Saturday 30 May 2009


Newsnight review produced some interesting points yesterday – and perhaps highlighted some of the broader issues poetry has had in engaging with the mass media in recent years. The panel comprised of Luke Wright, Simon Armitage, Josephine Hart and Akala – all of which made some strong cases for their various bits of polemic, while remaining distinctly underwhelming en masse.The contributors, probably through no fault of their own, all seemed forced to revert to type – Simon Armitage did his typically dull “I’m the people’s poet me” bit, Josephine Hart burbled in a pitch that rendered most of what she said incomprehensible, while Luke Wright and Akala seemed largely drafted in order to make the whole thing more approachable. Depressingly, the conversation seemed to centre round a very confused debate about whether poetry was relevant or popular – with the guests taking up the stand-point that yes it was, though their views on why remained more dependent on their individual backgrounds. For example, Akala banged the drum for the power of metaphor, that its popularity in Hip-hop has allowed him (and others) to make the connections to Shakespeare and others. As a regular hip-hop columnist I haven’t got time to make my personal views on this known here, but there is some element of truth in what he’s saying – albeit in a slightly more complex manner than just direct comparison.

The problem with these arguments about poetry and popularity is that it fails to acknowledge that when you use the word ‘poetry’ you are talking about a form – not a particular style or genre of writing. To clarify, like the word ‘painting’ ‘poetry’ is a catch-all phrase for a multitude of different things. Despite what the BBC presenter seemed to imply, elements do engage and see a fair degree of commercial success; performance poetry in particular is enjoying somewhat of a renaissance at the moment (although again, the term performance poetry can be divided into countless subgenres) – but on the flip side there isn’t much call for Neo-Catholic Metaphysical Sestinas at the moment. Perhaps the problem is not so much in the attitude of audience or poet, but in our expectations on how we should consume it. The poetry world is not in a position to proliferate a thousand new poets a year, and there isn’t the demand for it. This isn’t because people don’t engage with it, it’s because you aren’t able to passively consume a collection in the same way you would music perhaps. No-one asks why 90% of recorded music isn’t ‘engaging young people’ or ‘relevant’ – because everyone accepts that there’s so much of it that it couldn’t possibly appeal to everyone all of the time. The problem is that we want simplification – we want to feel that every endeavour can be flatly defined in terms of its engagement and the success it sees economically – when actually we’re not quite certain what criteria we are using. Trying to argue about “the state of poetry” using sales figures is like trying to guess the weight of the moon using fingers and toes alone.

So are we engaged, switched on, hip? Well no, we’re albino catfish in the lake – we have a place, but it’s an enigmatic, confusing one. Mass media can’t figure it out, or at least can’t find a way to make it look interesting on the telly-box. Media coverage of the recent hoo-has in poetry have exemplified this – Padel’s resignation has nothing to do with her art, it has everything to do with preconceived ideas of Oxford as being a stuffy, out-of-touch sort of institution – No-one seems to even talk about Duffy’s laureate in relation to her work, just in terms of what she’s done with the five grand and the fact she has breasts. The world doesn’t need poets to try and engage and “be down with the kids,” because there is nothing more ball-achingly embarrassing. Simon Armitage is prime example of this – his populism just succeeds at making the whole affair look woefully out of touch, a recreational pursuit for the middle-class Cambridge post-grads and bored housewives. Much like dogging.

So what’s the answer? I’m not sure. It’s important to cultivate new audiences, work on projects that engage outside of the usual niches – but at the same time there are ways of doing that without pandering to the usual blather or trying too hard. I remember Daniel Kane talking to me about his new book and saying that poetry was “a thing, like any other thing” – it didn’t need to be blown into some faux-profound bubble or space. I like his view best - that it is a creative reflex, a game that can be played. It doesn’t need to be worried about in quite the way people seem to, and it certainly doesn’t need academics talking about how they have a responsibility to “engage” or “make a point.” Sure, some of it does – and that’s a good thing – but when you try and put blanket definitions on what poetry should or shouldn’t be, well then it just gets dull. There’s so many multitudes contained in that one word, you can’t even begin to set it out as one cohesive thing. Where Newsnight failed was in its erratic generalising and simplification. Don’t talk to me about the “State of Poetry” - Poetry need only occupy a space into a reader or listener can project – what they do with that space is up to them.

Ah forget it, I’m quitting this racket and taking up gardening.

Thursday 28 May 2009

Quick Notes

So busy at the moment it's proving difficult to blog properly  so I thought I'd just make some quick notes:

Currently working on something special on Tumblr - it's a writing project I've been meaning to put together for a while. There's a lot to do and the interface is proving visually beautiful, whilst remaining too confounding for me to follow behind the scenes. Every thing I want to change about the layout requires a tweak here or there and it frustrates me greatly.

On the positive side of this project I've been able to incorporate some of the ideas behind the blogging norfolk project - which was put together by chum Nathan Hamilton. It's worth checking out what's there, and his blog as well - which provides the same wit and insight he himself possesses in person. Sicophantic as all this may sound, I owe him a lot for his support and advice.

I'm taking a break from the choir at the moment to do other things - and that in itself is quite exciting. We've done a number of gigs in recent months ( which I will blog about in the coming few weeks) and as much as I enjoy it, I feel it's time to go and develop on new shows and ideas. I intend to work on some new, more immersive vocal pieces - but haven't quite figured out what yet. That said, they are performing in Luton for the first time without me - in the very capable hands of Russell J Turner as part of the Breakin' Arts Festival. There's some other stuff coming up as well - check Nosher for updates.

Other exciting news? Oh, Stephanie Leal's book is out and features a press quote from a certain someone. I'm quite proud of the little quote as it forms part of a larger article that I'll link up once it's published - it reads better than the usual "THEY IS GOOD WRITER" bumf you get on the back of books. Of course, the content of the book itself is pretty fab - otherwise I wouldn't be endorsing it...

That's it for now - off to London to see this.



Sunday 3 May 2009

Perhaps I’m not making myself clear…

There seems a current trend among poets - performance and page if you are fickle about distinctions- Wait, let me start again. There seems a current trend amongst poets nowadays. And by nowadays I don’t mean that today I have seen this, I mean that over the recent months there has been a trend towards- towards the thing I am leading up to, just be patient. There seems a certain propensity towards the poet nowadays. Oh, now I’m muddled. There seems a certain tendency, propensity whatever, I’ve just had to look that word up – it means a natural inclination. There seems a certain - well when I say certain, I do not mean it is a sure thing. I mean it as a signifier of reliability. There is a reliability to poets nowadays. “What I mean is” (Agnes Lehoczky) there is a dependable, reactionary stream of blustery snot-noses. Poets I mean. A reactionary stream of bluster boys who seem quite content to classify their personal journal entries, specifically not their entries but a random quish-quash of thought which they’ve had that day, and turn them into a list. No, let me redefine that because it is unfair. Many great poets thrive on the thoughts that they’ve had on that, or any other, particular day. Take William Carlos Williams for example, who enriched American poetry just by the grace of a plum in an icebox no less. No divine mystery there, no magic hoo-do. This is not a war against the requirement of mystical energy in your plum or your poem. Please do not make that mistake. We can do direct talking, and I’m not interested in drawing myself into that woozy polemic anymore than I have to. Poems work in all variety of measures, meters, forms and failures – the world contains multitudes. To paraphrase Whitman.

No, the argument is thus- people’s engagement with poetry seems to require that they are, by their very unique and gratifying position as audience/critic/anonymous blogger, given over to wanting things explained. Quite Simply. In Big Letters. “What I mean is” (Agnes Lehoczky) there is a certain kind of brainwashing that occurs through academic study – there can only ever be one or two interpretations of a poem, and god help you if you don’t get it on the first drop. Now there is nothing wrong with a direct poem, we all like them – they are a bit like pop tarts, or hot dogs, or ice tea, or a roller coaster ride. It’s enjoyable. However, your life cannot function alone on hot dogs, pop tarts, ice tea or roller coaster rides. It would be great, certainly, but you would probably get pretty bored of a diet of hot dogs, pop tarts, ice tea and roller coaster rides. In fact your mind and body would become hideously bloated - craving nothing but endless streams of additives, punctuated with short bursts of adrenaline and possible cardiac arrest. Perhaps it would be best to seek these things in moderation eh?

Back to the brainwashing effect of academic study- “What I mean is” (Agnes Lehoczky) the disorder whereby if something is opaque or not immediately apparent then it suffers dismissal on grounds of pretension. If something is direct, then it is accused of being dumb. You are in a sticky trap, that’s for sure. It’s too easy, in these days of canny self-awareness, to ape everything. Let us assume the hubris and rhetoric of irony and wear it like a big brass badge – that way we can be picky without fear of recrimination. Or something. The notion of commitment. Or something. “What I mean is” (Agnes Lehoczky) there is this ugly feedback loop- something I’ve appropriated from a recent interview with Alan Moore – whereby the audience are not challenged, so consequently their expectations are lowered, and then the writer (or performer or whatever) produces work that is less challenging…ad infitum. The absurdity of the situation is this- hmm the situation isn’t absurd. What is patently absurd is the facile attempt to even grasp the situation. We are not talking. We are on speaking terms certainly. But we are not talking. What I mean is (Agnes Lehoczky) perhaps you do study and consume every word as it was gospel and all the rage. Perhaps you do.

There is a propensity to shrug it off. Or take it all too seriously. I am currently uncertain which is better, so hence I gawp and slack-jaw myself into invisibility.

(SIDE NOTE - Agnes Lehoczky's work is some of my favourite contemporary writing. Please don't mistake the (over) use of her name as anything other than a wayward tribute.)