Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Poetry, Landscape, and Radicals

Monday, February 11th, 2013

It was an elegant start to the Nottingham Festival of Words on Saturday with a day of poetry and storytelling at Newstead Abbey, Byron’s ancestral home. Poets travelled from Oxford (Nigel Thompson), Middlesborough (Andy Croft), Derby (Mark Goodwin), and Sheffield (Chris Jones and publisher Brian Lewis), and it was great to see how many people had made the journey to see what was going on.

In the early afternoon our 7-week-old baby had her first experience of a poetry reading, sitting quietly through 30 minutes of CJ Allen (not a difficult thing to do, as she can’t laugh yet) with just the occasional appreciative squeak. Newstead Abbey will be an amazing place to take her when she’s older, with winding paths, waterfalls, and a rockery…loads of places to run around and explore.

At tea time it was Poetry, Landscape, and Radicals, a triple-bill featuring ‘Outskirts and Outposts’ from Longbarrow Press, Christy Fearn on Byron the First Rockstar, and three poets from Smokestack Press.

I’m not sure if that’s the way we planned it, but it was a coherent as well as varied programme, with each part of the programme picking up on the location in some way—the landscaped environs, and Byron’s legacy in terms of the culture of celebrity and political radicalism. I was also struck by how all three used these different threads to draw together the contemporary and the historical.

In Russian there are two different words for ‘landscape’. Peisazh is borrowed from the French and refers to the landscape painting—landscape as representation. Landshchaft is borrowed from the German and refers to the landscape in nature—landscape as object. The Longbarrow reading took the landscape poem (peisazh) and stuffed it with a contemporary urban and semi-urban landschaft, giving the genre a social dimension that we perhaps often forget about.

Produced by Brian Lewis, the performance brought together the contrasting voices of Chris Jones, Mark Goodwin, and Matt Clegg (in absentia, via audio recording). While Chris’s reading suggested a coherent voice, Mark’s did the opposite, with bold line breaks that cut into the middle of words breaking up the conventional rhythm and syntax. The effect was to dehumanise the voice, creating the impression of a speech made up of lots of little packets of data and lacking an underlying intentionality. It reminded me of those digitally produced announcements you get in railway stations and on call centre menus where oddities in the spacing between words indicate the synthetic nature of the announcement—that it’s been stitched together from samples—creating a sense of disembodiment, of a voice that has no speaker (unless we want to admit a system as a speaker), of a corporation masquerading its personhood.

This seemed very fitting, given that while a human presence in the landscape genre is often absent or neglected, in these poems, as Brian explained in his introduction, there is a persistant social presence, derelict landscapes rarely truely vacant.

Later on, Andy Croft introduced a raucous reading from himself and Smokestack poets Mike Wilson and Nigel Thompson. It was interesting to hear Andy’s explanation of how his approach to publishing has changed over the years. Whereas Smokestack started out focusing on leftwing, leftfield writing, now he’s looking for comedy, rhyme (music), and anger, qualities he feels are in short supply.

We heard a few snippets from their contributions to Donny Johnny, a modern satirical take on Byron’s Don Juan that I’m looking forward to when it comes out from Five Leaves Publications in the next year. In it we’ll see DJ in various guises, as a food critic, prisoner, creative writing tutor, and retired rockstar, among other things.

Extra Notes on This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

I’ve just finished a review for Sphinx of Ian McMillan’s Smith/Doorstop pamphlet, This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps (2011), but it’s only 400 words and I’ve got more to say! So here are a few extra notes.

There’s a lot of everyday experience here, what the Russian Formalists would have called byt. Byt, derived from the same root as byt´, the verb ‘to be’, was usually placed in opposition to art. For Viktor Shklovskii, art was a means of refreshing our everyday experience by defamiliarising patterns of experience that had become habitual. By ‘making it strange’, it makes us look again.

These days, however, the everyday has more going for it. In contrast to the artificial construction and simulation of experience through the mass media, the everyday is seen as a refuge of genuine experience. So in addition to the opposition of art vs life, we’ve also got what might be called hype vs life.

One of my favourite poems from this collection is ‘The Evening of the Day Pavarotti Died’. The very first line, read after the title, primes us for an art/hype vs life showdown:

I poured some Carnation Milk into a cup of coffee

We appear to be confronted with two irreconcilably different cultural artefacts here; can there be any overlap between the worlds of Pavarotti and Carnation milk? A couple of verses later, however, it turns out that this showdown is itself a construction, as Pavarotti enters the back gardens of a South Yorkshire neighbourhood, replete with sheds and squirrels:

[…] from Mr Lowe’s house next door
And from Steve’s house up the street we heard
The last note of Nessum Dorma rising and hanging

There like light on a tree.

Admittedly, Pavarotti has made his entrance via the radio, so maybe what we’re witnessing here is an instance of the mechanism by which mass media phenomena install themselves in the fabric of our lives, yet at the same time this is clearly also a moment of genuine and universal pathos. Pavarotti might have become an over-familiar and automated icon for artistic experience—to the point where you didn’t have to actually listen to Pavarotti, because you knew you were listening to Pavarotti—but this poem shows Pavarotti doing, even if just for a moment, exactly what he’s supposed to do: transforming the perception of our everyday environment.

Story Time at the Old Trip

Friday, February 25th, 2011

After watching a few too many crappy films of late, I’ve been reminded of the power of storytelling these last couple of weeks. Last week was the Flying Goose, Beeston’s cosiest poetry night, only this time it was prose, from the novelists David Belbin and Thomas LeGendre. And yesterday evening I finally made it the Storytellers of Nottingham, after my failed attempt in September.

It was a night of the macabre, and sitting in a sandstone cave at the foot of Nottingham’s castle rock was the perfect setting. We were taken from a captured Pole’s cunning ruse in South America to a ghost town in the Western Australia outback, and a driverless sedan in the Derbyshire rain. All told from memory, with an intentness and level of engagement that screen and radio can only struggle to mimic.

Next month it’s Travellers Tales, 8pm on Thursday 31 March at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem (entrance £4).

Near Myths by Giles Goodland (review)

Saturday, October 9th, 2010

I just started reading Giles Goodland’s excellent Near Myths, a poetry pamphlet published by Oystercatcher Press earlier in 2010. I’ve only got to about page six, but it had me captivated from the very first few lines. The first poem, ‘Myth of Ancestors’, brought to mind scenes from The Flintstones:

The Ancestors pile behind us and drive
in stone cars to deposit my father
as a sperm and watch him flail
into the ocean of possibility.

This poem could be read in many ways, but for me it cartoonishly frames a modern-day traffic jam as a rather weak going-through-the-motions of the act of migration, a spur for human development, with a nod at the primal rage of the driver: ‘In their sleep they practiced violence. / Cattle roamed freely inside the eyes’. References to TV and the ‘bookcase’ ensure that the influence of ancestors hovers somewhere between representation, on the one hand, and biological and cultural determination, on the other.

These are highly symbolic poems, imparting a sense of wholeness, yet far from being neatly tied up. At the end of each poem, I had a sense of having been moved, and of having grasped at various thematic threads, but at the same time was unable to put my finger on what exactly had been said. They seem to have the quality of unfinalisability; they are symbolically bundled, you might say, rather than unified, and gesture in multiple directions.

In ‘Myth of Night’, for example, a personification of Night comes knocking at the door. Night can be read both as an allegorical and as an everyday figure representing some actual person or event. The mode of voice is solidly descriptive, not seeking any explanation, so we are drawn to what happened, not how or why. A sentence like, ‘You feel him grip the sides of the sofa / like an undertaker’, immerses you in the action and its meaning, rather than in the identity of ‘him’.

Fittingly, for a collection concerned with myth, the poems also possess a beguiling musical quality. The incantatory rhythm of ‘Myth of Influence’ had me reading it out again and again, trying to follow the beats and work out what was driving it on. It was something I could imagine Allen Ginsberg reading out loud.

Over Exposed

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera
Tate Modern, 28 May–3 Oct 2010

Surveillance has a sinister ring to it, with connotations of social control and the invasion of privacy. But the practice of surveillance also involves a lot of boredom, and it is the tedium of surveillance that this exhibition succeeds most in capturing.

Exposed does include a number of fascinating exhibits, mostly photographic, but also examples of cameras hidden inside a shoe, a walking stick, and a device that can be concealed beneath clothing, some of which date back to the nineteenth century. Perhaps most interesting were attempts at capturing the wretched conditions of New York slums, early pornographic images, and a series of night-time shots of voyeurs creeping up on lovers in a Tokyo park. There were also some stark shots of violence, war, and executions.

But overall the exhibition was too shabby and stuffed full of images that were simply banal.

In a few cases, I felt that a little more interpretive information could have made a big difference. There was one picture, for example, of a biological and chemical weapons testing area, which had been taken from 40 miles away, presumably for security or safety reasons. As a result, the main features of the image were that it was hazy and horizontally stratified. This could be quite a poignant image if there were some clue as to what it tells us about the weapons testing area it depicts. But all I was able to draw from it was a sense of distance and inaccessibility, which didn’t strike me as much of a revelation.

In other cases, potentially interesting material hadn’t been given the space it needed. There were two photographs by a Japanese photographer who had written to strangers asking them to pose in view of a window in their own homes at a prearranged hour. She shot them from outside, so never actually met her subjects. This sounded intriguing, but with only two images, there wasn’t much to go on. More of the series would have been needed to for this project to really make an impact.

Perhaps most of the problems stemmed from the looseness of the theme. If the curators had focused on the invasion of privacy, or voyeurism, or pornography, or surveillance, or reportage, they might have succeeded in creating a stronger narrative for the exhibition, and would have been able to give more space to exhibits that needed it, and hopefully done away with much of the junk. But by stuffing too much together in the one package, it just fell apart. And when you pay £10 for something, you want it to stick together.

Review: Afternoon of the Minotaur

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

Afternoon of the Minotaur, (modern dance with music and video) performed by Madalena at Luxury Goods IV: The Role of Art, The Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton on 30 April 2010.

The review is available at Bellyflop, the online performing arts magazine:

Sphinx poetry reviews

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Four new reviews of recent poetry pamphlets in Sphinx 12:

  • Peter Sansom, The Night Is Young (Rialto, 2009)
  • Andrew McMillan, Every Salt Advance (Red Squirrel Press, 2009)
  • Lyn Moir, Easterly Force 10 (Calder Wood Press, 2009)
  • Michael Davenport, Tell Me about Them (Tyne and Esk Writers, 2009)

Sphinx reviews focus on poetry pamphlets (also known as chapbooks), and has hit upon the brilliant idea of commissioning three reviews for every pamphlet featured, so you get two other perspectives on each of these books alongside my own. There are also plenty of other reviews to browse.

Two Poetry and Music Performances: ‘Bat Detector’ and ‘Somewhere to Get to’

Friday, November 13th, 2009

At the Off the Shelf Festival in Sheffield this year, Signposts organised a couple of poetry and music events, featuring a mixture of newly commissioned work and restagings of work from recent years.

This is a review of the first of these nights, 20 October 2009, which featured ‘Bat Detector’ by Elizabeth Barrett (words) and Robin Ireland (viola), and ‘Somewhere to Get to’ by Shelley Roche-Jacques (words) and The Only Michael (electronic sounds).

As will become obvious when you read the article below, I’m more interested in exploring how the poetry and music work together in performance here than in either the poetry or music on their own.


I first heard ‘Bat Detector’ on CD in 2007, when I played it on my radio show, but this was the first time I had heard it live. Then, as now, I felt there was something terribly restrained and even forced about the arrangement: the way that the viola and voice do not overlap at all, but are purely sequential. While part of me doesn’t like this very much, in the end I find it a powerful and moving piece, and full of tension, which is in part generated by the forced nature of its restraint.

The viola and the voice in ‘Bat Detector’ are not so much brought together, as forced to exist side-by-side, each enduring the other’s company, one waiting politely for the other to finish before taking its turn, then yielding again to the other. The form is stiff and Victorian, like a duet where the partners do not dance together, but instead take it in turns to dance, each waiting and watching while the other plays their part.

The text of ‘Bat Detector’ deals with blockages in communication. There is an autistic child, a difficult relationship, and the image of the bat detector itself, a box that allows us to listen in on the calls of other creatures we cannot understand, to hear sounds that we would normally be oblivious to. There is a sense that the worlds of other creatures, not just bats but also other human beings, are strange and obscure to us, and we can only listen in with wonder and curiousity. The bat detector, the medium of communication, is an instrument of delicacy, and there is something miraculous about it when it works.

The voice and the viola are rather like this. Two individuals, two different species, two different languages. The viola playing is precocious, irritating even in its desire to display its technical inventiveness and virtuosity. It scuffles about, seems to pick up on a rhythm, but then runs with it only intermittently, as if poor reception were causing it to cut out. You don’t feel the rhythm, but you feel like there is something else that does. And all this, somehow, seems to bear on the voice and its poetic content: there is the fluttering and screech of bats, the sense of a multitude of creatures, a fractured cloud of sounds that cannot be grasped individually, but which nevertheless impresses its mass upon you, and the rhythms of speech that somehow find their way into the music.

So, in holding apart words and music, as if to say, look, these are so different they could not possibly get on together, the poet and the violist actually allow the affinities between the two protagonists to emerge, and it is as if they would slam back into each other, were they not held apart with such force.


Perhaps one of the reasons for separating text and music in ‘Bat Detector’ was that each behaves as a soloist, demanding the full attention of the audience. They are two soloists without an orchestra. In ‘Somewhere to Get to’ this relationship is less clear. To begin with the music was extremely quiet, as if afraid of interfering with the voice and unsure of its own place in the performance. But then the volume surged, as if suddenly untamed, and threatened to drown out the ensuing poetry. It stepped back again, allowing the voice to come to the fore; but, having demonstrated its power, however quiet and submissive it got, from now on there was always the threat that it might surge again and overwhelm the voice. The music kept changing throughout, without any apparent continuity in rhythm or melody, and it was this unpredictability that I thought characterised it most.

In ‘Somewhere to Get to’ it was ultimately the words that held the piece together, the train of thought that holds its own against the concatentation of sounds swirling around it. The music, a mixture of samples, beats, and looped guitar, functioned more as a constantly moving backdrop, a series of imaginings that brought out the less stable content underlying the consistency of poetic style and delivery. It was rather as if we were on a journey through an urban environment, moving from space to space, where the various rhythms of work, conversation, machinery, and so on, keep changing. When the volume was low it was as if we were listening behind a closed door; then the door would open and we’d get flung forwards into the roar of traffic or rattle of a drill, so you could barely catch the words or hear yourself think.

day 3, Nýhil International Poetry Festival

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

I sometimes get the feeling that geography plays a big role in the development of poetic style. I remember how in Sheffield, when we got people from other parts of the country in to perform at Spoken Word Antics, they often seemed like a breath of fresh air…not that it ever felt stale in Sheffield. That was the funny thing; you had a vibrant, diverse scene going on, and then someone would come along from outside and do something that was just self-evidently different from anything anyone in Sheffield would do. And that’s a bit what it was like at Friday’s poetry reading, day three of the Nýhil International Poetry Festival (Fimmta alþjóðlega ljóðahátíð Nýhils). There were ten poets, four of them from abroad, working broadly within what you might call the avant-garde tradition.

Dmitry Golynko, a Russian poet who is published in New York, read mainly in English, with a high-pitched incantatory tone that signalled a constant state of alarm. Even as he read in English his pronunciation (‘w’ as /v/, for example) and the melody of his voice seemed to transform many of the words back into Russian, so that the poems often had a liquid quality to them, melting back and forth between one language and the other. The repeatedly intoned line ‘weep it out’ in one poem sounded to my ears like the Russian ‘vypytaiut’, with its connotations of extortion and interrogation, and I struggled to remind myself that it was English. I can’t comment much on the content, but a lot of it seemed to address Kafkaesque (or Putinesque) state machinations, so this mis-hearing on my part wasn’t completely out of place.

UKON, a Swedish poet, used a lot of repeated sentence structures in his poems. One piece simply consisted of a long list of questions about ‘the father’, each question ending with the answer ‘nothing’.

What had the father bought for a Christmas present?
What did the father do for a living?

The effect of these accumulated negations of paternal responsibility, care, and agency was drastic, yet not entirely bleak, probably because there was an element of caricature implicit in the degree of exaggeration. The total rejection and alienation of the father seemed to reflect as much on the subject of the poem as on the father, suggesting that the inadequacies of the father have been passed on to the next generation. The lack of specification of who the father was and what the speaker’s relation to him was left the poem open, so that it could be interpreted at an intensely personal level or at an institutional level — the role, and implied failure, of fathers in society.

Another poem of UKON’s that impressed me was about age and height, and was largely made up lines of the type, ‘At the age of 8 I was 120cm. Two years later I had grown an incredible 34cm’. It went from birth right through to death at the age of 84, and clearly evoked those marks most families make on some spare wall or doorframe to chart the growing height of their children. All went as expected for the first three decades, with rapid growth through childhood and puberty levelling off. In the 40s the subject shrank slightly due to an illness — a bit earlier than one would expect, but still plausible. But from the 50s onwards the subject’s height departed from all norms, shrinking, then growing, then shrinking again to just half a centimetre, before doubling in size to one centimetre and increasing again by 1000%. In old age the subject’s height became extremely volatile, fluctuating from zero in one year to 34 metres in another.

The way that in late middle age the height took off, rather than shrinking, had a fantastic sense of elation to it, as if the subject had been emancipated from the rigours of aging. Perhaps this represents the emancipation of retirement or the loss of inhibition that some people feel around that age. The volatility during old age, on the other hand, evoked for me the uncertainty and physical insecurity of old age. I felt that height worked in the poem as a metaphor for the ego, or perhaps general confidence and wellbeing. Maybe the slight shrinkage in the 40s was the onset of a mid-life crisis.

In the second half we heard from two Danish poets, Mette Moestrup and Morten Søndergaard. Moestrup read a piece that drew on her time working in a hospital cafeteria when they were issued with skirts that were too short. The poem was all in Danish, but somehow it was very easy to follow, and the occurrence of words like ‘feminist’, ‘sexist’, and ‘communist’ gave non-Danish speakers a pretty good idea of what was going on. I even found myself laughing in places, although though I couldn’t have told you exactly what was being said.

Morten Søndergaard finished the evening with a piece in which he tried to incorporate the ‘noise’ that you get when you open a file on the computer in the wrong programme — that jumble of unintelligible characters, yielding occasionally to strings of recognizable text. I always feel like I am being confronted, and affronted, with something when I see this, like seeing a mess of DNA code with an ear and some body parts floating about in it. Søndergaard’s method of rendering this noise in performance was through using his Kaoss Pad — an effects and sampler box, as far as I can work out — to modulate, distort, and screw around with his voice. This seemed like a pretty good audio equivalent; the noise in a file is language and formatting distorted by a computer, and the noise produced through his Kaoss Pad was also language (his voice) distorted through a computer.

He also performed it perfectly, managing seamless transitions between direct speech and the sampled sections, which nicely balanced being irritating, intriguing, and just a little bit amusing. The effects even provided some relief at the end of the poem, which consists of a large block of text something like this: ‘abbaaabba ggapp gabba baahba…’. He started reading this and my heart sank, —oh no, are we going to have to sit through a whole paragraph of this?! Then, just as I was about to become paralysed with despair, he started comically modifying the sounds he was producing, giving the whole thing a playful twist.

It’s harder to say much about the Icelandic poets because, with the exception of one (Kári Páll Óskarsson, I think), they spoke and read exclusively in Icelandic, and I’ve already gone on enough (in my previous post) about the excitement of listening to and miscomprehending poetry in a language you understand little of. I recognised Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir’s piece from the Summer Poetry Jam in May. It contains the phrases ‘Mr Brown’, ‘I am not a terrorist’, and ‘viltu pylsu?’ (‘do you want a hot dog?’), which effectively convey the thrust of what I take to be an angry and witty poem. I missed the line about the hot dog this time, but she made up for it with double-bass accompaniment.

I did wonder whether, in the international spirit of the Festival, all poets ought to be required to perform at least one poem in a language other than their own. Most of the visiting poets read in three languages — their own, Icelandic, and English — and I was struck by how comfortable they seemed be with their poems in translation. Maybe that is something that poets in non-English languages have to live with a lot more — seeing their poems alive in different languages, and not thinking of translations as second best, but as another manifestation of the poem, another part of its life. It’s all part of the process of letting go, which happens the moment you publish or perform your work, but even more so when you let someone else render it into a different language for you.

fragmented thoughts and unexpected collisions (open mic at the Nýhil International Poetry Festival)

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

At last, some live poetry! The Nýhil International Poetry Festival is upon us, and yesterday was night one, the open mic/michelle. I hadn’t been to any live poetry events since May, and last night I realised how much I’ve been missing it.

I read about the event on the Nýhil blogspot, and worked out that it was one poem each (in spite of being an ‘international’ festival, there’s been very little information available in English about it), but hadn’t realised that you were also supposed to read one poem by someone else too. So when it came to my turn, just like on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, I decided to text a friend, and was able to read out this haiku by Matt Clegg, direct from Sheffield:

A lone cobweb hangs
from the campsite tap — supports
one obese droplet.

I think it’s from ‘Trig Points’, which you can listen to on the Spoken Word Antics Sound Archive.

I also read ‘Shelter’, a poem of mine about a woman in a strange land who can’t speak the language trying to find her way. It reminded me of how I feel myself here sometimes, although the big difference is I can always open my mouth and speak English, which the woman in the poem can’t.

The running order was anarchic in logic – people just got up to read when they felt like it – but not in style; maybe a certain ease comes from people choosing their own moment…although I did occasionally notice those with less self-awareness prevailing over those with more.

Some I could understand, some I couldn’t; there was an English translation, which we were assured was nothing like the original, a rather un-hip rap (the kind where the words are forced into a rhythm, rather than written with rhythm in them), a poem from the milk carton, one neurotic piece that reminded me of the landlady from hell we narrowly escaped committing to a few months ago, and an interminable tract of social theory (the spectator, media, hegemony…Baudrillard perhaps?) that had us all feeling much enlightened once it was finally over.

All those words, all those people with things to say; one glorious, eclectic jumble of articulation and, on my part, much miscomprehension (but serendipitously so). Here is a rough approximation of what’s going on in my head when I’m listening to poetry in Icelandic:

‘Hvað sem ég er, í bílinum, reyking í geymsla…smoking in the cellar, or is that an invoice, something about a car, and what is it that I am?’

As you can see, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there is something wonderful about the combination of images and words, the fragmented thoughts, and unexpected collisions. I’m often not very good at paying close attention to what I’m listening to anyway. If I’m really enjoying a piece of music or poetry, it’s often because it’s stimulating my thoughts; my mind may be somewhere completely different, though still working in parallel to the performance and in some way guided by its structure, its shifts and moods. Listening to something you can only fractionally understand could be seen as a liberating aesthetic experience, because it frees you from any obligation to pay close attention, while a residual structure comprised of tone of voice, rhythm, sound texture, intonation, and so on – everything that is left when you take away the words – keeps you connected.