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Call for Submissions!

It’s not often we do this! Sidekick is issuing an open call for submissions over the next three weeks for two brand new anthologies: Aquanauts and Bad Kid Catullus. But there’s a twist: we’re after calligrams and visual poems primarily. For further details, follow the link.

PS. You will notice that the Sidekick site is mid-reconstruction at the moment as we gradually move our way over to a WordPress content management system. Bear with us!

A Monolingrel’s Forays into European Poetry #2: Raymond Queneau

In the run-up to Sidekick’s Alkemi event, run in conjunction with the Stockholm Review of Literature, I’m touring the Europe of my poetry bookshelf. Dominated as it is by British poets, and limited as I am by my lack of facility in any language other than my own, there are still quite a few Europeans who have managed to infiltrate. Today I’m going to reflect briefly on a recent addition: Raymond Queneau.

It is strange and, some might say, shameful, that this is the only Queneau book I own, and that I have only come by it recently. It’s not even a bilingual edition. It’s not even poetry! (Is it?)

But Queneau is a Charles Xavier among poets; his reach and influence extends well beyond those who have actually read his work. And not simply because his disciples have disciples of their own, or because he was the head of a movement (Oulipo) that has had more than one zeitgeist-y moment, but also because his achievements as an innovator can be boiled down to simple, eye-opening descriptions that have the power to send other writers scurrying to their laboratory-sheds to replicate his experiments. When you first hear about Exercises de Style, for instance – a book that recounts the same anecdote 99 times, each in a different literary or journalistic style – you can grasp the significance of it without a lesson in literary history, and without having to so much as glance at a single page.

Let’s have a glance anyway though. Here’s the English version (translated by Barbara Wright) of the anecdote rendered as a homeoteleuton:

On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: “Oi, mate!” But to anticipate Billingsgate debate, he hastened to abate, and sate.

An houate aftrate, in front of the Saint-Lazate gate, I notate him agate, talkate about a buttate, a buttate on his overcate.

And here it is again as a sonnet:

Glabrous of dial, a plait upon his bonnet,
This lousy lout – (how sad the neck he bore
And long also) – performed his usual chore:
The bus was full and he tried to get on it.

One came, a number ten – perhaps an S;
The platform joined to this plebeian carriage,
Crammed full of folk, allowed no easy passage;
Rich bastards lit cigars there, to impress.

The young giraffe described in my first strophe
Once he was on the bus began to curse an
Innocent chap – (he sought an easy trophy,

But got the worst of it); then found a seat
And sat in it. Time passed. Some wicked person,
Returning, found his buttons did not fit.

It’s similarly easy to get the gist of Cent mille milliards de poèmes, a set of ten sonnets with entirely interchangeable lines, allowing for, well, a hundred million million possible combinations. You’re more likely to encounter this work on a website than in book form, and it’s no coincidence that Queneau is referenced in every single book on games studies I currently have on loan from the library – his work is a touchstone for students in game-like literature, literature as inducement to play. The mere fact of its existence is encouraging for anyone troubled by the apparent one-sidedness of the author-reader relationship in poetry.

That much of the value and import of Queneau’s work resides in its formulation also means that he comfortably vaults the language barrier. If you don’t need to read him in English, you certainly don’t need to read him in French. This is not without drawbacks: I’ve detected for a while now a fatigue with Oulipo-inspired work by English-speaking poets, and the murmurings of complaint that the average Queneau-em lacks both purpose and substance. Arguably, anyone truly wishing to imitate the spirit of Queneau should be concocting their own formal innovations, not simply repeating his exercises. One invention of his in particular, the univocalism, long ago became the English-poetry equivalent of bicep-flexing. And it can be galling to be dismissed as an Oulipian trickster simply because one makes use of ideas that have now been around for more than half a century.

So it makes sense to turn back to the work itself, and inevitably find that there’s more to this poet than clever and hyper-restrictive forms. What I like most about Queneau (the above book isn’t the only one I’ve read, just the only one I own) is his penchant for inter-poem patterning and assemblage. It isn’t just the poems, but the books themselves that are elaborate structures. In Morale élémentaire, for instance, the latter half of the book consists of 64 prose poems based roughly on hexagrams from the I Ching. It’s like a deck of cards; it could be published as a deck of cards. Content-wise, tone-wise the poems are incredibly ranging – sprawling, even – and yet they always feel reined in, always feel marshalled. I hate to end on a cliche, but this is precisely what I consider to be missing from many poetry books that leave me cold. At the very least, it makes for a refreshing alternative. Queneau sells you the complete set, painstakingly collected, the finished sticker book, rather than giving you the junk shop tour.

A Monolingrel’s Forays into European Poetry #1: Paul Celan

So then! On Wednesday next week, Sidekick team up with the Stockholm Review of Literature for the above event, Alkemi, which centers around European poetry read in its original form alongside English translations. In the last few days before the event, I’m going to do a very short series of posts about key European poets of My Bookshelf, from the perspective of a reader with very little aptitude (despite ongoing attempts to rectify this) for foreign languages.

To start with, Paul Celan, born Paul Antschel, 1920 – 1970, a Romanian-born poet who wrote in German, forging progressively sparser, sharper, harder sliver-shards of poetry throughout his career.

My first encounter with Celan was in the third year of my undergraduate degree at UEA. I apologise for the mundanity of this. He appeared on a course of major German poets, alongside Rilke and Hölderlin, and I wrote a coursework essay on him, which I am sure I could no longer stand by, arguing that he was writing toward the ‘end of language’. The marks I received suggested I was on the right track, but that has very little to do with why I keep returning to this poet.

The bluffer’s guide to poetry will tell you that if someone brings up Celan, you bring up his suicide and the Holocaust. Both of Celan’s parents died in labour camps, and he himself spent time in one before being liberated by the Russian advance. It’s widely accepted that his poetry addresses and struggles with that experience, and his most famous poem, ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), is entirely unambiguous in taking on that subject matter. The bluffer’s guide might suggest that you quote “through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech”, Celan’s assessment of how language itself (in particular, German) was brutalised by the Nazi regime. Beyond that, you may well be advised to say nothing at all – Celan is difficult, and more importantly, criticism of Celan is difficult. What I’ve read of it is deep-reaching, meticulous, hard to follow and impossible for me to summarise. It makes the poet himself seem dark, despondent and, er, difficult.

But still, none of this is why I keep coming back to him. This may seem intellectually irresponsible, even culturally insensitive, but I’m not that interested in engaging with the Holocaust, or with the Jewish experience, through Celan’s writing. To the extent that particular poems can be traced back to distinct episodes in his life, this is a little more arresting, but I am generally not a fan of parsing the poem as biographical insight. For me, he is much more intriguing as a poet of jagged, crystal strangeness, particularly towards the end of his career, when he made heavy use of neologisms and portmanteau, shunting words together to gesture at new and frightening concepts. An important part of the effect comes from the hard edges (as I perceive it) of the German language, and it’s always worth reading several translations of Celan to see the extent to which different translators have tried echo the sound of the original poem.

My favourite translations, by the way, are those by Ian Fairley, who has produced two books of Celan translations for Carcanet – Snowpart and Fathomsuns and Benighted. He keeps a lot of the portmanteau words. They’re like little birds made of sawblades. The poems are often extremely short – seemingly easily to swallow, yet liable to get caught in the throat. Check out this little number from Snowpart:

gerittener, Über-
geschlitterter, Über-

besungender, Un-
bezwungener, Un-
umwundener, vor
die Irrenzelte gepflanzter

seelenbärtiger, hagel-
äugiger, Weisskies-

ridden, Over-
slidden, Over-

sung, Un-
swung, Un-
planted ahead the bedlam tents,

soulbearded, hailstone-
eyed, Whitepebble-

I could probably go into a thorough comparison of different translations at this point, but I’m not sure I’m up to the task right now, and this is meant to be a very short article. So I’ll end here by saying that the German sound is so integral to the feel of Celan’s poems that when I attempted my own versions, I went so far as to ignore the literal sense entirely and produce a homophonic translation, a form of poem decried by Don Paterson as avant-garde whimsy. The result frustrated a reviewer of my own book, though it’s hard to imagine he would have found much more sense in a literal translation. Below is the original German, followed by Ian Fairley’s translation, then Michael Hamburger’s, and finally my homophonic version from School of Forgery.

Further reading:

FINDERS KEEPERS emerges from the forest!

Finders Keepers by Harry Man and Sophie Gainsley is out now! A poetic field guide to Britain’s vanishing wildlife, its poems and colour illustrations turn the spotlight on foxes, salmon, butterflies, bats and more.

The authors are also geocaching the poems in various locations around the country. Follow @keeperfinder on Twitter or visit to keep up to date with the latest information.

Vote for Sidekick Books in this year’s Saboteur Awards!

The Saboteur Awards are now open for nominations! Since the vast majority of poetry prizes in the UK focus almost exclusively on single-author collections, the Saboteur Awards are Sidekick’s only real chance to win garlands for our amazing poets, artists and contributors. The shortlist and subsequent winners are decided by popular vote, and it’s therefore very important that readers and fans of our books take part in the voting process if we’re to stand a chance. With that in mind, we humbly request your support!

The nominations round is open until 24th April, and involves filling out at least three categories on the form on this page.

Here are the categories we are eligible for:

1. Nominate the Most Innovative Publisher

We’d really like you to put us down for this! No other publisher that we’re aware of is mixing together different media and experimenting so freely with the possible forms of the poetry anthology and pamphlet.

6. Nominate a Best Collaborative Work

We have two eligible titles for this category: Hell Creek Anthology by J.T. Welsch and Dom & Ink, which is an illustrated retelling of the Spoon River Anthology with dinosaurs from Montana. And Surveyors’ Riddles by Alistair Noon and Giles Goodland, in which the two poets trade poems reactively and spontaneously, generating a sprawling mixture of alt-history, satire and prophetic puzzles.

12. Nominate a Best Anthology

We have two titles eligible for this category: Over The Line: An Introduction to Poetry Comics, edited by Chrissy Williams and Tom Humberstone, which is the UK’s first anthology of poetry comics and which comes endorsed by both Alan Moore and Poetry London. And Birdbook: Farmland, Heathland, Mountain, Moorland, which is our third mega-collection of contemporary bird poems and illustrations, with poems by, among others, David Morley, who has just won the Ted Hughes Award, and Chris Beckett, who was nominated for the same award.

Feel free to fill out the other categories in whatever fashion suits you. Thanks in advance for your support and your time, everyone!

Birds, Tigers and Terrible Lizards

Our first big event of 2016, booked for 30th March, is Birds, Tigers & Terrible Lizards, a late London launch for two of our recent titles: J.T Welsch and Dom & Ink’s Hell Creek Anthology and the many-poeted Birdbook: Farmland, Heathland, Mountain, Moorland. We’ll also be having a little ten-month celebration of Lives Beyond Us, to round out the theme of the evening. There will be animal/dinosaur mask-making activities and a quiz, and readers on the night so far confirmed include:

J.T. Welsch
Christopher Reid
Alison Brackenbury
Sarah Hesketh
Richard Osmond
Peter Daniels
Jeremy Keighley
Dzifa Benson

The venue is LIBRARY in Covent Garden, which looks like this:

The Facebook page for the event is here, but if you don’t use Facebook, please RSVP to us at so that we know you’re coming, as there will be a guest list system in operation and we don’t want to leave anyone out in the cold.

Sidekick at the National Videogame Arcade and Five Leaves bookshop in Nottingham

Dr Fulminare’s empire expands by increments! You can now buy Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge from Nottingham’s National Videogame Arcade while you’re dropping by for Minecraft parties, and a whole medicine bag full of Sidekick titles at independent counterculture bookshop Five Leaves, also in Nottingham. We can heartily recommend a visit to both – the poetry section in Five Leaves is bountiful, and I came away with the new Matthew Caley title under my arm.

Many thanks to NVA writer-in-residence Abigail Parry for the snap.

Poets Can’t Do Anything Right. And Maybe That’s Their Own Fault.

In one of the many memorable exchanges in the BBC’s I, Claudius, a grovelling senator congratulates John Hurt’s Caligula for chewing out his colleagues. “How right you were, Jove,” he says, “to think of punishing them for celebrating the Battle of Actium.” “Well you see, Marcus, I had them both ways,” Caligula replies. “Because if they hadn’t, they would have insulted the God Augustus, my grandfather who won the battle.”

Caligula’s little stitch-up came to mind when I first read Private Eye’s coverage of Sarah Howe’s victory at the Eliots. In the past, the same organ has criticised the awards – with good reason, I think – for apparent nepotism. Only last year, it wondered at winner David Harsent’s relationship with some of the judges, while here is a typically scathing round-up of poetry awards culture in general from 2002:

This year’s judges [for the Forward Prize] include two poets published by Picador (Sean O’Brien and Michael Donaghy), who have shortlisted two other Picador poets (Peter Porter and Paul Farley) for the £10,000 top prize. Last year’s judging panel also included two Picador poets – Donaghy (again) and Peter Porter. Last year Porter gave the main prize to Sean O’Brien. […]

Last year the £5,000 prize for “best first collection” went to another Picador poet, John Stammers (a product of Donaghy’s poetry workshops), and the £1,000 “best single poem“ prize was given to Ian Duhig for a poem – you guessed it – from his forthcoming Picador collection. The same poem earlier won Duhig the £5,000 top prize in the Poetry Society’s national poetry competition, judged by a three-man panel including his mate Don Paterson, the foul-mouthed Scottish bard who also happens to be the poetry editor at, er, Picador.

This year’s five-poet Forward shortlist includes two other chums, David Harsent and John Fuller (winner of the Forward prize in 1996, when one of the judges was again Sean O’Brien). And Sean O’Brazen was one of three judges of the 1997 T. S. Eliot prize (worth £5,000), which was awarded to … his own editor, Don Paterson.

Duhig, Donaghy, O’Brien, Harsent and Paterson all have the same agent, TriplePa, aka Gerry Wardle – who just happens to be Sean O’Brien’s partner. And Donaghy, Duhig, Farley, Fuller, Harsent, Paterson and Porter have all received fulsome write-ups from the Sunday Times’s main poetry critic, one Sean O’Brien.

This year, however, the Eliot went to a young poet with no obvious connection to the presiding fraternity – or at least none that Private Eye could root out. Turning their own reasoning on its head, this in itself became a cause for suspicion and sneering cynicism. How could a poet not previously feted suddenly win the most prestigious award on the circuit? Something must be up, was the upshot. The Eliot judges, it seems, are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Of course, sneering is Private Eye’s self-appointed duty. Jonathan Miller, the target of their merciless lampooning for years, once asked of them: “What are you for?” The answer is: nothing. Private Eye subsists on the presumption – all too rarely inaccurate – that there is shadiness and shamefulness behind everything that filters through to the public consciousness.

Sneering is also a Great British pastime. But there is an unwritten (or possibly written, or at least documented) rule that as long as it is directed at the powerful and pre-eminent, it serves a moral or culturally useful purpose, but when it is directed at soft targets it is contemptible. And poetry is surely the softest of all targets. Softer even, I would venture, than women and minorities, since we live in an era when the liberal backlash against overt sexism, racism or homophobia is often vicious and swift. I hope that comparison isn’t too glib – needless to say, contempt toward women and minorities has much more serious repercussions and should accordingly be treated more seriously. I only point out that poetry is the easier target for sneering because it has very few vigilant defenders. The kind of person who feels they are oppressively policed, censored and intimidated by social justice hit squads can freely practice their impression of serene imperiousness by snorting in the general direction of practising poets.

What is particularly galling about the kind of sneering that is directed at poetry is that, as so aptly demonstrated by Private Eye, it is adaptable to all possibilities. No conceivable form of poetry can escape it. If the language a poet employs is complex, they must be obfuscating pretentiously. If it is simple, then surely anyone could do it. Poets who write for the page are timid and old-fashioned. Poets who write for the stage are failed stand-ups. Poets who are subtle in their political engagement are toothless. Poets who are less subtle are ranting lefties. Traditional forms are dull. Innovative forms are gimmicky. Poetry should be ‘authentic’, not clever, but nobody wants to hear you talk about your feelings all night. And so on.

Now and then, a voice in the electronic wilderness implores poetry to rejuvenate itself, to prove its detractors wrong. But what can be done that isn’t already being done? Countless poets have tried being young and sexy. Countless have tried being old and wise. Many are poor. Many are wealthy and glamorous. Many write from experience, many delve into the fantastical. Most, I think, have ‘something to say’. Poets double up as their own underground promoters and presentable ambassadors, reach out to other artforms, collaborate, eviscerate, tend, trend, jump through hoops and pointedly refuse to jump through hoops. They work for free and they take the work they can get. But nothing can impress the practised cynic with his lovingly cultivated pitying frown.

What is perhaps worse is that, as Paxman might say, poets themselves have conspired in the development of this supremely effective cynicism. Poets, I suspect, are the originators of most or all of the most sweepingly dismissive criticisms levelled against them. Praise, in the poetry culture I consider myself a part of, is visible and plentiful, but it is also stultifyingly dutiful and functional. The lexicon of judges’ reports and favourable reviews enjoys considerable overlap with that of the advertising industry. It is depressingly uncreative. The negativity, on the other hand, is born out of natural passions relentlessly seeking new forms of expression. It is mischievous, sly, funny, pointed and frequently insightful. Because poetry works like a spell, and a spell is easily broken, such negativity is also very potent, and perhaps for this reason, it is kept mostly at a low whisper, drowned in a sea of perfunctory praise. But because it is so potent – a potency also derived from its honesty – it also, I think, seeps into the cultural atmosphere more readily than praise, which is willed and hence weak.

I’m basing this both on direct experience (with particular regard to the words I hear coming out of my own mouth) and on second-hand tales of what judges and editors say to each other at after-parties. And here I mean praise as distinct from congratulations, encouragement and comradely enthusiasm. These are sincere and in abundance. Perhaps too much in abundance – they are relied on, arguably, to fill the hole left by an absence of meaningful praise. The sorry state of the awards system documented in the quote above looks an awful lot like the pre-social media equivalent of coordinated ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and retweets as enacted by men in positions of influence. The problem with congratulations, encouragement and comradely enthusiasm is that they centre on the individual, not the work, and so we have a country full of garlanded poets whose faces and book covers are fetishised over anything they have written, while the writing itself is lazily trashed.

I am, of course, talking at a high level of generality. One of the reasons I value the reviews of The Judge on the Sidekick site is that while he is frequently scathing and sometimes ungenerous, his positive remarks seem to come from the same place as his negative ones, and so seem to me to be more effusive and meaningful than the average artfully worded fluff piece. When I lived briefly with Roddy Lumsden, my one-time editor at Salt, I found his passion for certain poems and books completely spontaneous, genuine and unflagging, even if he could never really articulate to my satisfaction what it was he liked about them. I could give more examples of exceptions, but I’ll stop there.

There are two lessons I draw from these observations. Firstly, as I’ve argued before and as has indeed been said elsewhere, there ought to be an ongoing effort toward a robust, flexible and playful language of positive criticism within poetry, so that sincere praise has many more channels through which to flow. The pool has been stagnant for a long time and is only lately being reinvigorated.

Secondly, I think that negative criticism needs to step out of the shadows, in part so that it can inspire spirited defence. It’s notable that Oliver Thring’s bored swipes at Sarah Howe’s poetry in The Sunday Times brought out more in the way of a passionate account of her work than anything that had been written to date. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very sceptical about the merits of a tough love approach. But at the moment, let’s face it, poets are not preparing each other for a life above the parapets. The good-hearted mutual encouragement and flattery needs to be backed up with critical weaponry, and you can only really forge this weaponry in the heat of critical disdain. But once it’s disseminated, one would hope it will be considerably harder for armchair emperors to feel they can make their mocking jabs without inviting withering responses. Which in turn may well greatly improve the quality of the mockery.

The Sidekick Advent Calendar: Day 10

Did you know that Doomdark the Witchking doesn’t actually appear in the 1985 game Doomdark’s Revenge? He leaves the hard work to his sorceress daughter. So where is he, and what is he up to?

Kate Potts has the answer in today’s addition to the Play-Poem Archive, and you might not like it. The Germans have Krampus the Christmas devil, and we, it seems, have Doomdark.


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