Sandsnarl / Sweet Mystress: new pamphlet & game-poem from Sidekick’s Jon Stone!

Sidekick editor Jon Stone has been a busy bee of late!

On Friday 3rd Sept, he launched his pamphlet Sandsnarl with the ever-excellent Emma Press.

Sandsnarl cover - yellow swirls on a white background

Sandsnarl is a settlement steeped in sand – though where it came from and how long ago is a matter of tall tales and steely whispers. The sand itself makes accurate record-keeping impossible. It is drug, ore, plague and delicacy. The inhabitants of this region (or is it a fallen kingdom?) talk and think through its haze. Some alter their shape. Others fizz and seethe with the habit of resistance. These poems eavesdrop, extract and sift. Together, they make a brief impression of a time and place, a Buñuelian musical without the music.

Click here to view sample poems and buy your copy!

Secondly, as part of National Poetry Day 2021, the Forward Arts Foundation has featured Jon’s interactive poem Sweet Mystress on their website.

Can you find your way through the island and solve the puzzles you encounter en route?

Click here to test your mettle.

The Sidekick Advent Calendar: Grand Finale Fight Special!

Christmas is a time for fighting. Why else would we do it with such regularity? In this spirit, Jon and K have engaged their respective champions to go at it in a charming vignette we call ‘Violent Night’. They’ll be doing this via the Beat ‘Em Up form from Coin Opera II. In this form, each player writes a couplet, the first line of which must ‘block’ their opponent by nouning the verbs in the line directly above. Have at you!

Jon’s Champion:

Jólakötturinn, the Icelandic Yule Cat, who eats lazy children who have not finished their work by Christmas.









K’s Champion:

Frau Perchta, Alpine spirit who takes her approach to festive child discipline straight from the school of Krampus, tearing out the guts of her victims and replacing them with rubbish.









Merry Christmas, everyone!

With special thanks to Mental Floss for a fascinating article on Christmas monsters.

Coin Opera II custom poems #1: Ecstatica II for John Clegg

As top-tier rewards during our Kickstarter campaign to fund the printing of video games poetry anthology Coin Opera II, we offered backers the chance to have their own custom poem written on a game of their choice. In the run-up to our Seven-Player Co-op event on Thursday 6th November at Four Quarters Bar, Peckham, we’ll be revealing the finished poems, now in the hands of their wonderful backers.

First up, it’s Ecstatica II, chosen by John Clegg. This piece was unique in being the only poem in the series written jointly by Jon and Kirsty as rivals for the protagonist’s attention. Here is the physical poem John received, in the form of a glorious medieval-style scroll (and here’s a video of him receiving it):





And here is the poem itself:




Thanks once again to all of our amazing backers.

Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #2: Character & Flavour

THE NUMBER of poets writing today, it’s frequently argued, is reaching a kind of critical mass. Our finest are being buried in mediocrity, and the bulk of what is being written is ‘landfill‘. Who gassed the gatekeepers? What blunts the blades of the critic-gardeners, so that our flowerbeds are choked with dandelions? How will future generations pick through the mess?

Another way of looking at it


This angst over the quantity of poetry being published is really the result of the limited way we’ve come to talk about poets, poems and poetry. As the number and diversity of its practitioners flourish, still we repeatedly fall back on the trope of the giant among men, the axe smashing the ice, the quality of ‘greatness’, to describe the value and appeal of what is being written. I don’t mean in one specific mode of exchange either – this need to elevate is a common denominator in publicity, criticism and casual conversation. Elevate, that is, in lieu of meaningful differentiation.

The result is the appearance of multitudes laying claim to the same tiny throne, with no point of reference for what is described beyond other, weaker variations of itself. You do not expand your audience by saying, “This is the best kind of what it is” without saying what ‘it’ is. You simply create the impression of a mass of sameness.

The marketing of poetry in particular reveals that we struggle to move beyond the comparative, and come armed with only limited ways of illustrating its effects. Too many book blurbs deploy a smorgasbord of stock traits while simultaneously laying claim, through bare assertion, to uniqueness. This runs through to our reviewing culture as well, which frequently constitutes an ever-more finely balanced game of using different words to convey the same message. Think, for example, how many poets reportedly fit a description along these lines: ceaselessly inventive and original, utilises precise, finely wrought language, deft musicality, addresses themes of identity, place, change in luminous, startling lines, often wry and funny, unafraid to take risks – in short, the real thing.

Yes, this goes beyond claims to grandeur and eminence, but the repetitiousness of such depiction doesn’t get us very far.

The fatigue felt all round is, therefore, not a reflection of the sameness of the poetry itself but its presentation, and we’re fooling ourselves if we ignore how much of our own impression is informed by that consistency of presentation. This accounts for a range of apparently small-minded behaviours – from the self-styled representative of ‘ordinary people’ who dismisses whole generations for abandoning formal conservatism, to the finely articulated manifesto as to what constitutes ‘real poetry’, to the frustrated avant-gardist who disavows anything with a narrative pulse. All means of avoiding tangling with the unruly cosmos of poetic possibility, most of which lies unknown and threatening beyond the shallow sweep of our descriptive language. To know much of it well requires a dedicated and thorough immersion that is beyond most of us. Instead, we tend to find our own corner of a friendly star system, settle on a hospitable planet, and turn our telescopes inward, while the public at large clings tightly to the safety of school-taught verse.

Taking cues


What we should be doing is making our cosmos navigable, not just for ourselves but everyone outside of poetry – so not merely to the person who is prepared to burrow through hundreds of academic papers but also (and more importantly because these are more numerous) the person browsing a bookshop display or events listing. I may have poked fun at the clichés of poetry selling five years ago with Vitally Urgent: The Game of Blurb, but I’m not for a moment suggesting it’s easy to find ways of articulating the individual qualities of a poet or book so that they can be understood at a glance. Look across, however, at some of the mediums and genres whose audiences have expanded exponentially over the last few decades: manga, anime, games, science fiction and fantasy. These are areas – if not industries – which afford roles and employ to thousands of creators, filling large convention halls with fans who will queue for autographs from writers of all ages. It would be somewhat delusional to imagine that poetry could transform itself into a similar model of success, but we might at least pick up a few lessons in breaking out of a niche.

One such lesson is what I’d call the Character Select Screen Principle. Character select screens have appeared in certain genres of computer games since the days of arcade cabinets, typically proffering an array of protagonists, one of which the player must select as their avatar. They are designed to convey, in as immediate a manner as possible, the fundamental traits of each character, so as to help the player identify one which suits him or her best. Posture, expression and clothing, as well as numerical statistics and brief biographical information, are employed as suggestive devices – broad strokes that serve to make a memorable impression.

What the character select screen appeals to – and what, in their different ways, so many pop culture properties make use of – is our need to explore, develop and demonstrate our identity through the choices we make. We pick favourites – to play, to root for, to fantasise over – as a way of describing who we are, to ourselves and our surroundings. Witness also the proliferation of ‘Which ___ Are You?’ quizzes on Facebook, the results of which are shared for comment. The significance of a choice shouldn’t be apparent only to ourselves but to those who see we have made it.

In other words, people are more likely to buy and read poetry if their choice of what to read tells other people something about them.

❖And where do we start? 


Both cover art and cover copy are already used to accentuate the individual flavour of a poetry book, with varying degrees of success. Publisher livery can serve as an obstacle (all Carcanet books are predominantly red, black and white) or provide a framework. It’s fair to say that Faber have at their disposal a simple but effective means of distinguishing their poets (and their poets’ books) from each other, by using colour as the major design feature of their cover design, harking back to one of the very first ways we learn to mark our identities as children, by having a favourite colour. Some poets – Luke Kennard and W. N. Herbert come to mind – have a talent for cartoonifying themselves. All of this is good groundwork.

The most successful critical analysis also strives to find ways of describing its subject that make a lasting impression. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that this is the major useful function of a review. In a world where we simply do not have a practice of poetry criticism that is sufficiently removed from the writing and publishing of poetry, memorable description is more important than maintaining the cracked illusion of critical distance. In other words, a bad review that paints a striking portrait of a poet or collection is providing more of a service to the poet, and to readers, than a good review that deals in subtle nuances. To the extent we believe our critical culture is a project of assessment – of holding gemstones to the light and rating their flawlessness – we are mistaken. Its value to us is as a way of generating the ingredients for our own character select screens – simple, stark phrases that colour one poet or book differently from another – even if this function is too often buried beneath politesse and the affected gestures of judgement.

What I suggest, therefore, is a project, building on these beginnings, towards broad-stroke characterisation – of poems, poets, poetries, books – with the measure of success being this: that the person browsing the bookshop display be able to skim their eyes across a range of covers and brief descriptions and, even if they aren’t generally a buyer of poetry, be able to pick a personal favourite.

Objections?


(1) Look, Jon, poetry is about subtlety, the slow release of flavour. This is vulgarisation you’re talking about – caricaturing, turning books into fashion accessories.

Answer: Such subtlety can be over-fetishised – it isn’t fundamental to the art form. I also think it’s wrong to be disdainful of instantaneous appeal or announcement of purpose. It is a great thing to fall in love on sight.

(2) It’s not up to us to ‘sell’ poetry, Jon. People just need to be made less ignorant and less fearful of reading difficult texts.

Answer: Avoid the responsibility if you want, but remember, this isn’t just a problem of poetry’s public image; most practitioners and critics also seem to struggle to know what’s happening in their own art beyond a narrow area of focus. Especially the ones who think they know everything.

(3) What you’re asking for is already under way.

Answer: I agree; there are people already on the case. But this should be something many more of us are involved in and thinking about, because it goes to the way practitioners conduct casual dialogue amongst themselves as well. My experience now is that we mostly say to each other that someone or something is ‘good’, ‘interesting’, ‘clever’, ‘overrated’, ‘underrated’, and so on, in a way that makes poetry seem like an exercise in merely perpetually impressing each other – exactly what its most acid-tongued critics accuse it of being.

(4) What of the dangers of poets becoming typecast or straitjacketed by this so-called ‘broad-stroke characterisation’?

Answer: It’s always possible to reinvent yourself.

Examples


Since I should practice what I preach, I’m now going to try to sketch some of my favourite poets, on the understanding that I make no claim to critical or objective distance in what follows. You can’t trust me as an impassive assessor, but that’s not the point of the exercise. The point is: bold descriptions that accentuate individual flavour.

JOHN CLEGG.
Insatiable collector and exhibitor of curiosities. In person, he’s half lion, half mad librarian, fizzing with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge and excitement that spills into his poems. But you can never be sure whether the specimens he proffers with such wild enthusiasm are genuine finds or brilliant fakes of his own making. Antler, his first collection, is a dusty display case of relic-tales, fragments and charms from lost and imagined civilisations, sometimes crossing into our own. The True Account of Captain Love and the Five Joaquins is his versifying of an Old West yarn about a coward who carries a horse-thief’s head in a jar. Or is it?

KIRSTEN IRVING.
Monsters and monstrousness is her area of expertise, via sex, lore and sci-fi. She throws herself at her subjects like a fireball – the resulting poems are rough-edged and crooked, like circus freaks or recalcitrant schoolgirls, too thorny and untrimmed to fit neatly among the more rarified species of poetry. They tend to land you in the middle of storm-struck emotional terrain without a map, revealing their context (and their teeth) gradually, through rows of jagged imagery. The giants, robots, cannibals and cartoon characters of her first collection, Never, Never, Never Come Back, aren’t jolly pop culture references but portraits of outsiders made beautiful and terrible by what they lack.

TONY HARRISON.
For a brief moment in the 80s, Harrison was a notorious poet – the result of a televised version of the sprawling, angry V, a long poem which ventriloquises the expletive-filled diction of a disenfranchised teen as it expounds on decay and societal fracturing. Tories wanted it banned. But for all the rage and sorrow that informs his best work, Harrison is formally conservative, somehow condensing extreme rawness and bitterness into tight rhymed couplets. You want direct? He’ll tell you what he thinks, how he feels with the force of someone jabbing a finger at your sternum. You want personal? Much of his oeuvre is effectively an autobiography of working class displacement and the splintering of his own identity.

CHRISSY WILLIAMS.
What the half-Italian Williams makes are more poems than anything else, but they’re also hybrids and creatures, the genes of other textual forms (mixtape, diary, screenplay) spliced with those of poetry. It’s all gone about with joyous, youthful abandon, so that each piece jitters like a matchbox of jumping beans. Her work so far comprises a string of opuscules – stealth raids made from the territory outside the formal poetry ‘collection’. The Jam Trap is a sequence of rapid-fire comic vignettes. Angela, her collaboration with artist Howard Hardiman, is a love letter to Angela Lansbury in the form of a nightmare-ride through her psyche. Epigraphs is a work comprised solely of epigraphs.

The above do not represent a radical new way of writing, and could stand to be sparer and more direct still, perhaps shortened to the length of a cover quote. But as it stands, and to the extent they are effective, this approach is currently vastly outweighed by the glut of writing on poetry that proclaims ‘major contribution’, ‘finest of his generation’, ‘intense originality’, ‘unblinking’, ‘extraordinary’, ‘remarkable’ and so on and so forth, even down to those biographies we circulate which do little but count out awards.

How will future generations pick through this mess? Don’t make them test dozens of similarly-worded claims in search of some pantheon. Give them a landscape peopled with innumerable well-drawn characters who are as diverse as any group of people in the whole of humanity. And grant the same to the present generation.

***

Still not got your fix? Find the full post series here.

Five Fixes For Contemporary British Poetry Culture #1: Prize Culture

General introduction: What are we ‘fixing’?
I WOULD characterise the major problem with contemporary British poetry culture like so: I have, on my shelves, a growing collection of  intensely idiosyncratic, vibrantly multifarious books, almost resonating with the small power of their grimoire-like content, connecting me to myriad lived experiences, intelligences and lives of the mind. They’re filled with play and dance, wisdom and strangeness, violent shifts in temperament and technical virtuosity. It’s a relatively modest treasury, but there is enough wealth there that I don’t expect I’ll bleed it dry in my lifetime. And that’s assuming I don’t keep adding even more books. They are talismanic; to carry one with me on a jaunt, or into work, is to shield myself just a little against the creep of anxiety and despair. They do not all agree with each other. They do not all agree with me. Some of them are vexing. Some are frightening.

At the same time, beyond my bookshelf, in the public sphere, there is this thing called poetry. Supposedly it is the same thing. When you look at the individual words and names and titles, by god, it is the same thing. But in the public sphere, where it is acknowledged and talked about, it seems to amount to the vague and unaccountable indulgences of the sentimental and the terminally comfortable. It dithers. It all looks the same. It is oddly pleased with itself, at the same time as squirming with insecurity. It constantly insists that it is Important and Brilliant, but when asked why, it sulks and storms off to its bedroom. It doesn’t want to surrender its stories or dirty its dress; it simply wants to be gazed at. The warlocks become burghers, the cosmonauts streakers. It looks like an isolated empire in opulent decline.

I don’t see any natural reason why this stark disconnect between realities should exist, why it can’t be changed. It isn’t to do with the quality or health of the art itself; it is entirely a problem of how poetry chooses to present itself to the world, a collective failure to grasp that what makes a medium rich, what draws multitudes to it, is not its common character but its genetic complexity, its resistance to easy summary. Every time poetry tries to tell the world what it ‘is’, or boasts of its vitality, or proposes its practitioners as a ‘type’, or elects a representative, it further closes itself off.

I say at the outset that the purpose of this exercise is not to assign blame, and certainly not to suggest that no one else is aware of the problem or trying to do anything about it. Systemic, cultural problems are the sum of millions of unintentionally complicit individual behaviours. In The Man Who Was Thursday, the entire anarchist council turns out to be composed of spies who are trying to destroy it from within. Similarly, I’m prepared to believe that most of the individuals comprising contemporary British poetry culture are allies in the same struggle.

So with that in mind, the first ‘fix’ on my list is

1. Acknowledge prize culture for what it is and what it does, and make it do its job better.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that prize culture features first on my list, but since it’s such a tediously contentious and oft-visited area, I’ll need to be exact about what I mean. Prize culture is poetry as a spectator sport, but one which takes place through darkly tinted glass, goes out of its way to avoid spectacle and advertises itself fraudulently as an evaluative process.

The effect of the fraud is to cause practitioners to discuss the problems with prize culture in an entirely confused way, forgetting its real purpose. The effect of the opaqueness is to make rancour out of the healthy conflicts that exist within poetry because practitioners are left guessing – or piecing together rumours – to understand a decision-making process that refuses to account for itself and its powerful aftershocks. It’s WrestleMania held at a secret location, with most of the contestants absent.

Starting further back, no poetry prize exists merely to reward ‘the best’ of anything, even if such a function could be scrupulously performed. Smaller prizes exist to raise funds for their organisers. The big ones, however – the Forward and the Eliot in particular – are primarily a service to what we might call ‘the poetry industry’. They are mechanisms for publicity, and for pot-stirring. One of the remits of the Forward Prize is “to make people who don’t usually read it more aware of poetry” (quote attributed to one of last year’s judges).

It’s important to understand this, firstly because it’s a waste of time, therefore, to spend too much time worrying about whether the selections really represent the ‘best’ of any given category. Even if you believe such objectivity is possible, that mission is completely overridden by the more measurable purpose. If the Forward or the Eliot mysteriously stopped producing spikes in sales for shortlisted books, a serious reform would be undertaken immediately, as a matter of emergency, no matter if the entire world agreed on the correctness of the selections.

The second reason it’s important to understand this is because the prizes should be much better at this task than they are. The shot in the arm they give ought to be longer-lasting and felt across the wide field of contemporary British poetry. In other words, they should be creating more readers of poetry. They are not.

Prizes could better work towards achieving this purpose, however, if the debate about strategy were more inclusive and not held behind closed doors. It’s clear to anyone with their ear to the ground that judges and officials regularly wrangle with the politics of their decisions in private, and it doesn’t take a powerful intellect to guess that part of the reason so much of a shortlist is composed of books by non-independent publishers is that these publishers are best able to supplement the resulting publicity with their own marketing muscle. Even if individual judges swear blind that this didn’t cross their mind for a moment, the panel itself will often represent a bias towards the range offered by these publishers, with at least one representative from their lists.

Strategy is certainly something that needs to be urgently revised. There is a fundamental crudeness to the way the prizes attempt to make news (and, therefore, readers) out of their processes. The appeal of any contest lies in the narratives that spring from it, but year on year, prizes return to the same tired plots: eminent poet cements reputation. Or: hotly tipped young poet still on a roll. That’s it. These are boring stories, and that’s why, in recent years, we’ve seen the announcement of shortlists flavoured firstly by weak proclamations of ‘a great year, a mammoth task’, then by controversial statements. Where are the upsets? Where the uproar that X would have won but for a quirk of circumstance? Where the rivalries between different houses, or movements, or ideas of poetry?

In answering this last question, it becomes obvious that one of the major strategic failings of prize culture is its disavowal of the fracturedness of British poetry, its aspiration towards a smooth meritocracy, free of tribal conflict. But there’s a reason why movements are remembered, why they are born, beyond generational tensions, and it is this: movements make for stories, with characters, with success and failure, and stories make for contexts in which – or through which, rather – poetry can be discovered by readers. This also helps explain why a proportion of poetry readers turn away from the present with a sneer but embrace the often more difficult poetry of the past, long-dead poets having settled into their narrative/mythological bedding.

Contrast with Fiona Sampson’s approach to current day poets in Beyond the Lyric: A Map of Contemporary British Poetry. The subtitle tells all: a ‘map’ presumes a static landscape. The nomadic tribes that move across it, meeting and mixing, are left undocumented. That is to say, clearly, our poetry is fractured, and battles are fought in key territories, but considerable effort is made to draw a veil over proceedings, to manufacture instead the image of a wholesome family perpetually engaged in warm celebration. Is it any wonder no one finds this interesting? The real story of British poetry – one of passions thwarted and rewarded, of new challengers, blacklists, alliances, ambitions, affairs and mad hopes dashed – is relegated to the realm of pub gossip while the official account reads: All calm, no ships sighted, everyone lovely. The carefully managed events surrounding the prizes, meanwhile, are designed to be condensed down into a single line in a poet’s biography. Look at what was of markedly more interest to journalists and other commentators over the last two years: the fallout from Christian Ward’s multiple plagiarisms, or the shortlistees John Kinsella and Alice Oswald withdrawing books due to ethical misgivings. Both times too many poets were eager to wave away stories which, unlike the well-worn narrative of wholesomeness, piqued people’s interest. (Here’s a joke for you: is poetry brown bread?)

It ought not be this way. The staged contest should be a mechanism for revealing the variety and energy and, yes, obsessiveness, that lies behind this art form. It should be a chance for those normally interested in poetry to find something or someone to identify with and cheer on amongst the flinting of differing ideas and ideals. The objection I sense bubbling up goes something like this: But it should be about the poetry, not personalities, not egos. What you’re suggesting is that the poetry itself be subsumed by scandal and cheap theatrics. I don’t believe, based on the lively discussions I’ve seen poets engage in, that it need be like this either. There must be something in between theatrics and fixed smiles, something which offers a wide open window to the poetry behind the posturing. And how many readers discovered Rimbaud through his reputed scurrilousness, Catullus through his obscene gossipmongering? The zealousness in dismissing drama and histrionics as beneath our contempt speaks of a failure to recognise that one of the sources of such embarrassments is deeply felt passions being diligently, ritualistically stifled. Only some of that passion is egotism; the rest is artists’ passion for their medium.

“Why isn’t the story ‘UK poetry in great shape’?” poets often ask when a journalist alights on some grubby escapade. Because that’s not a story; that’s a press release.

So to bring this section to a head, I’m calling for this:

(1) that the organisations behind larger prizes express their purpose more openly and straightforwardly, and instigate contributions and discussion around achieving that purpose;

(2) that the affiliations of all judges be loudly announced – the better to provoke them to account for any decision which may appear overly partial, the better to quell rancour that such partiality is kept hidden;

(3) that judges openly admit to and discuss the political or strategic element of their decisions – whereby a newcomer is pitted against an old hand, or a poet is included to ‘represent’ a certain strain of poetics, and so on – so that these decisions can be further discussed, and more enticing narratives can come out of the contest;

(4) that we anticipate and welcome the conflict that comes with our choosing who and what to promote and reward, instead of valorising a politeness that borders on the obsequious.

In finer summary: poetry already tries hard to be a spectator sport. It just does it badly. Do better, and people will then come on to the poetry itself.

***

Still not got your fix? Find the full post series here.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #3: Trine 2


Trine 2 is a delightful co-op puzzle platformer which will burn out your PC’s heart with its gorgeousness. The plot makes a little more sense in single-player (the Trine itself is a device used to explain why the player can switch between three characters) but it comes into its own when played with two friends. The Knight holds off the goblins with sword and shield while the Wizard alchemises an unstable bridge out of thin air and the Thief lights the way with flaming arrows. Something like that.

The poems in Trine 2 are written on secret scrolls hidden in various places throughout the span of the game, much like in Mark of the Ninja. And like in Mark of the Ninja, they form a complete narrative when pieced together, gradually revealing the history of the game’s antagonist. Because it’s set in a fantasy land ablaze with colour and sunlight, however, the narration is somewhat more direct, the style of telling sharply reminiscent of children’s fairy tales. The first ten are all simple quatrains with an ABCB rhyme-scheme. Cleverly, they use repetition to telegraph the conceit of alternating narrators: two sisters taking it in turn to speak about their relationship, each with a different outlook. There’s little in the way of subtle metaphor, but that’s fine – they fulfil their intended purpose of innocently leading the reader down an ever-darkening path.

The writer’s grasp of meter does slip a little, unfortunately, as in the last two lines of the sixth piece:

My sister is silly,
Insipid and dim.
Yet everyone still loves
This golden girl prim.

It’s another case, I feel, where even waving it under the nose of a poet would have resulted in a superior edit.

The last two poems in the game are longer. The sisters are finally named and Isabel gets a song, Rosabel a lament. ‘Isabel’s Song’ is the better piece:


The ABBA rhyme-scheme is refreshing in this context, and there’s just enough variation in the rhythm for this to feel like a ‘song of innocence’ in the style of Blake, even if it’s rather clichéd. The fourth line being one less metrical foot long is surprisingly effective. If it only it were repeated in the eighth!

‘Rosabel’s Lament’ is hamstrung by at least two absolutely clattering lines: “And grief and pain are my hopes” and “My failures ever let me mourn”. “Failures, may I mourn?” “Yes, you ever may!” “Oh thanx.” Maybe there’s something deliberate in the way the sinister nursery rhyme has segued into bad teen angst poetry as the sisters have grown up.

You can read all the poems here, although in this case in particular, I would recommend discovering them through playing the game. More so than in the two previous examples in this series, I would say the effect of the poems is enhanced by their gradual accumulation while the ‘present day’ plot unfolds. It’s a very effective form of narrative parallelism that feels less forced than threading flashback sequences through a story, as is often done in television drama. The fact that the saga of the sisters is told through poetry is an important factor; their story at once has the chime of legend and the tangibility of a recovered artefact, since it’s presented on weathered parchment. It leaves the reader in a position where they can make their own mind up about its significance.

Fads and Aftershocks: what can poetry and gaming do for one another?


Open mic poetry night in Grim Fandango

This article asks, and attempts to answer, three questions:

1. What can poetry do for gaming?

Electronic gaming culture is expansive and continues to expand, with indie development in particular burgeoning at a phenomenal rate. It’s become almost an umbrella term, in that it covers everything from teenagers playing mass-marketed war simulators with film-quality CGI to commuters idly thumbing through Temple Run on the train to work, to the activist inclinations of the interactive fiction community. Many game-making tools are now freely available on the Internet, and it seems as if every few months a new lone gunman developer surfaces with a breakout hit, earning him enough to quit his job.

But the conversation around gaming comes back repeatedly to its legitimacy as an artform, with gamers frequently expressing their desire for the best games to be ‘recognised’ as works of art. What is missed in the deployment of the term ‘recognition’ is the fact that the behaviour of the audience is an immeasurably large part of what defines a practice as an art, and the principle obstacle to games being recognised as art is gamers. I don’t mean that pejoratively, but as long as the bulk of the audience for games continue to express themselves mostly through financial behaviour – buying, then exhausting the product before moving on to the next purchase – gaming will struggle not to be regarded as a form of disposable entertainment. Shakespeare is not held aloft as an artistic genius because hundreds of Elizabethans and Jacobeans flocked to see his plays night after night; his esteem has been managed and sustained by generation after generation of writers and scholars who have provided intelligent assessment and insight into his work and used it as the foundation for creative works of their own.

There is no sense, therefore, in waiting around for ‘recognition’, or indeed for waiting for the Shakespeare of the game development world. How we act and think now will change how other people think about games, and aside from financial behaviour, the vast majority of discourse is journalistic in character. I have read many, many insightful articles about games, but journalistic copy is written to be succeeded the next day by something else – it is incredibly impermanent. Games studies courses are beginning to find a foothold in academia, but academia is, by its nature, secluded and self-insulating. I don’t want to diminish the importance of either of these areas, but there needs to be as much variety in writing about games as there is in games themselves. (I would go further and suggest that the cause of gaming as art has a serious problem when the most vexed and visible conversation of recent months has been a pitched battle between affluent consumers and corporate spokespeople.)

1997’s Snake, now a thing of nostalgia, is revisited by Cliff Hammett in Coin Opera 2

For games and gaming to be acknowledged and discussed in poetry – in the work, that is, of writers who are, first and foremost, poets – is an important step in the way gaming is written about. It’s not quite the same thing as blending poetry into games or making poems more like games, though I’m an advocate of those as well. It’s also not simply a case of putting a badge on games, saying, “You have been deemed worthy.” Poetry has that reputation of being lofty, but has also, of course, had a sideline in reconstituting detritus into art for the better part of century, so to be plundered for poetic content is not necessarily an honouring process.

No; the importance of poetry about games, as with poetry about anything, is that it suggests new ways of considering the subject, new ways of ‘reading’ games beyond the purely evaluative. It’s a creative-critical approach. I’ve been proffering examples from Coin Opera 2 to people for some time now, so here’s just a couple more: Cliff Hammett’s ‘Snake’ works as a reading of the once-popular mobile game Snake as a visual metaphor for the movement of water across the fissures in man-made structures. It suggests this both through its words and through its shape, and might cause us to return to the original game (now long since superseded as casual entertainment by Angry Birds and its sequels) and find something new and remarkable about it. Prompting the return is important; individual games may sell millions and enjoy a brief period in the public consciousness, but if any are to rise above the level of a fad, we need to find reasons to return to them once newer ones with better graphics supplant them.

My second example is Dan Simpson’s ‘Sympathy for the Orange Ghost’, an extract from a full-length show he’s taking to the Edinburgh festival this year. Pacman is already legendary, the main character already an icon. The game has gone about as far as games can go in embedding itself in our culture. Notably, it has already had a starring role in a one-man poetry performance show: Ross Sutherland’s The Three Stigmata of Pacman. But Dan’s work enriches Pacman further by unearthing a further implied narrative in it: the outcast status of Clyde, the orange ghost, whom he lyricises into a symbol of social marginalisation in general.

Poetry about games extends their life and extends their relevance. It is, in itself, a form of the ‘recognition’ that some gamers crave, but operates through an active creative engagement. This is what poetry can do for games.

Ross Sutherland performing The Three Stigmata of Pacman


2. What can gaming do for poetry?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. In commercial terms, poetry is a dust mite to the gaming industry’s behemoth. In fact, poetry barely even registers as an industry at all, and therefore by infiltrating the culture of gaming, poets might be seen as making some calculated grab at the larger audience.

But it’s a mistake to think in these terms. Poetry is a much wider, older and potentially longer-lasting cultural discipline than gaming, and while it might look sickly in terms of revenue, its health in terms of the number and variety of its practitioners is booming. Money troubles may slow it down, greatly reduce its reach and hurt individual poets and publishers, but poetry will go on in some form, while the unsustainability of Western opulence may still spell an early end for gaming (in its electronic form at least).

What’s more, poetry’s lack of commerciality is in large part down to its effectiveness. That is to say, a little goes a very long way. Consumers burn through games, novels and even sprawling television sagas in days and find themselves hungry for more, while a small amount of poetry is enough for most people for most of their lives. Contemporary poets struggle for attention not through lack of skill or personality, but because poets of past eras successfully remain instilled in the national psyche, nourishing our cultural discourse far beyond their lifespan. We have an excess of good poetry, and in this sense, one sensible argument is that poetry requires nothing, that it is already the survival specialist of the arts, able to live on water and thin air if need be, growing fat in times of plenty or austerity.

What poetry does crave is renewal. Without renewal, entire generations risk coming across as nothing more than an aftershock of those that came before. Renewal is the sign that poets are in step with the present and prepared to attend to it, rising to the challenge of being the world’s ‘unacknowledged legislators’, rather than wallowing in nostalgia or trying to relive past glories.

Gaming provides an obvious opportunity for such renewal. I don’t suggest, of course, that all serious poets should at once turn to games in order to demonstrate an affinity with modern life. Done cynically, this leads to cheap and embarrassing poems (see Wendy Cope’s attempts at text message poetry). But we’re now living in a world where younger people are reading more from computer screens than they are from printed material, and part of the reason for this is the richness of virtual environments, where identity is more fluid and the ways of absorbing information more varied. The opportunities for philosophical and artistic exploration are immense. Thinking, for instance, of identity – a huge preoccupation in contemporary poetry – poets should be interested in the implications of being able to come home from work and role-play as a humanoid plant who can summon the dead until bedtime. Since experience is subjective, is there any reason to believe experiences in virtual environments are less real, less a part of our make-up and a contributing factor to our character, than experiences in the concrete world? Consider this particularly in the light of the increasing amount of social interaction within online communities.

What about how virtual architecture can inform form and rhythm? It’s no coincidence, I would say, that a good number of the poems we took for Coin Opera 2 chose to use shape, space or meter as a way of expressing their engagement with a game. And because the history of game narratives is one of constant, rapid evolution and faltering experiments, often with the reins of authorial control loosened in order to accommodate player interaction, they are, I would suggest, a treasure trove of myth, where ‘myth’ means the opportunity to take elements of a known tale and retell or reinterpret them to explore wider themes.

Games are abundant, often scrambled packages of meaning waiting to be untangled and made sense of. Gaming culture is a cluster of new experiences whose careful evaluation, in any literary form, will help us all make sense of ourselves. That’s what gaming can do for poetry.


3. What else can they do for each other?

Finally, there’s the importance of cross-disciplinary discourse, which I also allude to in my Dr Fulminare interview over at Sabotage. At present, as far as I can make out, there is very little discussion between gaming and literary audiences, much within the bubble of each. Meanwhile, there are multiple issues afflicting both literary and gaming culture wherein both could benefit from sharing their ideas. One example is the problem of gender bias, which I go into more thoroughly here.

There are numerous social and political problems all of us are grappling with in some form or another. There are arguments that poetry can be a constructive force in this respect, and there are arguments that games can be a constructive force in this respect. I believe these arguments, but if they’re right, then both cultures – and both disciplines – could stand to share their ideas a little more freely.

Poetry Guest-Appearing in Games #2: Dishonored


Like Mark of the Ninja, 2012’s Dishonored is an action-stealth game and a shining example of that genre. It’s also credited with introducing gamers to one of the most memorable fantasy worlds of recent times: the plague-ravaged fishing city of Dunwall, a kind of steampunk Victorian East London powered by whalefat batteries (the whales are implied to be Godzillarish mutants with connections to another dimension). Automatic gun turrets and electric ‘walls of light’ exist alongside flintlock pistols and duelling sabres, as the protagonist, Corvo, traverses titanic iron bridges and vast stone fortresses to revenge himself against the corrupt ruling classes.

Taking a design cue from Bioshock, also set in a city gone wrong, the lore of the world is revealed to the player mostly through notes and books he or she finds scattered about the place, often near decaying corpses. Reading them is entirely optional and has little bearing on the plot; they’re there to add flavour to the world, to make it feel inhabited by more than the main characters and a legion of disposable guardsmen. And wouldn’t you know it: out of all the various material I found, two were definitely poems.

The first, found in the second level of the game near a homeless plague victim, is the stronger of the two. It’s called ‘Death in the Month of Songs’, with a notation explaining that it’s both an excerpt from longer work and a translation (from ‘old Serkonan’, if you were wondering). This is a clever move by the writer, as it provides an explanation for the poem lacking the sense of an ending, and also excuses a little of the tinniness, since translations tend to be difficult beasts. That said, it does read like an honest attempt at a decent poem. It consists of four stanzas of three lines, with an implied narrative and use of repetition in the first lines of each: “She was shy in the Month of Hearths” through to “She was dying in the Month of Songs”. It apes the style of the romantics somewhat, and has the odd moment of interesting imagery:

She was wed in the Month of Clans
To her sailor cousin from Cullero
A shrill bird, drilling at my chest

The last line, though, is pretty poor: “A terrible kiss on her distant lips”. ‘Terrible kiss’ has that try-hard vibe about it, and the internal rhyme is heavy-handed. She’s dying from a disease at this point, but why are her lips distant? Distant, perhaps, from the narrator, who is her suitor but who ultimately loses her to the cousin. In fact, I have to hand it to the poem: it does manage to tell a tragic story with very few words. The lady in question marries a sailor instead of the narrator, who loves her, because she has a head for adventure. A cruelly short time later, she dies from a tropical illness.

The second poem is depressingly bad. It purports to be an excerpt from ‘a set of cautionary tales for children’ and is obviously intended as a sort of macabre nursery rhyme or folk ballad:


Here’s the thing about rhymes and ballads though: they tend to scan. The rhythm is such that the lines roll off the tongue. Here we start with:

They say that Jimmy Whitcomb Riley
Was a brawler his mates called Smiley.
He ran around, up and down-town,
Pulling off every kind of crime-y.

Which is all kinds of awkward. And what’s the point of forcing a rhyme with the ending ‘y’ if it’s not even a full rhyme? Two stanzas later, we get ‘a-sleeping’ rhymed with ‘Clavering’. This is as lazy as it gets. On top of that, the rhyming pattern established in the first stanza, which is basically a variation on a limerick, is abandoned in the second through to fourth, presumably because it was too difficult to find more than one rhyme for ‘boys’ or ‘day’.

But the worst thing about this effort is that there’s no real story. If you’re going to half-arse the poetry for the sake of telling a ‘cautionary tale’, you should at least have a tale in mind. This one starts off describing a typical no-good character. Then, in stanza four, he wakes up as a fish! That’s it! Even McGonagall had something he actually wanted to tell us about.

Someone on the Dishonored writing team obviously decided that inserting poetry into the game through these books and documents would help give the world credibility. It’s one of those little details that makes an imaginary people seem real. Indeed, ever since Tolkien, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every fantasy world must have its ballads, tavern songs and poems as a sign of the richness of its culture. This makes sense. But it also leaves you wondering: why, then, don’t games developers hire a poet to write them their poems? Poets tend to come very cheap, and many would embrace the challenge of writing in whatever style you wanted.

I suppose the answer is that for all that the ‘idea’ of poetry still holds sway, the average person’s familiarity with it is so lacking that they can mistake an awful, rushed attempt for a convincing approximation.

Gender / Gaming / Literature


That there is a major issue with gender representation within both gaming and literary culture is now so widely accepted that it’s easy to forget the claim is even contested. But contested it is; the worst that can be said about Anita Sarkeesian‘s Tropes vs Women series so far is that it’s a succession of statements of the obvious, but that hasn’t prevented a wave of antipathy and attempts to discredit Sarkeesian, even to the point of publicly accusing her of fraud for asking for too much money from her supporters.(1)

Even if we ignore this resistance to eminently sensible criticisms, just because a problem is widely acknowledged doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be discussed. One argument deployed when feminist critics like Sarkeesian emerge, or when statistics are released that point to comparable problems in literary culture, is that we’re only seeing a reflection of wider problems with equality in society. Games developers cannot employ more women if women aren’t applying for the jobs and female authors can’t be published if they aren’t submitting work. Similarly, if there is a lack of female protagonists, characters and perspectives in games and literature, it’s because the public aren’t interested enough in them.

Firstly, it should be pointed out that this is a case of neutrality as complicity. The metaphor of the travelator(2) is useful in characterising what’s happening. There is a cultural drift towards inequality – not just to the detriment of women, but to the detriment of minority ethnic groups, the poor, gay people, transsexuals, the disabled and others. We can debate about who is responsible for that cultural drift and whether or not it’s part of human nature; what’s important for now is to understand that if you aren’t resisting – if you aren’t walking in the opposite direction along the travelator – then you’re being pulled towards accepting greater and greater inequality, into a position where you’re more likely to find basic notions of freedom and fairness unrealistic or fanciful. The most common complaint against feminists is that they’re too visible, too attention-seeking, too forceful. This complaint ignores cultural drift and the fact that you can’t create a countercurrent without considerable noise and activity, nor without making demands.

Secondly, literature and gaming in particular should be at the forefront of positive change. Games are spaces where we can play. Books are spaces where we can exercise our imaginations. Creative mediums are where we can take stock of what is unhealthy in our world by imagining a better one, where we can test outlandish theories, and explore our most dangerous instincts in a safe environment. They’re where we can visualise and articulate internal conflict. In short, they’re areas where notions of what is realistically achievable in society should give way to idealism and social experimentation, where everything we think we know should be regularly turned on its head. This already happens; it just needs to happen more.

More importantly, they’re areas where change can occur relatively rapidly because of their accessibility. In most industries, systemic prejudice is so ingrained, so threaded into the system that change is generational at best. Women don’t land corporate jobs, often, because they lack the requisite aggression and competitive edge. They lack aggression and a competitive edge because these are qualities that, early on in children’s development, are identified as masculine, as unfeminine. In other areas, women lack qualification or experience or self-assurance, all because they are undermined at an early point in their lives and placed at a disadvantage. But you don’t need to land a job to become a writer. And with game creation tools like Twine and Construct 2 constantly evolving, you don’t need a job in technology to become a game developer. Best of all, the Internet provides the necessary tools for disseminating the resulting work and building an audience for female critics and creators alike.

Twine is a simple, window-based development platform for text adventures.

So what needs to be done?

One of the most important things to challenge in both literature and gaming is the idea of a type of book or game that is aimed at women, and the accompanying notion that addressing the gender imbalance will mean more of these types of games and books, at the expense of the type that we (men) typically enjoy. The scare story is that political correctness demands an overall reduction in quality.

But these are industries/environments where the full spectrum of what appeals to boys and men has been heavily explored and is collectively well understood, while women’s tastes are very poorly understood, in part due to a deficit of widely disseminated critical writing by women. The kind of games and books that are marketed to girls and women – chick-lit and dolls’ house games – are the result of this poor understanding. That’s not to say women don’t like these games and books, but that it represents only a tiny part of the full spectrum of what they might like – a spectrum which, in all likelihood, overlaps to a massive degree with men’s tastes.

If women’s tastes were more thoroughly explored and understood, what I suspect would come to light is that a multiplicity of minor changes would do much to bring more women on board while sacrificing little of what appeals to male audiences. To take an example from gaming, one of the reasons women can feel excluded by the content of a game is the proliferation of female characters whose sole purpose appears to be titillation. This is frequently misunderstood as an objection to partial nudity or attractiveness, when in fact it’s a complaint about deficit of personality and relatable goals. It would be easily resolved by introducing female characters who fill out a much wider range of roles, as well as genuinely sexy male characters. It does not necessitate censorship.

GLaDOS, one of gaming’s most unusual and memorable female characters.

Although literary culture prides itself on sophistication, there is a similar issue with crude understanding of what women want and what is distinct, if anything, about women’s writing. Famously, VS Naipaul last year attempted to reduce the entire scope of women’s fiction to ‘sentimentality, the narrow view of the world’. If this isn’t a clue as to a greater problem in how we envisage women’s role in literary culture, I don’t know what is. Even within poetry, there is a barely-remarked-on but, in my opinion, noticeable stylistic pigeonhole that women’s writing slots into. Women who write in this way (broadly: confessional, relationship-focused, formally loose) are, in my judgement, more likely to be published than women who write in any number of other ways. I would suggest that there is a subconscious, male-led selection process at work that highlights this style of poem as ‘representing’ women better than some of the other styles women choose to write in.

Let’s address the argument that better representation of women in either medium means a drop in quality, means opting for the poorer candidate to fulfil a quota. Women make up over half the world’s population. There is no scientific basis for the assumption that men are more intelligent, more creative, more individualistic or harder-working than women. If you have two local sports teams who, in totality, are equal to one another, and you make up a national side that is heavily weighted to one of those teams, as a matter of logic, you must have picked the weaker players from one team at the expense of stronger players from the other. In any culture, subculture or industry where the gender balance is skewed heavily in favour of men, the weaker candidates are already being picked. More equality should logically amount to higher quality.

Finally, I want to say a few words about Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge and our approach to gender equality. The final ratio of contributors is 23 male to 18 female, which is 57:43 in favour of men. I consider this not ideal but within the boundaries of acceptability considering our limited resources. During the process of soliciting poems, three male poets approached me with unsolicited poems, while no female poets did. At one point, I did make a concerted effort to get more female poets on board because I felt we didn’t have enough. Not one female poet turned us down on the basis that she didn’t play games, and the games they played ranged from pinball tables to Skyrim. Some found that the games they wanted to write about had already been covered, and so declined. One, whose relationship with games was mostly through her children, specifically bought and played the game they wanted to write about for the first time, in the interests of getting a more in-depth perspective. Some poets of both sexes said they would have a think but ultimately didn’t get back to us.

I would say that, on the whole, the collection is definitely richer for its inclusion of a good number of female poets and gamers and that their work does not betray any notion that there is a strict segregation of tastes or styles between men and women. I don’t think of this as providing a service to women (albeit I hope that providing a platform for more women to respond to games and gaming is helpful) but as something that improves the overall quality, accessibility and range of the book.

Further links

Coverflip: Maureen Johnson on gendered book covers
Jane McGonigal, game designer and games culture activist
Helen Lewis writing in the New Statesman on female protagonists in games

Footnotes

(1) Prior to writing this article, I’d only seen the fraud accusation made in the seething jungle of comments sections on news sites. But I only had to type ‘Sarkeesian fraud’ into Google to find this page in the top two results.

(2) I first stole and redeployed this metaphor here.