For reasons that I expect I'll write about in a few days' time (& therefore not, if you'll forgive me, now), yr devoted Controlling Thompson has been feeling pretty ropey of late. I'm beset not, for once, by the black dog of cackular despond, but rather by whatever metaphorical animal represents the depths of physiological blee. (Definition 5.) The dark brown wildebeest, perhaps, or the ultramarine sloth. The last few days in particular, when I haven't been at work (more of which below) I've mostly been in bed, or near bed, or thinking of bed with especial fondness. So while confessing and regretting that you, my best beloveds, have been rather neglected of late, I would wish for about 48 other neglects to be taken into consideration.
So: where are we? Gosh, well I suppose we start with a brief account of Wound Man and Shirley, which ended its jaunt around this septic isle about three weeks ago with a pleasantly sunny and bonhomous outing to Plymouth. (Bonhomous, adj., characterised by an abundance of decent chickpeas.) It was a good tour, all told, I think, of a nice show: though of course in reflecting upon it even at this short distance, it's the less starry moments that seem to want to crowd into the account. Worst among equals, perhaps, being the gig at the New Wolsey in Ipswich where, having been made to feel inestimably welcome by the folks there and excited by the prospect of playing to a pretty substantial audience, for the first time in my professional career I inexplicably, totally and utterly, dried. Darlings, I don't just mean I forgot my lines. I mean I forgot everything: who I was, what I was supposed to be doing, the lot. It's a miracle I didn't forget how to breathe, in a fit of respiratory amnesia, and end up being carried out navy blue on a St John's stretcher. I know I sound like a tedious old luvvie but I really can't think of any experience quite like it. Jesus, the flop sweat. So along with everything else, you can't really see either, for the feverish brine running off your brow into your eyes. I tried to chat to the audience, thinking that narrating my experience would at least help personalise the episode so that we didn't have to pretend it wasn't happening. To my immense and undying gratitude they were hugely kind and supportive: and eventually I found my way back into the scene and we pressed on: only for me to trip up again ten minutes later and deliver a crucial passage in such unimaginable aphasic disarray it was as if the script had been rechoreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Observing (finally) that I'd been doing even this twisted effigy of the scene using the wrong voice for one of the characters, I then in a panic bizarrely referred to a character called Reg as Ron -- a smallish straw which nonetheless broke this mortified camelid's spinal column in several places and caused me to utter a Very Bad Word Indeed in front of all the nice ladies and gentlemen. We got to the end but it was a miserable experience and one that, once I've wrung all the anecdotal value out of it, will just be a husk of living nightmare that I'll wear evermore on a string round my neck like a shark's ossified ringpiece.
All of which tends to overshadow the other low spots: such as South Hill Park, Bracknell, where an audience of about 30 in an auditorium able to seat several hundred arranged themselves quite extraordinarily confoundingly into two rows at the very front and one row at the very back; thinking I might at least strike up a rapport with the school party in the front row, I was a bit thrown when, a minute in, on hearing me describe my first love -- "I was fourteen and he was fourteen" -- one girl loudly objected: "He? Don't you mean she?" -- Which I found even harder to brush aside than the heckle emanating from one of the LGBT youth groups who turned up at Contact in Manchester. I stepped into my spotlight for the very opening of the show and, quite audibly from the back, before I'd even uttered a word, came the delectable apercu: "This one's a wanker." -- Trouble is, because I do this kind of thing so rarely, my hide isn't as thick as a professional performer's might be, and I quickly find myself tacitly agreeing. I mean, here I am, insisting on telling a story for ninety minutes, while everyone else has to shut up, sit still in the dark and adore me. Surely that makes me a wanker at best.
But these moments of course remain salient because they were so few. The rest was pretty much a real pleasure, and I'll certainly recall the gigs in Newcastle -- the #2 space at Northern Stage is a complete delight to play -- and Bristol, where the Mayfest atmosphere was genuinely giddying, with terrific fondness and some pride. That this whole enterprise was tolerable at all, let alone such a blast, is due entirely to those who made it possible, particularly on the road: the jawdroppingly brilliant James Lewis, simply a beautiful beautiful man; cohorts Anthony Newton, Andy Purves, and, much of the way, Jonny Liron (way, way beyond the call); and godlike producer Ric Watts. I name them shamelessly here in the hope that all who Google them, till the end of time, will find them thus listed here and know that they were loved. (By me, at least.)
The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley
Set: Janet Bird Lighting: Anna Watson
Photo by Joel Fildes
Hopefully Wound Man will have some further life -- I'd love it to do a substantial run in London, as almost nobody around here (understandably enough) made the journey to catch it on its travels. But in the meantime there's plenty of other stuff going on to keep body and soul the correct distance apart.
The big project at the moment is a curious and really intriguing process down at Rose Bruford, where Nick Hunt, who's the Head of Design and Other Significant Things I Can't Remember, is engaged in a practical portion of his PhD research around lighting as performance. We're making a short devised piece called Passages (based around the life, death and et cetera of the always ticklish Walter Benjamin) with the intention of supporting Nick's first public deployment of a control console he's designed and built which puts into the sharp end of practice his ideas about making over the lighting designer and operator (normally two different people) as one artist, performing live. The console is a joyous thing to behold -- it sort of looks (and I mean this in the most respectful way) like some sort of junkyard time machine built for a kids' tv programme -- though, no, scratch 'junkyard' -- it has a bits-and-bobsy sort of feel but it's remarkably sleek and roadworthy. It enables lighting states to be 'played' like music, live, in a genuinely responsive and nuanced way. (Or it will do once Nick gets used to driving it.) We could have done with something like it for our improvised [Three] ...SISTERS last year. It's truly fascinating, and Benjamin of course is a fine subject, so I'm enjoying myself very much (though the two-hour commute at each end of the day is, in my current depleted state, a pretty grim slog). Also Rose Bruford is practically deserted now we're out of term time, so the bright young things in their bright young legwarmers are all off doing their summers and the sparsely populated campus feels more than ever like the suburban Black Mountain I always want it to be. I've really liked a lot of the time I've spent there and I hope I'll be asked back in the future, though lately they've overhauled their modules (a lost Ken Dodd punchline if ever I saw one) and it's hard to see where I might fit in.
Also looming is a little project -- called Glass House, I think (I've had trouble naming this one but let's see if that sticks) -- for the Royal Opera House. It'll only get two public showings, as part of a weekend of slightly outreachy sort of events, called Deloitte Ignite '09. But as it's a durational piece, two showings will be ample, and we're anyway being relatively ambitious both with the scale of it and, perhaps, with its content. I won't say any more now as the performers don't know much about what it's going to be and it would be impolite, don't you think, to tell you and not them... But it's kind of nice to read the rest of the (strikingly various) lineup of which we'll be a part: Dreamthinkspeak, Yinka Shonibare, Will Tuckett, Jonny Woo... Crikey.
I want also to mention a performance that Jonny [Liron, not Woo] and I did a couple of weeks ago down in Cambridge for a summer school for overseas students, based at Pembroke and King's Colleges, and partly delivered by the toweringly estimable Sam Ladkin, very possibly the totalest honey on the block. Sam asked us down to talk about, and then perform, some work from the (mostly) 20th century avant garde in the noisy borderzones between poetry, theatre, music and visual art. I've been creating selection boxes from these sorts of hard and soft centres for a few years now, beginning in 2006 with an anthology called Mixed Ape that I performed, also in Cambridge, with Jamie Wood. The programme this time was called Language Thinks Language (a line from a Paul Dutton text that I read early on in the evening) and it covered a good number of bases: tricky text, sound poetry, Fluxus scores, all kinds of things, from A-list troublemakers such as Samuel Beckett and Yoko Ono, through to lesser-known but hardly less significant figures like the brilliant late Scratch Orchestra stalwart Roger Sutherland and, regular readers will not be surprised to know, the extraordinary autistic poet Christopher Knowles.
The evening performance, an hour or so in length, took place in the smallish and serviceable New Cellars at Pembroke, and things quickly got pretty hot and sweaty down there, but in the nicest way. The room, and the kind attentions of the students and faculty gathered there, felt really, what's the word, tenacious, but in a wonderfully relaxed way. I mean, wherever we went, they stuck with us, with great generosity. Man, I love doing this stuff. My only regret was that, because each of us is performing different things at the same time (meeting only for occasional collaborations such as Vito Acconci's exquisite RE or an adaptation of Dennis Oppenheim's Two-Stage Transfer Drawing), I hardly got to watch any of what Jonny was up to as he bravely confronted scores such as Roger Sutherland's Watermusic or Jed Curtis's Music for my Son in public for the first time. I was particularly keen, and, as it turned out, particularly unable, to see what he did with a Ken Friedman score that was new to me and which he'd never read until it was time to perform it. I'm not a huge fan of Friedman's work but there's something really electrifyingly compelling about asking someone like Jonny to perform Friedman's Center Piece, from 2003. The score reads, in its entirety:
Imagine a life.
I haven't watched all the video footage back yet so I don't know what exactly he did, though I do know where it ended up: with Jonny standing naked at the front of the room, staring into the eyes of a young woman in the audience, and slowly getting an erection. I'm as astonished by her courage as by his (though perhaps only because I've had the privilege of working with, and from, his intrepidity so much in recent months), though all I've spoken to since attest to her apparently complete comfort in the intense and complex and unspoken relations of that moment, such that all their concerns about her and about that part of the performance in general seem to have been quite easily dispersed, in a way that feels to me really wonderfully progressive (if that dirtyish word can be not-too-grubbily employed here) and, in the best sense, productive. Unfortunately, the video recording pegs out immediately after Jonny takes his trousers off -- and who can blame it. So the story of Jonny's Fluxus hard-on will have to live in legend -- rather like the incident during Mixed Ape when a member of the audience relieved himself into the midst of Alison Knowles's Proposition. (Brian Lobel, that one's for you.)
Boners aside I think my favourite part of the evening's performance for me was having a crack at four panels by the extraordinary Michael Basinski. Jonny and I performed these four pages roughly simultaneously, with no preparation and with no real regard for each other's readings. I love Basinski's work -- I can't find these particular panels online (they were from an issue of AND, I can't offhand remember which) but they look a bit like this -- but I've never performed it before. Having two readers on the case simultaneously makes for a much more liberating environment and there was a real adrenalin rush in doing it, which may or may not come through in the following clip:
It's almost incredible luck, or something more interesting than luck, that Jonny has an interest not only in the kinds of theatre and body-based performance that most excite me but also in sound-text and visual poetry like this Basinski -- and that he's not just willing but positively keen to hurl himself headlong into the fray and make this sort of noise in front of strangers. (You'll forgive me, won't you, Thompsonistas, if I sound a little sentimental, but Jonny's gone back to Jersey for the summer and I really, really miss him being around. He'll be back here, I fervently hope, in a month or so for the Royal Opera House gig: but in the meantime, email's a lousy substitute.)
Such is his appetite for oral autodestruction (a good trick if you can do it) that I thought he might well get us chucked out of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., the ICA's current exhibition of classic and contemporary concrete poetry and allied (and not so allied) trades. As we were on the way over there he was threatening to perform his way around the galleries: and experience has taught me not to dismiss such talk as idle. But this was just one facet of the complex presentiment I was taking in with me; the reports of others on this show, mostly tending from the ambivalent downwards (with the exception of Elizabeth James, over at her lovely and always freshly instructive blog Oceanographer of O), had to be balanced against it being awarded a Thompson's "Women Preaching" Rosette for existing in the first place.
The implied Oz-Wizard here, both in looming close-up and lurking behind the curtain, is Ian Hamilton Finlay, who has the first room (more or less) to himself. The phrase Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., originating in Creeley, lent itself as title to a seminal 60s periodical run by Finlay, and some toothsome POTHobilia are exhibited under glass here, looking consequently less ert than they otherwise would held in the hand, but this is obviously and unarguably how it has to be. Two concrete texts painted directly onto the walls otherwise grace the room, and I find the one that goes THE SOUND OF RUNNING WATER HEARD THROUGH CHINKS IN A STONE DYKE / REVOLUTION a real tonic, both in the sense of a revivifying inrush and as a key note in the scale ahead.
The second room is busier -- everything in relation to Finlay seems busy; which is not to say that his work is not also, in its way -- and its divers elements at first glance relate to each other only noisefully, so there's a little effort required to put one's attention on one thing at a time, but this is how most of these pieces give their best accounts. The highlight by a mile, for me, is a series of typescript pieces by Dom Sylvester Houedard: there's really no one to touch him at the helm of a hot typewriter, and the pieces manage to be both sensually ravishing and formally soooo expertly controlled. You want to read these poems aloud partly because your eyes tell your mouth it's going to have to do something with this information; I mean, if these pieces were faces you'd lick them. Some not dissimilar works by Henri Chopin exhibited alongside have a drier, less intoxicating quality, but are no less appealing or appreciable. On the other side of the room are three columns of type texts by Christopher Knowles, which I love, though they are not among his best, excepting perhaps the middle column which is almost entirely abstract and suggests much about his compositional processes. It's hard though for me, as such a fervent fan, to see these Knowles pieces and not get a little squiffy on their aura as original artefacts, particularly seeing his signature, with its open, goofy, childlike quality, at the bottom of one. The rest of the room is, by comparison, so-so: I quite like Vito Acconci's collaged text works -- the universe keeps showing me likeable Acconci at the moment, all over the place; I can't think what's gone wrong -- but the Carl Andre stuff alongside is kind of blah; I'm more turned off by the circular Text Signs of Ferdinand Kriwet, which seem actually trivial, as if they might live on the puzzle pages of the London Lite without much injury; and by Liliane Lijn's rotating cones, which do all the work for you, so you can feel a quite rapid and genuinely physical descent into boredom as you look at them.
Dom Sylvester Houedard, 'I Become the Moon and Supply the Juice to Vegetables' (1970)
from the ICA exhibition Poor. Old. Tired. Horse.
Upstairs (not lingering too long over Kriwet's equally pointless circles in the corridor), the exhibition starts to give up the ghost, and the only way forward is to not mind too much. I struggled with that: although, to be fair, the show doesn't set out to limit itself to concrete poetry, but rather to present art that in whatever way abuts poetry, there's no doubt that concrete poetry is its core inspiration -- in which case it can reasonably be pointed out that its coverage of that territory is lamentably patchy and underresearched. (Or, at best, it offers an insight into how this genus of poetic practice is viewed within visual arts history and culture.) To feel the show lurching off-topic, as it does in Room 3, without having presented any work by, for example, Bob Cobbing, who has at least as much claim as Finlay -- or, rather, as much as curator Mark Sladen arrogates to Finlay -- to a kind of (admittedly somewhat spurious or irrelevant) pre-eminence in the field, is pretty disappointing. Certainly, there's stuff to enjoy in these upstairs regions: especially Philip Guston's delicious drawings from the early 70s (a particularly interesting period for Guston) incorporating texts by Clark Coolidge, and a brace of peculiar and appealing 1962 pieces by Robert Smithson, looking a bit like Diet Basinskis. But the Alasdair Gray prints here are in no kind of conversation with anything else in the exhibition, fine though they are; and David Hockney's expert but unexciting Cavafy illustrations seem so much part of a different world that it's hard not to wonder if they've found their wall-space through an administrative error of some kind.
A last room gathers together work by younger artists supposedly in the same vein -- though by this stage the exhibition has widened its scope so far it's hard to see how any visual artist finding a use for text in their work could be excluded, and by that same token, how any would come to be included. Again, it's not that the work is bad. Sue Tompkins's typed pieces eerily capture fragments of conversational dialogue: though there's a crucial difference between her fetishistic use of the typewriter (and its limitations) and the practice of someone like Houedard who's exploring the technical limits of what is pretty much the most advanced desktop technology available to him at the time. I liked also -- though others have hated -- Karl Holmqvist's installation ONELOVEWORLD, which transfers the contents of his book of the same name to one wall. The "writing" as such is certainly weak in a literary sense but I enjoy Holmqvist's hijacking of the way our perception of authorship changes when we encounter text on walls instead of in books -- I'd argue there's a strong kinship here with demotic artists such as Keith Haring and even Banksy in the way that walls often speak in the voices of groups or tribes rather than on behalf of individuals. Frances Stark also stands out as someone with a close fascination for the material properties of text and the artifactual self-installing of some strands of critical thought, and who therefore probably comes closer than any of these new generation artists to a concrete practice that Finlay or Cobbing would recognize; her work, like Finlay's, also happens to be beautiful in an extremely refined and exacting way.
In an introduction to the exhibition, Sladen quotes Finlay: "stupidity reduces language to words". This is a terrific line, but it barely connects with much of the work gathered here -- some of which, it must be said, manages to access quite other stupidities anyway. It's a treat to see some of this stuff, and both existing devotees and concrete ingenues are likely to find plenty to enjoy. And the ICA is free these days, which helps everything along I guess. But those wishing for an insight into the practice of concrete poetry and the ways in which it continues to grow and develop will do better to track down a secondhand copy of the early 90s Writers Forum anthology verbi visi voco, for example. Sometimes, even now, it takes a book to show you the writing on the wall. (And vvv is presumably still the only publication that includes work by both John Cage and P.J. O'Rourke.)
John Cage performs his much-misunderstood Chin/Finger/Superglue Piece
Speaking of Cage, the twinkly old mycologist is looming large in my life at the moment. First, a few months back, mode records put out the latest CD in its John Cage Edition: Cage Peforms Cage comprises two substantial recordings: a version of Empty Words performed by Cage himself (as the CD title would presumably have led you to expect; well done, well done), with a simultaneous performance of Music for Piano; and then Cage again tackling his own One7. The former, particularly, is remarkably compelling. Both performances capture Cage late in life (he died the following year) and the quality of his voice is striking and, if you'll let it be, not a little poignant. The whole text of Empty Words -- ten hours long when performed in its entirety -- is a long sample of Thoreau's Journal, gradually erasing itself; the section used here is from the end of the work where only single phonemes and gripping silences remain -- though Yvar Mikhashoff's rendition of Music for Piano continues to hold the space open as well as keep it breathing. It's the most actually (rather than merely theoretically) beautiful piece of Cage I've ever heard, and the quality of the recording is exceptional.
Then a few weeks ago, my friend the poet, noisemaker, critic and free-range serial conscientious objector, Harry Gilonis got in touch about a performance of Cage's Four6 at next month's Openned. I participated in an earlier performance of this work in Cambridge and I'm delighted to have been invited to do it again, in the company of Harry, Josh Robinson and, this time, the very fine improvising musician Dominic Lash, most recently heard (by these ears) on a superb trio CD called Monster Club with Tony Bevan and Chris Corsano. I don't know who else is on the Openned bill -- the Cage will fill the first half, but there'll be readings as per in the second -- but it seems like a good place to be on August 11th.
And now I'm reading Chance and Circumstance, a memoir by the dancer Carolyn Brown of her time with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. I'm still in the early stages -- Brown begins the story in 1951, and there's a long way to go -- but I'm really enjoying the book. Brown can come across as a little prim but she's expert at creating quick portraits of people and places and a real sense of milieu; her husband, at least at the beginning of the book, is the New York School composer Earle Brown, and the constant interdisciplinary hubbub, in which composers, dancers and visual artists all seem to be inspiring and supporting each other's adventurous living, and drawing insights from each other's practice and company, is a heart-quickening pleasure to read about. I'd have liked a little more detail about her two summers at Black Mountain but it's clear that Brown only really has eyes for Cage and Cunningham, and her husband I guess, and that's fine. It's a big book with some great photos; I'm looking forward to making my way quite gradually through it. Incidentally, it's a delightful jolt to be reminded, in its opening pages, that Merce Cunningham was born in the same year as Margot Fonteyn -- and yet the Cunningham Dance Foundation has only just announced the 'Living Legacy Plan' that outlines Cunningham's vision for the dance company once he stops leading it: for, at the age of 90, he hasn't yet.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company / John Cage, Variations V (1965)
While we're in this literary neck of the woods, perhaps a few words are due, or overdue, in respect of some of the books arriving here at Bank HQ in recent and not-so-recent weeks from l'archipel poetique.
Pick of the pops probably has to be Earn Your Milk, the invaluable new collection of Tom Raworth's prose, in a smallish but nice-feeling and -looking paperback edition from Salt. I thought of this book very fondly the other day reading, for the Rose Bruford project, Susan Sontag's great portrait of Benjamin, "Under the Sign of Saturn"; she says: "The destructive character cannot feel trapped, because 'he sees ways everywhere.' Cheerfully engaged in reducing what exists to rubble, he 'positions himself at the crossroads.'" This doesn't quite describe Tom, or Tom's work, but it's a pleasingly dirty-handed version of Eno's 'noise as multiplicity' schtick, and it goes some way. There is an absolute commitment in these writings to the right to roam, a desire always to move on, jumping between life-writing and letter-writing and dramatic monologue and Polaroid snapshots, a momentum generated through frankness and fidelity (to voice, to place, to companionship) which, particularly in the near-legendary A Serial Biography, makes uproar of the most joyous and rambunctious kind, but characterised -- if you look carefully enough -- by awesomely incisive movements and pin-sharp gestures in the language base. Easy to miss how incredibly precisely he patterns and cuts his prose, because you're so often laughing:
I was always depressed because I had no letters. And the man in the room above had mail every morning marked URGENT. His name was Christopher Brown. And one morning there was a letter from you marked in red 'MORE URGENT THAN CHRISTOPHER BROWN'S'.
Raworth's prose has all of the virtuous vices of his poetry, but sits perhaps even more warmly and generously in the world; it says more about living, within and beyond what it demonstrates about writing, than any blazing heap of self-help manuals or supposedly inspirational misery memoirs. It's rich and ribald and punishingly on it, smoke-ring rakish and hungry and slightly bonkers, as painfully funny as Beckett, as fast and stalwart as Champion the Wonder Horse. It's the quick brown fox and it's the lazy dog, and it's the one jumping over the other, again and again like a zoetrope in perpetual motion.
In a slightly different mode but no less vimful is cris cheek's part: short life housing, a big event in itself but exciting also in that it's the first item to arise in a fair while from Nate Dorward's excellent The Gig in Toronto. This really handsome book collects work from the early 80s up to the nearly present, and it's as good as introduction to cheek's work as you could wish for without actually seeing & hearing him unleash the true complexity of these works in performance. Having carried around this volume with me for a while, jumping in and out of it, I begin to see how (for me, right now) it reflects my own interest in the practice of place-ma(r)king in performance, a practice that can be lived in, that's not some reflective treetop or secluded glade, but a grimy, spunky, urban site whose churning, whirling multiplicities contain actual life behaviours, not just mimickings or courtroom sketches of these. The language here is able to be both edificial and viral, to jump (somewhat as theatre does, but free of some of theatre's topical responsibilities) between testimony and speculation; it is a language containing a cast of thousands, but also never quite adding up to one whole. To an extent this is a feature of the book as a whole: a kind of nagging provisionality, equal to the degree in which text in cheek's work is never just text, but is a participant in a whole playground (or workshop) of presences and effects. For example, I'm glad, on encountering here the fascinating canning town chronicles (from 1991-94) to know the CD of the same name by Slant, cheek's group with Sianed Jones and Philip Jeck, which terrifically effectively animates the same resources. Whether or not one knows cris's performative practices, however, I'm certain anyone would recognize the imperative embedded in all the works collected here to approach reading as a whole-body practice, and as an enterprise made sense of only in the context of collective action. The only possible reason I can see for cheek never to have received the props he's due in British writing networks is that he's scary like that. He needs you up on your feet: you just can't think hard enough or fast enough to stick with him if you're sitting down.
(Having said which, Jonny and I were lucky enough to spend some time hanging out with cris during his recent UK visit -- he's based in the States now; we miss him -- and there was a good measure of sedentary lolling in the hot June weather. What started out as a quick lunch squeezed in between his other appointments turned into a six hour marathon of anecdote and argument and much laughter, which left a real impression of wanting to stay more strongly connected to him than I've been of late. Eventually we adjourned to the BFI for drinks: and as cris finally left us, striding off through the bar, his imposing stature arguing productively with the lovely skirty kilty thing he was wearing, and his bald head bobbing above the post-work throng, we heard a slightly camp voice from the table behind us say: "Julius Caesar has left the building." Quite so.)
A cursory round-up of incoming chapbooks should begin with a mention of Jeff Hilson's Bird Bird, which, following a nice taster from West House a while back, is now out in a complete and rather handsome edition from Landfill Press. (Their laggardly web site doesn't say so, but write to them.) Regular Bank visitors will need no reminder of how big a fan I am of Hilson's work and of the Bird Bird poems in particular. One new observation I can make is that I think it must be a measure of the staggering originality of these poems that they really do seem to evade casual commitment to memory, to such an extent that every time I return to the new book -- which is not, when all's said and done, of epic proportions -- there are poems in there that I'd swear I'd never seen before, though I obviously have, several times. This seems to me to be a very good thing indeed.
Another recent booklet I like very much is Red & Green by Ken Edwards, from Peter Hughes's dependably lovely Oystercatcher Press. Ken's work usually treads high ground with surefooted patience, is disdainful of (or at least has not much use for) splashiness or sensationalism, preferring to wear its searching intelligence up, rather than on, its sleeve: and as such a shallow twittish reader such as me can sometimes find it easier to admire from a respectful and 'readerly' distance than to love or to want to wrestle with. But Red & Green, extracts from a larger ongoing prose piece called Bardo, which readers of Ken's blog have been watching as it continues to emerge, is full of a down-and-dirty energy. There are vampires here and amusement arcade prizes, cheap potent musics and multiple pile-ups (piles-up?) of rhetorical terms, as if overflowing in a bargain bin. Bardo, apparently, means "transitional period" and the liminal territory occupied here is definitely of the festive variety: one thinks perhaps of Chesterton's typification of the kind of nonsense strains in Rabelais and Laurence Sterne: "exuberant capering round a discovered truth". The truthful political effervescence of Ken's poems here is unmissable, but it's the breadth of precisely that exuberance that really impacts on these tired eyes: as in the poem 'Sleepwalk', which I hope I'll be forgiven for quoting in full as it seems impossible to slice into extracts:
SleepwalkI love you, Green!Green wind, green algae on the boat on the sea,with horses barking.Penumbra of the gypsy moon, things watchingwatching you, ice underfoot where there has been shadow.Fish, pursued by cats, in a fearful place. Green blood. But I'mnot me, I need to change trains here. Cold steel. Threehundred dark things sniffing around your crotch.No, I'm not myself, and this house isn't my house.Let me, let me go, to the high towers, yeah? Where water falls...So two mates climb up, leaving a trail of bodyfluids, and the sound of crystal ring-tones at daybreak.Where is she, where's she gone? Into the green water, swaying,the boat, the sea, the littlehorses.
Jiminy. I think that's absolutely fantastic. The whole book's great: urgent, necessary, pissed off, skew-whiff, deeply kind.
Ken of course is also the akond of Reality Street, consistently one of our most vital and corrective presses, from which has recently emerged Peter Jaeger's curious, funny and ultimately rather unsettling Rapid Eye Movement. Two parallel rows of text surge through the book, both composed entirely of quotations -- from Adorno to Zappa via Julie Burchill and Sting: one band collates fragments of personal dream narrative ("King Kong chased me near my home on a lake"; "I sat on a throne of gold surrounded by beautiful girls"), while the other catalogues random found sentences that happen to include the word 'dream'. At first it appears just interesting enough to hold one's browsing attention, but then the juxtapositions and tensions produced by the twin texts start to refract one's reading in increasingly provocative and disquieting ways. Like pretty much everything of Jaeger's that I've ever seen, it's enigmatic and kind of playful but it can really get inside you, to enjoyably disconcerting effect.
(I should probably also recommend -- and in fact let's say I do recommend -- Wendy Mulford's The Land Between, which came out from Reality Street at the same time. In truth I have never really connected with Mulford's work, and though I hoped the scales would fall from my eyes with this new collection, it wasn't to be. I just don't get it: the ambit of her concerns, the tones of voice, the formal choices: I regretfully can't find anything attractive or exciting in any of it. I want to read the spirited poems described by the blurb; I find instead a sort of parochial and self-regarding intelligence. Not even the poems dealing with what I take to be real bereavement seem to find anything vivid or unexpected in their substance and operations. But I know how important Mulford has been to many other writers, not least Edwards himself, and I'm quite certain it's my failure rather than hers that I don't connect -- after all, only boring people get bored, right? Or perhaps we just want really different things. Anyway: don't take my word for any of it, find out for yourself. Come back here and argue with me, please.)
Finally I should mention in passing a couple of online treats: there's a gorgeous new Peter Larkin poem up at Intercapillary/Space -- like all Larkin's best work, it reminds me of the feeling I had on first seeing Peter Hujar's "Goat, Westown" (1978) -- the profound terror and compassion that electrifies the species gap across which you and this goat seem to stare at each other -- that's the feeling exactly: how can I know what this poem wants from me? How can we contact each other, and more importantly, given how much we share in so many ways, how can we not? Elsewhere, I don't think I mentioned yet a great prose piece by my friend the fast-emergent poet Tomas Weber: 'The Hole' can be read at the online literary journal The Corduroy Mtn. I think I probably liked a little better the in-progress version of Tom's piece, as it emerged over the course of a fortnight or so (if I remember correctly) at his blog at the start of the year: but this authorised version still contains more ideas and more fillipish nicety than you'd find in a square mile of most poets' work.
Before we cease altogether our literary peregrinations and return to polite society, I want finally to hail Dennis Cooper's new(ish) book Ugly Man, which I think is my favourite of Dennis's published fictions since Try, I guess something like fifteen years ago. Ugly Man is short pieces, which is a big help -- I have a hard time reading novels, at least from beginning to end in an orderly fashion: not that Dennis requires that -- he has the same problem, he tells me -- but I think in his case by skipping and dipping around you miss a lot of the structural intelligence of those later books. I also really like the incredibly unsettling deadpan humour of the pieces in Ugly Man. Those of us who know and love his blog have already had the pleasure of reading texts like the sublime 'The Fifteen Worst Russian Gay Porn Web Sites', which has had me weak and weeping with laughter before now: but it's fascinating, and engrossing with a capital gross, to see that same mordant humour at work in even the most jarringly violent pieces in the book. Laughter becomes yet another instance where language betrays -- in both senses -- the body, and so it functions sort of as a stem cell for both erotic and violent attempts to destroy the gaps between people that words can't inhabit. To laugh along with these texts is not simply to participate in them: more than that, it's to demonstrate, in one's own daintily secluded reading-zone, their intimidating veracity.
Jonathan Capdevielle in Gisele Vienne & Dennis Cooper's Jerk
Included in the book is the original prose version of 'Jerk', which as Bank denizens will know is now also a theatre work, created by the brilliant Gisele Vienne in collaboration with Dennis, and performed by Jonathan Capdevielle. Jerk -- the show -- was in town earlier in the month, at the South London Gallery. (My first visit to the SLG, by the way. Wow, what a space! Very pulse-raising to hear associate curator Anne-Sophie Dinant voicing a desire to programme more performance there.) I've written before in these pages about the piece, and I'd only add to the glow this time: it's tightened up considerably, gained focus, creating along the way room for it to be even more daring, especially in its use of protraction and longeur to really amp up the freakiness of Capdevielle's astounding performance. I was there on the first night, helping to shape the post-show chat; the third night ended in horribly different circumstances, due to the fire in the neighbouring Lakanal House -- you can read Dennis's understandably shellshocked account, and see pictures of the happier first night, on his blog.
And that's nearly all the theatre-going I have to report -- touring and physical yuckfulness have together conspired to keep me out of harm's way -- it's an ill wind innit -- but there are a couple of forays into the wild world of experimental theatre that perhaps I should record here.
I wanted very much to like and approve of Dylan Tighe's Medea/Medea at the Gate: partly because it's this year's winner of the Gate/Headlong New Directions award which my ...SISTERS won last year; partly because it's been pretty thoroughly kicked critically (except for Andrew Haydon in Time Out and Giulia Merlo at Culture Wars) which tends to arouse my attention and my deep-seated insistence on struggling against whatever tide is available; and partly because the territory of experimental theatre as such (i.e. as opposed to live art -- which is, at one level, constitutionally opposed to it) is now so depopulated in the UK as to feel slightly spooky. But -- and here I absolutely disagree with Merlo -- however much I wanted to like the work, Tighe, it seems to me, was even more determined that I shouldn't: and he won.
There were good points. Above all, an unswerving commitment on all parts. There's no way this piece fails because the makers have bottled it. So you have to hand that to them, at least. The slowness, which Merlo thinks may be the stumbling block, is the least of it to my mind: it's actually kind of pleasurable, especially in the early stages where there's a lot to read, even in its stillnesses. I liked the clock which counted up the 76 minutes' duration (though I wonder if something more freighted might have happened if it had been counting down), which seemed a very sensible way of dispelling any lingering sense of drama and a neat way of reminding us that the formal argument of the work was, from the very beginning, already complete, and simply being enacted in front of us. (Interesting to think about the clock on stage during ...SISTERS, which was there to reinforce the sense of liveness by showing the real time: while the clock here was really the deadness of the work signalling its own equanimity at us -- while enabling us to feel oriented in a way that crucially powered down the encounter.) There was an appealing sensuality to the way the piece generated smells, gained layers of smudgy but seductive sound, and, particularly, chilled us with a sharp blast of aircon at about halfway. (I'd forgotten how efficient the aircon is at the Gate; we used it similarly in ...SISTERS, though to place us suddenly 'outside' in that case, and I think it's a really effective intervention.)
In the end though there were two problems I found insurmountable. One just happens to push a particularly hobbyhorsical button for me. I really am so sick of experimental work that wants to earn its stripes by indicating that it's spotted how absurd is the whole grammar of fourth-wall theatrical convention. Of course at a sort of remedial level those cliches and constraints are worth scrutinising but the bottom line is, if you don't set up your work so that it leans on those conventions, if you really do just work from a set-up that ignores all that and starts over with what you need, audiences are amazingly quick and content in entering into that new relationship. As long as they can understand or intuit what's required of them, they really don't care if there's no fourth wall, no walls at all, no creaky artifice, no nudge-nudge complicities, no curtain call: they'll go with it. So to make such a strenuous meal of it is like being the earnest young vegetarian who takes along a graphic film of abattoir practices to a meeting of other vegetarians. Yes, it is awful; but why don't you sit down with us and share our lentil curry and let's just have a chat, eh? -- The worst of it was the gauze that separated us from the room almost throughout. Given that projections onto it in the latter stages were basically illegible, all we had really was a distancing device that, again, was there simply to imply the terrible inadequacy of theatre. I suppose taken together these constraints and follies come to act as the substitute repository for antagonism, with all the drama having been sucked out of the Medea narrative itself; if she weren't trapped in theatre, she'd have no reason to "exist". But, look, that's fine by me. She doesn't have to. -- But anyway, no, I've had enough now of turning up at experimental theatre productions and looking through gauze or glass to the untouchable bodies and objects behind. I have a piece of entertainment apparatus like that in the corner of my room and it's fine like that. (Actually I don't but you know what I mean.)
The other thing that annoyed my goat was how badly the raw video chunks of critical theory and political analysis sat within the system of the work. Initially there was something rather bracing about the aesthetic of it -- kind of Godardian, say. But there was really no attempt to bring the work itself and this kind of commentary into any productive relationship, and so the video stuff sat like a brazen toupee on top of a clammily bald head beneath. The problem really was one that hobbled the whole piece: a woefully apneic refusal of reverb. (Except for the onstage sounds that were picked up by mics and bathed in delay.) A materialist concern to ensure that the objects being used were just objects -- sitting oddly with the production's apparent interest in the operations of myth and symbology -- became so self-denying that no one element was ultimately readable in terms of anything else -- including anything else on stage. So how did this (often quite interesting) image relate to that one, in the (perfectly justifiable) absence of anything more than a weird phantom of the Medea narrative to act as solvent? The only answer was in the count-up clock, and that, really, won't cut it.
Actually the real problem with Medea/Medea -- and with much experimental theatre (and live art) practice currently -- is not that it's unaware of these problems, but that it kind of is: it just doesn't want to apply itself to solving them. There is currently a real strand, particularly I think in British theatre practice though examples can clearly be seen in some American and European sites, of self-hating theatre. ("Theatre is a toilet," says Tighe in his knowingly obnoxious programme note.) Theatre that has given up trying to deal with and move past the structural and semiotic flaws of its inheritance, and instead keeps cheaply reasserting them. All of us who work in theatre get asked the same question over and over: Why on earth would you work in such a medium? It turns out a lot of practitioners don't have an answer to that question, and so they embed it self-regardingly in their work. Even companies I really like and admire -- Apocryphal comes to mind -- fold into their work a kind of pre-emptive admittance of failure and absurdity. This is more or less what intellectual practice in theatre now means (part of the large shadow cast by Forced Ents): a kind of (supposedly) candid despair at the preposterousness of the theatrical response to the world around it. In terms of the experience of individual makers, there may be a certain honesty in the presentation of that despair; but in terms of the wider culture, it seems to me sort of unscrupulous in its insistence that no more than this can be done. There is something kind of tyrannical about its narcissistic pessimism. Every criticism made of it is already located somewhere in the piece or in the expectations of the people making it. When people behave like this, it looks a lot like childish sulking. ("I don't care, I don't want you to like me.")
I'm inclined, having said all this, to keep an eye on Tighe's work; on this evidence, there's a kind of sententious undergraduate quality to it that might, before long, resolve into a more progressive embrace of complexity and a more visionary rigour. And however annoying Medea/Medea may have been, I'd still rather watch it ten times over than ten minutes of Rock 'n' Roll.
Medea/Medea at the Gate
Way more interesting though was an outing last night to the very sexy Vulpes Vulpes gallery, just down the road in Clapton, to see a piece called Welcome to the Dream Factory. Disclaimer: I slightly know writer/director Orlando Reade; if I didn't, on the strength of last night's performance, I'd certainly want to. A slippery fish, this one -- the piece, not Orlando -- as a core narrative about a foundering relationship between a man and woman (or a man and a young girl) continually veers into post-apocalyptic quest fantasy, or a gluttonous chow-down on the mulch of supermarket culture, or detective drama, or pornographic daydream, or anticapitalist chatline, or (in the sole wrong-turn of the night) baleful afternoon quiz show. It's almost impossibly nimble as the text skips between modes and moods; it proceeds as if you're already remembering it imperfectly, in real time. A particular boon is the wildly appealing ingenuousness of the performance style, which recalls at times Lone Twin, say. It's very rough, very fragile, and able to make some extremely complex moves feel as easy as dreaming. I can't tell you who did what -- relations between the printed programme and the actualite are hard to establish -- but I do know it was all put together in a week and a half, with little money and enormous skill. What excites me, particularly in the light of Medea/Medea a couple of nights earlier, is that this is theatre that likes theatre: and which is quietly, unshowily, wildly original, in its language, its structure, in its design and the set-up of the room, in the softness of its bare-bones approach. While some folks are beating their heads against a door that won't open no matter how hard they push, others -- usually somewhat out of the way of critics and funding and so on -- have noticed the sign that says 'PULL', and are already on their way. I'm hugely encouraged to think of the many such performances that may be happening all the time in little found spaces and galleries and such all over town, that I haven't heard about only because my ear isn't close enough to the ground. And it's abundantly clear that Orlando Reade is going to be an important maker: but I don't think he knows that, and I didn't have the heart to break it to him.
Nearly there, comrades. Just a couple of things to say on the music front, and then I'm outtahere.
Firstly, the Gevorts Box nickelodeon on the right hand side hasn't been refreshed since January, so I've just uploaded an overhaul. This time last year I put together a sort of half-themed summer special. But it's been raining so much this week, I couldn't quite find it in me this time, so I've just picked, almost at random, thirty tracks of which I'm fond; as usual, there should be something in there for everyone, though I accept I may be the only person in the universe who really likes all of it. The track listing follows on from this post, but were I to pick a few highlights, I'd draw your attention to the Xper .xr rendering of "Theme from S-Express", one of my favourite covers ever, from a whole album of similar reworkings of eighties and nineties pop classics called ... .. . .... ..; a little drop of liquid sunshine in the form of an ineffably mysterious Shirley & Dolly Collins track; a splendid cut from a new album of Ben Folds songs performed by American university a cappella groups; and a touch of Rufus Harley for old times' sake. All this, my dears, plus Middle of the Road, Bob Geldof, and the theme from the BBC Schools programme Watch. Any other use of your ears will come to seem disgusting.
And last but not least, a lickle plug. Many years ago, I formed a music / spoken word duo with my then-flatmate Jeremy Hardingham. We called ourselves COAT and we played a few gigs -- at the 12 Bar Club for Richard Sanderson, at the Bohman Brothers' regular night at the Bonnington Centre in Vauxhall, inevitably at Camden People's Theatre, and so on -- and in the summer of 2000 I put together a CD called Copy Of which combined the songs that we'd been performing as COAT with a few bits and pieces culled mostly from theatre pieces I'd made -- The Tempest from 1994, Puckerlips from '97, The Consolations from '99. I can't remember how many CDs we got made -- I think it may only have been 50 -- but anyway, I have none left (save my own copy of Copy Of) so, to satisfy demand as well as to ensure the legacy of COAT would be preserved for the future, we are now selling the album for download through iTunes (and also Amazon, eMusic and Napster). We don't get much of a royalty so we'll need to sell shedloads to see any kind of return, but it seems like it was worth doing anyway. Please, have a listen -- there's a clickable link to your right -- and see what you think.
COAT on stage at the 12 Bar Club in the last millennium
L to R: Goode, Hardingham, stool
And that's it, my beloveds. Except to say, while we're still more or less on the subject of John Cage, that I am really sad to think of Fern Britton leaving This Morning. I don't have a TV but if I did I would watch a great deal more of that programme than I do. Seriously, though. Any theatre director worth her salts is fascinated by the technologies of rapport, and Britton's double-act with Phillip Schofield has been one of the most significant instances of that hard-to-figure quality in recent years. I think Fern & Phil are more important to the future of theatre than nineteen twentieths of the shows you'll see in Edinburgh next month. (For the first time in a decade I won't be there, I'm sodding delighted to say.) May they live always in our hearts.
Enjoy yourselves, work hard, save the world, and I'll see you next time. xx
(Oh, and thanks to all those who sent me their phone numbers in response to my earlier plaint. I'm still missing dozens, though. Once again: if you think I should have your number, and you haven't reminded me of it in the last fortnight, please could you email me?)