Sunday, August 28, 2011

Strive for perfection in the hope of

Sorry to disappoint those who asked if there'd be an Edinburgh diary this year; or -- let's look on the bright side -- happy to oblige those who asked if there'd be an Edinburgh diary this year in the secret hope that there wouldn't.

I will write a tiny bit about Edinburgh in a few days, when it's all properly over and I've slept a little and I'm back at my desk.

In the meantime, I thought I'd post here a couple of things that may be of interest to some readers:

Firstly, the texts from the bathroom section of
Where We Meet, the home-performance piece we've been trying out this past week. These five texts are heard issuing, barely decipherably, from a little dictaphone by the side of the bath. They're developed from a variety of sources including Book I of Euclid's Elements (with which I'm becoming a little obsessed at the moment) in #2, and the journals of Donald Crowhurst in #4.

Secondly, I thought I'd post here something I wrote for an event that's been taking place at Dennis Cooper's blog this weekend in memory of an incredibly talented artist and provocateur, our friend and comrade Antonio Urdiales, who died very recently at the age of 26. Just one of the million bizarre and beautiful things I associate with Antonio (Tony to those who knew him better than I) was a curious eruption some years ago of comments from Antonio convulsively expressing his strange obsessive love/hate/hate/hate fixation on Shirley Bassey, and it was that which prompted my text. I wrote it pretty quickly in the middle of distracting Edinburgh chaos, so it's not the greatest thing I've ever done and it's too full of the things I do too much or too often when I'm writing in this mode. But I liked it anyway and I'm sad about Antonio and I thought I might as well put the piece here too in remembrance of an amazing young man.

Please enjoy one or both if you can, and I'll check in again as soon as I'm able.

* * *


Day 7

A life.
A life on.
A life on the.
A life on the adjunct noun.
A life on the adjunct noun, noun.

A home.
A home on.
A home on the.
A home on the adjective from present participle.
A home on the adjective from present participle, adjectival noun.

Where the.
Where the adjective from past participle.
Where the adjective from past participle, plural noun.
Where the adjective from past participle, plural noun, rave.

And the.
And the plural noun.
And the plural noun their.
And the plural noun their plural noun.
And the plural noun their plural noun keep.

The plural noun the plural noun the plural noun their plural noun keep.

The plural noun the plural noun the plural noun their plural noun keep.

2. Day 10

(i) A bird is that which has no part.

(ii) A question is breadthless length.

(iii) The ends of a question are birds.

(iv) A heroic question is a question which lies evenly with the birds on itself.

(v) A sky is that which has length and breadth only.

(vi) The edges of a sky are questions.

(vii) A night sky is a sky which lies evenly with the heroic questions on itself.

(viii) A night dream is the inclination to one another of two questions in a night which meet one another and do not lie in a heroic question.

(ix) And when the questions containing the dream are heroic, the dream is called beautiful.

(x) When a heroic question standing on a heroic question makes the adjacent dreams equal to one another, each of the equal dreams is right, and the heroic question standing on the other is called beloved to that on which it stands.

(xiii) A horizon is that which is an extremity of anything.

(xiv) A naked man is that which is contained by any horizon or horizons.

(xv) A memory is a naked man at night contained by one question such that all the heroic questions falling upon it from one bird among those lying within the naked man equal one another.

(xvi) And the bird is called the center of the memory.

3. Day 15

The sadness ate the words.

The sadness that the man felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds that the winds blew darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds that the winds that the voyage required blew darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds that the winds that the voyage that the work compelled required blew darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds that the winds that the voyage that the work that the same sadness threatened compelled required blew darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness that the man that the great sky that the clouds that the winds that the voyage that the work that the same sadness that the same man needed threatened compelled required blew darkened taunted felt ate the words.

The sadness of the memory.

if if if if if if if if if

4. Day 17

He says reason for system to minimise error.
He says system of books reorganising perfectly.
He says hermits force unnecessary conditions on themselves.
He says wrong decision not perfect time.
He says clocks think no need worry.
He says about time plus or minus but only elapsed time.

He says very difficult not impossible.
He says strive for perfection in the hope of.
He says if game to put everything back where is back?
He says cannot see any purpose in game.
He says must resign position.
He says if set myself impossible task then nothing achieved by game.

He says understand exact position of concept of balance of power.
He says it is the only one way of expressing hope.
He says only requirement for have new set of rules is that there is some.
He says no game can devise is harmless.
He says no man may do more than all that he is capable of doing.
He says I am what I am and I see the nature of my offence.

He says I will resign the game there is no reason for harmful.


[fading out]

Day 22 bird by shadow

Day 23 shaped by yellow

Day 24 shadow yes

Day 25 no now

Day 26 seaweed yes

Day 27 blue fly

Day 28 elope

Day 29 follow sky

Day 30 yellow feel

Day 31 keel slices

Day 32 no yellow

Day 33 blades

Day 34 birds yes

Day 35 fly now

Day 36 dare yes

Day 37 shade shaped

Day 38 blue sear

Day 39 swallow no

Day 40 ices

Day 41 vis follow

Day 42 is blue eye

Day 43 scissor

Day 44 rid sky

Day 45 fluke

Day 46 shard

Day 47 ask

Day 48 ado

Day 49 swollen

Day 50 was

Day 51 as

Day 52 sea

Day 53 as

Day 54 a

Day 55 is

Day 56 o

* * *

for Antonio



BASSEY is the first irrecuperable ghost metropolis, evacuated hurriedly at the signs of late peril. Its skins are an albino fabric and its eyes are literally cobalt. To dare to labour here is an adventure in self-cloaking. BASSEY moans in the disconsolate wind; its arteries open out to the gaping sky. How will we live now in BASSEY with the industrial blossom of its name so ridiculously failed.


BASSEY is a thread or floss that trembles above a ravine of parlous acoustic. Which are the birds and which the glyphs that alight. Shrieking with blast-agitation, BASSEY submits (as it must) to the alternative currents of militant tendresse. It is teased out of itself in the promise of a precarious love. Its principal likeness is to the last remaining sexual imperatives beyond reason.


BASSEY in remix is an instance of telegraphy in excess of its stations, like semen produced spontaneously in nature. The relays are of palomino horses disappearing out of range, maybe, or the lavish curlicues of a projected fan-dance committing itself to the dilated imagination. Deep down, everybody knows that this part of the transaction is flawed. How can a fact be more like a faggot.


BASSEY laid end to end is code for whatever is not yet sufficiently lavish in the task. Its characters and sudden scratches may be mistaken for a kind of fitting entertainer in the abrupt commission of her (or his; but, in fact, always her) apotheosis. More informally, it follows, the syntagmata of gossip or spasm. BASSEY is an episode of weather that remains unaired at the end of a cancelled season.


From BASSEY itself it may be inferred that in the end times, skin is the least mendacious disguise through which an experimental process may be advanced. e.g. Love letters written on parchment are automatically tautologous. BASSEY is a gauge to manual transparency and will rebalance the abundant deficits of sleekness; everybody upstream of here will be shirtless when we get there.


BASSEY persistently functions as a temporary window ledge, suspended out of context many storeys above the base liquid. Here, a loose colloquium of feral majorettes and slut savants can be seen to hunker, pondering approximately zero like remote ungulates stranded in an untended metropolitan labyrinth of artificial foliage. You do not get out without lip service. “Hey big suspended cadence.”


BASSEY having thrown up down itself turns left at the top of the stairs. There are snacks and movies and you can ask to see the dog’s hole. Ext., the vapour trails are perceived to spell out illegibly and posthumously a street artist’s tag in a font called Cilla Extended. In this image you are the wall. You are the plan B that there is no, and the arc’s end is world-submission, and the map is crawling with ginger ants.


BASSEY is a black box recorder finished in vellum with male secondary sexual characteristics. In setting one, the captured voices tremulate obligingly; residues of operetta may be distinguished. In two, the voices exist at the threshold of legibility, immersed all-of-a-sudden in a surging milk of additive white Gaussian noise. Come in, says a boy placed elsewhere, come in, come in.


Tied to a fence and pelted with sharpened entities [species redacted], BASSEY’s intense identification with the perpetrator excites suspicion. Much later there are ambiguous signs of rectal interference, and a new crowd is drawn to the site. An outlet is quickly devised for the purchase of memento foam fingers, branded ducts, a digitalis smoothie if you want. Show yourselves bitches.


There is an immense BASSEY, a soft mannequin, at the brow of a green hill. The nearest man-made object is a space artefact. The uncontested territory of its ambience affords a valuable opportunity to use the word ‘zephyr’. Such a BASSEY is the logo for a commercial freight of used corneas in a dirty heap. Those who trip over themselves to arrive in a rush on occasion fall limitlessly upwards.


We can only wonder at the unhappiness of BASSEY, stripped deracinated hollow mendicant, time-pummelled. Ragged children tug BASSEY’s beard, thieve its buckles, its numbers. Goldfingered dawn splits along its axis and immediately perishes; and synthetic night is a viscous preservative, a glue for life-enhancement. Face it: the etiology of BASSEY is a tranquiliser dart to the naked eye.


Yes BASSEY deplores hurt, but also is deplored by it. Beyond this point lie only unrendered splines and articles of dissociation. Rivulets of lymph in one part. The task ahead concerns discretion and blatancy in circuit. To know better the face of god by spitting in it, spitting your bad self out through your own loaded mouth. To scream viscera. To kiss and unleash, and to keep unleashing.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Language teaching (for Hannah Nicklin)

I'm writing this not to convince anyone of anything, but only to give myself some space to think through what I'm feeling and to hear some words said that keep getting immediately crowded out at the moment and shouted down whenever they're uttered by others. (And because I can't concentrate on the work that I ought to be doing, until I get some of this ordered in my head.) For that reason -- and for adjacent reasons that I imagine I'll touch on in the post -- I'm turning off comments on this one. Anyone who knows me well enough to have my email address is welcome to write to me.

* * *

You taught me language, and my profit on't
Is, I know how to curse.
The Tempest, Act I sc 2

If you ask me point-blank whether I'm racist -- or homophobic, for that matter -- there'll be a tiny pause before I say "Of course not." This post is about that tiny pause, and the panic that lives there; and it's about feeling that same panic, in a long, drawn-out, almost soothing version, as I drifted off to sleep on Saturday night, with my window a little open and the sounds coming in of summer rain and, behind it, an almost constant stream of police and fire sirens.

I was born in 1973 and grew up in a little village in the suburbs of Bristol, in a safe little cul-de-sac shaped like a hockey stick. Not wealthy families by any means, but getting by, and proud of their gardens, and squabbling about parking spaces. There's a photo of me dressed up as a Womble (a poor effort, frankly, home-made and half-arsed) at a Silver Jubilee street party, and sometimes when I think of that street I picture it as that jubilee party, in constant low-level swing. Union flag bunting from lamppost to lamppost, and jelly and icecream for the kids.

I don't think I really understood that it wasn't like this for everybody until the spring of 1980 when the local news suddenly filled up with gritty, scary reportage about a riot that was taking place in an area of Bristol called St Paul's. It was a part of town that I'd never been to -- that I've still never been to, actually -- and so in a way, what was happening there felt weirdly close -- how can this be happening in Bristol? -- and in another way, it might as well have been on another planet. All I picked up from my parents was that this race riot was only to be expected: not because the people who lived in St Paul's were experiencing a degree of deprivation and despair that would inevitably erupt into violence in the early days of a brash new right-wing government, but because the people who lived in St Paul's were not like us. And by extension, even on a calm sunny day with the birdies singing, we would no more drive through St Paul's than go swimming with sharks.

I don't think I've ever heard either of my parents express a directly, explicitly racist thought. They just had certain assumptions, with which they in their turn had been brought up. The encapsulating anecdote, I suppose, would be the time -- I think this would have been about 1984 or so -- when my mother returned from shopping one day in a state of considerable dudgeon and fluster, having asked an assistant in John Lewis for material in a colour that she was accustomed to referring to as "n----r brown", and been told pretty emphatically that this was no longer an acceptable formulation. What upset her about the episode was not that she felt this was an instance of what would much later be described by the Daily Mail (which she read every day) and suchlike as "political correctness gone mad", but she was aghast at the imputation that her intention had been racist, when to her mind it was nothing of the sort. She simply hadn't thought about it that way. I suspect underneath it all she was mortified at having given offence. (She was my mum so I'm prepared to give her the benefit of the doubt; she was not an unkind person. She was complicated -- like all of us.)

At the time of the St Paul's riot I'm pretty sure -- coming up to seven years old -- I had seen exactly three black people in real life. Two were girls -- sisters, maybe twins, I can't remember -- at my primary school, who were sort of cherished by us all in much the same way that my mother, as a child, had specifically asked for and cherished a black doll, and kept it carefully as an adult, tissue-papered and shoeboxed in her wardrobe; it was rare, she told me, which meant it was valuable. The other was a stranger. I would have been six, I guess. As I waited in the car for my mother to come back from the post office, I sat merrily playing my descant recorder; an elderly black man approached the car, peered in through the windscreen, beamed at me, and conducted my playing. I was terrified. When my mother came back, I told her what had happened, and cried. She comforted me, as shocked as if I had been mugged in the street. I can hear myself saying it now: "A black man looked at me." And sobbing.

In this context it will perhaps sound absurd to suggest that my upbringing was anything other than racist -- and that's part of that flicker of doubt in the tiny pause before I tell you that I'm not -- but I was at secondary school, I think, before I ever heard anyone give voice to a sentiment that black people, or non-white people, were inferior or inherently flawed. As a child, two of my favourite tv presenters were black -- Derek Griffiths and Carmen Monroe -- and there was never any anxiety about that at home. Because they were in my home, I suppose. They were in our home, and on tv, which I suppose meant we knew that a nice white person somewhere had vetted them and decided they were polite enough to get into our home. In a sense, in almost every sense, this is plainly, thoroughly, irrecuperably racist. But it was part of a continuum on which were placed not only non-white people, but also effeminate men, French people, working-class northerners, people who swore, people with a lot of money, punks, evangelical Christians, topless women on beaches, people suspected of voting Labour, people with tattoos, people with bad table manners... The environment in which I grew up -- and in which many people grow up even now, of course -- was not so much racist, or not so much only racist, as characterised by an intense, fixated discomfort around otherness, in its 57 varieties. I wasn't brought up as a racist, exactly. I was brought up to be afraid. I was raised breathing fear.

Of course by the time I was eight or nine I knew I had otherness in me, and as a consequence I was afraid of myself. I was ten when I gathered some friends around me in the playground and announced I was gay (and was astounded and frustrated by their lack of interest in the topic!) and although I didn't really realize the full implications of what that meant until I was slightly older, I certainly knew enough to know that this had to be secret at home. I had to continue to pass as a perfect fit for the cul-de-sac. I'll spare you the gory and yet cliche-obvious details, but: cue twenty-odd years of fear, weirdness, furtiveness, sadness, panic attacks, a suicide attempt, therapy, depression, eating disorder, more therapy, and only in my 30s something approaching happiness and almost-comfortableness in my own skin. Je suis un autre and pass the salt please. Still, I learned to be homophobic before I knew I was gay, and that's still flickering away in the tiny pause; and if you think my insistence on describing myself -- for most intents and purposes -- as "queer" rather than "gay" isn't partly a trace of unresolved internalised homophobia, then you're madder than I am.

The fortunate thing for me was that my professional interests more or less compelled me (as I saw it) to relocate to London after graduating. Fortunate because I think London saved my life -- by which I mean, I suppose, my life as I now live it. It has been possible to live here the kind of life that I want and need to live, and I don't know how many places there are of which that could be said. I love and relish the teeming otherness of London, even though I'm still a-buzz all day every day with the reflexes of my upbringing, even though I'm often (but in no more than a second or two) talking myself rationally down off a ledge of panic because there's a gang of kids in hoodies outside the newsagents or two bad trannies at the next table in the caff. My dad loves it too, funnily enough, when he comes to visit. I guess he's mellowed. Given the slightest prompt, he'll wax pretty lyrical about the 'melting pot' as we trundle around on the bus. Damn right, I think. Atta dad.

But for all the reflex twinges of an early life I'm still trying to shed, and I guess the occasional slightly heart-racing moment that you'd get in any urban environment after dark, I've only ever been genuinely scared by London three times.

Once, of course, was on 7/7, trying to get across London to meet colleagues, quite early in the morning, just as the disruption and rumour were starting to spread. The strangeness of the city that day was what scared me. Like seeing a familiar face with a sudden disfiguring mark or shadow. Phone networks coming in and out of service as we, thirty strangers, sat in unmoving traffic by Marble Arch, on the top deck of a bus, and I couldn't get through to anyone, and someone else sitting close by received a text that said Canary Wharf had been bombed. (Which -- for those who don't know the story -- it hadn't.) And then walking home from Paddington back to Stoke Newington. The streets full of people trudging on foot through neighbourhoods they'd only ever travelled beneath before. Getting back home and suddenly crying with fear and tiredness and no longer needing to keep a brave face in place. So sad that anyone would assault London, the great melting pot, the great city of people rubbing along together. So amazed that anyone wouldn't love the idea of people rubbing along together.

Another time I was scared was last night. We were coming back from the book launch in Brighton, due to arrive into London Bridge about quarter past midnight, and it was only once we were on the train that it dawned on me I might not be able to get my usual bus home from the station, because texts and tweets were coming through that things were kicking off again on Kingsland Road. And it was fine of course -- because we got in a cab -- because cash is still coming out of the ATM -- but for a few minutes I was shaken. Between where I was, in that moment, and my home, the city was burning. And of course I'm one of the incredibly lucky ones, I live in one of the safest, calmest neighbourhoods in north London; for plenty of people a mile or two either side, in Dalston and Hackney and Tottenham, what's happening now is happening on their doorsteps, not picturesquely in the distance or live on the BBC news channel (where I spent a few uncomfortable minutes watching a standoff unfold on Mare Street). If I were them, I'd be sick of people like me pontificating on this topic; I'm pretty sick of it anyway. In fact in a way the scariest thing about my experience of last night wasn't the disruption to my travel arrangements and the fear of what might be happening; it was getting home and skimming back through 500-odd tweets, and seeing so many people whose political instincts and personal capacities I'd trusted suddenly using language and expressing ideas that felt to me more abhorrent and estranging than anything that's happened so far on the streets.

And then the third time I can think of that scared me was not long after I moved to London, and after a brief, abortive spell in a houseful of Australian dentists in NW6, I relocated to a gay flatshare in King's Cross. (If there's one thing that's unlikely to soothe your internalised homophobia, let me tell you, it's a gay flatshare in King's Cross.) It was a tense neighbourhood, and there was weirdness afoot in the flat, and so I was in a constant state of slightly pressurized vigilance. Until one day, a few weeks in, I suddenly thought, I'm not going to live in this freaked-out state any more. I bet this area is basically fine, I thought, I'm going to go for a stroll and check it out and say hello to some people I don't know and it'll start to feel more like home. And it all worked out pretty well until, as I started to walk back towards the flat, I came to a junction, a car pulled up at traffic lights, and then another car alongside it. And two men got out of the second car, went over to the first, kicked the door in, dragged the driver out into the road and beat him with a wooden plank. I watched all of this, stupidly paralysed, but I don't know how it ended, because I guess I finally produced enough adrenalin that it became possible to walk away.

I've thought about that incident a lot in the past couple of days. I see me staring like a frightened bunny; I see the two men with the plank of wood; I see the guy in the car. There must have been other witnesses, though I don't see them in the picture. I think of how scared I was, and then I think about how much more scared the victim must have been. And then I think: who, in that picture, is the most frightened? It's the guys with the plank of wood. Right? It's them. Maybe they're not experiencing in that moment the sensation of heart-pumping terror that the driver experiences; maybe they won't have the flashbacks that he'll have, assuming he survived. But those two people are living in a state, in a day-to-day condition whose fearfulness is so unremitting, so degrading, that it's taken them to a place where they feel like the best course of action available to them, on that February afternoon, is to drag another guy out of his car and beat him with a plank of wood.

I suppose there are some workings I need to show. I need to say that I don't believe in "evil", at least as a kind of supernatural force, and I don't believe in innate wickedness. I think this, because it seems to me to be the only way of working from a basic premise of equality between human beings (and if we don't believe that then I have no idea where else to begin and where else to draw the line): that people are born into and live their lives in different contexts and conditions, but that everyone is doing the best they can with the information and resources and opportunities available to them. That no one acts deliberately against their own interests, and that all actions are produced out of specific circumstances. Whether you spend your fortieth birthday taking your kids to a petting zoo or running amok on a killing spree (or, I suppose, exactly half way between the two, flipping burgers at Burger King), you do this because a hard-to-decipher complex of past actions and present circumstances has led you to believe this is the best available option today: even when those behaviours may be superficially self-defeating or self-harming. People do what works. Those with few resources, few opportunities and scant information at their disposal may act in ways that are inexplicable and devastating to others -- not only to others who have more of those things, but to others who may have as little or even less but who for whatever reason find they're in a position to not act so harmfully.

This should make me more tolerant, of course -- of everybody, in general, but I'm thinking especially about people I'm feeling angry with today because their response to the present situation in London has been so much less than I think it could have been. Those people are doing, and saying, what works for them, just as I am. But what I can at least do is say some stuff about what I disagree with, and why, and what I'd like to propose instead, and this, in its incredibly small way, changes the context in which some of us put the next foot forward (or choose not to).

The language of intense, desperate otherness has been, for me, the most difficult aspect of this series of disturbances (and let me say, it's now a little after 2pm and I'm hearing sirens again, so this is not a reflection on past events, but an attempt to make some calmer space in the midst of chaos). I know one shouldn't turn to Twitter for nuanced debate -- or tv, for that matter, or pretty much anywhere -- but I'm so sad and ashamed to hear rioters described as "scum", for example, or as "vermin": both words that friends have used, shockingly, in the past few hours. Emotions are high, of course, but if it's in these moments that you see what people are actually carrying around with them, then this has already been a jarring revelation. Our compulsion to distance ourselves from acts with which we do not wish to be associated (no matter how complicit we may be in their occasioning, and no matter how aware we are, at a deep and perhaps profoundly suppressed level, of that complicity) makes us want to insert this spurious discontinuity into our rhetoric, but it makes meaningful further engagement impossible if we say that the people who've been rioting and looting the past few days are anything other than people. They're just people; and I suspect, scary though these times are for all of us, those "scumbag" perpetrators are the most frightened people on the block. This, partly, is what makes us reach for the animal metaphors: the media's absurd condemn/condone binary -- which a large number of people seem to have absorbed as if it were a natural order -- is as useless for thinking about frightened people as it would be for thinking about frightened animals; and moreover, of course, we want our fear to be distinct from their fear, we want our fear to be more elevated than theirs, so we want to reclassify them as less human than us.

The frequent reference to rioters as "animals", though, is at least suggestive. Think of Martin Luther King's famous 1968 speech 'The Other America':

I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. I feel that violence will only create more social problems than they will solve. That in a real sense it is impractical for the Negro to even think of mounting a violent revolution in the United States. So I will continue to condemn riots, and continue to say to my brothers and sisters that this is not the way. And continue to affirm that there is another way.

But at the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. [my emphasis]

What I take King to be saying here -- not that this is an original thought, plenty of other commentators have said the same -- is not simply that if people feel they are not being heard, they will have recourse to rioting and spectacular violence. (I'm reluctant to just say 'violence' because violence exists in this picture at so many levels, and the ways in which it's so embedded and familiar as to have become practically invisible need continually to show up in the accounts, if our civic concern is to mean anything at all.)

No, more than that I think he means to suggest is that rioters are unheard even in the midst of rioting. What is expressed in spontaneous riots (to the degree that these third- and fourth-day disturbances count as spontaneous) is so inarticulate in itself that we cannot really hear anything other than the chaos and mayhem and the boiling of our own angry fear and defensiveness. And so in this sense, rioters quite precisely assume the status of animals. We cannot understand what it is that they are trying to tell us. ("What is it, Lassie?") We know that they are in a state of excitation, but we do not truly comprehend what it is they are saying. When I went out this morning to get a few groceries, a young woman was standing in the street shouting at her very young child, who had started to whimper as he waited to be let into their car. "I don't know why you're crying!" she yelled. "What's wrong with you?" She was absolutely livid. It could hardly have felt more horribly apropos.

Of course it may be -- in many cases I'm sure it is -- that those who are out on the streets chucking missiles and setting fires don't know what's "wrong with them", either. They were just going along in one way, not rioting, and then something happened, and then they were rioting. This is not to say that there is no cause: but if a single cause could be expressed in words, say, and if those same people felt that words were among the resources they had at their disposal, then perhaps they'd be making speeches and printing leaflets. But in the midst of material deprivation many also live in a state of linguistic poverty. Words fail them.

My wonderful friend Karl James has recently posted a remarkable podcast on his blog, an interview with a guy called Anjelo, discussing experiences of pain. As Karl notes -- and as others have observed, most brilliantly perhaps Elaine Scarry in her extraordinary The Body In Pain, one of maybe a dozen books that have absolutely changed the way I look at the world -- part of the difficulty with pain is that it's desperately hard to communicate. The experience of "indescribable pain" is compounded by the loneliness of exactly that, its being so hard to describe in such a way that others will comprehend your pain. Karl talks about the importance and the generosity of making the effort to describe your experience carefully. I particularly like what Karl says in his introduction to the podcast:

I often talk with people about putting energy and effort and commitment into the way you describe something, because in that way we can share experiences, we can help others to get a feel and an idea of what it was to be somewhere that [they] weren't.

I'm not sure that Karl will be totally comfortable with me quoting this passage in this context and as part of this argument, but I know he'll respect the nature of the thought-process. Because what strikes me is this: the energy of these riots could hardly seem further removed from the commitment to carefulness and generosity that he's describing. But I wonder if, in a sense, this is not what we're seeing: an outburst of energy -- albeit uncontrolled, unfocused, convulsive -- that's simply giving us a rare and horrifyingly accurate description of pain that cannot be described any other way.

There's a great video doing the rounds of an angry woman remonstrating with rioters in Hackney: "If we're fighting for a cause, let's fight for a fucking cause!" -- but there is no cause that she can see and no cause that the rioters can articulate for themselves: and on the same grounds elsewhere we see those who have been involved in legitimate organized street protest distancing themselves from the actions of these violent mixed-up kids.

Except that there is a cause, isn't there? -- it's the cause of not wanting to live like this any more: and some of us are privileged enough (though these are surely rights rather than privileges) that we've been given enough information and sufficient resources to have been able to conduct our own independent inquiries into the way the world turns, and as a result we're in a position to be able to name that cause as capitalism. And though I know I have to keep rejecting the condone/condemn arcade game that we're all incessantly offered, I do at some level see that, at the apex of their translatability into human language, these riots are an extraordinarily emphatic 'no'. And this post is also a 'no', and almost all of the work I do is trying, one way or another, to voice that same 'no'. And what I hear from those friends and colleagues who are so appalled and affronted that their getting-by has been disrupted by these incidents is something other than 'No' to capitalism. It is 'yes, but...'. The 'yes, but...' of mitigated capitalism, in which there is just enough social justice and economic parity for them to continue to be comfortable but feel less guilty about it and less weary living within it: the weariness that comes from knowing that we all (but some of us ever so much more than others) make capitalism, every day, by participating in it; for every inch by which we mitigate it through our charitable efforts and online petitions and community spirit, we take a mile of its unequally distributed benefits. And it is the knowledge that we currently depend so irrecuperably on our own participation in capitalism that makes us fearful and angry at moments like this. I heard plenty of people describing the rioters as "stupid" yesterday, as if, again, stupidity were innate in people. But stupidity, like its opposites, is a property of relationships, and we participate in its construction. If they are stupid it's because they are stupefied: most of the year round, that's how it suits us. And so we hold up as an index of their "stupidity" the fact that some of the early targets were shoe shops and sports shops from which trainers could be looted: as if this in itself shows up the vacuity at the heart of the trouble. But we know, surely, that we taught them this language. We taught them its syntax and its symbology and now it is spat back at us in a weird vituperative parody of itself. The scramble for cool trainers is an ugly, pitiful power grab -- but it was ugly last week when they were queueing to pay, just as much as it is now that they're helping themselves.

Fear underscores all our lives under capitalism. For those who have, the fear of what we have to lose; for those who don't, the fear that we will always be subjugated by those who do. And by "have", I don't simply refer to material standards of living, but to capital more generally, to power. Those who are most afraid today are those with the most power, because they have the most to lose. The rioters have grabbed some temporary power and I bet they're truly disoriented by it. David Cameron and his rioting nemeses are, maybe just for today, truly and genuinely all in this together, frightened rabbits, and between themselves and their home (which in Cameron's case, of course, he's just flown back to from holiday), the city is burning.

But those of us caught in the middle need -- in the words of that woman on the video -- to "get real" too. I'm genuinely disturbed by all the variants I've heard in the past couple of days on that famous, almost uniquely deplorable phrase that John Major balefully uttered in February 1993 in the wake of the murder of James Bulger: "Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less." (Any thoughts that we should at least be grateful for the acknowledgement, pace his predecessor, that there is such a thing as society, might be tempered by Cameron's hopeless "Big Society": it's a straight line graph, going up, sure, but the y-axis is labelled entirely with zeros.) Stop excusing this behaviour, came the message from left right and centre yesterday, just condemn it.

Of course we have enough to lose ourselves that it's little wonder we'd rather not pursue the line of "understanding" any further. But this just seems to bring me back to something I've said here (and elsewhere) several times in the past few weeks. It's not that we don't understand what the riots are "telling" us. (These riots need analysis, not interpretation, but on we go.) It's not that we don't know. We've known it all along, but most of us don't live in a place -- physically or psychically -- where we're actually compelled to confront what we know; nor do we have a safe place in which to voluntarily acknowledge what we know, in an effort of carefulness and generosity. -- I very much don't want this to turn into a theatre-related post, let alone a 'theatre to the rescue' post. I've felt absolutely impotent as an artist in the past few days because the kind of space that I need to start from is not the kind of space that feels as though it has any cultural validity at the moment: we just need to be preparing these spaces, one way and another, for when the present crisis passes (assuming it does; if it does, it clearly won't for long), and the exhausted combatants on all sides are ready to make acknowledgements and reparations of their own.

I don't know, or can't say, whether these riots are, finally, justified or defensible. If I say I think they are, I'm projecting. Certainly I don't think they're inexplicable, or wanton; and above all, I think they're information, and they need treating as such. We need to step outside the meagre reactionary game-playing of condone/condemn and face both an unpalatable truth and a task. The truth is, we're seeing clear signals absolutely everywhere, not just in London and throughout the UK -- where, let's remember, these disturbances are still relatively minor stuff compared with the aggression we've unleashed on other countries and the unrest that has been precipitated in our names -- that our addiction to the behaviours and relationships that capitalism engenders and fixes has now come to a point where it's hurting us badly and unsustainably; and I think we know this. I don't think anyone doesn't, at some level, beneath however-many layers of fear and defensiveness. And so our task is to acknowledge that we know it and proceed from there.

I've dealt with an addiction or two myself and what we know -- again, I'm sure everybody basically knows this -- is that you won't necessarily kick it just because you know you should, and you won't necessarily stop it just because other people tell you that you must. You have to get to the point where you wake up one morning and say: "I cannot live like this any more. I cannot do this one more day."

You may disagree with my sense that that's what we're being told by these gangs of young people, in this violent, desperate, outraged language they picked up from overhearing the secrets we were muttering behind our hands. But actually, it's not them that I'm talking about.

We won't get the change we need until the people who live in safe neighbourhoods like mine, and in the hockey-shaped cul-de-sacs up and down the country where well-meaning people incubate their fear of others who aren't exactly like them, wake up one morning and say: I know what I know, and I'm so tired, and I need someone to understand the pain I'm in, and I cannot live like this any more. I cannot do this one more day.

As artists, we can hasten that day; as people with language skills, we can hasten that day; as people who are [tick] Other, we can hasten that day, and make it a day of celebration rather than mourning. And there will be rioting and looting and that too, I hope, will hasten that day, even though it may initially seem counterproductive -- unfortunately, we won't get to that point on tea and biscuits alone. There will be rioting, there is rioting, and, because of the information and resources and opportunities that I've got in my life, I hate the fear that that rioting gives rise to, as much as I hate the fear from which it arises; and thankfully I have other tools than fire and missiles with which to add my own voice to the big and necessary "no". But I will not condone, I will unreservedly condemn, any effort to dehumanize the people who are fighting on the streets, or to say that they are lesser people for it. What they're doing is sad, and ugly, and terrible, and it's exactly what we ask for by dint of our reluctance to acknowledge what we know, and to act accordingly.

As the saying goes, we can all be better teachers.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

"Why don't we just do it with our voices?": a moment in time with cris cheek

cris cheek at the Poetry Project, St Mark's Church, NY, November 2008
Photo: Charles Bernstein

cris cheek is, to the best of my recollection, the only poet on whom I've ever cut my lip.

It happened at a performance I did with Jamie Wood in Cambridge in 2005. This was the first of the portmanteau recitals I've been doing in recent years: Jamie did Fluxus pieces while I simultaneously read bits of Christopher Knowles and Jackson Mac Low and Bruce Nauman and Erik Belgum and suchlike, and a very special attendee stepped out of the audience to intervene in Jamie's rendering of Alison Knowles's Proposition #1 (the result: not so much a salad, more a pissaladière).

It felt to me important and reassuring that cris was present for that event, as it was in one sense unthinkable without him. Those outside the experimental (or scare-quotesy label of your choice) poetry scene might be surprised at how "queasy" (to borrow John Wilkinson's apposite word) some regions of it still are when it comes to certain kinds of performance, and to the kinds of hybridities and cross-pollinations to which a performative project -- especially in relation to multiple or contested textualities -- is apt to give rise. Fabulous irritant Kent Johnson's fantastic recent interview with Christopher Higgs (h/t Dennis Cooper for the link) gives some hints as to why: the private and unitary author function still underwrites so much of our self-perception as poets, and the embrace of the performative threatens everywhere to disrupt that privacy.

Anyway, when I was coming out onto the scene as a poetry ingenue, a little over a decade ago, picking my unsteady way through my own cat's cradle of intertangled interests -- in theatre, in live art, in poetry, in visual art, in sound, in film, and in every spur and pseudopodium of nonstandard writing practice -- I knew nothing about this state of affairs, and figured everyone would feel as I did about the intimate adjacency of interesting poetry to every other interesting thing; and it was amazing to see instead that there was just this pretty small clutch of poets, mostly undervalued in their field (especially by a clunking-fisted phalanx of straight white middle-class postgraduate males who fancied themselves robustly installed as -- impossibly -- both gatekeepers to and epicentrists within this irretrievably marginal territory), who were seeking to hold open, and defend against hostility and strenuous embarrassed inhospitality, a space where performance (as opposed to "reading", as if reading weren't a genre of performance in itself) and the present body and the contingencies of liveness and the choreographic valency of text-as-mark and glyph-as-gesture could go to work without occlusion, could display their vital signs without immediately falling foul of a British Bulldog pile-on from those who were most heavily invested, professionally and personally, in the maintenance of stable scholarly normativities.

Alongside key figures in this little tribe, such as Caroline Bergvall, Lawrence Upton and the late Alaric Sumner (with all of whom I quickly made fruitful contact, for which in every case I'm still grateful, and increasingly so), cris cheek was always right there in the thick of it: showing up not only in the real-world places where the least boring things were likely to happen, but also, as an inveterate early adopter, in a multiverse of online spaces -- discussion lists and the like -- where all manner of toss was forever being argued, often histrionically and with ill temper: in which contexts he always retained a distinctive voice: fluent, playful (perhaps sometimes to a fault, or anyway beyond the elastic limit of some colleagues' tolerance), generous, informed, questioning, annoying, quick to laughter. No loose thread would escape his tug, and much that was held dear by the prefects could be watched easily unravelling as a result of his sometimes mischievous talent for enquiry and provocation.

And so a performance collage such as Mixed Ape -- which stacked up poems, performance texts, instruction pieces, artists' writings, Fluxus compositions, computer-generated prose, queer burbles and transcribed vocal improvisations cheek-if-you'll-pardon-the-expression-by-jowl -- felt viable at all, let alone plausible or productive, only because restlessly inventive figures such as cris had for years been putting their bodies on the gears and wheels. If this was misunderstood by the prefecture (for whom only Brian Catling, for some reason, ever really had a dispensation), perhaps it was partly because the project of cheek and his allies was misperceived as an attempt to create a freakish mutant poetry, covered in absurd and irrelevant prostheses and ungainly and stumbling as a result; I suspect cris might feel, as I do, more, and more simply, that the movement between forms and modes is not frictionless, but that much that is indicative and alive with information is generated by that friction.

Well, so, anyway, cris, as he's inclined to do, gave me a pre-show good-luck bearhug, in the commission of which the zip of his fleece lacerated my lip, and I started the performance a few minutes late and still bleeding slightly. This may or may not be a good anecdote in itself, but it's certainly The Little Metaphor That Could. cris cheek, it could be argued, is to "cut lip" as the genius queer novelist Tom Spanbauer is to "burnt tongue". Here, Spanbauer's protégé Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club et al) defines the "burnt tongue" technique as it's taught in Spanbauer's famous 'Dangerous Writing' workshops:

A way of saying something, but saying it wrong, twisting it to slow down the reader. Forcing the reader to read close, maybe read twice, not just skim along a surface of abstract images...

Actually, though the "saying it wrong" part fits nicely, cheek might also be rather at home with abstract images and surface-skimming: without Spanbauer's devotion to narrative to service, a kind of omnidirectional mobility becomes not only possible but desirable. cheek's work often records the patterns and instants of real liveness, the extemporised, the dependent: but the pressures of time and space are repeatedly folded, spindled, mutilated, into a multiplicity that granulates, often finally liquefying altogether. Again, this is often mistaken for a pomo (porno?) inattentivity, an unwillingness to engage with historic conditions and named names: whereas in fact cheek is actually seeking new surfaces, new multidimensional jotters, on which to capture at a radical level of decentred fidelity the movements of voice across social distances, as they happen now, and as they may or may not continue to happen in the panoply of potential futures that every furiously heterogeneous 'now' contains.

We don't see much of cris these days: he's installed as Associate Professor in the Department of English at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio -- an environment in which the promiscuity of his interdisciplinary speculation obviously doesn't cause the kind of wig-outs that it too often has in poor old riven Blighty. We met and chatted in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall (a suitably demotic venue, I felt) the day before a special event hosted at Birkbeck, University of London, and comprising two complementary units: a talk from cheek, entitled "Before I Am Anything Else: provisional transatlantic communities in polyvocal poetic performance"; and then "Friendly Amendments", a very informal, experimental gathering of performers (including cheek, Holly Pester, Lawrence Upton, Jonny Liron and myself, among others) around a number of texts -- by Jackson Mac Low, bpnichol, Bob Cobbing and Michael Basinski -- composed with polyvocal rendering in mind (or, in the case of Basinski, not with polyvocal rendering not in mind). The notion of "provisional community" has cheek's at once rigorous and super-permissive politics and poetics pent up inside it like all the yet-to-be-written tags that quietly seethe inside a can of neon spraypaint.

But before we got around to talking about poetry and polyvocality, there was a whole other body of work to discuss (and no other poet comes so close to encapsulating the phase "body of work"), ranging across poetry both written and unwritten, dance and sound and participatory art and all cheek's other activities that, taken together, seem to endorse beyond even the most hidebound Cantabridgian doubt the view sometimes attributed to William Forsythe that everything is choreography. Two long, wildly productive personal/artistic relationships -- with Sianed Jones, in and out of projects like their band Slant, with legendary turntablist Philip Jeck; and with Kirsten Lavers, cheek's partner in the radiantly interstitial Things Not Worth Keeping -- fall into place in a timeline that is abundantly crosshatched with what seem like a hundred thousand meetings and conversations with almost everyone who's done anything worthwhile in the past fifty years.

I, meanwhile, was just back from doing Open House in Leeds, and feeling more energised than ever at the possibilities -- indeed, the present realities -- of "provisional community" in theatre: and so, a little unexpectedly, that's where the conversation began...

cris cheek at Writing for their Lives, University of Washington-Bothell, 1o February 2010

* * *

CG: I wasn’t going to start here, but seeing as we’re here...

cc: Yes, go on. Go on, do whatever you want to do!

Do you have much use for theatre?

Ha ha! Mmm... dear... [laughs] Now I know we’re going to have a funny conversation about it because I know that when you start talking about what you think theatre is, I think yeah that sounds great!

Yeah, that’s all right – let’s have your conversation first!

...I go sometimes to see – in Cincinatti there’s a Shakespeare..., it’s a kind of indie Shakespeare... There’s a bunch of us that go down and see Shakespeare productions every now and again. And since I was a kid I’ve seen Shakespeare productions so I’m revisiting some of these things. And I go with a bunch of early modernists, early modern scholars, and most of them are way over-excited about Shakespeare in every possible way. Although I can understand why they’re interested historically, as literary critics and so forth.

Um, I have, and always have, with very very few exceptions, had real trouble with the conventional pros arch play. ...Now, why don’t I like it?

Yeah, why don’t you?

Because if I go to the Barbican for example, and I go and I walk and I sit in a seat and then those gates close at the end of the aisles, there’s... To me it symbolizes that I’ve just been trapped.


So that’s one reason why I don’t like it, is because I feel, er, trapped into... a communal experience of artifice. Which I suppose will be another way of talking about all the stuff that gets into The Society of the Spectacle.

Yeah, OK.

I do have that problem and I particularly don’t like, generally, seeing people pretending to be other people on stage. I would really rather watch the cleaner sweeping the stage, or the stagehands changing the set.

Now, there are exceptions to this. So what are they?

Well, sometimes I’ve experienced seeing that format taken to what I saw as a kind of logical extreme. Under Kantor, for example. Watching The Dead Class and just feeling that the presence of the totalitarian director as the mediating afficionado between the audience and the performers – who are all literally playing dead, and being controlled by the puppet-master – took the critique into a place that I felt comfortable. It became so grim as an experience that I found it utterly compelling.

I’ve never seen Grotowski live, but I have seen Grotowski on film and I find that laughable. I can’t get into that at all. Kantor really had some sense of... stillness at the heart of his work that I found really interesting. And it became closer to performance art.

Now if we’re talking about performance art – which I know could be put into a theatrical frame – I’d say I’m very interested in performance art, of all kinds: whether it be Ron Athey having a full-blown enema on stage right in front of you, or...

...or not! [laughs]

...or Stelarc – or not! And... things that are more kind of... what you’d call site-specific theatre. Um... I’m trying to think about big grand things that I saw, like Station House Opera, and even earlier on, The Ting: Theatre of Mistakes

Yeah, yeah.

The kind of thing that Anthony Howell used to do with Fiona Templeton, and... These sort of more task-based things, I found those very interesting. And I also got an edge of that when – and we’re going back a long time – I saw a Robert Wilson production at the... Woo! What’s the name of the theatre in Sloane Square?

The Royal Court.

The Royal Court. Um... And I saw some Beckett at the Royal Court, I saw Billie Whitelaw doing Not I which I thought was fantastic. And I saw... I did see Glenda Jackson in a Eugene O’Neill play, and I thought she was incredible.

Is that about there being a kind of force of will or personality or charisma or something that breaks through that sort of matrix that you don’t like?

What I liked about her was that I could see layers of the thinking going on inside her performance. It felt more interesting to me.

OK, so that’s a kind of degree of reality in a way, if you’re seeing a real thinking process...?

I guess. I guess.

I totally agree with you, I love seeing people think on stage.

I guess, yeah, I guess there is something to do with that. There’s something to do with just the kind of... more what I would think of as jobbing acting, that I don’t find so interesting. Just as I find mimes... you know, tough to chew.

[laughs] Yeah! So we were just talking a little bit about... We were touching in with some work I suppose in a... if we’re going to be coarse about it, a sort of poetry frame, that does play with, um..., artifice and possibly with kind of confected voices...

Yeah. Good word. Did you say ‘cathected’ or ‘confected’?


You did say ‘confected’.

...And [poetic] work that seems in some ways anyway energised by some of the things that, when you see them in a theatre context, you feel a bit allergic to. So is it about what you’re asked to do in a theatre as a kind of a... So I know Charles Bernstein, for example, made this distinction – I don’t know whether it was specifically in relation to you and your work, but – making a distinction between an active audience and a consuming audience... [1] So is there a thing about being asked in a theatre to be a consumer, who has nothing less to do? There’s that thing you quoted from James Yarker... [2]

Um... Well maybe what you’re saying is what I think. But I’m going to try and come at it another way. Which is that when I see, for example, the poet holding – not always, but mostly – something, or in some relation to a sense that there’s a text that they’re looking at, and that they’re navigating live for me, I feel much more compelled into the moment than I do, generally, when somebody has memorized a bunch of lines and is pretending to be somebody else. If it’s the poet on stage I feel that they’re doing something that has a... Yeah, maybe we’re going to get to the nature of the definition of task. There’s a certain kind of task going on, which is, they’re trying to bring that text to me. And so there’s all the stuff, that you get with a musician too, of the edges of improvisation. There’s always these micro-edges of improvisation. Whereas what I tend to feel with somebody who’s learned something by rote, and maybe is not so brilliant at what they’re doing, they don’t particularly embody it, they don’t really give you very much... I mean I’m not into the whole sort of, er, problem of somebody not having a clear idea of what their motivation is on stage. I don’t mean to go there. But there’s no sense of them just being there.

OK, so Jackson Mac Low, one of the wonderful conversations I had with him was about The Marrying Maiden, which was a text that he wrote for the Living Theatre in, I don’t know, ’65 or so. [3] I think they performed it every night for something like six months in New York. When you look at the text, it’s a mania of instruction. So there’s almost a different instruction after every single word. That you’re supposed to say this word as if you’ve just been goosed, and you’re supposed to say that word as if, er..., you’ve just seen a goose, and you’re supposed to say the following word as if you are a goose, or whatever. It’s not that funny, actually! But it’s that kind of thing. Now I said to Jackson, that’s impossible! And he just started to cackle. And he said, Yeah, you know, what I found is that I could arrive at indeterminacy through overdetermination.

Mmm. Yeah.

So maybe – to come back to what you were saying earlier – maybe I do like some semblance of the fact that there’s something real being grappled with. Rather than that I’m watching the outcome of an enormous amount of... A rehearsal in which there’s no longer a struggle. If there’s a struggle as the result, at the end of the rehearsal, then I think it’s pretty interesting. And then for me it gets closer to performance, performance art: something is “happening” on the stage, there’s some “event” going on or whatever – I’m using all those kinds of words! – but if it’s a bunch of people who’ve basically just learned their lines and that’s their job, and that’s all they do is to move from one play to the next, I think I’m not so interested.

It’s one of the reasons why I like, or used to like, Ballets C de la B, and things like that, is because there would be non-dancers in it, for example. So you get these tensions opening up, rather than it being a seamless artifice that’s delivered with skill and virtuosity by people who’ve had the right training and so forth. I like it when it gets a bit more gritty than that. So that kind of theatre experience, I have to say, yeah, particularly in those kinds of environments, particularly at those kinds of ticket prices, particularly with those kinds of audiences that can regularly afford those ticket prices, and are looking for that form of, um... lily-livered catharsis delivered to them at a distance in a theatre, I don’t find so interesting.

But I love going to the movies, so pick the bones out of that!

You see with the movies you get really close up on things. You see inside Brad Pitt’s ear or something.

Exactly, yes! Where else would you want to look?

That’s got its vicarious thrills, yeah. I mean, even if everything else that’s going on isn’t very interesting, there’s generally something I can concentrate on that’s fun.

So this makes me want to ask you about hybridity.


Is that all right?

That’s fine, yeah. Whatever!

Because I’m thinking that... I love film as well, I don’t see as much as I wish I did, but it’s an experience I love. I feel very like you about theatre, actually, that I want the signs of liveness to be strong and engaging, and so for that reason – and this has been on my mind in relation to Robert Lepage’s new show, which I haven’t seen... He’s arguing more and more for the idea that in order for theatre to survive it needs to become more cinematic. And I feel very...

Dubious about that.

Yeah, very dubious.

I have to say I did see an incredible Robert Lepage piece in Quebec.

Yeah, I think he’s amazing. He’s been a real hero for me.

He’s been playing with film for a long while, though.

He has, but I think there’s a kind of a drift... So, for example, Complicite, a company I love very much, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them – and their early work very much coming partly out of that tradition of Kantor and the kind of grotesque, and very fluid...

Yeah yeah. Simon [McBurney]’s getting some interesting work in film these days.

Yeah, well, I think he’s always been very interested particularly in screens; the work for a while has been very much about moving screens around...


And I’ve started to find their work really unsatisfying at a theatrical level partly because the amount of work that they’re doing with screens and with video and incorporating that kind of stuff means that their work is very timecoded.

Right. Ah!

So the room for it to be genuinely live in, and responsive to my presence there as an active member of an audience, is very limited. So I kind of... You know, if we were to have a very brief and reductive conversation about this, I would say that I wanted theatre to be more like theatre and film to be more like film, and the idea of a cinematic theatre bothers me because I think where those things meet, um... I think exciting things might come out but also I think a lot of problematic things might come out. I suppose I have a question... because you’re someone who, I think, when I was first encountering your work, there was a big exciting rush for me about the possibilities of hybridity.

Yeah. Still doing that!

So I wonder...

Well I’ll come to the hybridity. There’s one other thing I wanted to say about the theatre thing, then, I think, which is... A couple of other examples of things I have found interesting in theatre.

I’ve mentioned the site-specific thing, I know it was a bit of a craze and I don’t even know if it’s happening very much any more, I don’t get a chance to see it, although over the past couple of years I’ve seen Mark Jeffery and Judd Morrissey do really exciting pieces that are quite specifically tailored.

But no I’m thinking about other things that I like, that I’ve liked, that would be much more specifically within a theatrical frame; why do I like them?

The Wooster Group, L.S.D. was an incredible experience for me – of theatre – because they were grappling with simultaneity and, um..., multiple frames of activity, but without putting themselves into a timeline, other than struggling with the hilarity of some of the things they had to do to extricate themselves from legal prosecution. So, for example, asking Arthur Miller if they could do the chunks of The Crucible and him saying no leads them to compacting The Crucible and doing it incredibly fast and it just becomes hysterically funny.

Or arguably something like Speak Bitterness, the Forced Entertainment piece [4], where the focus of the piece is diffused, so that everybody in the audience is getting a different experience of the piece. That interests me too.

Or – and this is slightly more old hat – but I’m trying to think, and I can’t think what they were called... They were a French group, and it had the word ‘magic’ in it, and that’s useless... Jerome... something? [5] And he staged big theatrical spectacles at the Lyceum, and they were often in the audience – a little bit like Pina Bausch was, you know? So there would be things happening up the aisles and things happening in the balconies, and things happening on the stage. And you had a sense of – so where am I putting my attention? I’m... maybe it’s just ADD, but I liked that kind of approach more because I felt like, again, I was able to make choices about what I saw, what I watched, and I was able to get a different... Not that I was seeking a differentiated experience from everybody else in the room, but that there was a sense that that was on offer, rather than that we were all being forced to witness the same thing.

So those kinds of other things I find more interesting in terms of theatre because they somehow energise the making of what is the shared experience, and make that a more complex and I think [more] rewarding thing to grasp for, to reach out for. Whereas the smugness of: “I’m going to see As You Like It, are they going to do it a la Alice in Wonderland, or are they going to do it set in Benin in the eighteenth century?” You know, I mean it’s like, that’s about all there is interesting about it, and then people just have their As You Like It experience and walk out and go to the pub, and there’s no sense of something having been made. There’s something to do with the audience experience that I think is really important for me too. So anyway...

That’s useful. So it’s kind of... I suppose in a way then, more even than it’s about liveness and the signs of liveness, it’s a thing about stability: it’s about being presented with something that is or isn’t stable. When the idea is that everything in the piece is pre-resolved and all you have to do is have the patience to witness it; versus a situation where something is open – or everything is open.

Yeah, yeah. I mean I used to have the same problem going to see a Steve Reich concert. I remember – I think I saw Drumming, and two thirds of the way... – and I remember having had conversations with several people at the time and they were agreeing with me – I just wanted – now, I wouldn’t, but at the time – I wanted somebody to get up drunk from the audience and stand on the stage and join in and for the rhythm to just go all to pot. Just for a moment, could we have a kind of a crack in the edifice of perfection that’s being offered up here?

But, no, you’re talking about hybridity. Well... what about it?

So I suppose there’s an interesting paradox for me because my principal focus is theatre.


In that theatre’s such a – for want of a better word – such a mongrel art.

It is, yeah.

It will just pull on anything that it can find, and that’s one of the things that I most value about it. But at the same time I feel very suspicious about people saying – it’s not necessarily just the thing about ‘theatre should be more like cinema’ or... Actually, usually it’s an economic argument, come to think of it. It’s usually about: theatre should be more like something that’s more popular at the moment than theatre is.


Theatre should be more like going to a club. Or it should be more like...

A concert.

Or a hypertextual experience, or, you know... So maybe it’s that, it’s just about where the will to hybridtiy comes from, and when it’s asking formal questions or aesthetic questions, or when it’s about a kind of emptily resonant innovation, that’s about keeping people’s attention in a “crowded cultural marketplace”.


But those two things kind of point in the same direction quite often, don’t they?

Yeah, they do. So now you’ve got me worried!

See, now, you’re coming at it from a point of view of somebody, as you say, who feels that their base frame is theatre. And I still end up coming at everything as somebody whose base frame is in poetry. And so then I start saying things like: OK, poetry always has been a... – I don’t know what the term’s going to be now, I’m going to say something stupid like multimedia or mixed media or interdisciplinary art form.

And I’m going to give examples of Greek epic. We don’t really know because none of us was there, but it seems like there’s a fairly consistent sense that Greek epic was delivered in a pretty complicated way. There would be the person who’s got the text as their job. And given the nature of Greek epic it could well be that there was a bunch of people who were on shifts with the text as their job. And there was probably a chorus, at least at times, who would maybe be echoing certain of the phrases, or there might be some kind of unison recitation. There would be a mixture of singing and speaking. Sometimes it might go completely over into song: there would be the person who was playing the lyre, who might be the same person as the person who’s talking – so then we’ve kind of got, you know: welcome Bob Dylan! And then there would be the rhythmic movements of the people that you’re looking at: even if they’re just standing there with their various tics there’d still be rhythmic movement, but you have the rhythms of the involuntary movements that come from speaking, and particularly public speaking; but we also, by all accounts, have people whose job might have been to amplify certain aspects of the texts through their movements. And then you know that they built buildings, that were amphitheatres designed as acoustic environments to amplify the human voice. And this for a poem!

Now of course you could say: that’s theatre! And I’d say it’s a fair cop, guv. And I’m not really interested in that as a model, I’m not interested in replicating that kind of thing at all. But I am interested in the places where poetry talks in intimate ways with other art forms. Song being one of them. Um... I think embodied physical performance and the histories of performance art and the, you know, the business of putting somebody under a microscope on a stage... I mean, Brian Catling always used to laugh with me about it, he’d say, you know: What you’re really about is kind of trying to point out to us how trapped the performer is! ...Yeah, that’s... I feel more comfortable with that than I do being trapped as the audience.

So, yeah, if we’re talking about the hybrid overlaps between poetry and other art forms, I am interested in the fact – and this is what I’ve been doing quite a lot over the last few years – that... Basically, I project things that I read. But I don’t project texts; I project things that might include textual elements. They’re not really... They’re kind of movies, but they’re actually often made up of static images that just move through each other... So I read them live. And then I’m in those projections, too. I don’t stand to the side and say, Oh look at that, you can see that... So, they’re projected on me. And so then my physical presence obscures and erases some things that I might be trying to read, and also things that the audience might be trying to see. But then they can see things on me that I can’t see. So that, for me, in my own kind of weird logic, moves the authority position in the sense that you normally have with an author: which is that they can see a lot of what’s happening compared to the audience, they can see the whole text. I can’t. I become part of a text as I’m also trying to give voice to it and talk about it. And then I can be facing it and I can be facing away from it and commenting on it. And then I get off into using a lot of things which are theatrical devices: asides, footnotes, interludes...

And it’s totally improvised. ...Almost. Except that I’ve always got pieces of paper in my hand. Because I like that link to the sense of the live poetry reading. And because the pieces of paper in my hand act as another screen which catch other details, very beautifully I think, and sometimes I play with that.

cris cheek at Sound Poetry Explosion, Northwest Film Forum, Seattle, WA, 11 February 2010

So there’s an example of a hybrid which is not trying to make a poem more like a film, but is certainly trying to make the experience of... let’s say engaging with a poet trying to chase down moments of grappling with the processes of the production, of producing a poem and circulating it in a kind of a micro/macro set of interrelationships, as live and as decentred as I can – at the moment... I know I could go a lot further with it. I really love the idea that the audience is writing stuff and I’m trying to grab it. Maybe that too. I’ve talked with John Cayley about the idea of having sort of, like, a hundred keyboards and, you know, then people could be writing anything, and I would be attempting to read it... But that’s... Yeah, there aren’t that many venues that are set up that way.

So I like something that’s a little bit low-tech, that’s kind of simple, but that’s got some... It allows people not to feel utterly like they have to fetishize looking at me or listening to me, the author; there’s a sound/image interrelationship in terms of what they’re reading and what they’re seeing me trying to interpret and produce meanings from. And that they are witnesses to the emergence of the poem, and that they’re contributing to that. Much in the way that I think I did at a particular period in time really love free improvised music: where sometimes I would feel that the audience pretty much made the music happen, because the musicians were so attentive to the possibility of everything that could occur that there was a... I don’t know, a commune. ...[I’m] interested in the word ‘commune’.

Did you ever collaborate with musicians in that sort of context?

Yeah. Yeah, a lot.

It’s something in your work that I don’t know much about.

Yeah, I was at the LMC [6], ’76, ’77, ’78...

Oh I know you were around, yeah...

Yeah I worked with Paul Burwell, and Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell and that lot. And sometimes we had, you know, street bands together so I used to just play with them.

But..., so you’re playing as a musician...

Playing as a musician. And then sometimes I was, er... Talking, live.

Yeah. And that was, I guess, at around the same time that you were quite heavily involved in dance stuff as well.

Yeah, I was talking with dancers too. I improvised talks for Michael Clark, and Miranda Tufnell and Dennis Greenwood. That was actually my favourite experience, I think, that, and we went on quite a big tour... They worked out a bunch of... Well, we rehearsed for about three or four weeks, worked every day all day, and I was hired to be the composer. But actually I produced a bunch of texts. And so I had a whole mishmash of texts. Every day I’d record – I’d have a tape recorder there and I’d record what I was saying, and they’d be moving around and I’d do some more recording, and then I’d go home and I’d transcribe that, and then I’d go back in the following day and I’d try some of that out, and we’d try it with different movement materials, and we were changing lights to change spaces in relation to the body and the floor, kind of sizes of rooms... It was called Night Pieces. And we ended up with... I had reams and reams of text and they had lots of movement material, and then basically what we’d do would be to go out on stage and play the material in completely different combinations and completely different orders every night. So it was a kind of improvised talk/movement piece that was about an hour long.

And then I got the point where I would kind of rehearse the feel of the talking, so I’d then just be sat on the stage, with my back to the audience, just talking. I mean, I’ve got the text, I find it pretty interesting, I’ve just never been clear how to publish it, because I liked the recombinant nature of it, and I don’t particularly want to produce a text that repeats and recombines – there’s so much of that around anyway. This was 1980, ’81.

And I did some talk-based work with Lisa Nelson, the dancer with Steve Paxton; and with Mary Prestidge. ...And I worked on a version of Allen Fisher’s Place with Sue MacLennan.

Really?! Wow! I didn’t know that!

Yeah. She did a solo version of Allen’s Place! [laughs]

Gosh! ...OK, that’s blown my mind! I had no idea about that.

Um... And I did also some different talking performances with Kirstie Simson, who’s a contact improviser. And then these slightly more set pieces with Michael Clark. — Yeah, the thing of talking being an instrument. Very interesting.

Mmm. And so... I mean, you’re a trained musician, yeah? Kind of...?

Er... Yeah, I studied... I learned how to put the right end of the clarinet in my mouth, and take a few grades, and that kind of thing.


Played drums, played guitar, bass...

So... that’s part of your compositional sense? A kind of...


That would be a route into text?


And that came first? Or was happening in parallel...? Or everything was converging...?

Um... No, they all happened pretty much at the same time. The same time as I was hearing and experiencing the sound poetry world... The Fylkingen festivals, and the sound poetry festival in Amsterdam, and in Toronto, and the jgjgjgjgjg... stuff [7] with Lawrence Upton and P.C. Fencott, and then we also had Bill Griffiths who would join us sometimes, and...

And Jeremy...

...Jeremy Adler would join us sometimes. And sometimes there was also the electroacoustic thing happening... There would be a real interest in what you can do with tape manipulation... Sometimes there was a: Oh fuck it, do we really have to program these parameters into this Buchla synthesizer and wait twenty minutes for a sound to come out?! Why don’t we just do it with our voices? There’s that kind of, you know... I think ‘paleotechnic’ was the word that [Steve] McCaffery used... So sometimes there was that.

And, yeah, these were all happening kind of within a period of probably five or six years.

Not quite jgjgjgjgjg... but not far off:
L to R: cris cheek, Bob Cobbing, Bill Griffiths, Jeremy Adler; Canada, 1977?
Photo: Steven Ross Smith

There was also [work] with Philip Jeck... Phil and I used to sit for hours and hours and hours and hours at his house and my house just with turntables and Dansettes and cassette recorders and I think reel-to-reel recorders, and just push sound around, get records stuck in grooves and play with little sound fragments and little voice fragments in the grooves and so forth. All of that kind of stuff.

And then playing as a... Not as hardcore and attuned an improviser as some of the people from the LMC that I really admired – I mean many of the people from the LMC at that point, I really loved what they were doing. But I would play with them, you know, Max Eastley and Paul [Burwell] and a little bit with Chris Cutler... And Steve Cripps, a really incredible guy – have you heard of Steve Cripps?

No, that’s a name I don’t know.

He was a pyrotechnic sculptor who did some of the more beautiful pieces of that period of time. He would do solos with a clarinet in one hand and a blowtorch in the other. [laughs] So you’d get... the blowtorch would go on, or an arclight or something, and he’d be drawing in the air with this torch, it would leave incredible light drawings in the air, and he would play in the dark. And then the blowtorch would go off, and then there’d be this incredible screeching on the clarinet, and then the blowtorch would come back on. Really lovely, er, very hybrid ideas about performance: sound/visual; sound/physical... You know, simple stuff: light on / light off; noise / light / noise / light... or whatever. Just [a] very... material sense of working time. That Circadian Rhythm piece that they produced at the LMC that David Toop set up... [8] Yeah, and seeing people like Derek [Bailey] and Evan Parker and people play regularly was extraordinary. I mean deeply influential.


There’s something about time, and something very important about improvisation... And one of the things that would happen... – I’m just rabbiting a lot now!—

No, this is good!

—One of the things that would happen, for example, in poetry readings of the period – I’m thinking about Gilbert Adair’s Sub Voicive series [9] when it first started in Crouch End or something like that, I can’t remember the name of the café that we used to meet in – people would read for an hour and a half! Sometimes they’d do two one-hour sets – you know, one person would do two one-hour sets with a fifteen minute interval.


Um... And it would pretty much be a similar audience. And lots of guys – but, hey, that was the nature of the scene at that time, and it’s a very difficult thing to explain away or... You know, there’s nothing you can do about it, it just was. [10] But you’d be sat there in a room and you’d be reading to Allen Fisher and Eric Mottram and Pierre Joris and Bill Griffiths and Bob Cobbing and Lawrence Upton or whatever, and maybe every now and again there’d be a Maggie [O’ Sullivan], or there’d be a Maggie and a Geraldine [Monk], or there’d be a Paige Mitchell or a Virginia Firnberg or somebody like that in the mix. But – incredible, that you’d read for an hour and then stop and then read for another hour!

Yeah! How amazing!

So people were really trying their work out. They were reading, kind of, you know, the notes they’d written on the bus on the way there. Not [like] now, when it’s five minutes or maybe fifteen.

So I was writing long things. You’re writing things that sort of explored... going on a bit! Rightly or wrongly, but a lot of people were doing that. And it’s a very different sensibility, if you’re thinking about stretching lyric out over a protracted period of time, and watching how these things moved. And they moved much more – in my experience – much more like a Steve Lacy saxophone solo. Some introductory moves; a lot of space; then maybe some, you know... the duck whirling in the sky or something, bleeping and blurting and farting and flapping and... You know, a real kind of musical sense of composition. Different moods and different shifts.

I think we felt that. I don’t know that anybody else could even get that from the texts now. If you looked at the texts could you really see that that was there? I don’t know. I would like to think that over time you could.

Or people composing things in little sections, like Bill Griffiths’s Cycles and so forth. You know, really dense, like John Zorn blowing his duck whistles into a bucket of water. [laughs] And you get that for four minutes and then he stops and stands up and, you know, somebody comes on and starts to bash a gong for ten minutes, and then that stops and then someone comes on and whirls a firework; and then Annabel Nicolson’s there and she’s got fireflies in a small cage. And all the lights are out and you just see the fireflies lighting up and going dark. And then, you know, Paul Burwell throws a firework at his drumset or something. I mean I’m being silly, but... very interesting explosive sensibilities. Not explosive. Well actually in some ways, yes, explosive. Explosive doesn’t have to be big, it can be little... [voices some little explosions]

And then one other thing to say about this in terms of the influence, I think, in terms of hybridity, were – in that period of time, too, ’78, ’79 I’m thinking – at the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden.


Which was an incredible place. Which had some of the most astonishing sculptural / durational / performative works going on in it. I’m thinking of pieces like Kerry Trengove’s Passage [11], where he dug his way out of the gallery. He dug down through the floor of the gallery and out across the road, under the road, outside the gallery, and popped up in Covent Garden gardens (as was at that point). Or Stuart Brisley. Stuart took the roof of the gallery, and built a staircase up one more flight. [12] Or Steve Cripps again, who made machines that would literally be digging holes in the gallery walls.

There would be regular – fairly regular; I may be thinking more regular than they [actually] were, but let’s say once a month or so – evenings at the Acme Gallery where you’d have filmmakers, choreographers, improv musicians, maybe sound artists, maybe sound sculptors, er, maybe a poet... Like, you know, Rose English would do a brief monologue; Sally Potter would show a film; Rosemary Butcher would show a new bit of choreography; and Paul Burwell and David Toop would play a duet; and maybe a poet would read a bit – Jackson Mac Low would perform a Vocabulary Gatha or something like that. That would be an evening. Astonishing!


And so the film audience and the music audience and the poetry audience and the dance audience would all be there. And they’d all be experiencing each other’s stuff. And then suddenly within the space of about three or four years—


—it had just all gone off into separate...—

And what were the forces behind that? Because, you know, I don’t... Ah, well, it looks like you don’t understand either!

[laughs] No, I really don’t. I mean, yes... So this is something that I’m trying to write a book about. Not that aspect of the moment, but actually the... The Film-Makers’ Collective [13], the [London] Musicians’ Collective, the X6 Dance Collective, the Four Corners photo collective, Camerawork... and the different magazines that they each had, Readings and Musics and New Dance and so forth, I mean... So I can’t give you an exact date on this, but I’m thinking ’81, ’82, ’83, where, for example, we’d moved past the initial stages at Chisenhale [Dance Space], which was from X6. So there’s an example of how things began to move.

X6 was in Butler’s Wharf. And there used to be fantastic parties down there at Butler’s Wharf, where you’d have Siouxsie and the Banshees playing and free musicians playing and fire sculptures all happening in the same kinds of spaces. The landlords thought: Actually these are pretty interesting buildings, why don’t we move in and turn them into some luxury apartments? So that’s one of the things that happened, is that the venues got put under pressure. Acme Gallery closed, they moved.

Another thing that happened was that arts funding began to change in its tactics. For example, there never used to be a dance department at the Arts Council. It came under theatre, I think. But there was a sufficient lobby from within the Arts Council to create a dance department. So then you suddenly begin to get these things hived off into separate art forms. And the nature of funding (as I’m sure you’re all too horribly aware), at least at times, is to be somewhat protective about how its money is being apportioned. So the dance department would be interested in putting money into dancers and choreographers and dance events; they weren’t particularly interested in having dance events mixed up with other art forms. They wanted to develop and build a dance audience, and develop and build the dance critics for the papers, and, you know, if a dance critic is coming along and they’re having to put up with a fire sculptor who could just come in and set fire to a three-piece suite and everybody would have to evacuate the building and then the fire brigade would come and then you couldn’t even begin to get back in for the last performance which was the thing they’d come to review...! You know, I mean you can see how that stuff started to happen. Just a little bit. Something to do with spaces changing, something to do with – dare I say it? – the shift from the utter ballsed-up ineptitude and corruption of the old Labour muck-up in the end of the 70s, and then the Lady with her new ideas. I’m not saying that one is better and one is worse, I’m just saying that one made the space possible for the other. Although in fact, you know, the ballsed-up corrupt Labour London enabled the splendour and the fury of punk and post-punk and so...

But something to do with the shift in politics, changing regimes, changing pressures within arts funding criteria, and... Maybe things just have their moment.

mr cheek having a moment

Mm. Yeah. But what this does sort of reframe really interestingly for me is something I think I sort of became aware of as I was first getting to know you, which was a real dissatisfaction with certain of the conventions around poetry readings. And I suppose the kind of meagreness of some of those events, and the expectations around them, expectations around the dialogue that might or might not come out of them.

Yeah, I was very abject! [laughs]

You made a couple of quite prominent interventions, ten or twelve years ago, about this as a question. And when you came to CPT the first time, which I think must have been about 2003, something like that, to do – was it a Sub Voicive? Did Lawrence [Upton] invite you to do a Sub Voicive?

Yeah, there was a Total Writing [14] and then there was a Sub Voicive.

Yeah, I remember you doing quite a big kind of solo...

Like four hours!

No, but you were quite reluctant, I think, to do it—

I was. I was.

—and quite anxious about it in some ways.

I was. That was [the] one when I wrote to a number of people – you were one of them – and asked you for material—


—and said: Send me stuff and I’ll make it part of it. And I did. But yes. Yeah, I’d got really hacked off with it all. [laughs]

And did you work through that? Or is that still...

[big sigh] Well it’s complicated.


I’m happy to talk about aspects of the complications. Um... All right.

A number of things came together. One was that... I had got a bit... I mean, CPT was one of the bright stars in the firmament for me, in the sense that finally someone was making it possible – and indeed in some ways invoking the necessity – for poetry to begin to rethink itself out of the ‘upstairs [at the] pub’ reading mode. Sometimes that [mode] can be great, but it just didn’t particularly do it for me, and I felt that poetry in terms of its audience and in terms of its... I don’t mean numbers, but I mean... There was a lot of conversation about the fact that upstairs rooms in pubs, particularly at that time, weren’t the places that women would rather go to, shall we say. Or weren’t necessarily the kinds of places that people who weren’t of a straight male gender orientation would rather go to. Especially if it’s, you know, a room that nobody else wants to use, that they’re very happy to hire out to the poets because nobody else wants to rent it. Kind of, you know, chintz wallpaper and pictures of Churchill on the wall, or whatever, Battle of Trafalgar or something. That can be funny, and in some ways there are moments at which I’ve wanted to make a very pointed piece and call it ‘The Poetry Reading’ and do all of these clichés.

So that was one aspect of it. And then another aspect of it was that, um, I got frustrated about the fact that it felt more and more difficult to do some of the things – and it still does – that I wanted to do technologically within the poetry context. I didn’t want to do anything really dramatic. I just wanted to be able to do something a bit. Like I wanted to maybe do something with sound, but maybe there wasn’t a mic. Or you had to carry it there yourself. Plus I’d moved out of London and it was getting more and more difficult to carry everything around.

Even those aren’t really the key things. One of the most critical things was that I’d finished – I have to be careful how I say all of this stuff... The work that I’d been doing, that I’d been really enjoying, about the interface between poetry and song, and gesture and calligraphic marking, and breath and instrument, and composition and improvisation in and around the text, with Sianed Jones, ...didn’t quite come to an end, it just went into a segue for me. And I got very engaged with ideas about – what shall I call it? More participatory forms of making work.

And I also felt a little bit – although I don’t think anybody else would agree with me – that I’d got to the point where I thought I could kind of do it. And so I got bored with the fact that I thought I could kind of do it. And I wanted to either take a rest or a back seat, or stop for a while, until I felt that I could challenge myself again. I didn’t want to get bored with my own repetitions, or my own schticks. Even though I still have them, of course.

So the work that I started doing – and it came out of mass observation, and a genuine interest in what mass observation had tried to get going, but also the real problems in what mass observation was up to – led me to do this little piece for their sixtieth anniversary, which was – you probably don’t remember... – It was called ‘Mayday’ and I tried to get as many people as I possibly could... – it was a bit short notice – it was early days of the internet. Relatively early days of the internet – I mean, if you think that I was online at the end of ’94, and there wasn’t really a browser even at that point – then we got into kind of Mosaic and then we got to Netscape... It was the early days of e-lists, I think British Poetry [15] had just started in ’96, and was one of the things that encouraged me to do this. And so I did this homage to mass observation where I wrote to a bunch of people – hard copy and sent some stuff out to lists – and said, look I’m doing this thing, I want to investigate a little bit more what mass observation was up to, and I’m going to use the election of May 1st 1997 to do that – this was the Tony Blair... um... what do they call it? Not seascape... Wasn’t seasick, although it kind of was... Um... Sea-change! [laughs]

So I got interested in that work and that’s how I started working with Kirsten [Lavers], because Kirsten was very taken by that project; and then the following year we did a revisitation of it, and we did it live on the web, and we did a 24-hour online performance, putting up this web site – and it’s still up, and it’s an interesting piece, I think, a very early, very clunky hypertext piece. But there’s a lot of work there. And a lot of poets and a lot of visual artists and a lot of ordinary people and friends and relatives and all kinds of things were involved in that project.

So I got bitten – and it wasn’t the first time, because I’d done a lot of work in the community arts movement in the mid-1980s, which I’m sure you don’t know about either, down in Salisbury, for Mobile Arts [16] and with the Friends and Allies conference. A lot of – for me – very interesting work with oral history and reminiscence and photo-text projects and stuff.

Anyway, so, yes, the idea had shifted away from me – me the poet-creator who’s got something to say – to thinking that I wanted to... not orchestrate other people’s things, but set up frames within which a diversity of points of view could be seen. Kind of that simple, really. And I was very interested in inclusivity, very interested in non-censorship, very interested in rupturing across generations, age groups, cultural perspectives, all that kind of thing. And that’s what really became the nub of the Things Not Worth Keeping project. I mean although Kirsten and I made a lot of work as two artists, the idea was that it wasn’t me who was coming up with everything any more. And that had been growing through the work with Sianed – you know, I was continually being mediated by / interrupted by / (quite delightfully) / messed with / being required to (literally sometimes) change up what I was doing in order for it to stay as interesting as the kinds of elements that she was bringing to it, and so forth. It was a very good conversation, but it made me realise that I wanted to have... another kind of form of collaboration. And not just that form of collaboration where you’re working closely with somebody else and you’re maybe each taking responsibility for your stuff or you’re co-creating something intensely together: but really opening out what the idea of collaboration was.

So when I came to do that thing at Sub Voicive I was in a pretty abject relationship to the poetry world because I felt that when I came to do a poetry reading or I was asked to do a poetry reading I was put back in the position of: Oh here’s cris doing his poet bit. And I wanted to try to struggle with that.

And that struggle stayed. Um... It’s gone again now.


Now that’s partly because that collaboration went to such a... I mean in some ways such a fulsome place, but also in some ways such a terrifying and messy place. And I’m happy to talk about all of that but... Let me just try and answer your question a little bit!

So... Participation and community and diffraction of power and... Thinking more of being a creative curator... Allowing other people to speak. I wanted to make work that allowed other people to speak. So hence the Coleridge piece [TNWK's Rime of the Ancient Mariner] which is, you know, I can’t remember, something like 425 different voices in the poem. Hence the Millennium Collection and all of those ideas about value. And to a certain extent, even when Kirsten and I were making those (I think) very beautiful and detailed and complex weavings, the whole book-mania project [the pieces Retrospective Scree(n)d and The Books], there was still a lot of porosity to it. When we were making those things the computer would be there and the books that were the residual recombinant books from the shredding of the 101 books, and all of that gubbins: they would be there and people could come in and they could type into the texts that were emerging. So even the writing that emerged wasn’t ours and it wasn’t mine and it wasn’t hers. And in fact I showed some of this in New York after that relationship ended, and it was kind of my way of trying to make contact with it and move on. Because I did this final showing in a gallery in New York and an old friend of mine – Marshall Reese from Co-Accident [17]; I’d done some work with Co-Accident in Baltimore a long while ago – asked me to go and give a reading. And I read this thing and afterwards he said to me, Well you know I really liked the sound stuff you were doing, and these other texts you were reading, but I didn’t like that piece. And I said: Well why didn’t you like it? He said: Well I think the writing’s bad! And it really kind of cut in all sorts of ways, because I thought: Yeah, I know what you mean... And it’s not mine! But that’s the point.

And so, you know, all of those different veils were falling away and being plastered up to my head and falling away at the same time. Because I’m very fascinated by that, the edge, the problematic edge of control and failure in relation to work that involves a large number of contributors. And I’m totally committed politically to inclusiveness, but it really has its painful side! In fact I had a conversation with John Wilkinson in Paris [18], where I was saying to John, you know: John you have to consider the possibility of talking to Sarah Palin. And he got really angry, and said: No! She wants to do harm to me! And I said, well, maybe she thinks you want to do harm to her. Maybe you need to have a conversation.

Meet the author: in media res for the church - the school - the beer (Plantarchy 3, 2007)
Photo: Sianed Jones

So, yes, that’s the crazy edge. It does get like that very quickly, I know, setting frames that try to be inclusive – that’s fascinating – and of course they never are, because you’re always excluding by the nature of the grounds that you’re choosing to operate on [in] the first place, and the language that you use to describe it. I mean you know this, you do that kind of stuff, that’s where we started this conversation. [. . .] It’s a hugely demanding line to be on, because you always have this struggle with yourself and your own preferences and [what] you’re expecting to happen or what you’re hoping other people are going to get out of it. In fact [it’s] everything good and bad about a relationship, all put under an intense microscope, with people you don’t know.

So the fascination for me, somehow... [or] the allure at least – although I think I’m playing with the allure at the moment rather than fully grasping it, and I might be trying to seduce potential collaborators in the enterprise – is to try to look at ways of writing what I think of as a social poem. I want to try and get it to the point where it’s porous enough and open enough that people want to be part of it. Now why on earth would they want to be part of it if there isn’t something interesting there? And so, you know, sometimes I feel like a snake oil salesman, and then at other times I feel that there’s a willingness to begin to try to discuss more openly than I’ve felt for a long while. Because there is more uncertainty around than there has been for such a long while, and I feel the arts overlapping in terms of some of their philosophical / aesthetic / social / conceptual ambitions, more than I have for a while. So I’m optimistic that that can happen. And I like the idea that poetry once again can find a way of being part of that conversation.

So is that the impulse behind what we’re doing tomorrow [at the Birkbeck event], partly?

No. [laughs]

Something completely else! Well maybe you should tell me, but it’s interesting to me that you’ve been doing kind of polyvocal stuff longer than you’ve been in print, for example...?


So I’m wondering what the impulse is in right now wanting to visit that with some people and talk about it again and reinstigate that.

Yeah, I wondered what that work was. [. . .] I started thinking a couple of years ago about why it seemed that that was a particular moment when there was lots of that kind of thing going on. ...And then of course as soon as I said it, I realised particularly that when I say that kind of thing, everyone goes hang on what do you mean?, you don’t mean this, and you don’t mean that... and then I start thinking, OK, forget it, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. Because of course there are still things like that going on.

And maybe it was my own experience, but I do have a sense that there was a certain, utterly utopian moment being reached for, in terms of thinking that one could produce texts – that could be performed by many many people – that were poems. Beyond that model of the Greek chorus – although it could just be unison, although unison’s incredibly difficult, and actually mostly boring and stilted.

I was just thinking, OK, so, is the poem – let’s say more generally – is the poem – OK, you’re going to say theatre, I know! – is it a place where... (I was thinking about it in terms of poetry because it’s not the way that people normally think about poetry.) ...Is the poem a place where some form of community is being modelled? Albeit utterly provisional. Maybe just in the moment of one reader reading that thing in a book, you know, under their pillow with a torch. Is there a provisional moment of community there?

And so I just was interested in that question, and I thought, OK, well if it could be staged as a question – it’s not normally how people think about the experience of poetry, particularly if we’re looking at polyvocal poems, poems which were deliberately written to be performed by at least more than one voice, but I think it gets more interesting once you get beyond two, actually – is there some kind of instantiation of community there? And of course there’s an instantiation of community in the event of that being witnessed by other people. Because you have that community of the witnesses; you have the community of them if you enlarge them out in terms of the effect of the observers on the observed – from anthropology you have that community of kind of witness-participants they become, in a way; and then you have the community of the people who are experiencing being the foregrounded community... (You get the stupidity of the complexity of these kinds of formulations!) And then the whole event.

And I was thinking, OK, so lots of people I know, in all sorts of different walks of life, and [of] all sorts of different political persuasions, are talking about group formation, community formation, ideas about neighbourhoods – but particularly about what community is. Because it’s been such a nebulously used word, really. “I’m going back to my community.” “I live in a community.”

And so I was interested in revisiting those texts – both looking at them and talking about them, and doing them, and also thinking, particularly, is that dead? Was that a moment that was an utterly utopian moment that’s connected up to the liberatory politics of the 1960s, broadly speaking – dialectics of liberation and all that stuff; or, is it something that’s worth another go? And if it is worth another go, then maybe it does begin to become very much more connected with theatre. In which case I’d be very interested in theatre again!

...And the sense that something gets carried from that, by word of mouth and reportage on the events, into other moments of community formation, and blogs and lists and other kinds of community, these mixed realities that we’re all living in; and then also that people would make works in response to that experience, and so forth. So I just wondered if there was something there. ...I have no idea, actually.

And then I was also very interested in highly scripted things like Hannah Weiner’s Clairvoyant Journal. I mean it’s highly scripted and highly rehearsed. What kind of community is that? That poses a very awkward question, and a very interesting question in relation to theatre too, which is something that we were harping on earlier, which is that if the community that’s being modelled on the stage is highly scripted, highly controlled, highly rehearsed, then how does anybody else jump in and take part in it? Does it exclude by nature of all sorts of skill bases, for example – let alone anything else?

Yeah. I mean this really makes me think about... There’s been something very weird for me in the past few years about trying to come into a less browbeaten relationship with the idea of being a director, the ‘rectitude’ of directing, and I think I feel more and more like what I do when I go to work, what my job is – and I like this because it feels like it’s applicable to a practice in poetry even though I think I go to poetry for quite different reasons than I go to theatre, it feels like there’s a plausible crossover here – it’s about creating spaces in which other acts of creativity can be hosted. So this past week for me [on Open House] has been so much about creating the space that someone can enter into and not immediately feel unproductively disoriented by.

Right. Good phrase!

So we had someone come in to join us, who stayed with us all week – came in on Monday morning and stayed, I thought rather against the odds, and she got more and more into it, and had expected to come through the doors and see a play being rehearsed, and that wasn’t what was going on. And there was something very heartening for me about the idea that although her expectations weren’t met when she came through the door, she found a way of being able to at least sit with what was happening, until she came to start recognizing what some parts of that were. So she wasn’t thrown through a loop by that, she could find a place to be in that space.

So what was the quality of the linguistic content that she was experiencing?

Well that’s interesting, isn’t it? I mean I think the place she was able to attach to was the conversational mode that was kind of threading through everything. And it was at its best when it was conversational rather than presentational. Really early on in the week we found ourselves trying to present our process in a way that would open it out to people. But actually that I think inadvertently sort of... We ratcheted up some sense of our ownership or our expertise or whatever, which was totally specious.

“Trust us!”

Yeah, yeah! Whereas actually I think the best moments were the ones where people were drawn in by conversation and stayed because they were interested to see where the conversation goed. ...Goed? Went! Would go. ...Goed?!


Nice. Thanks for recuperating that! [laughs] So... But the thing I was trying to get to with that was about the idea of the score, actually. Because one thing that was really helpful for us – and part of being able to make that very open, accessible space – was about there being a score that was helping to hold that space open: without which I think we would have struggled because we would have endlessly been looking for something to substitute for it.

Right. So what’s the difference between a score and a frame?

Yeah. ...So I suppose what I’m thinking about in this particular instance was a kind of a structure that everybody was able to understand. In the end it didn’t play actually a very formative role in what happened. It just...

It was there.

It had our backs!


And it meant that when it came to putting something together on Friday,it was there and we could use it in so far as it was useful and let it go in so far as it wasn’t. But knowing that it was there, it made the rest of the space more permissive.

And by that time everybody was aware of what that was?


You see the reason why I asked about linguistic content is because one of the things that fascinates me about the proposal of the polylingual / polyvocal / provisional community is that if you talk about that... I mean I completely understand what you’re saying about the sense of the conversational. It seems like there’s lots of space for everybody to come in. But as soon as you start saying the P-word, the ‘poetry’ word, the sense that poetry tends to... well, everybody’s prejudices about poetry: that it uses exclusive language, or that the language is put under too much pressure there, that it’s no longer demotic speech, that it’s exorcised the curse of the vernacular or whatever you want to say about it... That somehow it feels more difficult to enter.

There were times – just to take it back to the improv music scene... There were times in the improv music scene when I think pretty much anybody could enter, and bash something. And then there were clearly moments when not everybody could. So there’s something about the terms that one establishes. You’re talking about a structure – I’m just being playful really when I’m saying what’s the difference between a frame and a structure and a score or whatever, I think they’re all very interesting in terms of how they operate and they overlap... Yeah, there’s something about the idea of the aspirational dystopia – the insane utopian aspiration of the community that could be modelled on poesis, the poetic – that really fascinates me. Because it seems to be that it’s the opposite from Plato saying that poets are dangerous and don’t have a place in the Republic. It’s like saying: We are the Republic, we’re going to make it out of poetry. ...Which of course is complete..., you know... It’s insanity! I think. But it’s a kind of insanity that really intrigues me.

And so, you know, I start to wonder about other places within theatre from that moment in time – broadly speaking. I mean I talked about the Living Theatre earlier. I guess you could go to a maybe more well-known British example, which would be Marat-Sade, or something like that: where as you get this eruption of multiple voices, it’s basically bedlam. Or Babel.


So it’s a very profound enquiry for me at the nub of it, is to say: is it possible to do something with this? And for it not to appear immediately to be a bunch of blokes making weird noises, who need to be locked up? ...For example.


I think that’s a good place to stop!

cris cheek at Writing for their Lives, University of Washington-Bothell, 1o February 2010


Coco props to Joe Milutis, the uploader of the three YouTube clips with which this post is crucially enlivened.

[1] This is a reference to a transcribed discussion (which I haven't read) in Charles Bernstein's essay 'On Theatricality'; it's mentioned in Robert Hampson's excellent and invaluable piece 'cris cheek in Manhattan', which at points covers similar ground to some regions of the present conversation. Hampson's essay would be a good jump-to point for those seeking to deepen and/or extend their engagement with cris's work. [^]

[2] In his influential critique of the poetry reading, 'Implicit' -- framed as an email to critic / poet / friend Keith Tuma, and collected in Tuma and David Kennedy's mostly useful Additional Apparitions: Poetry, Performance & Site Specificity (The Paper / The Cherry On The Top Press, 2002) -- cheek quotes approvingly from a 2001 paper given at a New Work Network conference at the Arnolfini, Bristol by James Yarker (referred to throughout, unhappily, as James Harker) of Stan's Cafe. Yarker's excellent paper, 'Audiences as Collaborators', can be read here. [^]

[3] The Marrying Maiden was written in 1958-59 and performed by the Living Theatre during 1960-61. [^]

[4] Portions of the text of Speak Bitterness were first published, alongside works by Fiona Templeton and Fiona Wright, in issue 1 of Language Alive, edited by cheek and published via his own Sound and Language imprint. If my own copy of this publication hadn't vanished down the back of a cosmic sofa, I might venture to say more confidently here how much I preferred the presentation of the Forced Entertainment text in this version than in the later, cleaner rendition in Certain Fragments. And, come to think of it, where is my copy of issue 1 of the similarly sized The Fred magazine? That was brilliant. Damn you, cosmic sofa. [^]

[5] We concluded that this was the Grand Magic Circus, under the direction of Jérome Savary. cheek's approval of Savary eventually prompts a whoosh of esprit d'escalier (pour homme) while I'm transcribing: I wish I'd thought to ask cris about his experience of working with one of my theatrical heroes, John Fox, on Welfare State International's Raising of the Titanic as part of LIFT in 1983. Possibly for cris this isn't even theatre, or anyway not what he hears when I say "theatre". These categorical divisions are infinitely self-reinforcing. [^]

[6] The London Musicians' Collective started in 1975 and was still busily promoting concerts and other activities, including its often remarkable annual festival, when I arrived in London in 1997; at that time it was an invaluable entry-point and resource base, and I eagerly and gratefully became a member. In 2002, following an earlier pilot scheme, the LMC launched Resonance FM, the experimental radio station, which survived the demise of the LMC itself in 2009 after its funding was brutally and unsupportably cut in the notorious Arts Council bloodbath of the previous year. [^]

[7] jgjgjgjgjg... (as long as you can say it that's our name) formed at the London Sound Poetry Festival in June 1976; reconvened the following spring at Battersea Arts Centre (!) and expired a year later at a gig at Kings College London; in the interim there had been a number of official performances in the UK and Europe, as well as "events of which no prior warning was given". A jgjgjgjgjg book containing "recipe section, write ups of events, details of death poetry, sheep poetry and wood poetry . . . and . . . hints for further reading" sadly never emerged. These details are taken from Lawrence Upton's one-sheet "DOCUMENTING jgjgjgjgjgjgjgjg (as long as you can say it, that's our name)", available as a pdf from his web site. This seems like a good moment to drop in a general note of acknowledgement regarding Lawrence's assiduous documentation, at his site, of so many of the important collaborative projects in which he's been involved; future historians of these lives and times will have much for which to thank him. [^]

[8] Paul Lytton, David Toop, Max Eastley, Paul Burwell, Annabel Nicolson, Evan Parker, Hugh Davies, Paul Lovens: Circadian Rhythm (Incus, 1980) [^]

[9] Sub Voicive Poetry was mostly a reading series (there were occasional pamphlets, too, and latterly a number of useful colloquia), begun in 1980 by Gilbert Adair, who ought not to be confused with the other Gilbert Adair. (The contemporaneous existence of two separate literary Gilbert Adairs has been cited on either side of the intelligent design controversy.) Ulli Freer curated the series from 1992 and Lawrence Upton from 1994. For a long while in the 80s and 90s it was probably the most significant sustained reading series in the UK for experimental poetries. In 2001 when I took over Camden People's Theatre, I invited Sub Voicive to relocate to the theatre, and the association continued throughout my tenure, though attendances tailed off quite markedly. The reasons for this are probably multiple but there was certainly a constituency for whom the theatre ambience would never be as congenial as the pub back-rooms to which the series had accustomed itself: on which topic, see cris's remarks later in this interview. The series was formally discontinued in 2005, though I still like to think of it, indulgently, as being somehow in hiatus. [^]

[10] On "nothing you can do about it", we might respectfully disagree, perhaps, though equally I doubt cris would disagree with my disagreement. [^]

[11] Actually 1977, to be annoyingly precise. Here's a nice article on Trengove's piece, coming from a perspective that might usefully moderate -- or better yet, complicate -- any emerging picture of a blithely anarchic utopia of an art-scene. [^]

[12] I think this must have been: Stuart Brisley, Touching Class (with Iain Robertson: Acme Gallery, 1981). If anyone knows better, please set me straight. [^]

[13] The London Film-Makers' Co-Op (1966-99), which evolved into LUX. [^]

[14] Total Writing London was my own attempt to use CPT to create a space in which experimental poetry could be programmed right up against free improvised music (and allied leftfield trades) and live art, in which a meaningful hospitality could be extended to artists working in the crossover areas between these disciplines, and the absurdly separate audiences for each could meet and encounter each other. Specifically there were two long-weekend events in 2003 (reviewed here) and 2004; thereafter, I left CPT and that was that, though I think the second year anyway felt like a bit of a misfire and I wouldn't have tried again in the same format. But the first of the TWL events was probably the best thing I did during my tenure.

Completists might like to know that cheek had in fact already presented work at CPT, with Things Not Worth Keeping, in March 2003, before both these events. It was a one-off mixed bill called Paper Cuts, for which participants were invited to make work in response to that day's newspaper. TNWK presented the first in what was to become a series of beautiful text/projection actions, with marks made in oil on newspaper sheets acting as a projection screen; the title of this sequence of works was "we are taking these steps because words must mean what they say jack straw", and the documentary photograph they sent me (below) became the cover image of the programme for Total Writing London. The list of Paper Cuts participants as documented on the TNWK site omits a couple of names, one of whom may be of particular interest to those whose minds are disposed towards boggling: yes, reader, I am (I shall confidently presume to suppose) the only person ever to present cris cheek on the same bill as Russell Brand. [^]

Things Not Worth Keeping, "we are taking these steps..."
as part of Paper Cuts at Camden People's Theatre, London, March 2003
image by TNWK

[15] The BRITISH-IRISH-POETS listserv at JISCMail. The public archives reach back as far as February 1997, at which point the conversation is already in full flow. I was an over-eager participant in that list for a while, starting in December 1999, and dropping off the twig the following autumn, but making an incessant blaring nuisance of myself during the intervening period. Interestingly, this period exactly coincides with the months after my bipolar diagnosis. [^]

[16] 'Mobile Arts, an Industrial and Provident Society delivering community arts projects in a range of media throughout Wiltshire, 1984-88.' (description from cheek's own resumé, 2002) [^]

[17] "Co-Accident, which consisted of Alec Bernstein, Kirby Malone, Chris Mason, and Marshall Reese, was a poetry music collective founded in 1977. They worked with the interplay of live and taped voice, percussion and instrumentation. They used voices, texts, scores, traditional and homemade instruments, electronics, videotape, computers and improvisation to present, in performance, a variety of texts and sounds simultaneously." (lifted from Robert Hampson, 'cris cheek in Manhattan') [^]

[18] When we talked, cris had recently been at a conference, 'Legacies of Modernism: the state of British poetry today', hosted by the Université Paris-Diderot, and attended by a large number of poets and critics working either within or in spitting distance of the academy. The panel on the second afternoon entitled 'Poetry and Performativity' -- Will Montgomery on E. E. Vonna-Michell's 'Balsam Flex' cassettes (to which cheek was a contributor); Vincent Broqua on Caroline Bergvall; and cheek's "provisional transatlantic communities" paper -- was, I'm told, notably sparsely attended by the contingent of delegates more closely involved with Cambridge and its legacies. Notwithstanding my optimistic remarks in the introduction to Better Than Language, the water remains boringly wide. [^]

L to R: J.H. Prynne enjoys the sunshine; a thousand miles of psychic no-man's-land (not pictured); TNWK foyer/window installation as part of Total Writing London, Camden People's Theatre, June 2003
image by TNWK

* * *

Finally, a little cris cheek jukebox -- a cheekbox, if you will -- so those who are unfamiliar with his work can get an ear-handle on it at least.

The tracks are:

1. cris cheek w/ Sianed Jones: opening of "Stranger"
from the Sound & Language album skin upon skin (1996)

2. Slant (cheek / Jones / Jeck et al): "Litter"
from the These Records album Hive (1989)

3. cris cheek: "Public Announcement" (plus interview snippet)
from Radio Radio program 4 (presenter/producer Martin Spinelli) (2003)

4. cris cheek: "and fluff" (1981/82); text included in part: short life housing (The Gig, 2009)
from a reading at Alan Golding's house, Louisville, KY, 20 February 2010

5. Slant: "Sex"
from the Sound & Language album the canning town chronicle... (1994)

6. cris cheek: extract from "Bamboo"
recorded at SoundEye, Cork, Ireland, 9 July 2005

7. Things Not Worth Keeping / Coleridge Community College: "Neighbourhood Is"
from the TNWK / Taxi Gallery album Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner (2005)

8. Slant: "Tenement Courtyard"
from the Sound & Language album Slant (1993)