Friday, 29 March 2013

Dues of Hazzard

  Attended an interesting event at the Lutyens and Rubinstein bookshop in Notting Hill the other night. Adam Philips was in conversation with Oli Hazzard, who last year had his first book of poems Between Two Windows published by Carcanet, a volume full of linguistic verve, inventiveness and promise.
   Philips began very much in chin-stroking psychoanalyst mode, gently probing an uncomfortable-looking Hazzard on his childhood and upbringing; one wondered if this was going to turn into a kind of public therapy session. But his questions soon took a more literary bent as they discussed influences and intertexts: chiefly, in the case of Hazzard, John Ashbery, whose work he said had kickstarted his own while at university and is now forming the subject of post-graduate research. Not that, as Philips pointed out, the poems of Between Two Windows are slavishly Ashberian; there's a variance precipitated by Hazzard's writing out of a more English idiom,for example, as well as him being a poet preoccupied with tighter forms and more deliberate constraints than Ashbery has ever gone in for.
     Questions around this Oulipan concern brought out what for me were Hazzard's most intriguing comments. When asked what was the value of the set forms and patterns his poems are often composed to, he spoke of how the partial, restricted version of language which results mimes the way in which all language-use is in fact partial and restricted in its perspectives on reality. There's also a ludic, comedic aspect (as with the Stevens of Harmonium) in the often failed attempts of an exaggerated formal design to square up to the ungraspability of the world "out there" (I'm paraphrasing, of course). When Philips followed up with the question "What is form?", however, Hazzard was a bit stumped and who could blame him? It would take a whole book to begin to address such a complex, far-reaching inquiry: perhaps the writing of poems is in itself a prolonged effort to answer this question.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

ABC of Reading Live

  Despite initial nerves the launch-reading went well, we had a good turn-out and it was nice to meet Claire and Roddy Lumsden at last. Reading live is a new thing for me and it's fascinating how things like tempo, pauses and tone of voice impact on the rhythm, mood and in fact the whole form and meaning of a poem. I look forward to doing more readings and developing this vocal understanding as my oratorical skills improve.
   Thanks to everyone who came along.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Launching Off

The launch of Human Form is tomorrow night at The Bell on Middlesex Street, just near Spitalfields Market. It's a joint event also featuring The Shipwrecked House, the startling debut volume by Claire Trevien: http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2013/02/the-shipwrecked-house-human-form/

Here's a poem of Claire's to draw you in:
After Rimbaud’s ‘Roman’

You can’t be serious when you’re twenty-one —
the evenings flare, a rolled joint behind your ear,
drunk on Wednesdays, university veteran!
You talk in your backyard of us all being queer.

The weed smells great on those June afternoons!
So sweet you could sleep through any exam;
the wind carries laughs, it’s humming a tune
older than you, Johnny Wright’s Hello Vietnam.

The sky is all yours, you spy it through brambles
palpitating like grass you would like to caress…
You think the answer’s there to be unscrambled
if only the stars stopped changing their 
June nights! Twenty-one! Easy to be wasted.
The cheapest wine is as good as any champagne…
You ramble on about the Bourdieu you tasted,
your lips crumple like a Communist campaign.
You bildungsroman through books until
you spot a leading lady perched on a stool,
with the 
fruit machine lights pulsing her still
face red, green and blue. You think of Kabul.

She calls you a kid when you 
try to explain
— as her long nails trot gamely on the board —
why you are superior to her boyfriend,
but she leaves with her glass, looking bored.
You are in love: rented until August!
You are in love. She finds your poems laughable.
Your friends leave, your laundry starts to encrust
when at last, she responds to your madrigal!

That evening, you stroll out in the sun,
you order a kiss or a ginger beer;
you can’t be serious when you’re twenty-one
and there are summer evenings to premiere.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

You Mu Mu Make Me Angry

  As someone who works with people with autistic spectrum conditions and other learning disabilities, I was very much on the side of those numerous voices from within the disabled community who found Ricky Gervais's Derek a repugnant, insulting caricature. The wonder is that Channel 4 (part of whose remit used to be to address "minority interests") ever commissioned a full series after the pilot episodes were met with such anger and puzzlement- worse still, a second series has now apparently been approved.
   That the opinions and feelings of individuals with cognitive disabilities are still accorded so little respect in our society should be seen as profoundly dismaying, but in fact - in spite of the undoubtedly positive impact of the Paralympics on the media-perception of those with physical disabilities - it feels like we're tottering backwards in this regard. Could it really have been nothing more than an ironic coincidence that Atos, the IT company paid by the government to carry out the “fitness to work” tests on people with disabilities, were also one of the main sponsors of the Paralympics?

  At a time when disability benefits are being rigorously scrutinised and the very parameters of what constitutes a learning disability or difficulty are being redefined in order to shunt vulnerable young adults off “welfare” and into non-existent jobs or bogus training-schemes, is it helpful for Gervais’s Derek, in a notably excruciating scene early on in the series, to decline an assessment for autism on the grounds that he doesn’t want to be labelled, that “bein’ ‘tistic” or not won’t change him in any way?
    If we read into this Gervais’s hamfisted retort to detractors who suggest Derek is a parody of an autist, we also see how little he has reflected on the consequences of such a statement or sought the informed input of people on the autistic spectrum. For many, a diagnosis of autism can be a source of immense relief, self-justification and empowerment in the context of a life-long struggle to understand their own sense of difference or alienation within society; for others, particularly the parents of young children, the diagnosis can initially be an upsetting or alarming one, but with it comes access to a raft of services and support-structures which will hopefully end up providing the appropriate long-term support the parents require to meet the specific needs of their child.

    But Gervais has no interest in presenting people on the autistic spectrum as empowered, appropriately-supported, functioning members of society, in the same way that for their own agenda the Coalition has no interest in doing so. Derek merely perpetuates the stereotype of the marginalised, dysfunctional, hard-done-by “funny little man” which the tradition of the medical model of disability enshrines. Although last year’s Winterbourne scandal should almost certainly be the nail in the coffin of people with disabilities being relegated to indefinite health-care provision, it beggars belief that it was only the uncovering of systematic abuse on the level secretly filmed by the BBC which finally brought an end to this anachronistic paradigm whereby people with disabilities are taken pity on, removed from their communities and saddled with life-long medical care and control. Until the social model of disability is more widely understood and embraced, whereby the mismatch or deficit between provision and need is located within social structures themselves, will we move beyond the sad, belittling world of Gervais’s Derek.
    In the end, however, beyond any ideological objections, the series appalled me with just how banal and fathomlessly sentimental it all was. After the final, cataclysmically awful episode, in which Derek was reunited with his long-lost dad (to a soundtrack of Coldplay’s tear-jerking singalong Fix You) and the other world-weary characters gave preposterously earnest testimonies to Derek’s essential “kindness”, objections to faux-autism were supplanted by horror at X-Factor-like levels of cynical audience-manipulation and – one can only suppose - desperate attempts to win over “even the harshest of critics” ie. almost every person with a disability plus anyone with an iota of intelligence in the whole country. Presenting Derek as an exemplar of kindness which redeems all his other failings (Gervais’s justification for the character in interviews) is just another level of enlisting the viewers’ sympathy and pity, another misguided aspect of a demeaning, marginalising perspective on disability.

   One wonders why Gervais didn’t take the advice of his showbiz buddy Ben Stiller in the words he gives to Robert Downey Jr’s actor-character in Tropic Thunder(2008): invoking examples like Forrest Gump and Rain Man, his avowed rule is “Never go full retard”. Futhermore, Stiller’s character in the film has already broken the rule and portrayed a hilariously twee village-idiot called Simple Jack, a ridiculous spoof of a well-known yet rapidly-fading actor trying to “extend his range” by playing a sweet, sentimental character with disabilities who wins everyone over with his gauche naivete.

   Stiller was parodying this in 2008, as though it were already a trite cliche: Gervais, take heed.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Ghostlier Demarcations

  Just realised a review of Iain Sinclair's excellent Ghost Milk I wrote a while back has just appeared on the Nudge website (formerly BookGeeks):


 This is Sinclair's most politically scathing work, primarily a polemic against the pre-event impact of the Olympics on Hackney but widened to a many-pronged critique of the whole baleful culture of 'grand projects'. We now need a follow-up that focusses on the Games and their faltering legacy themselves.
  And talking of books, my poetry-volume Human Form is now available to order from Penned in the Margins: