan Safran Foer's latest, Tree of Codes, is experimental in its production values, but sits on the shoulders of Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, or any other number of more recent poetic excavations.)

The point where I make the students panic is when I ask them what they think stories are for. Ideas of entertainment, communicating the self, understanding problems of the self, or in the world, expressing ideas, politics and so on. My favourite responses, the one that would have been truest to my feeling around that age, is that stories are pointless. All art, to some extent, felt a pointless act at the time of becoming politically aware, feeling the world had far more important things and that I needed to make a difference, or accept that I could never make a difference.

(Perhaps that side of the journey is entirely my own.)

In any case, back in the day when I used to agree with the pointlessness of the mimetic arts, I reasoned to myself, I argued to myself, that they could only represent things, ideas; they didn't enact. Naively, or necessarily, I wanted my words to set things on fire - people, minds, hearts, sure, but I couldn't escape the feeling that I wanted to actually set fire to things also: dismantle systems, collapse governments, oppressors, free people, destroy prisons literal and metaphorical. (This suddenly brings to mind a brief nickname I had as a teenager: 'The Arsonist'. Not for any concrete reasons, but let's just say I was comfortable with fire.)

Now for one of my trademark tangents. If you're feeling ropey, go grab a cup of tea, play some solitaire, come back to this later and maybe pretend this is a new article, starting from these handily positioned asterisks:


Something I've encountered recently, Lierre Keith's book, The Vegetarian Myth. I began reading an interview with her for In the Wake, on her website.

It's a fascinating interview and worth reading in full - especially to see if I've taken these out of context - but here are some statements to take in:

"I think it's crucial to understand what differentiates liberalism from radicalism ... One cardinal difference is idealism vs materialism. Liberalism is idealist ... liberalism is individualist.


radicalism is materialist ... The basic social unit is a class or group


Liberals essentially think that oppression is a mistake, a misunderstanding, and changing people's minds is the way to change the world. That's where you get this tremendous emphasis on education as a political strategy


even if we're personally not on the front lines, there are many other ways to use our talents and skills to support the people who are willing and able to do what's necessary. Somebody needs to do the political outreach and proselytizing. Somebody always needs to do the dishes.


what I'm urging here is for all of us who share a basic analysis of the problem to accept the necessity of militant action. We don't all have to do it. But it's a crucial component of whatever chance we have to stop the horror and destruction."

(The point I've taken the furthest out of context is the 'dishes' bit, which has a fairly stated moderation in the following sentences.)

I found myself trying to come to terms with my position as a writer and educator. What was I achieving? In light of these ideas, I felt, initially, that Keith felt I was doing nothing more than 'washing dishes'; the students that bought into my ideas were essentially several steps along the way to my values already (and I share many of Keith's ideas, if not her conclusions). They simply wanted more information. And for every one of these students, there's at least one that doesn't feel passionate about the ideas, and one that disagrees.

Going further, for the converted education is simply a means to find out where one is able to act. A university is a source for this, but I pick my ideas up from self-led reading and word of mouth, like everyone else. It's a contrived network for faster learning, sure, but it's not the only pathway.

But I enjoy it, and I do alright with it, and the environment is good for me. The students haven't lynched me yet. Should I start washing actual dishes for an anarchist group? Or can I get away with polishing their shoes and ironing the creases in their trousers?

Another stage of digression: maybe it's time to pee that cup of tea and come back. This time tildas to separate:


Last term I taught a session on the UK student protests. I still have a tremendous amount of guilt for an honest statement I made in response to a video of mounted police charging teenagers in central London, which, loosely speaking, made me hate the police and want to respond with violence. I immediately told the students that I found that reaction in myself hateful, wrong, completely the wrong response.

I am not violent, I don't support violence. Yet I support the desire to act, where debate and discussion leads nowhere. A society that leads people to violent protest is failing to communicate properly with the disaffected or struggling. Ultimately, it's desperation and ignorance that leads to violence, or to paraphrase Hari Seldon, from Asimov's Foundation series, it's the first response of the ignorant, the last resort of the incompetent. Imagination, expression, creativity, these lead to solutions that are non-violent. So I believe.

With the help of a late night discussion with a friend, that's the conclusion I came to: I'm an educator, no, an educationalist. That's what I do, I express, communicate, try to change people, because that's what I'm (or like to think I am) good at. Imagination training, equipping people with the means to enact change through positive, creative action.

So, the melting pot of these ideas takes me back to experimentation and the idea of the purpose of writing. Ultimately, yes, you could say that all writing is mimetic, representational. So is all language. Why communicate, why express? Why not lock your mouth shut, or, to be fair to the wide array of means of communication, do nothing at all - no miming, no movement, no facial expressions, no communication in any mode at all? They all represent something, are interpreted to do so by others. Even inaction. We're writing the story of our feelings our needs our dreams, on the world all the time, through living. Even in death we communicate ideas.

The purpose of story-telling is up to the individual, but I came around (through a long, tangential path, if you've stuck with the flow of this article) to the notion that, even if story is meaningless, purposeless, the act is enjoyable to me, something that rewards me through its practice. From that building block, what are the possibilities?

And to experiment in language, to try to break boundaries, surprise expectations, is to take action against established orders. The counter - to simply reinforce tradition, to fit into established modes of marketability, genre, technique, publication format, rules of language, grammar, presentation, writing environments, tools, and so on - all these things are merely toeing the line. Why reinforce the status quo, if the status quo is so execrable?

Or worse. Hopefully, after all the digression, this conclusion will sound like I've earned it:

Situated within the context of Keith's ideas of domination, the exercise of power against the powerless, to reinforce the status quo when one is the weaker of the parties involved (publishers, retailers, market forces, biased reviewing, the attack on intelligence, creativity and the humanities, as well as freedom of expression by the British Government) is not simply to ignore the struggle, but to support it.

To write to convention is to kneel before the captors, the dominant voices that regulate social progress for their own ends. Keith's arguments see language as a failure over action, yet organisations like Avaaz, or 38degrees, are a challenge to this, a challenge to narrative patterning. This is why I have no truck with newspapers these days. They are entirely interested in pre-existing narrative patterns. It's also why I find Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots an extremely useful tool: he identifies the boxes we exist within, which is a helpful tool for breaking out of those boxes.

Friday 22 April 2011

No Place like Home

George Ttoouli on Alasdair Paterson's Brumaire and Later
(Flarestack Poets, Birmingham, 2010)

I had the fortune to read alongside Alasdair Paterson at the Poetry Café some time ago. It was the Shuffle, a gentle, lovely event (they offered to cover my travel expenses, which was beyond kind), which had somehow ended up with me on the roster. I kept trying to remember where I'd heard of AP; turns out I'd read a collection by him while hanging out with Nathan Thompson many moons before.

Nathan's been championing AP's work quietly (now more loudly, on book jackets), leaving copies of early work on bedside tables for his guests, or sneaking in comparisons from time to time in conversation. E.g. "Oh, Simon Turner's new book? Yes, it's very Paterson-y, isn't it? No, not Williams, Alasdair! No, not Paterson Alasdair! Oh you moron." Well, Nathan's too nice to call anyone a moron, but my point is, AP:

a) has surfaced from a twenty year gap from publishing poetry, as if reincarnation and reputation are entirely correlative with magnitude of time elapsed between death and reappearance (well, it's Easter weekend after all)

b) is brilliant

c) makes Simon's work look somewhat derivative, even though Simon can't have read him, because there was nothing to read (sorry, Simon, I did genuinely see connections with your work; probably fairer to suggest AP read you)

All of which adds up to the fact that AP's work is brilliant x lots. That's a weak aesthetic comparison, also repetitive, I'll admit, but I'm trying to break the deadlock of tumbleweed gathering around here, so bear with me, I'm tired. I recall the early stuff - something about gardens, a collaboration with his wife, maybe, lots of acutely presented imagery, some jolts of language that arrested me, above all though, a sense of control of intention in language, perspicuity in providing insight into the nature of things. All that, and more, has been refined to such a degree here that the poetry is delicate, airy, deceptively readable for anyone unfamiliar with craft, yet still clearly masterful to anyone who's tried writing a poem.

So, back to the Poetry Café. Poor sods, most of them, didn't get a word I was saying, like being in a room full of Tralfamadorians. Still, one mug among the nonplussed coolness of London faces before me chuckled endlessly throughout my set, for which I am eternally grateful. That person then got up to read and blew me away with selections from his Shearsman collection, On the Governing of Empires.

His first book for twenty years, and it was as if AP had been doing nothing but read every poetry book he could find, weighing it up, selecting the best technical aspects from the most exciting, oddball poetries and putting it together inside a watertight, beautiful framework. (Actually, he said to me on the night that he'd mostly been listening to rock music and working in libraries for two decades. King Crimson, I think he said.) I could go on with a list of endlessly mixed metaphors about that collection, but that's not what I'm supposed to be reviewing. I'll stop wearing my fingers out and get to the point.

Brumaire and Later arrives from Midlands spectacular indie pamphleteers Jacqui Rowe and Meredith Andrea, with their Flarestack Poets imprint. Green cover, silver and black text on it. Cream paper, 32pp, Garamond. Does the job nicely, won them a Michael Marks last year with Selima Hill's collection, Advice on Wearing Animal Prints (that has a salmon pink cover and, of course, the poetry went some way towards the prize too, but production values are important with these little things).

AP's poetry arrives in two sections here, half called 'Brumaire', set somewhere in the post-French Revolution calendar, half called 'Later' set in a Communist oubliette of anti-time, somewhere after the Russian Revolution. Reading both side by side has a curious time-displacing effect; neither section has a fixed 'when' but seems to settle between contemporary UK and the historical periods. Time is further unsettled by the repeated appearances of wormholes, their implied warps and absences.

To be more precise, the poems deliberately fold time in a way that I've not seen captured in English before (maybe someone else can refer me somewhere). The comparison with Cavafy's poetry is easy to make, but he used Greek vocabulary from across the spectrum of that language's historical periods to create a sense of humanity's cyclical/repetitive progression. AP somehow stays very firmly in readable, stylistically modern English, something that modernists tend to achieve through evoking Chaucerian or similar discarded dialects.

The illusion is so perfect, I felt that I wasn't reading historically set pieces at all, but instead reading in the historical genre. The poems seem to conjure up the generics of the periods and post-revolutionary hysteria/decay - e.g. the bullets, paranoia, car doors, dossiers, abductions, etc. in Communist Russia - as if the landscape AP describes is already an imagined one. This is a cunning solution to the idea of representation. Instead of representing something that might be perceived as historical accuracy, the poems cut straight to the idea of representing the generics of representing those periods. Genius!

This gets to the heart of the matter: it's not the world that repeats itself, but the narratives we tell ourselves in order to understand the world as it happens! So history isn't necessarily cyclical, instead we allow history to repeat itself by (mis)understanding it through recycled language.

So what is the point of AP's 'chronic technique'? Brumaire and Later plays out these two sequences in tandem, but also with a sense of simultaneity. Individual threads of imagery (daughters, oppression, the violence evinced by ideological progress/revolutionary spirit, in the first section) and also of narrative (the second part especially plays out an ongoing story of investigation by secret police, culminating in an arrest or abduction), are supported by linguistic threads across the two (such as the wormholes, but other examples appear thematically). The result, for me, was a sense of trying to understand 'now', a palpable Ballardian project of questing and interrogating current action.

Is 'Brumaire' a critique of violence as a way of bringing about a better society? If so, parallels to Iraq are so covert as to be barely present - again, the comparison to Cavafy appears in his oblique, coded mythologising of bureaucracy. And the police state in 'Later': a critique of British surveillance society, restricted civil liberties? The nature of the beast here is to give the reader the option to make these relativities apparent as one sees fit, but above all, the lack of pointers (they may be screamingly obvious and I missed them, you'll have to read it yourself and tell me in the comments) leads me not to fixed time, as said before, but to the timeless nature of human activity.

The most relevant comparison I have from recent artistic indulgence is to Werner Herzog's recent documentary, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog strives to understand not the meaning of the Chauvet Cave's paintings directly, but the meaning of the human urge to create. At some point one of the expert archaeologists suggests that 'homo sapiens' is the wrong name for our species; 'homo spiritualis' would be more appropriate. As an insight into human nature, AP has tapped into a deeper fear, evoking the necessity and pain of personal, familial structures in the face of wider tribal atrocities against the personal urge to love.

The pamphlet is slight, sure, and some reviewers might not see something this short as warranting such an in depth analysis. The poetry demands this kind of reading, however; it is unfathomable in many ways. AP is intensely acute in his ability to craft poems of great emotional power, but also a depth of abstract understanding into human nature. He has something to say and he is saying it with all the reserve of someone who has thought long and hard about what he chooses to put on the page, and when, and why. His work as a whole is one that celebrates wonder and gives fresh insight and oh balls, I didn't really want to end this on a dud string of clichés, so I'll close by saying that it's not just a serious collection, he also has a fine sense of humour on display here, in places, though it's not as funny as On the Governing of Empires.

No, I absolutely can't end there. I've thought of something.

Some might take issue with the idea of using poetry to talk about, interrogate, language. That the world should be the subject, not the tools by which we read the world. Maybe it's my leanings as a reader that take me there, but that's not the point: the message I took away from Brumaire and Later is this: if no one critiques the means by which we understand the world, then the means to understand the world remain stagnant; that, in turn, reinforces power hierarchies, reinforces suffering; those are the lessons AP communicates to me, from his deep and generous insight into the world.

You don't need me to follow reviewing convention and refer to the poet by surname throughout a review; you understand perfectly if I abbreviate the poet to a pair of capitalised letters. Why then, do I follow convention? Why do we accept that every society will stagnate, return to conventional narrative patterns of inflated hopes and crushed dreams, revolutionary spirits that evolve into sustained hierarchies of exploitation and oppression? Here, in this pamphlet, that's what I found; read it, celebrate it.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Critical Acuity Strikes Again

We've just had a string of interesting comments pop up on a review we published some years ago.

The Editors feel it inappropriate to publish these comments alongside the actual post, partly because they fail to engage with the review and instead focus on the reviewer; and partly because it would be unfair to relegate these comments to the end of a post that no one is likely to go back and read.

We reproduce them 'as is' except for some anonymising, to protect the reviewer in question.

"Brilliant book, worthy of all it'[s significant awards. The reviews on this site by [reviewer's initials mispelled] are absolute ignorent rubbish by an illerate wannabee....a joke, please [reviewer's name correctly spelled], don't clutter our internet with your jealous crap!!!!!!.. [poet's name] is clearly a poet laureate of the future and you, [reviewer's initials], are clearly NOT NOT NOT!!!! Eat it!! Live with It!! Don't take your craziness out on the talent!!!!"
Received: 21/04/11, by Anonymous.

[The Editors were particularly enamoured of the reference to the Wannabees, an apocryphal tribal cousin of the Maccabees. Also the neoligistic flair of words like 'illerate': the state of being angry and sick at the same time?]

"bey jealous blog owner, completely untalented wreth, does NOt approve. And guess what, we DO NOT CARE. Stupid cow, get a life!!"
Received: 21/04/11, by Anonymous.

[We appreciate the deference shown in referring to The Editors as 'bey'; however, neither of us are Turkish. 'Wreth': a syncopated wraith, literally a snipped in half ghost.]

"yeah yeah bet blog owner only approves what he or she wants. Lets see you publish two sides of the coin, otherwise aCTUALLY I urge everyone to ignore the internet witterings of the unimplotyed reviewer [reviewer's initials], how sad..."
Received: 21/04/11, by Anonymous.

['Unimplotyed': obs. c.14th century, referring to the act of plucking a root vegetable out of the ground of an allotment.]

Christian Bok at the London Word Festival

Yes, it's really happening. He's coming to the UK for the London Word Festival. Luke Kennard to boot, with his amazing Planet Shaped Horse.

The LWF site has a link to this video, courtesy of Charles Bernstein and PennSound.

The best part, 49 seconds in, is when a small child in the background shouts, "Nothing's impossible!" That's pure narrative magic.