Sunday, October 07, 2007

Tomorrow jingly dragoning

So here's the death-rattle of summer, like that indelible moment in late-80s Neighbours when the comatose ex-stripper Daphne regained consciousness just long enough to whisper "I love you, Clarkey" to her jug-eared bank-manager husband Des, before conking out and chucking her mortal prawn on the Elysian barbie.

In fact, you find the Controlling Thompson not far from flatlining himself. I'm in once-cool Portishead, where the Begetting Thompson today celebrates his 72nd birthday. True to form I'm failing (as massively as did Daphne's heart all those years ago) to do any of the work or the reading I brought with me: though I hope there's a Marmite-thin scrape of a legit excuse in the extraordinarily gripping quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup. Your doting correspondent is, as we know, hardly le coq sportif -- more Quorn au vin, really -- but it's weirdly engrossing to see a guy who, headband excepted, looks like an outsize version of something that may have been rotating decorously in a kebab shop window as recently as the night before, being summarily felled and stamped into the dirt by an even bigger guy who uncannily resembles a Marillion tribute band all glued together: and all this in multiplicate, over and over again for eighty minutes, until there's more blood and sputum flying around than you'll find at Kevin "Walkies" Spacey's next birthday party.

For the past few days I've had the odd sense that I've been waiting for a phone call. Way back towards the end of my schooldays, when much of my energy was being directed into writing exhaustingly urbane comedy sketches and cabaret songs and suchlike, the parent of a fellow pupil declared cheerily to my father that I would surely be "the next Ned Sherrin". Now that that post has fallen open -- and may I in passing add to the recent churn of encomia the modest observation that the one time I met Mr Sherrin I found him chilly, patrician and vain, though I wouldn't for a moment wish to denigrate the importance of his tv work in the 60s -- I'm rather expecting a summons to the Palace, or at least an invitation to Earl Grey and Fondant Fancies with Mark Damazer at Radio 4 HQ. (In fact I'm not entirely sure now that Sherrin didn't briefly have a World Service series called Fondant Fancies.) ...A few years later, by the way, another onlooker announced that I was clearly "the next Stephen Fry". My parents once again found themselves nodding graciously at the intended compliment, while no doubt rather wishing that somebody at some point might proclaim me "the next [Anybody Heterosexual]".

These days, by comparison, little reflected celebrity glory seems to come my way. I did enjoy, for a moment, the realization one day last week, at Liverpool St station toilets, that I was having a pee standing nearly adjacent to Ralph "Streets of London" McTell -- you can imagine how I longed to rush home and tell you all about it: adding mischievously that, contrary to his earlier pledge, Mr McTell hadn't, in fact, shown me something to make me change my mind. -- But, as I say, the pleasure was short-lived, as I slowly realised that it wasn't Ralph McTell after all. It was definitely a famous folkie, but I haven't yet been able securely to place the face. My best guess at this stage is Martin Carthy, but I'm not entirely sure. Anyway, as a result of all this, I have at least begun to feel better disposed towards the handful of middle-aged men who -- looking at once vigilant and slothful -- seem to hang around those toilets drying their hands for hours on end: perhaps they're merely trying to figure out whether the fellow in the grey mac really is Peter Sarstedt. Liverpool St gents is, I'm pretty sure, where Leigh Bowery was picked up for gross indecency or whatever, but I tend to feel whenever I call in to those facilities on my way home that, as per the recent Daily Show skit in the aftermath of the Larry Craig arrest, I'm doing something pretty gross and indecent by walking into the midst of a perfectly congenial sex party and taking a piss right there. Jesus H[umperdinck] Christ, the temerity.

All of this, you will be divining by now, is an extended preface to a big old zilch. I really have very little to report. My life as a small businessman -- selling 90s alt-rock CDs to other antisocial thirtysomethings, mostly living (in a state of low feculence, one fondly imagines) in Strathclyde and Tyne & Wear -- is temporarily suspended during the current series of postal strikes: but it's nice to have a few days' break from that, to be honest: the tedium of the packing process, in particular, seems mysteriously to cause me to listen to daytime Radio 2. Nothing says Mail Lite Peel 'n' Seal Bubble Envelopes like a playlist that's heavy on Travis.

And, one way and another, most of my plans for cultural consumption in recent days have drifted sadly aglay. The one expedition that proved immune to the pressures of outrageous fortune was taking in a really hearteningly lovely film called Rocket Science, about which I knew basically nothing in advance, except that it had been a nearly-ran on my list at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year, and it was now showing at the right sort of time of day at the right cinema. (viz. the Odeon Covent Garden: a good haunt, on the whole, if, like me, you prefer your daytime moviegoing to be largely unspoilt by the degrading presence of other people in the auditorium.) In a way Rocket Science is American indie-by-numbers -- it seems to be steering particularly close, in its early stages, to last year's (or was it 2005's?) likeable Thumbsucker. But its quirkiness and charm is immensely bolstered by some exceptional performances (not least from its wildly ingenuous star, Reece Daniel Thompson; but also from other young'uns Nicholas d'Agosto, Aaron Yoo, and the awesomely deadpan Josh Kay, making an extraordinarily confident film debut) and the smartest comic screenplay I've encountered in a long time. Definitely worth seeing, probably more than once: it'll disappear at the end of this week so if you don't get to it, keep an eye out for the DVD in due course.

As for my own artistic output, it's all gone a bit Gwen Guthrie again... (I don't mean I'm releasing a soul album; I mean, there really is very little going on, as it were, with the exception of the rent. Consequently, and let me be absolutely clear on this point, you got to have a j-o-b if, by any chance, you want to be with me. ...Oh, I'm sorry, I should have broken that to you more gently.) There are a couple of promising conversations beginning to unfold, but nothing that's going to bear fruit very imminently.

The order of the day, therefore -- and not for the first time -- is dwelling upon past glories: in which regard, may I direct you firstly to Dennis Cooper's blog, where Speed Death of the Radiant Child had its own little featurette a couple of weekends ago. As ever, it's hard to link to posts at DC's because they go up in multiple parts -- so the best course of action, if you're interested, is to go to the archive for September and scroll down about a quarter of the way, till you get to Saturday 22nd. Though, the usual caveat emptor for Dennis's place applies: there's hardcore pr0n posted to either side of the Speed Death stuff, as Persons both Unknown and Unwitting found, to their evident (and immensely sweet) discombobulation. If you can face with equanimity the terrors of the schlongfest -- as Kipling, no doubt, advised in an early draft -- then you might enjoy the Speed Death material, and perhaps above all the terrific photos by Manuel Harlan, which give a pretty good (if necessarily limited) sense of what the thing was like to watch.

And should that leave you hankering after another online eruption of my work, I'm happy to say that the fine folks at Meshworks -- Daniel Ereditario, in particular -- have uploaded a large assortment of video files to YouTube, including Peter Manson's reading of my poem "Virtual drive capacity in the problem bird", from No Son House, recorded during the Chicago Review tour earlier this year. (I linked to this clip a few weeks ago when it was up as a Quicktime movie at the Meshworks site, but a lot of people reported struggling to view it, and I have to admit I never got very far with it either.)

The whole Meshworks selection box at YouTube is really worth investigating: there are videos of some really wonderful and significant poets, including Tom Raworth, Martin Corless-Smith, Fanny Howe, Maurice Scully, Cathy Wagner, Jow Lindsay, and Tom Leonard. And perhaps most excitingly of all, from the same Chicago Review reading, Keston Sutherland, reading (in four substantial instalments) his mindblowing, facesucking 'Hot White Andy': of which this is the first section:

and you'll find the others here, here and here. The most challenging thing about Sutherland's work might perhaps be that for several years now one has been trying to mint convincing new superlatives with which to hail and advertise it. Robert Potts wrote a good, a really good, piece about K's stuff for Poetry Review four years ago or so; I don't have it to hand (and unfortunately the link to an online reprint at the Poetry Society's web site now redirects eerily to a pretty dismal, vanilla-ice homepage statement from PR's current editor, Fiona Sampson, who took over from Potts and David Herd in 2005), but if I remember correctly it uses the image of a gurney hurtling down a hospital corridor, being pushed through set after set of swing doors, to describe the relentlessness and the sometimes terrifying impact of Sutherland's project. (It's the only piece of poetry criticism that's ever made me cry.) In which case, can we, shall we, say that in 'Hot White Andy' we finally arrive at the emergency room? The precision, the sweat, the blood, the pounding urgency, sure: but is this state-of-the-art keyhole surgery, all monitor screens and Vivaldi soundtrack; or is it swingeing sawbones butchery, the lopping off of limbs and tossing around of human offal? Or is it both, each spitefully lied about in terms of the other? The extension of Keston's technique into a stronger confrontation than ever with synthetic language and prosthetic feeling creates an awful buzz, both harrowing and hilarious.

It's also irresistibly inspiring, and, I think, one of the reasons that I'm beginning to feel the first itch of a rapprochement with poetry, or rather with the idea that I might usefully apply myself to poetry again. A slightly nauseous itchy feeling, like the one which overtook me when, aged seven or so, I had the plastercast removed from a just-healed broken arm, to find that the cast had provided the perfect incubating conditions for chicken pox, which then broke out all over the rest of my body about two days later. I appreciate this declaration of nausea takes me disgustingly close to Sean O'Brien's statement, a couple of days ago, that his involvement with poetry could best be described as an "affliction" -- an assessment with which I suspect very few readers of interesting poetry would beg to differ: not least because it was provoked by O'Brien's receipt of his third Forward Prize in twelve years, an award bestowed on him by what one perceptive critic has called the "circle jerk committee". O'Brien, though, means to say that you can make a better living as a quantity surveyor (indeed, O'Brien's wretched pal and editor Don Paterson always seems to be trying to merge the two trades); in my case, the question of a sustainable "career" obviously doesn't even begin to come into it, and what I feel looming around the sense of new work being makeable from time to time is a kind of dread. It is not much fun, writing the kind of poetry I write. Not even the fun poems. But, sadly, it's the only available route (that I can think of) to having written a good poem: which I've done, I suppose, four or five times, and which is a deeply pleasurable, if slightly bewildering, sensation.

And it is certainly true that, for every revolting National Poetry Day jamboree or shallow and mendacious Poetry Review op-ed, there is an example of courage and integrity that seems to preserve within the massive sleazy flophouse of our literary culture some kind of room to breathe and to work discreetly and thoughtfully and without instant capitulation. But too often that example draws its proper attention in sad circumstances: as happened a couple of weeks ago with the death of the extremely distinguished and affectionately regarded poet and scholar Bill Griffiths. I hardly knew Bill, we exchanged a small handful of emails and I met him I think only twice: once when he came to CPT to read in the Sub Voicive series that Lawrence Upton was then curating; and once, in the summer of 2005, at the Poetry Buzz event in celebration of Allen Fisher's 60th birthday. His presence was solid, almost daunting, but his manner was exceptionally gentle and unassuming. I've never felt a really strong connexion with his work, though I like a lot of the (relatively) little I know; but the fronts of influence and lines of provocation are pretty tangled and hard to untie in this neck of the woods, and I dare say I've got much more from Griffiths, at one remove or more, than I currently know. Certainly he was a hero to several folks who are not far off heroes to me.

Here's a poem of Bill's that I got to know and like from the anthology Conductors of Chaos. I don't have the paper text to hand so I'll have to assume that the online version at BEPC is correct (an assumption one is always cautious of making when it comes to poetry on the web, no matter how diligent its transcribers and encoders). It looks ok, from what I remember.

from Reveries

but it will be
I will be
tomorrow jingly dragoning
the slim pea
beauteous rides bike-plant fence mensefully
brave seems lady-pod
flapping pink 'n' colour
(my passion to pebbles in the soil)
dank air-swift scented
am still con-/in-volved

clouds bring ghosts
not a gold-chain of justice for them from anywhere
soon they're soaked hellwards
root-life neutral
no obstat;
mikkl-daisy mauve rags, last benefitors.

all behind my sight
salmon-tintly bevolve
seeking why
mechanism-decay to end printing
over-dark-cold-dead rollers
and unspringy and stasis
I unlucky sneeze

but it will be
I will be
tomorrow jingly dragoning

& Bill can be heard reading that poem here: while there are recordings of an extended 2005 reading at the Archive of the Now, a site whose usefulness is once again re-demonstrated and ratcheted up in these touching circumstances.

Aside from the expected obits in the usual places, the most credible of which I guess is Will Rowe's for the Guardian, there are numerous tributes to Bill all over the web: Google him, basically; but I really liked this informal piece at Bill Sherman's blog, and a poignant note from Nate Dorward.

And now I'm writing this with one eye on the South Bank Show's 40th anniversary commemoration of Penguin Modern Poets #10, better known as The Mersey Sound, the anthology that launched the careers of Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. There is something pretty attractive about The Mersey Sound, though it's not, really, the poetry; perhaps it's that it emerges out of a time and a culture wherein poetry was made in a dynamic continuity with visual art and pop music, and was able to speak with some cogency for and to that especially fluid milieu. A time also when the popular and the experimental were, if not fully identical, then not at odds -- neither in fact nor in commentary around the fact -- which distinguishes it to some degree from the later cross-pollinations that characterised punk, say. It seems to me an ideal situation and I suppose one has to admit, a bit grudgingly, that it's probably still happening, right now, but in places where I'm not paying attention. (We need an update on Jeff Nuttall's Bomb Culture, really. And not from Andrew Duncan, ta.)

At this distance it's clear to see what the strengths were of the three Mersey Sound poets. Only Patten, really, is actually a hands-down poet; I've always found his work appealing, there's a quietness at its heart and a lack of tail-chasing self-consciousness that distinguishes his writing from the output of his confreres. Henri was clearly a splendid crossover artist and agent provocateur, and an enthusiast and advocate and bridgebuilder, and that's important; I'm not sure his poetry has all that much going for it away from its audience or his backing band or his own XXL showmanship. McGough is certainly best in those contexts where a generalised, vaguely sentimental "poetic" bent and a stand-up comic's ear give him a somewhat extended ambit by comparison with people who aren't poets: people feel affectionately about him when he pops up on Radio 4 or on QI partly because he is only ever-so-slightly more a poet than they are. That aside, I do think The Scaffold were probably an important and significant outfit. He seems pretty embarrassed by them, or by his work with them. Maybe that's the stigma by which you can tell that you were doing something useful at the time.

Adrian Mitchell, my teenage affection for whom has for some time been evaporating, pops up as a talking head to say how great it was that the Mersey Sound poets spoke "directly" to their audience, not wishing to bamboozle anyone with ambiguity. I think this slightly misrepresents all three poets, to differing degrees, but it also begs a whole stack of questions about what "directness" -- which I would agree is, in respect of some of its connotations at any rate, a worthwhile aspiration -- actually is, how it is signalled, where it is located. Is Roger McGough's mundanely expressed coyness about love relationships and homeopathically surrealised suburban moments really more direct than Keston Sutherland's strenuously candid, fiercely blazoned failure to articulate the unmanageable totality of our social relations? I suppose McGough's work is "direct" in the way that water comes "directly" out of a tap: the machinery of transport, filtration and (in some places) fluoridation is invisible; any sense of connection to the natural water cycle is generally suspended until some crisis of supply hits home. And similarly, the efforts of selective obstruction, occlusion and abstraction that support McGough's chirpy, laconic utterances are totally concealed. I'm surprised that a good socialist like Mitchell isn't concerned about that.

Which is not to say that poetic works cannot achieve something of the more demonstrably equitable directness of Sutherland's "Hot White Andy" without sharing that poem's sheerly complicated and abundant matrices of violently spanked language. Examples abound, from Samuel Menashe to Anthony Barnett to Thomas A. Clark and a baker's googol of points inbetween. One poet whose overtly "accessible" surfaces yield up in the face of even cursory attention a sense of felicitous complexity and inexhaustible resistance to reduction is Geoffrey Squires, to whose recent e-book So, at the Shearsman site, I've been meaning to link for ages.

This is the second of Squires's e-books for Shearsman, following last year's Lines, and it proceeds through very similar movements, but for what it's worth I think So perhaps the more successful in the slight, just-detectable tension between its radical open-ended subjunctivity and the feint ghost of discarnate logic that invigilates its procedures. The nearest voice (if 'voice' is quite the right idea) is probably Beckett, though that may depend on how quickly you turn the pages: a steady flip produces the insistent fidgeting of an idling mind worrying itself into a sort of fractal realm of language, with nearly-formed questions constantly becoming their own nearly-formed answers, divulging little but keeping the authorial consciousness in an immaculate but vertiginous holding pattern; a slower, more reflective reading, in which each of these phrases is permitted to sound more vertically, admits a meditative, potentially spiritual, tonality, which you'll find successful probably in some proportion to the dependability of your own sense of such operations and background narratives. (For me, that's a struggle.) The question that arises in respect of reading-speed is perhaps in itself instructive: I wonder, how long does the passage of this text represent? It's sort of an unaskable question, but if this movement within language unfolds over a lifetime, that is one thing, and if what these words add up to is a single fleeting thought, captured on the wing, that's something else: but perhaps that simply takes us back to the sense of falling through fractal layers, the instant that might in language be developed out into a fair account of a lifetime's activity in coming to terms with the liveable experience of consequence and inquiry.

It is, at any rate, exceptionally fine work; both books are. And both are free downloads -- along with a number of other titles at the same site, from an interesting range of extremely worthwhile poets, including Ken Edwards (whose fascinating Chaconne I can unreservedly recommend), Gautam Verma (whose patient and lovely Tombs I found quite moving in the end), Stephen Vincent, M T C Cronin, and the locally underrated John Muckle.

There is an incredible amount of truly good poetry around, really -- very little of it in the places it's supposed to be: and perhaps (unlike with theatre, dare I say it) one considers one's own projects with a slightly defeatist air simply because there is no real need for them. Nonetheless, until the Forward Prize freezes over, plugging away when the time feels right is probably the way to go.

And in the meantime... You may remember, if you were hereabouts, that a few months ago I declared that the doors of the Bank were to be flung open and that this blog would thenceforth be looking to host other presences and channel other voices from time to time. You thought I'd forgotten, didn't you? Well, no, I've just been far too busy watching Win My Wage and grilling the occasional vegetarian sausage. But this weekend (d.v.) I'll be launching a new thread here at the Bank called Deposit Box, wherein, every two weeks or so, there'll be a bit of work by an invited poet or writer or artist -- generally, unpublished stuff that is unlikely to find accommodation elsewhere. Very happily, there's already some extremely fine work in the queue, which I look forward to sharing with you.


Jow said...

someone was saying you were skulking today ... DUH

something else ... oh yeah, when y're a bit drunk it looks like "Marillion trillobyte band" ...

Natalie said...

Wow! You are a bank of gargantuan blogs.

I love the idea of your deposit box and look forward to seeing what is posted.