Thursday, 30 May 2013

Poetry Gender Audit

  The gender audit on the five main poetry-publishing houses done recently by Fiona Moore on her Displacement blog makes for essential reading, as does the comment-thread its provoked, with Neil Astley of Bloodaxe and Roddie Lumsden on behalf of Salt (among others) contributing their thoughts:


Thursday, 23 May 2013

Unexpected Body Combinations

 I was immensely pleased to come across a first review of Human Form this week in the Los Angeles Review of Books, part of an excellently-written piece on recent British debuts by Lytton Smith:


It's as close to feeling "This is the reason I write" as it gets when someone seems to understand and intuit what you were trying to do as accurately as Lytton Smith seems to have done in his analysis of Human Form; in fact - as I'm always loathe to offer interpretations of my own work (since in a way if I knew what the poem meant I wouldn't have had to go to the lengths of writing it - as another poem about poetry says "What's made of it/I waive") - he explains it far better than I could do and in passages like the following perfectly sums up what (only semi-consciously) I was hoping/groping to articulate:

  'Human Form', the book’s title poem, reconfigures the child’s appearance in its parents’ bed as “a cubist scrum” within and into which “we struggle into consciousness / like a many-limbed Lakshmi.” This “new / configuration” unfolds in a triplet of sestets whose ragged lines are the unexpected body combinations, the “ruffled, parodic / Trinity” of human forms. Behind the ostensible neatness of British poetic form, just as behind the castle-like British home, we find something rather more difficult to parse.

   I also greatly admire the general thrust of Smith's argument (the other debuts he looks at are by Emily Berry, Heather Phillipson and Warshan Shire) which holds these quite disparate British volumes as evidence for an American readership that we've moved decisively beyond the "dreary, disheartening" conservatism that UK was formerly dogged with (and still is in certain quarters) eg. "the careful prosody retailed by the major houses (especially Faber) run[ning] the gamut from the quotidian to the banal by way of the Minor Epiphany"(GC Waldrep's words). If this new adventurousness is characterised, as Smith says,by "a stumbling-upon experience and trying to make something of it ... autobiographical, and biographical, and found, but all at a glance or aslant... it is idiomatic to its immediate cultural geography in the way William Carlos Williams also was to his", we are certainly on the right lines.

   At a time when it's sometimes said that poetry reviews no longer much matter and have little impact on book-sales, and when your ability to advertise yourself on Facebook and Twitter is supposed to be a measure of your worth as a writer, it's reassuring to read a review that's so insightful, well-thought-through and composed with it's own inventive care for language - futhermore, one that argues so persuasively and so positively for the burgeoning health of British poetry.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Poetry in Translation

Janos Pilinszky
  If you didn't catch this Radio 4 programme presented by Daljit Nagra last Thursday, it's well worth a listen:


   In particular, enthralling stuff about Ted Hughes' and Daniel Weissbort's founding of Modern Poetry in Translation explained by David Constantine - he calls Weissbort's achievement as a longstanding editor "colossal" but so indeed has his been.
   There's a marvellous bit of Hughes reading a translation he's made of a Janos Pilinszky poem and then talking about the Hungarian poet - how "he can only write what he cannot not write...he has made his moves, as he describes it, like a chess-player, only when he must and only when forced...'I would like to write', he has said, 'as if I had remained silent.'
   For a further perspective on Hughes' versions of Pilinszky, here's a brief essay by Tara Bergin, who's working on a PhD on TH as translator:


Sunday, 12 May 2013

Electronic Voice Phenomena

  Fascinating event coming up in East London's Rich Mix next weekend when Electronic Voice Phenomenon, the mixed-media performance curated by Penned in the Margins, comes to town as part of its UK tour. The show will feature poets Ross Sutherland, Hannah Silva and SJ Fowler (the latter two featured in the recent Bloodaxe anthology Dear World and Everyone In It, of which more in a forthcoming post) plus the "hauntological synth-pop group" Outfit as part of a groundbreaking effort to locate a fertile hinterland between sound-poetry,performance-art and experimental music.
   As part of the context to the project, there's a website full of strange and alluring stuff - absolutely love the piece on telephony in Ulysses by Honor Gavin- which will hopefully develop a life of its own and see it persist beyond the current tour:    www.electronicvoicephenomena.net 
    For those less familiar with the concept of Electronic Voice Phenomena, there's a very instructive and thorough Wikipedia entry at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electronic_voice_phenomenon. Reading this I discovered the origin of the phrase 'Ghost Box', the title of one of the most consistently brilliant record-labels of recent years, almost the founders in fact of what has come to be called 'hauntology' (Simon Reynolds' coinage, I believe) in the context of contemporary music.

Hannah Silva

Sunday, 5 May 2013


  I don't usually read crime-fiction or thrillers but I can recommend Death Comes for the Poets by John Hartley-Williams and Matthew Sweeney, a parodic take on the genre set in a skewed version of the UK poetry world. A succession of renowned poets are being bumped off one by one in bizarre and grisly circumstances, an investigator and his young side-kick are on the trail of the killer: the cliches and improbabilities of the whodunnit are embraced for blackly comic effect as the plot zips onward with the compulsiveness of any airport page-turner, the prose a spiked cocktail of energetic demotic, stock crime-ese and the odd poetic flourish. 
   What's made fun of, in fact, are the petty rivalries and bickering cliques of the poetry scene, the suggestion that beyond the veneer of fellowships or collaborations (eg. editorial groupings/poetry workshops/reading tours) lurks an animus of embittered competition. Without being identifiable as particular individuals, most of the poet-characters are ridiculous stereotypes of certain familiar species of versifiers, their well-worn styles shrewdly parodied in the mock-anthology that ends the book.
   As two much-published and respected poets who have always stood towards the edge of the populist mainstream, Hartley-Williams and Sweeney are well-placed to satirise the two-faced complacencies and infighting of the poetry world. Many will remember their earlier joint-composition Teach Yourself: Writing Poetry (Hodder and Stoughton), probably the pithiest, wittiest and most valuable book of its kind. Death Comes for the Poets deserves a wide readership and - beyond its current Muswell Press imprint ( http://www.muswell-press.co.uk/#item=death-comes-for-the-poets ) - a larger-scale print-run by one of the bigger publishing houses.