Since I’m covering the Leveson Inquiry for the time being, I’ve decided to appoint myself its unofficial poet-in-residence. The Inquiry is not confidential (or at least I don’t think I’ve seen or been witness to anything confidential), so don’t expect any sensational gossip, but I did want to write some pieces in response to the picture that is unfolding.
Also, since I decided this rather late in the day, I will have to backtrack for some of the days I’m missed. I will try to write something for every Monday and Tuesday I have personally covered. Here is today’s:
“You were described as ‘posh, loved culture and poetry’. You probably do still love culture and poetry. ‘Lewd’, ‘made sexual remarks’ and ‘creepy’. Then you are described — you were branded ‘a creepy oddball’ by ex-pupils.” Mr Jay, questioning Christopher Jefferies
We should have worked it out from all his books. What normal, law-abiding sort would ever be caught nose-down, engrossed, on tenterhooks, in any kind of literary endeavour? Imagine all the filth and clever-clever scurrilousness sealed in each plush brick. We don’t go near them – but we get the flavour from titles like King Leer and Moby Dick.
Kirsty and I are supporting award-winning poet Tim Turnbull at the launch of his new limited edition book, The Camden Art Redemption Miracle (Donut Press). Sidekick favourite Wayne Holloway-Smith will also be doing a shift, and Tim himself will be giving us a special half-hour performance in his trademark Yorkshire brogue.
The launch is tonight at regular poetry hang-out pub The Betsey Trotwood (56 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3BL, nearest tube: Farringdon) from 7.00pm.
OK, so this is the first blog post on a new version of the Sidekick Books/Dr Fulminare site. Most of the posts here will be mirrors of what we post over on the Fuselit blog, which will itself be integrated more fully in the Fuselit site. What we’ll end up with, hopefully soon, is two complete websites united by similar (but not identical) blog content and shared Twitter/Facebook accounts.
For newcomers, Fuselit is the hand-bound-and-built literary magazine Kirsty and I produce, while Sidekick Books is our small press. Doing both has caused us some ‘brand confusion’ in the past, with our anthologies being occasionally attributed to ‘Fuselit Press’ and some people thinking we bind our own books. It doesn’t help that Sidekick Books grew out of the bonus booklets we used to make to accompany each Fuselit issue. Hopefully, by early next year we’ll have sorted it out so that everything is clear and obvious to the casual internet user without our having to resort to double lives.
Anyway, I’d been making notes on improving on the old Dr F site for so long that it got to the point where it was easier to start afresh. With buoyant idiocy, I predicted it would take me one weekend, with possibly a few evenings afterward for trouble-shooting.
It’s been, I think, a couple of months of on/off work to get this far (on/off because there are a million other things we’re supposed to be doing). During that time, I ran through a few different designs, spent an inordinate amount of time with my head in my hands and changed the art style significantly. This was one of the first banner images I drew up:
I’ve never been very comfortable with my role as house artist/illustrator for our projects but seeing as any other solution would involve either money or some poor art school graduate being cruelly demoralised by my constantly demanding changes and redrafting, it’s me we’re stuck with.
I’ll say a little more about the process in future posts. This is really just a space filler!
Mike West has donned many guises over the years – bingo caller at the poetry-hybrid night Bingo Master’s Breakout, underboss of well-versed satirical night Celebrity Euthanasia, false biographer of hangman Jack Ketch for Fuselit: Jack‘s ‘Hijacks’ booklet and human jukebox of intriguing fact and fiction. Having enjoyed countless whimsical conversations with him in the past, we decided to make it official with an interview…
Tell us a bit about what you get up to in poetry and beyond.
Indeed. I started my first blast of poetry performing in the later years of the previous century (I love saying that!). I dropped out several years ago worried I’d become too vapid, but never stopped going to gigs. Then last year the Vintage Poison collective plucked me to co-host one of their nights along with Kevin Reinhardt, and I broke my vow of performance abstinence to take on the best job in poetry: bingo caller at Bingo Master’s Breakout.
I’d been spending my wilderness years developing my old comic techniques for more biting subject matter, and writing a kind of verse that doesn’t mesh very well with most gigs, or most mags, because it is too long and too old-fashioned (it even rhymes, for Heaven’s sake). Fortunately I am not at all interested in publication. Anybody who’s been in Foyles, seen the number of books they’ve got, and concluded that the world needs a few more of those things is a special kind of mad.
One of my ongoing unpoetic projects is www.historyxls.com, where I (and anybody else who fancies it) will be cataloguing the history of the world in the form of a spreadsheet. It would be fair to say that there is still quite a lot of work to do on that. Who or what influences you in your own work?
I am interested in getting verse to do things that it used to do very well but is rarely called upon to do these days. Before the Aeneid, Virgil wrote the Georgics, which is a handbook for farmers written in the same epic style. It contains possibly the hardest-to-translate bit of classical Latin verse we’ve got: a description of how to assemble the parts of a plough. Its content is on a par with instructions for a flat-pack wardrobe, but it scans and jingles in the mouth beautifully. You can almost hear the bits twisting and clicking into place. I have recently had great fun writing heroic couplets to describe the loading action of the Ross Mark II rifle.
I have been trying to write a little more like Philip Larkin. He’s the only poet I know who can explain emotions and abstractions in precise terms, without having to stop and steady himself on a metaphor like I just did. A more realistic target for me, though a distant one, is the 12th-century “Archpoet”, who wrote Goliardic poetry: cheeky medieval Latin verse about hard-drinking students and wayward monks, frequently in the meter of “Yankee Doodle went to town riding on a pony”. His work features in the libretto to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, and if he had known his words would live on to accompany a surfer in a famous deodorant advert he would have been well chuffed.
What makes for a good or bad gig?
Blimey, I wish I knew that. I am constantly surprised in both directions. But over my years of poetry gig attendance, I have found that the quality of poetry is directly proportional to the size of the wooden beads worn by ladies in the audience. Roddy Lumsden’s themed readings in the Betsey Trotwood always have some good stuff, and the beads come in around 15mm in diameter for those. I’ve seen TS Eliot prizewinners pulling in over 40mm.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve had as a performer or host?
The Celebrity Euthanasia series went a bit Apocalypse Now towards the end. There was that night when the stage lights blew up so we sat round a wicker lamp reading Geoffrey Hill’s “Mercian Hymns”. Another night I had a nasty head cold: I’d just mumbled to a plausible stopping point in my opening spiel, inwardly thanking Superdrug and the mic stand that I hadn’t collapsed, and brought on the first act when a black-clad man glided into the single-figure audience. It was not Death, but Pete Doherty. Obviously I’d read about him in Metro, and was thinking if he started causing trouble I was in no fit state to handle it. But he was good as gold, cheered all the floor spots, and it shaped into a fun little show. He can come again. Camden School of Enlightenment – what’s happening, when and what have we got to look forward to?
Ooh yes! It will be a chance for performers to explore themes more ambitiously than the spoken word circuit normally allows. The Enlightenment part is that we should all end up knowing a bit more about something, or seeing something in a different way, through comedy, poetry, music or suchlike. All the featured acts will pick a specialist subject, and we’ll have some “resident lecturers” who get to expand their theme over three shows. The part I’m most looking forward to is the Dead Poet Society spot, where a performer will dedicate a set to one of our favourite poets of the past. We’re starting with Hovis Presley, and Ivor Cutler’s coming up in November. We will be at the Camden Head, 100 Camden High Street, on the second Tuesday of odd-numbered months, starting September 14th. More info at www.csofe.co.uk.
Your tweets have quite possibly converted me to Twitter – what do you enjoy about it, who do you currently follow and if you could follow a fantasy Twitter thread, who would it belong to?
It’s my one concession to social networking. You get to select your own virtual 24-hour tea-party of people sharing their musings, and send them away if they get boring. I am enjoying Viz Top Tips, Robert Auton, a couple of people who write tiny mystery stories, and somebody who pretends to be Alexander Pope and comments on the news in Augustan couplets. Pope, Swift, Gay and the rest of their Scriblerus Club would have been the kings of Twitter. As would Jesus ben Sirach, whose pungent moral furballs narrowly failed to make the cut for the Bible (still, that must have been a rejection letter worth keeping).
Your karaoke turns are somewhat legendary (“Ebeneezer Goode” being a particular highlight). What songs would you like to do, but haven’t yet, and how would you make them your own?
The “Bingo Master’s Breakout” karaoke selection books are still awfully light on grimecore; and the Rambling Syd Rumpo songs of Kenneth Williams are surely ripe for the Dropkick Murphys treatment. One that’s on the list is “You Were Made For Me” by Freddie and the Dreamers, but the dance that goes with that song involves bending the knees at alarming angles and I can’t quite do it. I think Freddie could only do it because his childhood diet in 1930s Manchester would have been dangerously deficient in calcium. What makes you facepalm?
The English comic haiku, where the writer has had a thought that isn’t significant enough to make a proper poem, and isn’t funny enough to stand up as a joke, so it’s been mangled into that 17-syllable Procrustean bed to guarantee some polite applause. The proper Japanese-style haiku is a thing of skyey marvel, but the English comic haiku is just the sickly cousin of the noble limerick. Do you have any secret London-based places/events of wonder to share?
Up in Camden, the Pie and Mash shop on Royal College Street does a consistent job of serving delicious pies with existential despair, and then there’s the Phoenician supermarket in Kentish Town. Back in my “manor” of Fitzrovia, you simply must pop into All Saints’ Margaret Street, a multicoloured towering pre-Raphaelite universe wedged into no space at all. John Betjeman was a huge fan, and on Sundays they do a high-as-a-kite Anglican evensong that will better your appreciation of late T.S. Eliot no end. Then wend your way to Bourne and Hollingsworth, where cocktails are served in teacups with cucumber sandwiches. It’s done up like a 1950s parlour, feels like walking into the raucous end of a naughty duchess’s funeral wake, and gets extra points for being underneath the tobacconist’s in “Peeping Tom”. (I am writing this from the edge of a private croquet lawn off Regent’s Park but that is a whole other story.)
Who or what should we be watching?
I am confidently expecting good things to continue coming out of Jack Underwood, who is meticulously and thrillingly slapdash, and James Brookes, who has fully charged his poetry bowl at history’s all-you-can-eat salad bar without spilling any of it carelessly on the lino. And I am keeping half an eye on Sophie McGrath, who doesn’t put herself about very much but has produced one outstanding poem called “Lebanon”. My favourite live act right now is David J aka The Vocal Pugilist: apparently he’s been at it for donkey’s years but he was a new discovery for me this summer, courtesy of Rrrants. On top of playing with some genuinely fresh ideas, he can do such unbelievable things with his voice that in less enlightened times we would have had to burn him at the stake.
Do you have any Boltonian pearls of wisdom or suggestions for would-be comperes and performers?
Preparation Prevents Poor Performance. For a poet, until you’ve gained such a standing that people will hang on your every word, ideally this means knowing your material off by heart so you can devote your eyes and brain to your audience, but I accept not everybody has time to do that. Also think carefully about whether, and how, you need to preamble your poems. If you’ve told me in advance at what stage in your relationship you wrote that ex-boyfriend poem, I’ll be suppressing yawns. If you leave me to speculate, I might end up suppressing little whimpers of fascination. Comperes have it easy: when you’re dying on your arse you can just bring the next act on. But again, it’s preparation. Having my links sorted out in advance usually gives me the confidence to make up better ones on the spot. Eh, our kid?
For Enlightenment alerts, visit the CSofE site, and don’t forget to follow Mike’s bite-size wit and wisdom via Twitter at @camdenlight.
Helena Nelson is one of the hardest workers in poetry: head honcho of pamphlet publishers Happenstance Press, editor of pamphlet reviewSphinx, a published poet in her own right and a general poetry gladiator, promoting, realising, supporting and producing work all over the place. We snagged her sleeve for a few questions.
How did HappenStance begin and did you have a mission statement in mind when you began?
That’s two questions. I can’t reply briefly enough to the first for you to include on a website, but it was a dream, literally. As for the second, I loathe mission statements. I don’t even have one now. At least, I don’t think I do. I haven’t got a vision statement either.
What really excites you in a piece and what makes you sigh and reach for a comforting biscuit?
What really excites me is something I’m not expecting but immediately recognise. And talent. And intelligence. I don’t find biscuits comforting …
Are there any underrated or little-known poets whose work you champion or simply recommend taking a look at?
I think that applies to everyone I publish. If they were appropriately rated, I doubt I would be publishing their pamphlets at all (Alison Brackenbury is the most popular poet for whom I’ve done a publication, and that was a rare opportunity). I’d like to think I was doing my best to champion them all, though my own ability as a Wonderhorse is open to question.
What is good poetry able to achieve that other media can’t? Is there any area in which poetry has yet to be surpassed as a method of communication?
Poetry has yet to be surpassed as a method of communication. When it works, it works like nothing else. As a method of communication.
Tell us about the style of reviewing that you use, and what does and doesn’t work.
I like accessible reviewing – someone who has read the text closely and carefully, has a lively style and takes responsibility for a personal opinion, rather than someone who asserts an absolute ‘truth’, e.g. “this poem is crap.”
Obviously a beautiful cover can’t save a terrible collection, but how important do you personally find the aesthetics of poetry books/pamphlets in complementing the contents?
Hugely important. I don’t think the message IS the medium, but I do think the medium can and should be part of the message. I am constantly dissatisfied with what I do, but then that’s good because it means I keep trying.
How do you find the live poetry scene where you are and what is your favourite type of live poetry event?
It’s wonderful. I live 22 miles south of St Andrews, which hosts StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. I’m within travelling distance of Glasgow, which also does all sorts of interesting things, the Aye Write among them. I jump on a train or drive into Edinburgh to go to Shore Poets, events at the Scottish Poetry Library, the Poetry Association of Scotland, the Edinburgh Book Festival and the Callum Macdonald award presentations, as well as the excellent readings organised by Rob A Mackenzie. Among others. Having said this, I am often too exhausted or busy to get to the things I really want to go to.
Oh – my favourite type of live poetry event? Hell’s bells, I don’t know. I like all sorts of things. I like old-and-formal-but-means-business, hit and miss, young and brash, flip and flop, cuts-a-dash. Anything that’s well-prepared and a bit different. I don’t like stodgy, up its own arse or didn’t-really-have-time-to-prepare-this-but-how-lucky-you-are-to-have-the-privilege-of-hearing-me.
What was the initial idea behind your ‘Unsuitable Poems’?
Fun. Timid attempt at rebellion. Also I don’t have a plan, as such. My own poems either arrive or don’t. They have a mind of their own.
What’s going to be happening in the foreseeable future with your own work, Happenstance and Sphinx?
That’s three questions.
Own work – just did another Unsuitables which may or may not be inferior to the first. Should have a Suitable collection within next 18 months, not published by me. And about time!
Sphinx – issue 12 is the final paper issue, due early 2010. New review facility on the web will continue and hopefully go from strength to strength. I plan to post features and interviews there too, in due course.
HappenStance, at present, will continue with poetry pamphlets, especially first collections. I will continue to work with poets – lots of interaction. Probably about 10 to 12 each year: already full for 2010 and probably also 2011. Increasingly working with people over the long-term, rather than publishing instantly ‘finished’ collections. I’ve started two new series – one will be poetry sequences – for poems that formally fit together as a set or only make sense as a group. Another will be PoLites – light verse. (It is hard to get good light verse and also surprisingly hard to shift it so there won’t be a lot of them.) I’m also doing PoemCards – I like those and plan to continue them. Finally, what one element, given absolute power, would you remove from poetry altogether?
Helena’s pamphlets Unsuitable Poems and The Unread Squirrel: More Unsuitable Poems are out now. For more Nelson goodness, investigate her blog and stop by Happenstance Press.
Ken Edwards is the editor and publisher behind the feisty and long-running small press Reality Street, as well as a multi-published poet in his own right. Fellow Hastings resident Richard Evans met him for a chat.
Reality Street has been publishing linguistically innovative writing for almost twenty years. How have you seen the poetic landscape change in that time?
In 1993, when the press as presently constituted started publishing, we were at the tail-end of an explosion in innovative poetry in Britain that happened in the late 60s-70s-80s, but which had gone unnoticed or been deliberately ignored by the wider literary public (Morrison and Motion’s infamous comment in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, 1982, that “very little – in England at any rate – seemed to be happening” in the 60s and 70s). The British Poetry Revival, as some called it, was also overshadowed by such developments as Language Poetry in the USA, which by 1993 had already reached its peak. It seemed then that few younger poets were coming forward to carry on what I called the ‘parallel tradition’ of innovative writing. Today, however, the landscape, as you call it, has changed dramatically. While innovative poetry still struggles to reach mainstream attention, there seems to have been a second explosion of younger poets whose view of the possibilities of poetry have been shaped by my generation. And there is some grudging acceptance in parts of the mainstream that the dominant conservative modes of poetry are not all that there is or could be.
What would you say are the major contributing factors to the recent resurgence in more experimental writing?
I don’t know. Some point to the increase in creative writing courses and to the growing influence of my generation of innovative poets as teachers within academic departments. But having experienced some live events in Brighton and London recently where there was a preponderance of younger people in the audience, I’m not sure this is the whole story. The atmosphere in a reading I participated in last year in Brighton was somewhat akin to what I’d expect at a slam or performance poetry event – except that the poetry on offer was more complex, more ‘out’ – the kind of stuff that seems to baffle or enrage the panjandrums of the mainstream literary press. I think maybe a generation has grown up accepting as normal experimentation in visual art, music and film, and has extended that expectation to writing.
There have been times when the kind of work you publish was deemed deeply unfashionable by the literary establishment. Did you ever become despondent about that state of affairs?
I have been despondent many times, and despite my earlier remarks, I continue to be disappointed when people don’t ‘get it’ or when clearly wonderful writing gets rejected or ignored because it doesn’t fit market conditions. But my response has always been the old punk attitude of ‘do it yourself’. Eventually, breakthroughs will occur.
Were you surprised when Rae Armantrout, whose innovative work you published in the anthology Out of Everywhere, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year?
I was astonished and delighted. When I got an email about this, I first thought it was a spoof. But I’m delighted because not only is Rae a wonderful poet, she’s such a nice person too. If we’re being honest, why she was picked out has something to do with the fact that the book that won the prize dealt with the theme of her own cancer diagnosis and her mortality. That always plays well as a story, if we can be cynical for a moment. But if I’m being more optimistic, I like to think that it’s also part of an increasing acceptance of non-normative poetry in the USA, as evidenced by other poets Reality Street has been associated with such as Fanny Howe winning major awards, and Charles Bernstein, the co-founder of L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, being published by a major press (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Social trends in the UK lag a few years behind America, so expect Tom Raworth to get the T S Eliot prize within the decade! There are many who cite J.H. Prynne’s work as the essential source of contemporary avant-garde poetry in Britain. Do you think that is a fair account of how things developed?
Part of this grudging acceptance of the existence of non-normative poetry that I mentioned earlier has been cast in the form of a narrative that goes: there is ‘Poetry’ with a capital P, and then there is ‘experimental poetry’ also known as ‘Cambridge poetry’, which is horrible but liked by a small number of university-educated young men, and the leader of this trend is the Cambridge don (usually described as ‘reclusive’) J H Prynne. This is a hilarious distortion of what is going on. Yes, I think Prynne is a major poet who has had a huge influence on many people’s poetics, my own included, but the avant-garde scene is much more complex and wide-ranging than that. You can trace current developments back to the ferment in London in the early 70s, with such influential figures as Eric Mottram, who taught me at King’s College London, the sound poet and publisher Bob Cobbing, and Allen Fisher, who was involved with the Fluxus art movement. Then there was the Cambridge scene, which included Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, John James, Wendy Mulford and others as well as Prynne. And poets and poet-publishers elsewhere in the UK, often influenced by the US Black Mountain, New York and West Coast scenes: Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, and the great Roy Fisher who has reached his eightieth year I believe. If someone is curious about linguistically innovative poetry, but doesn’t know where to start, what would you recommend?
Well, of course I would recommend the Reality Street website! But if you want a really thorough introduction to British linguistically innovative poetry, I’d suggest looking at http://www.modernpoetry.org.uk and follow up leads from there.
Of course, as well as publishing, you also write. Your recent prose work, Nostalgia for Unknown Cities, uses imaginative ways of producing narrative. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
I founded Reality Street, and its predecessor, Reality Studios magazine, out of frustration that the kind of writing I was trying to do had few outlets. I wanted to establish a community of writers and readers and that is still the aim. I started out as a prose writer, quite successful in placing short stories during the 1970s in such magazines as Transatlantic Review and Bananas, edited by Emma Tennant, as well as the Arts Council anthology New Stories. My stories were influenced by Kafka, Borges, Beckett and science-fiction. They were speculative and experimental. But I couldn’t take it any further. An editor at Chatto & Windus asked to see a novel but I realised I couldn’t or wouldn’t produce what he was after. Which turned out to be the likes of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, both a couple of years older than me. At the time I thought what the avant-garde poets were producing was far more interesting than most prose fiction being done, so I joined their ranks instead. Goodbye to a literary career! Now, interestingly, I have almost ceased to write verse and have reverted to narrative prose, experimenting with forms and modes: dialogues, dramatic monologues, mock-documentary, formalistic experiments with sentences. My continuing need to establish a context for my own writing has led me to start the Reality Street Narrative Series, which is dedicated to experimental fiction. It’s all quite selfish, really!
Denise Riley, one of the most well known of the writers you publish, has often written about the difficulty of truthfully putting the self into words. Would you say you work under the weight of such ‘unrealised ethics of authorship’? And if so, where do they end and where do they begin?
There has always been controversy in the kind of poetry I’m involved with about using the ‘I’. Denise’s poetry is the most sophisticated treatment of the self in writing that I know. Well, I have experimented with poetry in which the personal pronouns are eliminated, but my preference is for active play with them. A lot of my writing has to do with notions of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and the illusory nature of the relationship between the two. In one of my most recent works, ‘Bardo’, parts of which have been published, for instance in my pamphlet Red & Green (Oystercatcher Press), there are three characters, named as the first person, the second person and the third person, who constantly change places. This is also a running gag on the Trinity, perhaps a relic of my own long lapsed Catholicism.
Finally, it is little less than a decade until we will have a new Poet Laureate, perhaps enough time for Britain to catch up with the fresh wave in experimentation occuring in American literature. Who would be your ideal candidate to bring about a sparky new era in British poetry?
Good heavens, what a question! I saw an interview with Allen Fisher recently in which he was posed the same question, and pointed out that it depends on how you regard that absurd institution. To his credit, whatever you may think of his own poetry, Andrew Motion tried to develop it into a kind of ambassadorship for poetry, and if that’s the role, then Allen Fisher suggested the late Douglas Oliver, an avant-garde poet who actively tried to reach out to a common culture, might have fitted the bill. Alas, Doug is no longer with us. My suggestion would be someone who already has the common touch but is also open to every kind of poetry there is. Ian McMillan, who appears regularly on the BBC, is known primarily for his comic verse, but I know he is very open-minded about poetry, and indeed has been an active supporter of Reality Street right from the start. Ian would have my vote!
Richard Evans is the author of two collections of poetry, The Zoo Keeper, which was released when he was 21 and highly commended in The Forward Prizes, and his latest release, Orbiting. His website is http://www.richardevanspoetry.co.uk.
Claire Trévien is the ringmaster of online poetry reviews bibleSabotage, as well as a bilingual creative whirlwind in her own right. We hollered our questions across the rumpled swathes of the English Channel and she sent the following bottle back…
Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do.
I’m a Franco-British poet, translator, reviewer and editor of Sabotage. I’m also in the last year of a PhD in collaboration with Waddesdon Manor, which involves co-curating a small exhibition of prints of the French Revolution (open now). I like being kept busy. Who or what are your main influences? Who? As far as poetry goes, the first poem I fell in love with, around the age of eleven was Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘Ma Bohème’, it’s hovered over me since, for better or for worse, as the pinnacle of poetry, it ensnares me like few other poems can and I’ve never managed to translate it in a way that’s done it justice, I don’t think I ever will, it’s become too personal. What? I am most influenced by my birthplace Brittany, its legends, its landscape, its magic, I’m attached to it by some sort of umbilical cord.
What was the initial idea or manifesto behind Sabotage and has that changed? I don’t think it’s changed greatly; perhaps it has refined itself. I started out wanting to put the spotlight on publications that don’t often get attention. It started out as a blog but I quickly started adding other reviewers, and then editors, but the spirit is still the same. We concentrate on poetry pamphlets, fiction anthologies (by small/indie publishers) novellas, literary magazines, and live performances. Occasionally we get something that doesn’t fit into the mould, so we have to judge it on a case by case basis. The rules aren’t set in stone, but if it’s getting a lot of attention outside of us, we’re less likely to take it on.
What are the biggest challenges and most rewarding aspects of translation for you? As far as poetry translation goes, they’re the same as those of writing poetry: deciding when to abandon it is the most difficult part. Learning not to do pyrotechnics is the other: sometimes plain language serves the original best. I always translate the poem literally at first, and I love the strange expressions that can come up during the process. Spending several hours under a poem’s skin is a great way to understand how a poet functions and sometimes, just sometimes, some of that magic rubs off on you and you just have to open a new document and spill some words out. It’s a great source of inspiration, especially if you’re having a dry patch.
How does what you’ve experienced of the French poetry scene differ from the British version? I have mostly, shamefully, experienced the Anglo-American scene in Paris, which I have to say is particularly vibrant at the moment. It’s had quite the second youth. New presses, magazines and anthologies have been cropping up to capture this special moment. I am a regular at Spoken Word (at Culture Rapide) which is, I think, the centre of the hub. So it’s an exciting time to be in Paris, the community is fairly small but constantly rejuvenated by new arrivals from all over the world. I am less excited about the French poetry scene at the moment, outside of the slam scene, which is fantastic, I’ve been struggling to find any zines of the kind Britain produces by the bucket load. It also seems harder for young poets to make it. That being said, I am renting a flat from the youngest Oulipo member and his bookshelves tell me the stories the internet is quiet about; that there is a very active underground scene. The main difference, I feel, is that you have to be in the know to be able to experience it, whereas the British scene is less hermetic. These are gross generalisations of course.
What frustrates you most about poetry, and what do you think the medium is best placed to achieve?
I get more frustrated about issues that surround poetry than poetry itself, and I have trouble thinking about poetry in terms of achievements… I often think of poetry as carnivalesque in the Bakhtinian sense: a second world that’s concrete, warm, that embraces all of the people but that is also full of mischief, imagination and misrule. If it gains a definition it will always turn it on its head. Given ultimate power, what would you change to provide a more receptive environment to poetry?
I think the key is in raising children to love poetry. I’ve tutored some students through their English GCSEs and by then they’ve already been scarred. They think poetry is boring, difficult, not for them; they cannot read it without a clear list of things to find in them, as if it were a map or a wordsearch. So if I had any power it would be to change the syllabus and have poetry-loving English teachers installed in every school.
How have online tools helped or hindered your work?
I am an internet addict, for better or for worse, maybe I’d write better poetry without the distractions but I owe so much to online communities and, of course, Sabotage would not exist without the internet.
Whose work are you currently enjoying, and why?
I am still praising Roberto Bolaño weeks after I critiqued him for Horizon Review. His poetry is really quite bonkers, dangerous and oddly moving. I think the fact that it is translated makes it taste wonderfully fresh.
Finally, what future projects have you got planned?
Well, Sabotage is launching its inaugural Saboteur Awards this month, celebrating literary magazines, be they online or hard copies. I would love to find some sort of money for Sabotage to either put into the awards and/or to pay the reviewers, so that’s something I’d like to plot. Poetry-wise, I have a pamphlet of poetry, Low-Tide Lottery, coming out with Salt later this year, so that’s exciting. And finally I have to finish my PhD sometime soon so I better get cracking.
Andrea T. Judge tests the progress of visual media towards a new kind of poetry – one already broadcast to millions.
I. The restless age of multimedia
There seems to be little disagreement that the speed and extent to which the arts are changing around us is something unprecedented. Not only the vehicles for expression, but also the measure and degree to which artistic products are consumed and their true or apparent role in society – all of these factors have been trailing the technological revolution of the past century, becoming more complex at the same rate as our lives got infused with new signs, codes, objects and voices. The criticism and theory behind them have been subject to equally drastic changes.
Movie trailers point – perhaps more so than any other form – to the potential held by visual narrative to develop towards lyric and epic forms, given due time.
The comforting thing about studying literature is that its history is comparatively linear. In general, literary cultures seem to follow this pattern: first comes poetry, subdivided in epic and lyric expressions, representing the social and the private voices of a culture. Then comes drama, potentially in verse, subdivided in the tragic and the comic (or comedic), which brings together private needs and public laws and stages their conflict by means of dialogue. Finally, as the third and last stage comes the novel, a universal space of narration where all voices are allowed to come and play out. The Classical ages followed this evolutionary line, with Homer and Sappho followed by Aeschylus and Sophocles, in turn followed by Chariton and Xenophon of Ephesus. Europe did the same, starting from Dante and Petrarch, on to Shakespeare and Lope de Vega and Molière, and lately flourishing into countless great novelists.
I describe this tripartite schema for literary history because it will later turn out to be crucial. Literary traditions come in first-, second- or third-order forms, referring primarily to poetry, drama, or the novel. The work behind this literary theory of evolution has been carefully formulated by thinkers like Hegel, Bakhtin and Frye, and we shall come back to their theories further on.
Now, attempting to discern a similar thread of order in the history of visual narrative, most notably cinema (and television), is a much more difficult task. It is generally agreed that cinema is a ‘young’ art, but the definition comes far too short; a better term to describe it would be embryonic. Cinema is barely a hundred years old, which is an eye-blink in terms of a medium’s history. It is so young that not so much the genres and themes have not stabilised, but the very technology behind it seems to impede any sedimentation by revolutionising its assets every two or three decades. From silent films we passed to sound, then from black and white we turned to colour, from projection halls we moved to television screens, and from on-set special effects we went to CGI. Today we may be witnessing the ascent of 3D and, no doubt more importantly, a tremendous process of democratisation that is taking place through internet and the digital phenomena: it is enough to have a Youtube account and know how to use Windows Media Player, and you can practically make and distribute your own shorts. Television once changed the phenomenology of the visual arts, and the digital age is now putting them back in the blender.
These advancements were not simple progressions in form. They changed everything in the way that films were made and seen, including the techniques used by artists to express themselves. The result is that masterpieces of their time which are less than a hundred years old (sometimes less than fifty!) have become borderline unwatchable. Go anywhere but in a film school and see how many people you can find who will genuinely enjoy The Potemkin Battleship, The Passion of Jean of Arc, or Tokyo Story. See how many people have even ever heard of them.
The problem presents itself again, in an even sharper form, with that fascinating emergent art, that of videogames. Again we have a medium of expression which makes it hard to speak of a masterpiece because the development of technology alone is enough to make masterpieces obsolete very quickly. How many people nowadays play the original Castlevania or Metroid? Except that while films seem to witness such a shift every twenty-five or thirty years, videogames seem to transform their core mechanics every decade.
Part of the problem is that these new forms of expression have been contaminated by traditions already established in other mediums. Cinema, in theory, finds its closest relative in drama, the second stage of development in the evolutionary schema we discussed above. Nevertheless it also folds over with the visual arts and with music. From a narrative point of view, so many films are developed from novels that they will inevitably assume some of their narrative techniques, thus blending second- and third-order forms. This may be part of the reason why cinema never slipped into the pre-ordained structures of tragedy/comedy which instantly took hold of the stage wherever major dramatic traditions developed – in Greece, in Rome, in England, in Spain, in France. More likely though, it’s simply that it is too early. Cinema has not had the time to develop a unified tragic tradition (notwithstanding a few isolated films, particularly in crime fiction, which deserve to be called tragedies in their own right). Perhaps it never shall. It may just be that stability will never be in reach of cinema, and that its form is defined precisely by its transience, like the glamour of its stars.
II. The lyra, the lyric, and the song video.
While the above questions are perhaps best left for scholars three-hundred years from now, when the digital dust has had a little time to settle, it is fascinating to look at some of the sub-genres that are beginning to ossify in the meantime. I mentioned that cinema has its closest ties to drama. Films usually last between ninety and one-hundred-and-sixty minutes, a duration similar to that of plays. This duration befits stories of a given type – stories with multiple characters, a certain unity of time and space, and a focus on the concept of pathos. It is rare that a film will feature less than four characters, or that it will span five centuries in its representation. Yet it is enough to change something as simple as a motion picture’s duration to bend or modify its dramatic structure, leading it away from the second-order form and towards other types of narrative.
Among the most interesting, incipient forms of non-dramatic visual narrative there are song videos and movie trailers. Are these ‘dramatic’ forms of narrative? And if not, how do they distinguish themselves from the story-telling structure of films?
Song videos often contain a narrative. We may have, for instance, a disappointed lover accusing, rejecting, dismissing or defaming the object of his/her former love. But the primary difference with long feature films (and how they may construct the main story) is that the music video is not based on dialogue. The images throw back to the monologue (or, in Bakhtin’s original terminology, monologic language) of the song’s lyrics. The word lyrics, which refers to the words of a song, indicates the bond of songs with lyric poetry, as originally accompanied by the Greek instrument known as the lyra. Indeed there is an argument that modern songs have taken up the role of personal expression originally held by poetry, particularly in countries like France, which have a strong tradition of poet-singers.
Songs are clearly first-order rather than second-order, in the sense that they are far closer to the lyric than they are to the dramatic tradition, and song videos reflect this. Not only are they founded on monologue rather than dialogue, they do not possess the unity of time and space we find in film. Their images jump around at will between different settings, moments and scenes: we may find the singer in two or three different outfits, singing in or from different locations and situations, with the shots cutting from the one to the other with no necessary relation between them. In films, the images must follow a logic of causality: successive images are explained by the ones which came before them, in accordance with the concept of the stage as a neutral plane with its own suspended time continuum, separate from real time. Music videos lack external referents to demand cohesion and they are allowed to go in any temporal or spatial direction they please. They are always imminent, they are always – and only – the present.
Movie trailers are an even more interesting case of visual narrative turning away from the dramatic and towards the lyric, and they point – perhaps more so than any other form – to the potential held by visual narrative to develop towards lyric and epic forms, given due time. They are worth considering now.
III. Poetics of the movie trailer.
What is so unique about the narrative structure of trailers is, well – that there isn’t any. Trailers usually begin by establishing a traditional narrative, with shots of characters interacting and dialogue setting up the situation, only to break down into a succession of completely unrelated images, accompanied by music, and then closing with the film’s title.
This ‘breakdown’ structure has in fact evolved only recently. Originally, trailers were every bit as dramatic and successive as the films they publicised. The promotional short for Orson Welles’ 1972 Treasure Island consists in segments of the film shown in correct chronological order, with a narratorial voice to explain the story. Outside of the fact that it did not include the ending, it was to all intents and purposes, a summary of the film. While there were alternatives to this structure (the original Star Wars trailer from 1977 consists of a narratorial voice expounding on the qualities of the story rather than on its content, showing independent mini-narrative sequences as ‘evidence’ for what it says), for a long time the idea of the trailer remained essentially that of the synopsis. Only in the middle of the 1980s do we start finding traces of what will later become the standard. The trailer for James Cameron’s Aliens, for example, includes some remarkably disjointed battle sequences, but the rest of the trailer is still built as a plot-summary, with no significant steps forward with respect to that of Treasure Island except for the fact that the narratorial voice has been discarded, and all speech comes from the original film scenes themselves.
Trailers today are something very different. I propose that we examine one closely. Here’s my case-study:
This is one of the trailers for Zack Snyder’s 2006 blockbuster epic 300 (from a visual point of view, an extremely interesting film and another example of how new technologies keep changing our forms of visual story-telling). It opens with three wholly unrelated images: a moonlit temple at the top of a mountain, then a group of soldiers in front of a tree nailed with human bodies, and finally a ship sinking in a storm. A prologue, we may say, for what comes later.
After this, the trailer appears to establish itself into a conventional structure of causality – a recognizable narrative. The Spartans are ‘presented’ by the narrative voice, the first-person plural, We Spartans descended from Hercules himself, with images of the Spartans to illustrate the point. This is followed by the presentation of the antagonists, first by the dying child who refers to them indirectly (They came from the blackness, and everything in this sentence already overdetermines them as foreign, against the centrality and protagonism of the We-Spartans), then by means of the incoming horsemen. After that, the characters interact, and the script essentially makes for a plot summary for the whole movie. Textually:
AMBASSADOR: Be afraid. Sparta will burn to the ground. The thousand nations of the Persian empire descend upon you. KING: What must a king do to save his world? WIFE: Instead ask yourself: what should a free man do? KING: You threaten my people with slavery and death. AMBASSADOR: This is madness! KING: Madness? This is Sparta!
This is, in essence, the common ‘first act’ of a movie trailer, the part where the traditional narrative is established. And the ‘story’ of 300, by this stage, should be quite clear: a foreign, threatening army invades a country, but its inhabitants, the Spartans, are so tough that they fight back.
The second part of the trailer, starting from the king’s assertion ‘We will stand and fight,’ is where succession falls away, and by extension, so does dramatic narrative. Trailers have a two-act structure, as opposed to the three-act structure of tragedies. The images become a blur of broken scenes which it is impossible to arrange into a story. In the space of less than sixty seconds, we see soldiers in formation, a girl dancing, a mother hugging her child in a cornfield, a soldier hollering, horsemen riding, a charging rhino, a battle in the night, an ogre throwing an axe (and the king dodging it), a ninja, a deformed human being, concubines dancing, the queen spitting at a man, a Spartan in a firestorm and two scarred lesbians kissing, to mention but the most prominent sights.
While a number of idiots have suggested that narrative doesn’t need logically successive signs to be produced (see, for instance, the studies by Marie-Laure Ryan and Brian Richardson), practical evidence suggests the opposite: when passing through a corridor full of independent paintings in a museum, when presented with a string of different adverts on television, or when listening to a compilation of songs on a CD, we do not automatically arrange these into a narrative. Much like it is not enough for this set of unrelated images to be presented in sequence for them to become a story, so the images in this trailer do not make for a film. They are something wholly different. It is the present simultaneous to the audience rather than a self-contained time-continuum, that is to say, the lyric rather than the dramatic. As may be expected, the only thing that remains consistent, orderly and linear in trailers is the music – again, the most explicit link to the lyric tradition. There are only two tracks (choral prologue aside), a soft and a heavy one, and we switch from one to the other at the exact moment of transition from the first to the second act of the trailer. To pinpoint this, it is in the space between the king’s sentences ‘This is Sparta!’ and ‘We will stand and fight.’
(As an aside, Hegel viewed the lyric as a form where multiplicity and difference are synthesised into subjectivity – a case where the specificity of individual events is dissolved into a harmonious unity of experience. I think it’s quite clear that this is exactly what the music is doing in the trailer, that is to say, synthesising the emotional experience of the (non-)successive and disjointed images, distilling order and unity from chaos).
I made the case in a previous article that the lyric is a poetic effect defined by a passage from Apollonian to Dionysian signifiers, these being symbolised respectively by the I and the O. Such a passage results in a sense of transition, or transport, from a condition of action to a condition of being, and this sense of transport is precisely what we call the lyric effect. The Apollonian and Dionysian signifiers are usually represented by symbolic or metaphoric tropes, such as a passage from life to death, from spring to autumn, from agency to passivity, from joy to sorrow, from empire to ruin, and so on.
I point to this because the trailer’s transition from narrative to chaos, from linearity to disorder, represents precisely such a passage from Apollonian to Dionysian values. In terms of structure, a trailer is explicitly lyric. Consequently, it’s also often satisfying to watch (a bit like a music video). Makers of these little lyrical pills have spent a tremendous amount of time and effort (eight decades of promotional history, in fact) thinking how to produce trailers which would be agreeable to watch, inducing the spectator into believing that the film will also be good. Their solution turned out to be quite simple: they have rediscovered the lyric. And though their tonalities when publicising a romantic comedy may vary from those which promote a techno-thriller, the two-act Apollo-to-Dionysus structure is the one thing which remains constant, in family movies as in sci-fi flicks, in historical dramas as in action films.
I’d like to point out that I’m not postulating a link between the poetic tradition itself and the trailers. There’s no identity in terms of intent or themes, much less in artistic value. However I do point to the fundamental similarity in structure, exploited in one case by means of language, in the other by means of visual narrative. They’re both first-order form narratives. Trailers stand in the same structural relation to lyric poetry as feature films do towards drama. The same can be said of music videos.
If there is one thing that shows just how young these forms of visual narrative are, it is precisely the history of trailers. They are primitive, rudimentary pieces of expression, earning so little respect by their institutions that we don’t even know their authors. And yet they point to the tremendous space that visual narrative has for expansion and maturation. By the time this medium has become almost as democratised as language (and it is happening very quickly – as we said, it doesn’t exactly take much more than Windows Movie Maker and a Youtube account), the directions in which the visual lyric can go are endless. If nothing else, it could start a genuine, primary lyric tradition, like that of the Homeric bards, or the medieval troubadours. And, who knows, second- and third-order traditions may also stabilise after that.
It would be tempting to imagine the future of visual narrative to fall into the same historical line of evolution as that of language – from lyric/epic poetry to tragic/comic drama to the ‘novel’. But of course such an expectation is not sustainable. These arts have come into being in a culture that was (and is) already saturated with numberless artistic traditions, and where such notions as the lyric and the tragic were already familiar and well-developed. You cannot make a lyric without simultaneously saying something about the lyric – all textuality slips into metatextuality, and inevitably this affects the structure in its inception. It is more likely that cinema will not stabilise in the same order as literature did, and in fact it may even never stabilise at all. It certainly makes for a fascinating and exasperating time to be an artist. Never have things been changing so much and so quickly, never have so many mediums been so interdependent (and, simulteanously, so conflictual), and never, perhaps, has it been more difficult to tell what shall be relevant to the future, and how. The way you’re reading this essay is likely evidence enough.
Andrea T Judge grew up in Rome and has studied literature in the UK and the Caribbean. He has worked as freelance critic of movies and games, as translator in Germany, and as sports journalist in France (where he made money by dressing up as a cartoon in Disneyland). He has also kept up a blog of rants and cultural criticism at The Rant Machine. He is currently employed on cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Andy Ching is the chief of Donut Press, purveyors of pocketbook poetry gold from writers such as Paul Farley, Liane Strauss and John Hegley. We cornered him for a brief picnic…
Is it a busy time for you right now?
Yes, indeed. I’m lashed to the Donut grindstone working on various projects. I spent part of January working on Jude Cowan’s first collection, provisionally titled Reuters Tapes, which I’m very excited about. Jude works as a media archivist for ITN Source and spends much of her time cataloguing unpackaged news footage as it comes in from around the world. In early 2008 she began to write poems in response to that material and she continued through the year. The book will bring together the best of the poems. It’s a fascinating read. Over the past few weeks we’ve been working on selection and ordering, her introduction and my editor’s note, preparing the book for typesetting.
What are the most and least enjoyable things about running Donut Press?
I love almost every aspect of the editorial process – from chasing down and chatting up the writers I admire, to seeing a final document through the printing process. Marketing and sales are less enjoyable, credit control less still; worst is fundraising, which is guaranteed to put me in a bad mood.
Donut’s books are stunning and have a real sense of fun about their design. They’re distinct and recognisable without being samey, which is a line publishers have to tread carefully. Did you take inspiration from others, or had you a clear aesthetic in mind from the start?
All Donut design and typesetting is the work of Mr Liam Relph, my partner in crime. Liam was just starting out as a designer when we met and decided to join forces. We talked a lot about what we didn’t like in poetry book design. We wanted our books to look fresh and fun and hopefully appeal to any browser who might pick them up. While we’re both interested in contemporary and historical book design, I think Liam also brings something in from record design – which he’s also been involved in.
In a sense our house style relates only to format – the different sizes of the books we produce. Liam responds creatively to each typescript he receives, and chooses font, sets type and designs a cover accordingly. I like this approach. At the same time he’s always conscious of Donut as a brand and works hard to make each book fit in with what’s come before, while also trying to move forward. We’re fussy about papers and other materials – in this respect we’re probably a printer’s nightmare. I admit to one blatant theft: we nicked our pocketbook format from the brilliant City Lights Pocket Poets series. Liam’s input is crucial to Donut Press, and I love his work and working with him.
What is it about poetry that first attracted you, and that convinced you to put so much devotion and energy into promoting it?
Reading had little impact on me as a kid, but once I reached my late teens it took on huge significance. I had a period of depression and reading helped pull me through it. I read a lot of fiction at that time, but gradually became interested in poetry. For me, poetry can be the ultimate reading hit. If you boil down writing into its most potent crystalline form, you have poetry. I think a lot of people find poetry a little daunting when they first engage with it – I know I did – but once you find a few authors you like and get a foothold, you quickly feel more comfortable. As a publisher, poetry – being the poor relation to fiction and many other genres – is quite easy to get into, because no one with real commerce in mind will go there. So if you do get involved it’s relatively easy to get to work with real writing talent. It’ll sound corny but I do think poetry can be a noble art.
Tell us about your interest in WS Graham, and how it began.
Roddy Lumsden suggested I check him out. It took me a little while to get round to it, but once I did I was knocked out. I picked up a copy of New Collected Poems and began reading during a night of interrupted sleep. Douglas Dunn describes Graham as a poet of ‘the night hours,’ and this is spot on – particularly when applied to mid- to late-period Graham. Reading his work you get the sense of a man up at his desk, digging up memories and turning over ideas and phrases while the rest of the world is asleep. The mind seems to work at a different pitch during the dead of night. So this immediately struck a chord during my first reading.
Graham developed a strategy of involving, sometimes almost implicating the reader within his poems, and this draws and hooks you in. While you might say much of his work is an exploration of the difficulties of communication, it’s often dramatic and brilliantly comic, never dry. He always stressed the importance of ‘disturbing the language’, and tried to find an idiom and music, and approach to his material, which was striking and new. He liked to put pressure on the line and warp syntax in weird and wonderful ways. Reading him led me to some deeper thinking about poetics and much else. Re-publishing one of his great sequences – ‘Approaches To How They Behave’ – was a brilliant opportunity. I spent part of 2009 out on the road, trying to sing his praises, which was great fun. I met some fine people, some of whom had been friends with the man. I’ll be down in Devon and Cornwall in a few weeks, taking part in two Graham celebration events.
You’ve published poets like Tim Wells and Tim Turnbull, who have very distinctive performance styles (the latter even breaking into song sometimes!). Do you feel poetry should work equally well on page and stage?
Ideally, yes, but not all good poets can read aloud or perform for an audience; while some good performers just don’t translate to the page. I’ve been reading Basil Bunting lately and largely agree with his thought that poetry ‘is to be heard’. Sound and sense are bound, to a large degree, in language; so if you get the sound of a poem right you’re more likely to capture the right sense and achieve the desired effect on the listener/reader. Of course while some poets, like Bunting, sound beautiful to the ear, others aim for a different kind of music. As a publisher I’m looking for material that works on the page – the publisher’s medium – because these days many readers don’t take the opportunity to hear poetry read aloud.
Does a poet have to be a strong live performer for their material to succeed?
Definitely not, though it helps. They have to be a good writer, which is hard enough.
What would you like to see more of and less of in contemporary poetry?
Perhaps a little less of the lyric ‘I’ – there are many other poetic modes – and a little more adventure. The publication of the Bloodaxe anthology Identity Parade (in March) should be interesting. There’s not been a major generational anthology for a while, and I hope the selection will show off the diversity of the current British and Irish scenes. If I look back a decade, the British poetry world of 2000 seemed a lot more uptight and factional. Over the past few years there seems to have been a loosening up: now poets and readers seem more willing to explore and enjoy work from vastly different poetries. If my observations are at all close to the mark, I hope this broader engagement will continue. Also, in my dreams, I’d like a little more, and better, coverage of poetry in the national press. While I understand the pressure for space I find it hard to excuse the narrow, and often poor, coverage that makes it into that space.
In terms of regular live poetry events, what do you enjoy and recommend?
The recent London live scene has been phenomenal. There’s been a huge rise in the number of interesting new writer/performers, and promoters have become much more innovative. On some evenings, frustratingly, there have been close to a handful of cracking events on offer, and some performers have been bouncing around town appearing at two or three. I think Shortfuse (run by Cocker-esque Uri Geller fan and performance poet Nathan Penlington – KI) had a really creative and entertaining approach, and I’ve a feeling they may have influenced a number of the newer promoters. I have to be careful what I say. If I single out any particular series, I’m bound to piss off organisers of equally good strands. While I’m aware my answers may begin to sound like an advert for the talents of Mr Roddy Lumsden, I do think Broadcast (in its different forms) has been hugely positive – not only bringing in writers from across the country, but its one-off themed events have prompted many poets to produce good material which wouldn’t otherwise have appeared. Broadcast events have drawn big crowds and been great fun. As a venue, The Betsey Trotwood pub (on Farringdon Road) has been host to some great events over the past few years. Tom Chivers and the London Word Festival team are also doing great work, as are Salena Godden, Christopher Horton, Richard Tyrone Jones, Paul Lyalls, Niall O’Sullivan, Jody Porter, Kevin Reinhardt, The Shuffle, Tall Lighthouse and Wordplay. Salt have just started their Salt Cellars.
So what next for you personally, and for Donut?
For Donut, five new books in the autumn, fingers crossed. There’ll be full collections from Matthew Caley and Jude Cowan, pocketbooks from Wayne Holloway-Smith and Ahren Warner, and a limited edition of a great new sequence by A.B. Jackson. Personally, I’ll be walking the dog, followed by the washing up – I’m better trained than the dog!
Kirsten Irving muses on how, and how not, to end a poem.
As anyone who’s received editorial suggestions from me will no doubt have noticed, I have a predilection for hacking off the end of poems. I was concerned about this for a while, wondering if it had become a reflex action, but having mused on it, I stand by my conviction that a lot of poems go on longer than they need to. A strong ending is as essential as a good opening line. There’s little worse than feeling the writer has gotten bored halfway through, or doesn’t have a particularly clear idea of what they want to do with the poem and is rambling to a close; instead, the impression should be that the author chose an ending that maximises the impact or purpose of the piece. I don’t mean to say that all poets should begin with the exact wording of their closing in mind (indeed, there is value in the stream-of-consciousness approach), just that there is value in knowing where to stop.
Just as an example, imagine a poem ending:
“I drive the motorway that will take all my friends that will steal all I have even the remnants of snot from this clinging cold even this flattened snatch of grass where I feel you with me always.”
Cutting the last line would in this case do the poem a world of good, because it clumsily spells out what could be left neatly implied. The flattened grass is a strong image, and on its own suggests that the recent presence of a person or persons and their absence is in some way significant.
Overexplanation is a big offender. I sympathise if a writer feels nobody is going to understand what they’re on about, to the point of not enjoying the poem. If that’s the case, road-test it on some readers. Ambiguity can be great – perhaps they’ll like it. If, however, they’re baffled to frustration, go back through and see where you might make subtle alterations throughout the body of the poem, instead of tying one big ugly knot of “This was why” at the end. Often, simply by presenting an image the author says what they intended to explain and more.
Say, for example, a piece ended along these lines:
“On that day, I returned to find, nestled in my toy chest, flowers and a gun. The tools of murder.”
Why not leave the gun to speak for itself? The added explanation in the last line speaks of a lack of confidence in the image.
Ending on an abstract noun is difficult, but not impossible, to pull off. Too often, reams of excellent grabbable images flit by, only for a poem to end on “I just wanted forgiveness”, or “into the darkness”, or “Finally, we had closure”. The reader needs something solid to hold onto, something specific – an action, an object – which imprints itself on the memory. Why mention “The lake’s beauty” when you could leave the reader with “a glow on the lake”? It doesn’t have to be action-packed or shocking, or even highly emotive. But abstracts, for all their functionality, lack colour and taste – it’s like finishing the dessert course of a great meal and then being made to eat a spoonful of mashed potato.
Punchlines are a dangerous area. Richard Katrovas makes good use of one in ‘Love Poem for an Enemy’, proffering forgiveness and reconciliation to his foe while adhering to a classical structure, before closing with “while you’re down there, kiss my ass”. It’s a trick that can’t be played too often, however, as it grows old quickly. Children’s verse manages to get away with the cymbal clash on occasion, though the best writers, like Allan Ahlberg and Roger McGough, don’t rely on it. Humour, irony and food for thought are best when carefully sustained throughout the length of a poem, rather than saved as a sting in the tail (what, so the rest of the poem was just preamble?). Think of it like getting a lasting sun tan: it’s best to do it gradually in small doses, rather than in one short, sense-frying blast. Punchlines, wrongly used, can come across as an attempt to save a lazily written poem, or as a diatribe in rhyme. If it’s an obvious or oft-repeated sentiment, it’s hard to get away from the sense that it would be better explored in speech or prose.
It’s not just humorous poems, either. The very worst examples are those pieces that try to assert a political or ideological point or that attempt to generate a revelatory moment by meandering hopelessly before whacking a great “Ha! But really she was a ghost!” on the end. I’ve done it, you’ve done it. It doesn’t make it right.
To return to Roger McGough, his poem ‘The Lesson’ has a great last line. Strident and amoral, the murderous teacher, surveying the bodies of his pupils, hits an Arnie note: “Let that be a lesson, he said.” Given the context of the poem – a classroom massacre – this might seem like a punchline of sorts, but McGough has thought of this, mirroring the speech in the earlier lines “I’m going to teach you a lesson/one that you’ll never forget.” The first reference to the title provides the threat; the second, though similar, denotes grisly satisfaction, since it arrives after the bloody events. This neat rounding-off, so odd considering the horror that has just taken place, is highly effective when read by children, playing on their experience of fairytales (the soft, non-Grimm varieties that are peddled in schools and in children’s publishing in general) always ending “happily ever after”. Yes, it’s ended very tidily, but everyone is dead! Immediately the poem raises questions and ignites interest.
Equally, abrupt endings can be very effective. Gregory Corso’s ‘She Doesn’t Know He Thinks He’s God’ places the gentle, dreamlike state of John Rasin, as he comes to grips with his realisation and experiences a rebirth of sorts, against the frenzy of his wife, terrified for their sick child and firmly rooted in reality. The final line of the poem is simply the wife screaming “John the baby will die!” The open-ended note Corso strikes here, by refusing to wrap up the sequence of events or even really to break the spell that pins Rasin in his delusion as his wife hits breaking point, is magnificent. For a short poem, it’s got an incredible right hook on it.
In terms of practising and improving the clout of last lines, I find writing pantoums can be a very useful exercise. For the uninitiated, a pantoum features an abab rhyme scheme and follows a pattern whereby every line is at some point repeated, with the final line matching the line the poem began on. Knowing that this is the way the poem will end minimises any tendency to meander. Instead, the writer is forced to examine the ending as they begin, and look into generating a start line that is flexible enough to register some level of development or added significance by the end of the piece, and at the same time sufficiently powerful to kick the poem off.
This article, of course, has not made things easy for itself. Now I’ve banged on about the importance of effective endings, I’ve got to wrap it up well. I think I’ll leave it to Tony Hoagland, who bucks the trend and gives us a resonant abstract-noun finish, proving that no rule is without exceptions. Here’s the ending to ‘When Dean Young Talks about Wine’:
“When a beast is hurt it roars in incomprehension. When a bird is hurt it huddles in its nest. “But when a man is hurt, ………………..he makes himself an expert. Then he stands there with a glass in his hand staring into nothing ………………..as if he were forming an opinion.”