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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


(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.

Camarade Poetry Reading: K v Ryan Van Winkle!

On Saturday 9th February, SJ Fowler presents the fourth edition of his collaboration project Camarade. 26 poets have been paired up and challenged to create something unholy incredible together. Kirsty will be joining forces with Ryan Van Winkle (investigate his book, Tomorrow We Will Live Here) on a very strange love letter.

The full line-up promises an impressive mixture of sonic, experimental, formal and free-flowing poetry. If you fancy something a little different to your average reading, get thee to Shoreditch.

Click on the flyer for more information.

Nearest tubes: Shoreditch High Street, Liverpool Street, Old Street.

Blowing on the Dice: On Competition Mentality

While we might wonder at the seeming arbitrariness of judgements in poetry competitions, the lure of winning still ensures a healthy number of entries. Upwards of 30 poetry prizes are currently active in the UK alone and in recent years publishers have begun to host competitions for whole manuscripts, the winners of which receive publication with the press and often a few hundred pounds to boot. The money for the richest poetry competitions may still be far lower than that for prose and factual writing but any cash prize is attractive, particularly for such a poorly funded artform.

And the money is simply the start. Should you be fortunate enough to win the UK’s National Poetry Competition, the initial effect must feel not unlike being plucked from the poetry workhouse and given a shot at becoming a gentleman. Furthermore, when entering such competitions, which are necessarily pay-to-play, you are also reminded that in doing so you are supporting the organisers and UK poetry as a while, so even if you don’t win, you can console yourself with the fact that you are supporting your artform. Everybody wins, right?

Not exactly. We can stake too much on the life-changing ‘lucky strike’, just as we can fall for the myth that Being Published will automatically mean everybody stops to notice our brilliance. The one-win-solves-all idea is very seductive, but the associated cycle of hope and disappointment can be very damaging to one’s self-esteem and capacity for courage. Worse yet, focusing too much on the gold medal can cause us to make unwise, desperate moves that ultimately harm us.

I wasn’t published as the result of winning a competition (that came about as a big surprise during the manuscript-mulling period), but partly because I co-ran Fuselit, which led to being invited to read when I moved to London, which led to discovering and supporting the work of others, which eventually led to my now-editor, who was the first person to give me a shot on stage, commissioning my book for Salt. Now that the book is a reality it’s amazing but it’s hardly been a question of “You’ve made it. Stop here and collect acclaim.”

The alternative is to do as many excellent writers do, and throw ourselves into improving and experimenting. It’s a slower process, but it pays more satisfying and sustainable dividends. Such writers produce work with tremendous character, which influences others along the way. Many have never won a prize or placed in a major competition and nobody cares one iota.

Competitions can be a very positive thing. They do raise needed funds and provide opportunities, particularly for those writers who don’t have access to London’s bustling poetry scene. But for each contest, there are a tiny number of winners, and often only one of these winners receives a financial prize. And unless you garner a whole raft of accolades at once, that glow can fade surprisingly quickly (how many past NPC winners can you name without looking them up?).

Rather than simply reiterating the statistical unlikelihood of winning in the first place, perhaps we should simply remember that prizes guarantee nothing. There are plenty of paths to success outside the awards circuit, and any endeavour which celebrates more than one person, more than once a year, and which carries as a reward something more than a single deal or clot of money, surely offers the best odds for success.

Some martial arts schools treat the gaining of grades not as a mark of achievement but as a test. Once you have been given the belt or grade, it’s up to you to work out how best to continue training and developing. Instead of thinking, “Awesome. Now I’m going to write another book”, it would be good to see more victors follow the example of one group of Foyle Young Poets and say, “Awesome. Now let’s start a magazine.”

An Anatomy of the Spirit (Part 1)

written by the Judge

Richard Dawkins is one of the most important and influential modern critics of religion. Most of us are familiar, even if indirectly, with his arguments in books such as The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion, and we know or have heard of the controversy that they generated. Dawkins derives much of his resonance from his status as a prominent scientist, rather than from his (not always original) arguments, and this is something that sets him apart from more ‘journalistic’ British atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens. It also sets him up as a natural rival to religious epistemologists, as science is frequently placed in a diametrical relation with religion: the two disciplines may be seen as incompatible and conflicting, or, more diplomatically, as two different ends of a spectrum, concerned with two different branches of knowledge. From the pope’s vocal insistence on bioethics to Einstein’s and Hawking’s famous aphorisms on God, the anecdotal literature surrounding this binary system abounds.

But there is another dualistic opposition in our culture that places science at one end and a specific discipline at the other. This is the slightly vaguer opposition of science and art. We find it encapsulated in the more general dichotomy that is manifest in our education system, that of the sciences versus the humanities. A student is normally expected to orient him/herself in the direction of one of these two, with a number of congruent modules in either of the fields. Furthermore the figure of a great artist, along with that of a great scientist, is presented to us from early childhood as pretty much the purest and noblest aspiration available in this world (not necessarily to the point that we are encouraged to become one, but at the least we are taught to admire them). More importantly, they are the only two models which subsist in a dichotomous relation. No similar bridges are raised between, say, the aspirational figure of a great athlete and that of a great businessman, or that of a great statesman and a great engineer (though these are themselves celebrated). The artist and the scientist seem intuitively related, as though linked by a thread which simultaneously aligns and opposes them to each other.

This commonality between art and religion as cultural ‘others’ to science also points to a commonality in their perceived social role. As disciplines, it is obvious that art and religion are two very different things. However, our culture has developed a way of talking about them – a unified set of clichés, myths and rhetorical figures – which are at heart identical for both. What exactly is the nature of this similarity, why does it persist, and what should be done about it?

Let us begin by exploring the first question. What are the common traits between artistic and religious discourse? What is the (linguistic) emblem that describes both of them? Or, more simply, what are we talking about, traditionally, when we say either ‘art’ or ‘religion’?

To begin with, we are talking about something that is specially recognized for its preciousness; the word we use for religion tends to be ‘holy’, whereas the word we normally use for art is ‘priceless’ (both terms have a similar function – they ban any discursive element with commercial connotations). Economic considerations do not come into it and are in fact considered vile. The real man or woman who follows or engages with this discipline is always expected to think nothing of money, but rather to be wholly dedicated to the object of his / her endeavour. This is understandable, because his / her discipline is not amenable to mathematical models and has no quantifiable dimensions; rather, it defines our society’s ethical standards and helps us find the best way to live our lives, either by teaching or simply by suggesting; it explores and sometimes explains the best path(s) towards happiness, on the strict condition that we be true to ourselves (when our ‘selves’ do not correspond or agree with the work of art or with the dominant religion, this leads to conflict and paradox – as usually explored in minority discourse). As such, it is culture’s primary source of opposition to inducted values such as consumerism or materialism, acting as a stalwart against greed and superficiality. It (supposedly) trains our sensitivity and kindness as well.

Naturally this object that we are talking about is transcendental. Perhaps more significantly, it is an end in itself. Though it benefits society as a whole in a number of ways (Dawkins has contended this bit with respect to religion), it can also be done for its own sake, and indeed is primarily approached for this reason. As a self-sufficient ‘end’, and thinking on a grander scale now, it justifies the whole of humanity. It redeems it, both individually, acting on its people one by one, and also historically. A civilisation may legitimise its course and passage over the face of the earth if it leaves us with a heritage of great art or if it greatly contributes to the spreading of the Word, which is the same thing. It can also attain the same recognition if it greatly advances science – but that’s the other end of the spectrum.

Since in both the cases of art and religion we are talking about what is essentially a discipline, it only rewards in degrees commensurate to the efforts that are put in. It is of little use if it is treated casually, or if it is only thought of in passing, once every now and then. People who handle it this way are regarded with paternal benevolence by those who take it seriously instead (but with frequent encouragements to ‘practice it’ more often, be it by coming to the prayer sessions or by reading the poems of Coleridge / Milton / Neruda…). A serious commitment to this discipline demands long hours of study, a deep acquaintance with the history and culture of your specific ‘school’, and a great deal of introspection. The implicit reward of all this is a certain happiness, of course, but also a special type of wisdom. This may loosely be referred to as ‘enlightenment’, according to its manner (and maybe suddenness) of acquisition. Emphatically, depending on the subject, we may even talk of salvation.

The general conception is this – that though the reward of the discipline is available to everyone, for it is not precluded by class, sex or race, in practice only a handful of people actually attain it. The hierarchy of success, here, is aristocratic: it is defined by a special gift known as ‘talent’ in art and as ‘piety’ in religion (the importance of piety has greatly declined since the times of the legendary saints, but so has proactive religious discourse in general – more on this later). Societies go to great lengths to celebrate individuals with this special gift, and very many of our legends are woven specifically around these people (the only discourse which compares to the spiritual one for mythopoeic power, in fact, is that of war). Therefore in this discipline we find prophets and martyrs, people who see ahead of their time and reveal to us the real nature of things, sending out messages which are then misunderstood or fearfully rejected, or people who die for their commitment to their private cause, thereby becoming instant icons, worshipped past all others, even to the point of eclipsing the real value of their work. After all, they demonstrate the transcendental value of the discipline that they upheld; for is it not worth dying for? Is it not larger than life? And is not one of the greatest tropes in this discourse precisely the separation between ‘art and life’, or between the concerns of ‘after-life and life’?

The myth of the saint, which has an extensive history from the Roman Christian era to well past the middle-ages, is re-elaborated in our present age as the myth of the artist, that precociously illuminated, infinitely sensitive, candid introvert, divorced from ordinary people by virtue of the very talents that elevate him / her above the world. This character is at the heart of such works as James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kroger. Baudelaire sums up the character in the famous ending to his poem The Albatross:

The Poet is his kinsman in the clouds
Who scoffs at archers, loves a stormy day;
But on the ground, among the hooting crowds,
He cannot walk, his wings are in the way.

A step below the ‘chosen ones’, the saints and great artists, the discipline then includes a whole set of subordinates whose role is to mediate and explain: religion has priests, and art has academics and / or critics. This without mentioning the legions of novices, in schools both improvised and recognised.

Keep reading in Part Two…

The Next Big Thing

I’ve been tagged by the very talented Melissa Lee-Houghton to give this interview for an expanding blog project called The Next Big Thing. You can read her interview here.

The idea is I post mine and tag other writers to do the same on 2 January 2013.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The title for Never Never Never Come Back came from the Al Stewart song ‘Night Train to Munich’, which adopts the voice of a senior agent instructing their colleague on an operation from which they may not return. I wanted my first collection to have the combination of paranoia and loneliness that plague the classic spy figure; distrusting everyone, under pressure to deliver something valuable without knowing why.

What genre does your book fall under?

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Many of them are actually based on films and programmes anyway – ‘Supper’ focuses on a scene from Soylent Green, ‘Yokohama Shopping’ on the anime series of the same name and ‘Schoolgirl Shootout’ on the tragic lighthouse blitz in Japanese thriller Battle Royale. Maybe Tilda Swinton for the metal ex-assassin in ‘Roy’. I’d quite like to see Rutger Hauer play Armin Meiwes. Cillian Murphy would take on the more lovelorn, gawky characters, while the main role in ‘On coming out to your parents dressed as Dracula’ could only go to Sam Rockwell. I love that man.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Wheeling a broken bike through an embarrassing dream in which nobody else is naked, nobody else has forgotten their gift and everyone else knows the words to the song

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Very hard to tell, though I think only one of the poems (‘Splitting the ego with Mary’) was more than two years old when we put NNNCB together. Most of the poems came from NaPoWriMo 2011 and 2012, which tends to dust under the corners of the brain where the weird stuff lies. The putting together and sifting of the poems took about six months with editor Roddy Lumsden.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Everybody is under pressure to fulfill multiple roles at once, relating to this idea of a person they’re advised to become. I wanted to probe the idea of breaking down under this brick-filled rucksack, of the ludicrous rules that can quietly destroy people. Poetry, with its restrictions, concentration of language, repetitions and cycles, seemed like the best form in which to explore this.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

A good helping of robots and at least one German cannibal.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Neither. Never Never Never Come Back was published by Salt Publishing in 2012. No agencies were harmed in the making of this book.


My writers to tag are:
1. Hong Kong-born poet, author of Summer Cicadas and Chinese translator Jennifer Wong
2. Leicester native, author of hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica and birdman Matt Merritt
3. Reportage poet, ukelele demon and Blake afficionado Jude Cowan Montague
4. International poetry evangelist, collaborative tinkerer and all-round alchemist SJ Fowler

Make sure you check them out on 2 January 2013!

Losing the Poetry in ‘The Hobbit’

The Judge takes a break from the series on poetry criticism to write something of an extemporary feature article – one which, be ye warned, contains a few spoilers. (The series will be finished, worry not, probably after Christmas).

Consider this poem by JRR Tolkien:

Where now are the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
Where is the harp on the harpstring, and the red fire glowing?
Where is the spring and the harvest and the tall corn growing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into shadow.
Who shall gather the smoke of the deadwood burning,
Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?
It is marked by a rending sense of melancholy and nostalgia for that which is past, and this nostalgia is expressed on many levels. Firstly, it is literally stated, as the speaker rhetorically suggests that nobody shall ‘behold the flowing years from the Sea returning’. Secondly, it is rendered in the naturalist imagery that takes over from the classical one in line three (nicely synthesised in the transition from the harp to the fire), and which stands in contrast to the industrial world in which Tolkien lived. Finally, it is implied in the choice of form and diction. Phrases like ‘Where now are the horse and the rider?’ or ‘Who shall gather the smoke’ are constructions which come straight out of classical poetry, much like the alliterative style (helm – hauberk, harp – harpstring, days – down, etc.) derives from poetry in Old English, from Beowulf onwards. Tolkien is invoking, among other past ages, the past ages of poetry.

The poem comes from theLord of the Rings, and it encapsulates not only one of the book’s central themes, but also one of its literary merits. Central to the enduring success of Tolkien’s masterwork is the grace with which it brings together his differing interests in lyric poetry, in epic poetry (the latter expressed in his famous essay ‘The Monster and the Critics’ and, apparently, in an upcoming epic poem of his own), in philology, and of course in the novel, a form which he first touched in The Hobbit.

Peter Jackson’s An Unexpected Journey, released less than a week ago and already leading all of the charts, is the latest attempt to transpose Tolkien’s work to the big screen. Like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it is a rather dreadful effort. Jackson’s passion for the text is unquestionable – he’s certainly researched the source material. It’s his understanding of what makes the books work, in particular their textual subtlety, or his ability to translate that into a new medium, that is lacking.

An Unexpected Journeyis not as faithful to the book as the previous trilogy was. Indeed, Jackson has taken the opportunity to make an out-and-out prequel, and the differences between book and film have already been lamented. What none of the reviews I’ve read have pointed out, for some reason, is the gulf between Tolkien’s use of language and Jackson’s use of images – and this is a problem that was already sharply on display in the original filmic trilogy.

The primary difference between poetry and film is that one is linguistic whereas the other is visual. But nothing prevents these media from using words and image to produce the same effect. Jackson’s greatest failure lies precisely in reading the novels with a purely literal eye. As a consequence, he is unable to reproduce levels of subtlety such as we find in the above poem, even though he follows the diegetic rails quite accurately.

Tolkien’s prose owes much to the Gothic novel, for the good and for the bad. It is extensively descriptive, especially when it comes to the journeying, and the diction is archaic – even a bit highfalutin. While it is not always successful, the understanding that it belies remains one of beauty – and it is a type of beauty that is delicate, subtle and transient. Jackson’s imagery is entirely lacking in all of these qualities. His films are defined by blazing dawns and sunsets, shots of intricate baroque cities framed in their gigantomaniac entirety, crashing silver waterfalls with rainbows spearing through them, and endless swoops over forests, rivers and mountains. When important characters must be introduced, the image blares: the elf queen Galadriel appears in this latest film with a blinding, golden rising sun behind her as she turns in slow motion. When a dialogue is important, the visual trumpets blow again (maybe that’s where that horn is blowing after all, John): the final reconciliation between Bilbo and Thorin takes place during a sunset, and all the characters are bathed in a refulgent light. Jackson in fact has much more in common with the silver-maned George Lucas than he does with Tolkien, in style and talent both.

Is this really a failure inherent in the category – be that film, fantasy or blockbuster? Exactly thirty years ago another movie was filmed in the very same genre. It too was a fantasy epic blockbuster, though there was nothing epic about its budget. It was entitled Conan the Barbarian, and it was a film dominated by the titanic physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. It wasn’t nearly as silly as people usually remember it to be, and more importantly, it had exactly what Jackson’s films are lacking: a visual style that is frequently and essentially poetic, if in a bleak and barren way. Director John Milius opens the scene of Conan’s crucifixion on the ‘tree of woe’ (see it for yourself at minute 3:57 of this video) with a wide angle, giving us a clear view not only of the tree but of the desert that surrounds it. The wide angle implies the epic breadth and scope of the story, while the monochrome desert reflects its crude simplicity; the solitary, leafless tree mirrors Conan’s sense of spiritual isolation. The frame fades out into the desert, then pans onto the hero’s ravaged physique, reinforcing the thematic connection between the two. The scene has tremendous suggestive power, and not a single word is spoken.

Compare the tree of woe with the moment in The Hobbit when Thorin rises from his own tree, the one where he has been pinned down by his enemies’ hounds. As he goes to fight his rival, he is hit and he falls. As he falls, events start rolling in slow motion. Then a track of violins starts playing. When Thorin hits the ground, the frame cuts to a close-up of a dwarf shouting ‘Nooo’, and then back to Thorin. It is such a standard form that it is almost scholastic; there is no space for imagination, sentiment or suggestion. It is as though Jackson automatically assumed that his audience was comprised of idiots, so he does not trust them with feeling or understanding anything on their own. Instead, he gives them small cues to indicate them when to feel sad, when to feel relieved, when to feel worried. Imagine Tolkien being that explicit in his poem.

There are many other flaws in Jackson’s films. The action scenes are terribly choreographed, there is an over-reliance on CGI which only Lucas is able to match and which is not very competently used (I was unable to find a single creature which looked alive, not even the simple ones like hedgehogs and birds), and the characters are mostly quite flat, including the inescapable, odious comic relief – in this case an obese dwarf, because as we all know fat people are funny. But the one thing that really crumbles the connection between these films and the original texts is simply the vulgarity of Jackson’s direction. Even when inserting the poem at the top of this article in one of his character’s monologues (one of the few fine moments in the films), the use of light is almost blinding.

For Tolkien, like for the great epic poets, the golden age is a thing of the past, necessarily and inherently irretrievable. For Jackson, the golden age is right now – and it’s getting more and more golden as the increased powers of CGI allow for brighter dawns and sunsets in higher definitions and frame-rates. Jackson certainly appreciates Tolkien’s poetry. The problem, judging by this film and the ones that came before, is that he doesn’t understand it.

Psycho Poetica gets a Telegraph mention!

Psycho Poetica, editor Simon Barraclough’s multi-poet love letter to Hitchcock’s classic, was mentioned in the Telegraph today, in a round-up entitled ‘The best recent poetry’. That sexy, skinny volume snuggled between Poems on the Underground and Josephine Hart’s Life Saving? That’s us! Nice quote from Isobel Dixon’s ‘Trappings’,

Image copyright The Telegraph, 2012.

Where Rockets Burn Through!

If you’re stuck for a gift for the sci-fi fan in your life, and a slogan t-shirt isn’t going to cut it, Penned in the Margins might just have the answer.

New anthology, Where Rockets Burn Through: contemporary science fiction poems from the UK, is not only beautifully designed (Sunstreaker and Wheeljack seem to think so, anyway) but also makes for a laser-firing, catsuit-sporting blast-off of a poetry mission.

Jon and I pop up a few times inside (he re-jigs Catullus into space opera while I salivate over the precious meal from Soylent Green), alongside some seriously spark-spitting other writers.

Gifting poems to those who are usually more fond of box sets than tercets may seem like a risky gambit, but editor Russell Jones has picked a rich range of moreish work that, while intriguing and substantial, won’t alienate (apologies for that one) anyone coming to poetry afresh. Poetry has a knack of providing an off-kilter, probing new look at classic tropes and well-loved stories, and this is a real genre-zapper.

Where Rockets Burn Through: contemporary science fiction poems from the UK is normally £9.99 plus p&p, but until 21 December, Penned are offering 20% off,so you can snaffle it for £7.99 plus postage.

Sunday Review: Penned in the Margins round-up

A special Winter round-up this week – with yours truly back in the critic’s seat! I know! It’s been forever! Anyway, it’s time to look over at fellow London published Penned in the Margins and assess the good work they’ve been doing in bringing bright, young poets into print. Click here to read on.

Approaching International Poetry in 21st Century England; Part Two

written by the Judge

The second part of our article wishes to discuss the practical aspects of engaging with international poetry. It is dedicated to those who entertain an aspiration to do so. Readers uninterested in putting in the (considerable) work required to branch out of their own poetic culture are welcome to discard it, and should be aware that this article does not wish to pressure anyone into such a study. There is no moral or cultural obligation to read poetry from other countries, any more than there is to read poetry itself. It is not mandatory towards becoming a good poet or a good critic, even though it is indispensable if one wishes to take part in the European discourse that is coming to permeate the rest of the continent (and which is leaving England behind). For the rest, the benefits of approaching international poetry are your own to discover as well as to dismiss, and they can only be termed benefits as long as they are understood as a choice, and not a requirement.

We mentioned the ‘considerable work’ that is necessary to approach international poetry. This is almost entirely related to the process of learning the foreign language of your choice. The challenge involved in finding and researching the poetry is negligible; when approaching a new poetic culture, you will invariably find that selections of local verse have already been made for you, and good material is never too hard to put your hands on, provided that you can access the foreign country you are studying (yes, you do have to go there in person – most of the contemporary material has yet to be translated, and much of it never will be).

Learning the foreign language, however, is the sine qua non of all international poetry. Bilingualism is required even when reading translations into your mother tongue – you must have an understanding of how another language allows for forms of expression that are not possible in English. Lacking this fundamental prerequisite, even finding books in translation does not help, and will never take you past a certain superficial stage.

Thus, engaging with ‘international poetry’ should really be understood as engaging with only one foreign culture. You may expand that number to two or three, but in prospect, as you can only really learn one language at a time. Any use of the expression ‘international poetry’ that is not grounded in this dualistic exchange, and that wishes instead to discuss a global (or otherwise polycultural) scene as a whole, is a fiction by default. Distant poetic cultures do not interact with each other except after centuries, and sometimes not even then (the most potent proof being that literary titans such as Camoens, Mickiewicz or Tasso may remain not only unread but frequently even unknown – not by the common folk, but by the poetry pundits themselves!). And there is no such thing as a global poetry expert – to gain a working knowledge of what is going on even in one continent is a colossal task, one made all the more endless by the fact that smaller countries do not necessarily have correspondingly modest poetic outputs at all (Nicaragua, for example, has a tremendously vital scene which rivals that of other, larger Hispanic countries).

The only reasonable way to approach international poetry, then, is to choose one foreign culture (and language) of special interest and stick with it. This does not mean that you will forever be limited to your initial choice, but it is the only way to start.

Since you can only begin with one language / culture, your choice has to be carefully meditated. Countries very far away will be very difficult but also exotic and fresh, and to people around you, you will become an authority almost by default. Closer cultures and languages will be easier, and you will have many peers: this means greater competition if you wish to use your multilingual skills in criticism or publication, but also greater opportunities for sharing and communicating. Some of them open up new doors. Fluency in Spanish gives access to the entire South American continent bar Brazil, Russian is a popular second language in many Eastern European nations, and French is spoken in Canada, Africa and parts of South East Asia.

Learning a foreign language is a strange prospect. When polyglots are faced with the need of learning a new tongue, they generally approach it with excitement, and their initial progress can be very fast. People who only speak one language, by contrast, often find the whole idea dispiriting, and are slow to get into it. In reality, it is just as hard (or as easy) for both groups. People who already speak multiple languages are only more familiar with the process of learning, and they know that obstacles which initially appear insurmountable (and illusions about one’s own inability or lack of talent) require no more than a little time to be dealt with.

Learning a foreign language does not require exceptional intelligence, and it should be an option available to anyone smart enough to read this article. It does, however, demand strong commitment and patience. Like learning to play a musical instrument, it is a task that takes several years, and in which perfection can never be attained. It is almost impossible to learn only with books, so be prepared to take periodical trips to your country of choice. This is where the European Union becomes helpful. A return flight to a European capital will cost you less than one hundred pounds, with no need for visas; such a trip can be taken several times a year, over weekends if necessary. Flying to Asian, African or American countries will be priced from five-hundred to more than a thousand pounds, and the bureaucracy can be demanding and limiting. Along with the difficulties inherent in exotic languages, one understands why there are so few people who can speak Lingala or Bali.

Tackling foreign poetry means tackling the entire culture that produces it. You are unlikely to understand a poem that references a Bollicao if you don’t know what that is. This is why personal trips to the chosen country are so important, and this is also where learning a foreign language will truly reward you. Of course being able to read Dante and Baudelaire in the original is very nice, but the most surprising material is normally that which does not get translated. Finding out that a country has an entire comics culture that you knew nothing about, or a colourful underground rap scene, or a completely different approach to sports journalism – that’s when the language discloses itself to you, and really shows its benefits. Hopefully, poetry will help you on this path. You may learn a language in order to read poetry, but past a certain level the relation becomes reciprocal, and poetry in turn starts teaching you the language, adding new words to your vocabulary, new turns of phrase to your repertoire, and a new musicality to your cultural ear.

Engagement with international poetry, like engagement with poetry itself, is necessarily proactive. You must go to it, it won’t come to you. This is one of the reasons why lamenting the absence of more translations into English misses the point – no matter how many translations there are, you won’t really get much out of foreign poetry if your viewpoint remains anglocentric; if it remains rooted in the idea that things must go towards English, and not you past that bridge. Changing this perspective may be one of the most difficult things to do, especially for poets born in a culture that neither demands nor encourages learning a foreign language. But it can reward you by opening many doors you did not even know were there, and by giving access – better, perhaps, than anything else – to the particular and fascinating European multi-cultural discourse that defines this continent’s historical moment. Make your own decision as to whether that’s worth the price of admission.


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