The Glass House

March 23rd, 2012

It’s a recent, steel-frame building, and inside the space is vast and light—far more impressive than on the outside. In the foyer you have to queue at reception for a visitor pass that will let you past the gates. Once through, you can get anywhere.

The workspaces are open plan, with glass meeting rooms of different sizes around the outside and the central atrium. Endless rooms, open to the viewer, none belonging to anyone, none with any determinate function. The whole space has been designed with flexibility in mind, and it consequently feels like it might be about to collapse.

You’d never feel secure working here, never entirely sure that your desk would still be there in the morning. The furniture is ephemeral and portable, ready to be picked up and carted off at any moment. The workers on flexi-time come and go, each replaceble by the next, the pattern of their appearances entirely lacking in regularity. Even the walls seem to have moved every time you look at them.

But what about the plumbing, plumbing isn’t mobile? I wander about looking for toilets, but they are nowhere to be found. Eventually a cleaner shows me the way. They’re round the corner, behind a screen, through a set of double doors, along a corridor with a low ceiling and…walls. Walls? These are the first things I’ve seen in over two hours that really look like walls. There has been glass, partitions, legs, and furniture. But walls, no.

When I leave there are people on cycling machines in the lower atrium level. Someone is shouting at them. “Faster”, he says, “go on, you can do it. Faster!”. They’re straining to break free. If only, I think, they had real bicycles.

Happenstance: Deleted Scenes at States of Independence

March 13th, 2012

It’s time for States of Independence again, the wonderful book-fair-cum-festival at De Montfort University in Leicester, now in it’s fourth year.

Last year I ran a Happenstance stall, which I enjoyed so much I ran another at the Lowdham Book Festival and States of Independence West in Birmingham, though neither quite matched the buzz of the original, so I’m back for another go. There were stalls from all kinds of independent publishers—Nine Arches, Five Leaves, Shoestring, Templar, to name but a few—and panels, readings, and talks throughout the day. I somehow ended up on one entitled ‘Show Me the Money’, where I talked about applying for funding for community writing programmes.

This year we’ve got a 45-minute Happenstance slot to go with the stall, which will feature readings from Sally Festing, Tim Love, Peter Daniels, and myself. I’m calling it ‘Deleted Scenes’ because I’ve asked each of the readers to include one poem that was not included in their Happenstance pamphlet, whether it was discarded during the editing process or perhaps written later on as a sequel or something that could have gone into the collection. I hope this’ll encourage a bit of reflection on the process of putting together a collection, working with an editor, and the afterlife it can have.

There’s tonnes of other stuff happening on the day, including Aly Stoneman and Mulletproof Poet launching their debut collections from Crystal Clear, and a reading from Mark Goodwin and Chris Jones of Longbarrow Press. You can find the full programme on the States of Independence website.

Can Actors Read Poetry?

November 20th, 2011

I was just listening to a programme about the Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle on Radio 4, which was interesting but spoiled by terrible readings of the poet’s work. Why on earth does the BBC repeatedly air acted readings of poems that tend to smother the poem beneath a veneer of theatricality? So often the voice comes across as pompous, precious, and suggestive of a nervous, agitated disposition. Are they deliberately trying to reproduce a stereotype of the poetic psyche?

It’s not so much that the BBC hires bad actors. In this case the actor was Sara Kestelman, who has a distinguished career behind her. Poets themselves are often not the best readers of their work, though in many cases they are, and actors are in possession of an array of techniques that would help many poets improve their delivery. So actors ought to be able to do poetry a service. If they don’t manage this, it must be something to do with the approach they or their directors take, rather than with their ability.

In this particular case, Hilda Doolittle’s poems were read in a breathy, dramatic whisper that was probably supposed to sound atmospheric. But I just sat there thinking, ‘What on earth are you doing? Nobody reads poetry like this!’. I was unable to focus on the words. Any atmosphere the poetry might have conjured up was obscured by the atmosphere of the voice. And whatever accents and tones the words might have possessed were squashed by the reader’s tone of voice.

It’s as if actors are more concerned with exhibiting their performance skills than with conveying the material they are supposed to be delivering. Or are directors perhaps not convinced that anyone is really interested in poetry, so instruct their actors to compensate for what they perceive as the lack of content in the words?

This is something I’ve been wondering about for years. My main theory is that actors are used to acting dramatic dialogue, where conventionally every line belongs to a character, i.e. it is the product of a unified personality. Moreover, when scriptwriters write dialogue, they will often be thinking about things like the situation in which the lines are uttered, the objectives of the character, and their relation to the character they are being addressed to.

While some poetry is characterised by these features of dramatic dialogue, very often it isn’t. It’s not always clear who the speaker is in a poem, what the context of its utterance is, and who it’s being addressed to. A lot of the time poetry is multi-accented, that is, its meaning can seem to pull in several different directions, and much of its effect may come from the tension or play between those different orientations. If someone tries to read poetry as dramatic dialogue, they are likely to end up fixing the context and meaning, and therefore lose this kind of tension or play.

This reminds me of Valentin Voloshinov’s discussion of ‘quasi-direct speech’ (nesobstvennaia priamaia rech´, a Russian translation of Gertrude Lerch’s uneigentlich direkte Rede) in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. In quasi-direct speech a single linguistic construction conveys the meanings of two differently oriented voices. An example might be a sentence in a novel that seems to convey the meanings of both the author and a character, and where neither is dominant over the other.

In a discussion of the use of this form of speech in Russian modernism, Voloshinov describes quasi-direct speech as a linguistic phenomenon that is specific to the written word and which cannot be effectively conveyed through speaking:

In the majority of cases, and namely there, where quasi-direct speech becomes a mass phenomenon in the new artistic prose, the acoustic transfer of evaluational interference is not possible. What’s more, the very development of quasi-direct speech is connected with the transition of the major prose genres to a silent register. Only this silencing of prose made possible that multi-levelled and orally unconveyable complexity of intonational structures, which is so characteristic of the new literature. (Marksizm i filosofiia iazyka, 1929, p. 377, my translation. See Part III, ch. 4 in the English edition.)

If you believe Voloshinov, then you might conclude that the reason the BBC broadcasts such terrible acted versions of poems is that it simply isn’t possible to read a lot of poetry out loud properly; oral reading fixes the voice one way or the other, and loses what isn’t fixed.

I disagree. Poets have been finding ways of performing their work in ways that do manage to preserve the lack of centredness and multiple accents their words sometimes carry for decades, possibly centuries (although it’s more of a modern phenomenon). It doesn’t necessarily mean reading in a straight, uninflected way at all, and the more acting skills a speaker has the better they’ll probably be able to carry it off. But it does mean ditching the notion that poetry should be uttered as if spoken by an individual character.

Making a Collaborative Poem: Pegasus Bridge

November 18th, 2011

I’ve been working with an aphasia group in Nottingham recently, which has thrown up some interesting challenges, as not everyone in the group can write well enough to be able to handle individual writing exercises. So I’m exploring alternatives like collaborative group poems and getting them to work in pairs.

Pegasus Bridge (poem, flipchart arrangement)Last week we had an inspiring session working on a collaborative poem to do with war. In the past, some of the best sessions I’ve facilitated have been the most spontaneous ones, which haven’t relied much on preparation and where the participants have had a lot of input into the content of the class or workshop. This was one of those sessions.

We’d planned to base the session around memory and I’d prepared a number of exercises working with this theme. However, I’d just started explaining what we were going to do for the first exercise when, after barely two minutes had passed, the bells started ringing. It was 11am on Remembrance Day, 11 November, and we’d agreed beforehand we were going to observe the two minutes silence.

While we were sitting there quietly I started thinking this would make a great subject for the session, so when the silence was over I changed the plan and asked people what they’d been thinking about during the two minutes. I then got them talking in more detail about their thoughts or any memories they associated with war, and started writing lines up on the board based on what they were telling us.

We had a whole range of responses from very general sentiments about war to specific memories of childhood during the blitz and friends who’d served as soldiers. One woman remembered how she’d been lucky to live on a farm where there was plenty of food even during rationing. One man remembered someone who’d come back from service a completely different person, clearly traumatised, highly reclusive, but was able to find peace in mending watches.

Someone else had a bit of an adventure story from an uncle (I think), who’d been captured by the German army during WWII and held captive as a POW. One day they discovered loads of gems on a job they were doing and started hiding them in their pockets, but the soldiers found out and had them lined up against a wall to shoot anyone found with the stolen gems on them. I think they managed to ditch the precious stones just in time. And another person described how she lives near an airfield where Lancaster bombers still occasionally take off, and the Red Arrows practise their manouvres.

Once we had a selection of lines on the board, with something contributed by everyone, I asked the group to arrange the line order to form a poem. Which line comes first, which is second, and so on? We could easily have ended up with a disparate set of experiences, but the lines seem to gel and build upon one another, constructing a narrative out of different people’s thoughts and memories. There are also some nice examples of contradiction in the first verse, which show how contrasting sentiments can be combined for rhetorical effect.

‘Pegasus Bridge’

Quiet across the country
people still talking
the noise of planes trailing flags in the air
sometimes cut short
but we must stay alive.

We were lucky, always enough food
gas-powered buses
came back a changed man, mending watches
going home in the blackout—moonlit streets
stolen gems, spoils of battle
white poppies—no more war.

(by Frances, Paula, Beryl, Emma, Cliff, and the three Davids at Aphasia Nottingham, and myself)

A Night of Happenstance, 26 November 2011

October 27th, 2011

A Night of Happenstance

Lee Rosy’s tea room, 17 Broad Street, Nottingham, NG1 3AJ
Saturday 26 November, 7.30pm
Entrance £4/£3 (concs)

Six Happenstance poets, from across the Midlands, Scotland, and as far away as Spain, will be gathering for a reading downstairs at Lee Rosy’s in Nottingham on 26 November 2011, from 7.30pm. The poets are Helena Nelson (also editor of Happenstance Press), Ross Kightly, Marilyn Ricci, Robin Vaughan-Williams, DA Prince, and Matthew Stewart, who will be in the country to launch his new pamphlet, Inventing Truth.

Happenstance is an independent poetry press based in Scotland that publishes poets from all over the UK. It specialises in pamphlets, and in 2010 won the Michael Marks Award for Poetry Pamphlets for publishers. Ali Smith, one of the judges, commented, ‘HappenStance proved outstanding in the elegance, thoughtfulness and clarity of their design, and the infectious interaction, open-mindedness and energy of their publishing ethos’.

Lee Rosy's Street ViewHappenstance also produces Sphinx, an indispensable source of poetry pamphlet reviews.

Lee Rosy’s is a tea room and café in Nottingham city centre’s Hockley district, opposite the Broadway cinema.

About the Poets

Helena Nelson

Helena NelsonHelena Nelson is editor and founder of HappenStance Press, which specialises in poetry pamphlets. Her most recent poetry collection in her own right is Plot and Counter-Plot, (Shoestring Press). Helena is also this year’s judge on the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition, and will be attending the adjudication at 2.45pm on the same day (Mechanics Institute, 3 North Sherwood Street, NG1 4AX).

DA Prince

DA PrinceDA Prince started out with light verse and political satire, but gradually found herself shifting into the realms of what might be called ‘proper’ poetry (the sort that poetic/moody poets write). After having three pamphlets in print, her first full-length collection Nearly the Happy Hour came out in 2008 from HappenStance. More about DA Prince is available on PoetryPF.

Ross Kightly

Ross KightlyBorn in Melbourne in 1945, Ross Kightly spent many years teaching in Victoria, Croydon, ILEA, Lucca (Italy), and then Yorkshire. Since recovering from viral encaphalitis in 2007 Ross has devoted himself to the heroic task of becoming the World’s Most Prolific Poetaster by setting himself ridiculous output targets, such as 7,457 poems for 2011 (which works out at over 20 a day). Gnome Balcony was published in 2011.

Marilyn Ricci

Marilyn RicciMarilyn Ricci lives in Leicestershire.  Her poems have appeared in anthologies and been widely published in magazines including Other PoetryOrbis, The Rialto and Smiths Knoll.  Her first pamphlet Rebuilding a Number 39 was published by Happenstance Press in 2008.

Matthew Stewart

Matthew StewartMatthew Stewart was born in Farnham, Surrey, in 1973, but has lived in Extremadura, Spain, for the past fifteen years, where he works for a local winery. His poems have been widely published in UK magazines and he blogs at Rogue Strands. Inventing Truth, his Happenstance publication, ‘is a remarkable collection of pithy poems that open up to panoramas of love, family, regret and longing, and linger, flourishing in the mind long after reading’ (Richie McCaffery).

Robin Vaughan-Williams

Robin Vaughan-WilliamsAfter many years in Sheffield, where he ran the Spoken Word Antics monthly night and radio show, Robin Vaughan-Williams moved to Nottingham via Iceland in 2010. He is Development Director at Nottingham Writers’ Studio, author of The Manager, and also a live literature producer. Some of his projects are shown at

Sent/Received: The Ghost in the Text

October 21st, 2011

Andrew Kells’s new ghost script, Sent/Received, has the trademark characteristics of any good ghost story: entrapment, suspense, fear…mummies in the closet. But instead of gothic towers, rakish libertines, and letters stained in blood, it’s got, well, text messages. Lots of them, in fact. But as the messages start to fly, it becomes apparent they’re not quite as instant or ordinary as they might seem.

Texts have been used before as a literary medium. In Japan texts are commonly used as individual chapters in flash fiction stories, delivered direct to the reader’s phone. They call it keitai shousetsu, or the cellphone novel. Sent/Received may well be the first SMS ghost script though.

Andrew Kells

Andrew Kells

Andrew was attracted by the brevity of texts and the scope the provide for miscommunication. The way his wife might text him from the supermarket asking if he wanted potatoes, but by the time he got the message and replied she could be miles away, as if they were on split time lines. Which is exactly what happens in Sent/Received, where texting is the only way of communicating between split time streams.

‘We expect technology to deliver instant results’, he says, ‘There’s this faith that technology will solve our problems, but it doesn’t’.

Sent/Received, with Andrea Milde and Jonathan Greaves as its time-slip victims, has its first performance at Skype Me! Sheffield and the World at Showroom Cinema 5 on 29 October (7.30pm). The night brings together writers from around the world, appearing on screen via Skype, with writers in Sheffield, exploring just how connected we really are.

Robin Vaughan-Williams, who is co-hosting the Skype Me! with Sarah Thomasin, put on a similar event in Nottingham in May. ‘The effect of switching back and forth between people on stage and on Skype created a magical effect’, he says:

As we flew around the world from Mumbai to Finland to Cyprus and New Zealand, we got to see writers we would normally never have a chance to experience live, and Skype created an unusual sense of intimacy—after all, it’s just like calling someone up on the phone, and you see the writers in the privacy of their own homes, as if they’ve invited us in.

Miwa Kurihara will be getting up early in Kawasaki, Japan (5.30am local time) to call in with some haiku and a poem on the recent tsunami to devastate her country. There will also be remote appearances from Texas jam poet Thom the World Poet, who has entertained audiences and school children around South Yorkshire many times before on his annual UK tour, and Jeff Cottrill, a Canadian spoken word artist who last performed in Sheffield at the Red Deer in March 2007. A master in the art of satire—macho jocks, manipulative girlfriends and pompous literary elitists have all felt his ire.

In Sheffield, Liz Cashdan will be hooking up with her friend Liesl Jobson in Cape Town and exchanging poetic postcards. Poet and promoter Gaby Bila-Günther will be dropping by from Berlin, where she is a fixture on the spoken word scene. Chella Quint will be taking us on an epistolary journey through the stars with ‘It’s Not You. I Just Need Space. (interplanetary letters of love and rejection)’, Rob Hindle will be airing his poem-drama ‘Yoke and Arrows’ about the last weeks of the life of Federico Garcia Lorca duing the Spanish civil war, and Joe Kriss, literary editor of Now Then, will be revealing new work.

Skype Me! Sheffield and the World
Showroom Cinema 5, 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX
7.30pm, Saturday 29 October, entrance £4/£3
Facebook page:

Here are a few more links on SMS fiction:

Story Time at the Old Trip

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).

An invalid argument was encountered

December 5th, 2010

Is that so?

One of the things that make computer error messages so infuriating is that they invariably use impersonal constructions, implying that there is nobody to blame, nowhere to channel your frustration and vent your rage.

Is not the computer, or more specifically the operating system, the product of a collective effort? ‘We encountered an invalid argument’ would offer a glimmer of hope, implying there might be a phone number with some friendly people on standby to resolve any invalid arguments. But of course there isn’t, unless you pay for it, so the glimmer would be false.

‘I encountered an invalid argument’ would be even worse. Several years ago for a brief time the recorded announcements at Raynes Park station started saying, ‘I am sorry for the delay’. ‘You’, I thought, ‘who are you?’. It sounded like a disingenuous ruse to get passengers—sorry, customers—to relate to their rail company on a more personal level. I expected this to develop into ‘I’m doing my best’, which would soften our tempers because it’s just some guy and we all make mistakes but at least he’s trying. The Tony the Tiger of the railways was just around the bend.

Pretty soon they reverted to ‘we’, and ‘we’ is appropriate for corporate entities because they have legal personhood, which is not so good in some ways (why should corporations have similar rights to individuals?), but it does at least mean we can hold them responsible. It’s hard to think how one might hold a personal computer responsible though, except by chucking it out the window.

Perhaps what we need is a new personal pronoun for speech generators that are not persons. Something like a neuter version of the first person, an ‘it’ version of ‘I’. Could they just use ‘it’ in the first person—’it encountered an invalid argument’—or maybe ‘I’ in lower case: ‘i’. Given the move from ‘e’ to ‘i’ as a prefix for anything digital (if the iPhone had been invented 10 years ago, would it have been the ‘ePhone’?), that could be a rather elegant solution.

i encountered an invalid argument

Would that make me feel any better about my computer malfunctioning though? I’d rather it just worked.

Sweet Tatty Soup Packs a Punch

October 12th, 2010

I first came across the hierarchy of sweet potatoes outside a greengrocer’s in Tooting Broadway some years ago, in the look of disgust on an old woman’s face when she realised they didn’t have any Jamaican sweet potatoes in, just the Egyptian kind.

But I don’t think I ever actually tried the Jamaican variety until this evening. I always assumed Jamaican sweet potatoes were the pink ones, and the paler looking ones were Egyptian, but it’s the other way round. And they’re twice the price. The Sherwood greengrocer I visited yesterday kindly warned me that the two sweet potatoes I was about to buy cost almost £5, which turned out to be more than half the price of my shop. But I persevered with my purchase anyhow.

The Jamaican sweet potatoes, it turns out, are white inside, like yams. And they’re rather peculiar. The peeled vegetable starts to go a nasty grey in places on exposure to the air, and it seems to corrode the skin, leaving it dry and rough, though not as bad as butternut squashes.

The texture when cooked is like taro—soft but firm at the same time, and crushes with a delicious sensation when you bite on it. I could well imagine it as the sweet filling inside some Taiwanese pastry.

But it’s the heavily perfumed flavour that really astonished me. It was a particularly fragrant soup—I’d used ginger and chilli, allspice, cloves, nutmeg, and cardamon—but I don’t think any of those can have accounted for the distinct whiff of rosewater (yes, the stuff they put in Turkish delight) I got with several mouthfuls. Well, it could conceivably have been the cardamon, but I’m siding with the sweet potato for the time being.

Near Myths by Giles Goodland (review)

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.