Friday 29 June 2012

Seeing Being Human...

George Ttoouli reviews a new theatrical production based on the Bloodaxe anthology, Being Human...

Simon has asked what I've been up to. In the words of Bugsy Malone, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. One thing is certain, I have forgotten how to review things. So, I did see Being Human, a theatrical production of selections from the Bloodaxe anthology of the same title, at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry; but every time I try to write down my reaction to the show, I seem to fall into stock phrases.

Which is not exactly, but might be, a review of the poetry in the book. While there are many recognisably poem-y poems, surprises - both names and poems - jump out at you. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology – Staying/Being Alive – there's a marvellously wide range of poets on show, from Fernando Pessoa and Mohja Kahf to Tomas Transtromer and Selima Hill. As with the previous incarnations of the anthology, there's a thinner range of poetics on show. So, for example, Pessoa's nuttier verse is overlooked in favour of the somewhat didactic 'To be great, be whole'; and Kahf's resoundingly confrontational and very funny 'Hijab Scene #7' has its punchline and sassiness, but is a relatively conventional performance piece once the very contemporary content is set aside. Gregory Corso's 'The Whole Mess... Almost' and Transtromer's 'April and Silence' stand out for their surprising constructions, images, syntax, so experiment isn't absent, simply slightly muted here.

I'm specifically mentioning these poems because they comprise some of the selection for the stage show. Being Human uses three actors to perform thirty four poems chosen from the book (I counted 'em, they're listed in the programme) as a way of presenting a perspective on the human condition. A worthy ambition and here it's carried off with panache. The three actors take it in turns to perform one or two pieces, using light-touch props, mostly based around a domestic kitchen scene with a solid wooden table and simple lighting, which progressively (particularly in the second half) steps up into more mystical, placeless set pieces.

Edip Cansever's poem 'Table' (trans. Julia Clare & Richard Tillinghurst) is used three times to excellent effect to tie the thematic approach together; the first is literal, and passed me by as little more than a good poem and a matter of fact statement, but the later two renditions expand the meaning and significance of not just the poem, but the whole show, to beautiful effect.

The three performers, dressed in white, each have their own strengths in performing. While Elinor Middleton's voice at times lacks the strength of the other two, she compensates with emotional depth. She delivers the most moving part of the whole, which had most of the audience, myself included, sobbing. I've thought Paul Durcan's poetry to be a little hit and miss from what I've read, though very striking when it works, but Middleton's rendition of 'Golden Mothers Driving West' is utterly, heartbreakingly brilliant. Benedict Hastings has a strong, bold, actor-y voice, though at times I wondered if certain poems weren't quite pitched right, that his delivery sometimes missed opportunities for impact and meaning. Barrett Robertson, however, was just fantastic. His voice bombed out for the (less subtle) performance poems, at others dropped to a stage whisper that remained fully potent. His rendition of Cansever's 'Table' marked a turning point in the show's tone, into something dark, utterly essential to human experience.

The kind of poetry that crosses over into theatre these days tends to be performance poetry masquerading as stand up comedy, or a one-actor show with a bit of rhyme or thematic unity thrown in. I can't say I want to launch it all into the sun, but there's a way some people have of reading poems that doesn't just clutter the meaning with externally imposed rhythms, but pretty much destroys any audience engagement with anything in the poem, focusing attention on the performer's ego. I'll spare you a lengthier diatribe; the performances in Being Human will restore your faith in poetry in performance, and not just if you've had a bad run of open mic nights. Even the minor niggles I've pointed to above didn't detract from the over all wow-ness of seeing poetry made personal, relevant.

Yes, I could go on a little bit (as Jorie Graham once argued) about how a vocal rendition of a poem might emphasise one meaning over another, while a page reading allows many meanings to surface simultaneously, but that's a moot point. If you're making a decision to perform poetry, then the decision here is right: let the performance serve the poem. And the direction as to how to read each piece showed great attention to letting the language do the work. The actors used few semantics during each reading, once their poses and props were fixed in place, giving listeners a chance to create the poems for themselves. By the second half, I found myself disappearing into each scene, letting the images take over what my eyes were looking at.

OK, so I've glided fully into review mode, probably cruising at about a thousand feet now. I want to say something about storytelling, about how these poems use narrative extremely well, create their own scenes and pictures, but I'm mostly thinking of the performance of Paul Durcan's poem which achieved that the best. I want to say that the poems set scenes better than most drama I've seen lately – as with Transtromer's piece, or Corso's (a line about a prisoner painting the bars of his cell sky blue stuck in mind) – because some directors (film included) seem to think spectacle - CGI and lavish set design - can take the place of the human imagination. Well, you know what I'm trying to say about Being Human, which I should probably sum up in review mode as, Go see it.

Switching back to my G&P critical hat, though, I did want to point to one surprising aspect to the whole production in how it treated the conventions of theatre. The usual act of sitting in a seat, listening to actors speak lines written for the closed reality of the stage, in a way that often leans on the conventions of vocal training that drama drums up for itself when it's spent too long away from the real world... Anyway, you look at the stage, the constant (slightly militaristic?) thematic music in the background, the three thespians in their staged white clothes, and you expect something to come out of their mouths. A certain kind of delivery, a certain kind of conventional, RADA-trained performance. And suddenly they're saying the maddest things. Even the most familiar poeticisms feel enlivened by this staging – trained vocal chords, smooth, almost conversational tonality, control of physical movements and environment to give language its full due. When you put Being Human up against other attempts to perform poetry, like Daisy Goodwin's awful television series (sorry to any readers who had repressed those memories), or some of the overly-precious attempts that sometimes feature on Poetry Please, then this production shines.

Sure, you can't beat Paul Muldoon doing Paul Muldoon, but that's not what Being Human sets out to achieve. This is in the rhapsodic tradition, memorists bringing poetry to audiences that won't go out to see a lesser-spotted versifier; and it works extremely well.

As far as I know, the idea for these shows comes out of the mind of Jonathan Davidson, of Midlands Creative Projects. In his quest to make live poetry events tolerable, Davidson has pushed against traditional event formats and resisted going down certain paths, like slamming, or leaning heavily on celebrity to bolster audiences. Credit where credit is due here: this is pioneering work taken well beyond beta testing. An anthology that hadn't jumped up on my radar becomes an amazing theatrical experience here.

Just a few weeks ago, watching the Jubilee celebrations in all their glorious crassness, I couldn't help thinking about how well managed the stage was, the set up, but also that there should have been some poetry alongside all that kitsch synth pop. It starts to sound much of a muchness when it's crammed together like that. Nothing like interluding for five minutes with a spot of poetry; certainly beats idiotic, tax-dodging comedians attempting to read an auto-cue.* Anyway, if it does happen, someone should ask Jonathan Davidson to take care of the poetry segments. Judging by this show, he'd do an amazing job of it.


* Simon, run that bit past our legal team, would you, before this goes live?


There are more dates in the recent future, at Bury St. Edmunds and Ledbury Poetry Festival. The website is here. Don't bother trying to google the show, you'll get spammed with that TV show of the same name...

Friday 22 June 2012

What Is 'What It Is Like' Like?

Charles North, What it is Like: New and Selected Poems (Turtle Point Press / Hanging Loose Press, 2011)

"Your recent letter is so stupid so utterly moronic its
a little difficult to believe it was
written by a human being let alone someone
who made it past second grade you
miserable bastard do you eat
from a plate thanks for your letter of January 5th
I enjoyed getting it"

North, from 'The Postcard Element in Winter', WIIL, 74.


"The greenish yellow of the gingkos downstairs against the dun of the building.  The dawn.  No the dun.  Dawn would be more interesting. - It's dun.  Overturned in absentia, pulverized and left to sit out in the flocked atmosphere above Broadway: a horizontal heap, that leaves the orange girder on the sidewalk while deconstructing the roof with (ah!) orange streamers."

North, from 'Aug.-Dec. for Jimmy Schuyler', WIIL, 139-40.

"Well, first of all, the one thing that we were all in agreement with was that there should be no program, and that the poem, as we imagined it, should be the possibility of everything we have as experience.  There should be no limit of a programmatic order."

John Ashbery in conversation with Robert Creeley, quoted in a Paris Review interview with Creeley, from The Beat Writers at Work (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 80.  

"If someone is hammering
below, smoothing out our street,
no one is fixing coffee in
a room gradually filling with paintings,
each transforming the room into
an awareness of its lack,
or mine, leaving music
as the prime consolation for the inability
to leave the body, except insofar
as music throws off her clothes
to reveal her secret self:
the absence of a secret."

North, from 'A Note on Labour Day', WIIL, 88.

"The scene he had thus encountered or constructed in his attentive, imaginary travels provoked a sense in him less of desire than of hopeful curiosity.  He felt that something new had been promised him, new, agreeable, and perhaps illuminating.  The promise immediately restored his gift for noticing small, attractive anomalies in the course of his ordinary life.  At lunch his place was set with a fork to the left of his plate, another fork to the right of his plate.  On his way to the beach, a short clothesline sagged inexplicably with the weight of a single stiff, fluffy diaper."

Harry Mathews, 'The Way Home', in The Human Country: New and Collected Stories (Chicago and Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2002), 83.


August 25, 1970
"The wind is making a noise like a tennis racquet, the water is roughly rippled and the waves - if that isn't too big a word for them - stay in one place, just flashing their fingers at you.  Now the wind means business and sounds determined.  It takes the window in its mouth and gives it a good hard shake.  To which the birch scrub responds by bending way over, once, from the ankles."

The Diary of James Schuyler, edited by Nathan Kernan (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997), 86. 

                                                   "I'm increasingly aware of
the fragile fortifications between dusk and evening, as though
the former had been erected only for the latter to knock it down. . . ."

North, from 'Boul' Mich', WIIL, 218-219.


Joe Brainard, from Amazing But True (via Ian Pindar's blog)

"It was like blowing your thoughts over the chord changes of everyday whatever life.  Endless lines of words that you followed if only because you couldn't see their ends.  The connection with jazz here is obvious: improvisation.  Nobody had ever spoken to me of writing in this way.  I had thought the writer must first have it all in his head and only then put it into words, but no.  I began to see how it was really excitingly done: You wrote from what you didn't know toward whatever could be picked up in the act.  Poetry starts here."

Clark Coolidge, Now It's Jazz: Writings on Kerouac & the Sounds (Albuquerque: Living Batch Press, 1999), 16-17.

"Some days have a soul.  Others
are pasted on like labels on
Italian tomato cans, cherry red, grass green
and an unearthly blue like a football team
on a billboard.  I know it's
supposed to be intimate."

North, from 'Poem ("Sad not")', WIIL, 273.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Simon Turner - New Links

Just a swift notelet to point you lovely people to some new links to sites that have caught my attention recently: Ian Pindar's excellent blog, and the equally excellent e-zine Wave Composition.  Seriously, just look at the list of interviewees in issue 4.  My poetry gland is swollen with joy at the prospect of reading them.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

CMTJ Collaboration Postcards

Via The Other Room and Andrew Bailey (who has a new Enitharmon book out, which I will be grilling him about some time in the future - I can't be more specific than that, I am not to be trusted with time commitments), I found...


I don't quite know what it is. Chris McCabe and Tom Jenks, collaborating for the third time (if so, where are the other collaborations?) on a series of references to classic British seaside resorts, mostly modernist British (or Anglo-American) poets and poetry, and characters from popular B&W television, or slightly more contemporary gameshows, including Family Fortunes, Frankie Howard and the Carry On team.

I think my favourite is Kenneth Williams playing William Carlos Williams (#10 TJ) but the first one, pictured above, is suitably silly also.

If anyone can work out what that bloody sausage/wiener is doing in there, I'd be grateful to have it explained. I wouldn't put it past them, based on what I do get, to have inserted it as an incredibly crude phallic symbol, but, well, but... I was hoping for something more intelligent I might have missed?


Tuesday 19 June 2012

Ashbery, Iambics, and Ken Dodd - An Interview with C J Allen

Simon Turner: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. As per your agent's request, I'm going to avoid tackling your controversial time with the Bush administration's Propaganda Division, and head straight on to your current civilian role as a poet. I've noticed something of a resurgence of interest of late in poetic formalism: Penned in the Margin's Adventures in Form is probably the most visible example of this, but individual poets like Matthew Welton, Jeremy Over, Sam Riviere and Philip Terry (and plenty of others I'm sure) seem to be engaged seriously with questions of form's relationship with the construction of meaning, which suggests it's an exciting time to be a formalist of some stripe or other. Your own poetry seems to be comparably wide reaching in its formal devices - your new book has an exploded sonnet and a long sequence based on a chess game, among other approaches - so I wondered, really, if you saw yourself as part of this tide of formal experimentation, and, in addition, what draws you to play with form(s) in the way(s) you do?

C J Allen: Yes, those were crazy days in the Pentagon, but now it’s time to move on ... Form is pretty central to my poetry, I think. Matthew Welton comments somewhere that much of his time is spent thinking about how his poems are ‘organised’, & I feel similarly about my own work. I ‘came to’ poetry from two rather unliterary places, really: song and radio comedy. My teenage years were the heyday of the singer-songwriter genre & I spent most of the seventies listening to that sort of thing, writing my own sub-standard songs & playing them to occasionally generous & often quite justifiably hostile audiences in & around West Yorkshire. The Sunday afternoons of my pre-teen years were dedicated to listening to the likes of Ken Dodd & Al Reed on the radio & it was from that that I learned about the power of language harnessed to a keen sense of rhythm & timing. Both songs & jokes are ways of structuring & patterning language with a view to achieving a sort of heightened effect. And that’s essentially where I’ve landed with my poems. I need some kind of framework against which I can brace the use of words, as well as something to stop me saying everything, if you know what I mean. The sonnet, for example, has been serving this purpose for 500 years (and of course has the additional benefit of somehow managing to be the perfect ‘size’ for the expression of an idea). Almost all the poems in At the Oblivion Tea-Rooms deploy form of one sort or another. They’re more or less all metrical & scanned, several use rhyme & the two long prose-poems (‘Kasparov versus the World’ & ‘Lemonade’) are actually written in a loose (if somewhat buried) iambic pentameter. It’s a bit of a chestnut, I know, but form forces you to work harder with the language, pushes you to extend your immediate vocabulary & disrupts your trains of thought. These are all essential things for those of us who aren’t Shakespeare. So it’s not so much that I feel part of any movement or fashion for formal experimentation, it’s more that I don’t think I could write poems that didn’t use some sort of form.

ST: Yes, that's been my experience, too. There's a cliche, I think, that suggests that form somehow restricts your language and your choices - and in many ways it does, deliberately so - but it's equally liberating to use it: it opens up new channels of language and imagery that might otherwise have been closed to you. Free verse is sometimes - often, I think - a trap, which allows you to say what's already been said, in ways that can be over-familiar. That might sound counter-intuitive but it's been my experience, and anecdotally from other writers, I've noted the same thing.

Interesting that you mention music and comedy as the starting points for your life as a poet. I find that the most exciting work in any field tends to be that which acknowledges innovations in other media and forms. Burroughs (I think it was in The Job, a collection of interviews) noted that his cut-up method was nothing new, that it was old hat in modernist composition and painting, and film is basically collage turned to narrative ends. Do forms and genres beyond the bounds of poetry continue to inform your writing? Are there any particular artists, musicians, etc, whose sense of structure have been a particular influence on your writing?

CJA: I always wanted to be a painter. At first, I think, because I liked the silence & the aesthetically concentrated atmosphere of art galleries, & later because art students appeared to have the best time. I liked the smell of linseed oil & the way they hardly ever seemed to do anything. I envied what I thought of as their cool insouciance. Sadly, I was thwarted in my ambition by a complete lack of talent. My fascination with visual art has continued though & I’ve often written about it. There’s a poem in the new book, ‘Wooden Boulder’, which is based around a film and a sculpture of that name by the great British sculptor, David Nash. After it won the Ilkley Poetry Competition I sent a copy to him & it was one of the many unexpected pleasures of my writing life when he wrote back & we engaged in a correspondence about the work & the poem. I was also fortunate enough, a few years ago now, to be commissioned to produce some poetry that was used as part of a sculpture project in the Peak District. I worked with the sculptor Val Carman & came up with some verses that were engraved onto a granite piece she designed. That’s now installed at a permanent site at Curbar Edge in the Derbyshire Peaks. Knowing that what you write is literally going to be carved in stone really focuses the mind, I found. And going back even further, I wrote a piece for the Retina Dance Company’s production, ‘Eleven Stories from the Body’, which they somehow (I never figured out exactly how) interpreted in their choreography. Dancing to poetry. It really happened.

I still love songs of course & I still find songs inspiring, but in a more roundabout way these days. It’s more a question of tone than content, I think. Having said that, there’s a lot to be learned from the wry intelligence of Randy Newman’s writing, for example, & some of Joni Mitchell’s lyrics seem to have an enduring value for me. I don’t mean to suggest that song equals poetry. It doesn’t; not for me anyway. But there’s definitely something about, say, some of Hank Williams’ songs – the words + the music + his voice – that results in a quality for which there isn’t really another word apart from poetry.

ST: Simon Armitage blew the whole gaff, didn't he, when he wrote that book [Gig, apparently] essentially outing himself as a failed rock star, which suggests that most poets are failed somethings: musicians, painters, film directors, cat burglars. Has anyone since Dylan Thomas really yearned to be a poet, really felt that it's a calling? Maybe, though it's unfashionable to say so. I suppose that explains why poetry is such a draw: it's an attempt - at least, this is how I see it; it might not be true for anyone else, really - to put into words something which transcends language, that cannot be transcribed in conventional terms - hence poetry, which supposes a degree of a- or anti-logic in its processes, as opposed to prose which is, with some exceptions, essentially a linear, logical mode of composition. Poetry is always at some level a record of failure: every poem haunted by the ghosts of their Platonic ideals. I was struck by the fact that many of the things that you say drew you to painting are at odds with or extraneous to language: the silence of art galleries, the smell of the paint. Is that why poets are often drawn to painters and musicians as aesthetic models - that music and the visual image are somehow purer expressions of what poems aspire to, but can never quite achieve? Or is it simply the more pragmatic matter of trying to kickstart the writing process with some external material?

CJA: A lot of male poets do seem to have that rock star manqué thing going on, don’t they? Paul Muldoon (great poet with terrible mid-life crisis garage band project ‘Rackett’), for example. I like to think I got a head start on that part of my mid-life crisis in my late teens/early twenties. But did I ever ‘yearn’ to be a poet? Well, I always sort of liked the idea of being a poet, but in common with the overwhelming majority of the population I had no real terms of reference for how you made that happen; whereas whilst I don’t think I ever truly imagined I could do anything significant with my song-writing*, I knew it involved getting a guitar, learning to play it, writing songs & then finding somewhere to play them. All of which seemed if not likely then at least possible. In that sense my interest in poetry was brewing & bubbling away underneath it.

[*I did, however, achieve 45 glorious seconds of radio fame when I wrote & sold a jingle to commercial radio for Morrison’s Supermarkets in 1976.]

I certainly feel an affinity with your comment about poetry being at some level a record of failure. In my poem ‘Poem’ (from the 2011 collection Violets) I talk about a poem being ‘... a doomed struggle against the world, a series / of failures that add up to something more important / than its success.’ Which is partly about accepting the difficulty of the craft, the limits of language, partly about the obscurity of the contemporary poet & partly about acknowledging the fact that poetry is something worth working at because, if you get it right, it will endure. As the Bard says, ‘So long lives this and this gives life etc.’

I think poets, like all artists, are – almost by definition – interested in creativity as much as they are in the world. So they’re drawn to other art works as examples of the creative act. And this raises interesting ideas & questions. Can music say things that words can’t? Well, yes, but then words can say things that music can’t, & so on. A dialogue between different art forms – like Wallace Stevens’ meditation on Picasso’s ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ or John Ashbery’s ‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’– address the human condition through a discussion of how we address the human condition. Strewth, I’ve given myself a bit of a headache there.

ST: Don't worry: headaches are part and parcel with thought. I don't know if you ever saw Futurama, Matt Groening's wonderful post-Simpsons science fiction comedy, but one of the characters in that describes an idea as 'a headache with pictures', which seems apt. It also serves as a perfect summation of many of the middle portions of the Cantos, but that's by the by.

While we're on the issue of art about art, I've noticed a trend in your work of poems that seem as concerned with the process of making the poem as they are with the material that goes into its making (or perhaps more correctly, poems which see their own processes as valid and indeed valuable sources of inspiration in their own right). You mentioned 'Poem' above, but your new slim vol. has quite a number of pieces that are comparably self-aware, that serve as ars poeticae (is that right? I'm a product of comprehensive schooling, so don't have the Latin), even when they're dressed in the guise of something else entirely (I was thinking in particular of some of your animal poems* - 'Snail Explains', for example, or 'Hens and Happiness', which is aside from anything else a fantastic evocation of how it feels to be in the poetry-writing mood - though of course there are poems that deal with the issue more explicitly, too. 'Lines' is a particular favourite, though I'm biased, as I love lists). It made me wonder about your writing processes: do you find yourself with an itch to write about a subject, only for it to turn inexorably into a meditation on writing; or do you begin with an element of poetry composition that you want to explain or examine, and then go about finding a means to do so with a seemingly tangential analogy?

[*That makes you sound like Ted Hughes, doesn't it? Sorry about that.]

CJA: I hadn’t thought of ‘Hens & Happiness’ as being about the excitement of feeling inspired. It started out as a poem about ... well, nature, I guess. (The natural world seems to crop up in quite a few of my poems – which is itself a complete mystery to me, since my relationship with nature is almost entirely theoretical.) Then, as I was writing it, it started to feel like it was a poem about romantic obsession. But, now you’ve suggested it, it does seem to have a lot to do with the thrill of creation. If I remember correctly that poem started out, as quite of few of them do, with a title. I keep a notebook in which I write down what I think are great ideas or titles for poems. Of course, hardly any of them ever are, so I usually end up with a notebook full of titles for poems that never get written.

I can’t remember the last time I actually sat down with a plan to write a poem on a particular subject. You mention ‘Lines’ – in which I basically give myself a bit of a talking to about the sort of poems I should & shouldn’t be writing. In it I make the point that I should be writing poems ‘in order to get past my own experience’. By that I mean I really want to surprise myself in my poetry. It’s an idea that loops back to what I was saying about the use of form pushing you in unexpected directions. If I can say something that surprises me or is in some way new to me then it’s more likely to be surprising & new to the reader.

A poem will sometimes turn in on itself & start talking about itself as a poem. I think it’s largely a late twentieth/early twenty-first century sort of thing, isn’t it? I don’t worry too much about that; art’s as legitimate a subject as nature or love or anything else. But art coming clean & pointing out that it is in fact art has been around for a while – think of Tristram Shandy, for example, or the way Turner draws attention to the material reality of the oil paint in a painting like ‘Rain, Steam & Speed.’

ST: I think, to my mind, all poetry, when you get right down to it, is probably about itself as poetry in some capacity. Even establishment figures like Hughes and Heaney (especially Hughes) are concerned with language as a subject and as a material fact at some basic level; indicative of a self-consciousness that informs every aspect of their work. To read their work in that way is oddly counter-intuitive, but it's a means of building bridges too: yes, Hughes is a nature poet, but he's also 'language-centred', too, which means he's simultaneously engaged with the 'English line' (ridiculous shorthand, but you get the gist) and the more radical currents in Modernism and its inheritances. A round-about way, I suppose, of saying that the self-consciousness inherent in art shades over seemingly insurmountable aesthetic differences. The examples you give above are telling, from that point of view: Sterne, long considered a forerunner of Modernism and post-modernism, but somehow achieving this at the birth of the novel as a form; and Turner, who's been co-opted as a sort of landscape painter for the National Trust, but whose work is supremely radical in so many ways - the later work particularly pre-empting Impressionism and abstraction. The best work in any field - or, more correctly, the work I respond to most - tends to include within itself a dialogue between traditional and experimental elements: figuration and abstraction; realistic representation going hand in hand with an examination of its failure or impossibility; the sonnet or the villanelle being used for troubling or disruptive ends. A too-absolutist position in either direction (conservative or avant garde) always feels like a failure of imagination. It's why Hitchcock's a better director than, say, late David Lynch: Hitch's best films are a dialogue between the restraints of his chosen form - the escape thriller, the murder mystery, the melodrama, the spy flick - and the weirder, socially-psychically deviant things that he wants to say; late Lynch, meanwhile, is characterised by extreme oddity at the level of form *and* content, so there's no generation of tension in the same way. (This is of course a personal reading of the situation; others may well disagree.)

As for your assertion / question relating to self-conscious poetry being a late 20th / early 21st century tendency, I'd agree, though I'm not sure where it's come from: maybe an inheritance from the New York School? It's definitely po-mo rather than Mo, right? Are the Big Apple-ites an influence on your work?

CJA: I’m with you on the Hughes/Heaney thing, Simon. Along with Thom Gunn, they were the three contemporary poets on the syllabus when I was at school, & I distinctly recall sensing the agreeable chewiness of their language – which seemed to be at the centre of their poems. ‘The Thought-Fox’ of course is one of the famous poems-about-poetry, isn’t it? I agree with you too about the inevitability of art explaining itself as art – either overtly or covertly. John Ashbery’s classic ‘Paradoxes & Oxymorons’ makes the case with enviable directness & clarity, I think, opening with ‘This poem is about language at a very plain level. / Look at it talking to you ...’ & ending with ‘...The poem is you.’ Which brings me nicely around to your question about the New York School...

It took me a while to get into it. When I first started getting serious about reading & writing poems – in my late twenties, so that’d be the mid-late eighties, I guess – I worked in an office above a bookshop. I’d nip down there during my – ahem – ‘breaks’ & browse the poetry shelves. That’s where I initially encountered John Ashbery’s poems – in books like Self Portrait ... & A Wave & As we Know. I knew Ashbery was regarded as a major figure in contemporary American poetry & I remember being staggered by what I thought of as the general bewildering incomprehensibility of it all. It didn’t really sound like anything else I’d read that called itself poetry. I was attracted & a little bit beguiled by the strangeness (I must’ve been, I bought the books), but still felt kind of locked out of the poems. Then one day, quite by accident, I happened to hear John Ashbery reading his poems on Radio 3. That slightly camp, slightly kooky voice of his intoning ‘At North Farm’ opened the door the palace. I’m no longer so troubled by the – scare quotes – ‘difficulty’ of Ashbery’s poetry. I enjoy paddling around in it. I like the whimsy & the humour too, & once I’d relaxed a little I started to see seriousness in so much of it, the unflinching approach to the big subjects as well as the affecting, human tenderness that underlies so much of it.

I like Frank O’Hara’s poems – altho’ I have to be careful I don’t read too many of them at one sitting; his deceptively low-key, conversational voice is so infectious. And James Schuyler consistently amazes. He’s quieter & more restrained but every bit as charming &, when he wants to be, every bit as devastating.

ST: Schuyler, yes! He's not read anywhere near enough in this country. Ashbery, of course, is known, and known as an influence, too, particularly on the work of Lee Harwood, but I'd see Schuyler as every bit as vital an underpinning to Harwood's poetry - especially in the later work, like Morning Light (even that title's quite Schuyler-esque). I remember when I first read Schuyler - I think the poem in question was 'Moon' - and it was like learning how to speak, a realisation that modern and engaged poetry didn't have to be difficult in the conventional sense; that it didn't have to turn its back on the everyday, in fact could revel in it as a source of beauty and transcendence. Have you read David Herd's book on American poetry, Enthusiast! (the exclamation is in the title, that's not me)? It's excellent on all counts, but the essay on Schuyler's particularly good. Well worth checking out. What Ashbery I've read I've loved (I got very absorbed in The Tennis Court Oath about five years ago), but he's so bloody prolific: I don't know where to begin. Just slow down, John, for five minutes, so the rest of us can catch up!

I know from experience I could go on for ever about the New York crowd, but as this interview's already threatening to overflow the banks of a reasonably-sized blog post, I thought I would round off with a final question: Let's imagine that the Oblivion Tea Rooms are not only a real place, but are, sadly, burning down: which one of its poems would you rescue from the blazing wreckage, and why?

CJA: I hadn’t thought of it, but, yes, I can see the connecting dots between James Schuyler & Lee Harwood. I must try & track down the David Herd book you mention. If you’re looking for a place to start with John Ashbery, then I’d probably recommend Houseboat Days or even something a bit later & a bit baggier like Can You Hear, Bird, ‘My Philosophy of Life’ from that book is one of my all-time favourite poems.

Okay, now for the Desert Island Poem moment ... Well, on the one hand it’s obviously tricky, because it goes without saying they’re all absolutely indispensible poems & the fabric of English letters would be irreparably damaged by the loss of any of them, but, on the other hand, it is only a bit of fun, isn’t it? I’m fond of the lead-off poem ‘A small, unremarkable oil painting of doubtful provenance ...’ because I think technically it’s the most accomplished thing in the book. By that I mean that I think you could tap it pretty much anywhere with a small toffee-hammer & not find a hollow bit. And I like the long poem ‘Kasparov versus the World’ because I’ve never really tackled anything like that before & in writing it I did find myself saying things about my life which seemed both true & surprising to me. The rhymes in ‘Notes from 1975’ & ‘Starlings’ please me – in an inexcusably vain & self-regarding way, but on its own that’s not a good enough reason to keep them, is it? So I guess if I cd only save one, it’d have to be ‘Poets’. It’s a list poem &, like you, I love a good list. It goes down well at readings & I’m a sucker for playing to the gallery, & it’s funny (at least I think so) as well as true.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Three Poems by C J Allen

Notes for a poem provisionally titled, ‘From the Lies of the Artists’

Imagination is a kind of glowing reality
that we can never touch.  Desire is always
a work in progress.  Everything is collage

Everything is bricolage  The difference
between you and your reflection is no matter
how hard you polish, your reflection has no memory.

Is the purpose of art to fix the fugitive
or to smartarse its way to oblivion?  Everything
Andy Warhol understood life was a series

of images that change as they repeat themselves.
Somewhere in the midst of love and debauchery
are reputations destroyed.  An inch of the world

doesn’t equal an inch of Rembrandt or de Kooning.
Rothko lost it.  Manet ate his cat.

The Wolves of Poetry

They say, ‘You have been spending all your time
in books.’  Accused, you flop into a chair.
The chair is made of books.  Sheer sentences
slide beneath you, frictionless, resistance
reduced to microns by their poetry.
‘Well?’ they say.  You think before you flinch.

The moon is up and browsing through the night.
It peeks in at the window.  They do not
like this one bit.  You tip the moon a wink.
The moon is like a token or a disc
of light inside a wineglass.  Should you tell them
the moon is almost certainly a book?

They stare at you with heavy, bookless faces.
You let yourself fall very slowly shut.
‘What do you know,’ they bark, ‘about the Wolves,
the Wolves of Poetry?’  You tell them nothing,
as if to say, the book is an abyss.
All they can hear is howling, howling, howling.


Her name was Eve.  She was almost
invisible at first.  At dusk,
when day goes into slow reverse,
I caught her having second thoughts
about what hurts and doesn’t hurt,
and sin.  The shadows grew quite long.

We sat alone.  There were no clocks.
We sort of drifted off to sleep –
not quite, we dipped our toes in sleep –
and when we woke we saw the light
had gone out of the world.  The light
had gone and there was nothing left
to fill the sky, and so we lay
awake, not knowing what to say.