Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

‘Sea Swim’ by John Wedgwood Clarke

In Pamphlets on October 30, 2012 at 9:41 am

-Reviewed by Judi Sutherland

The poems in John Wedgwood Clarke’s pamphlet, Sea Swim, are brief and bracing, like a dip in the North Sea off the beach at Scarborough. As the title indicates, the poems celebrate the sea, and in particular being in it, off that particular stretch of coastline. I notice, cynically, that the photo of Clarke himself on the back page depicts him in a nice cosy wetsuit.

It seems that the subject was not quite big enough for a whole pamphlet; there’s a slight eighteen poems in this sequence, but even so, a few of them seem like fillers, but let’s not quibble, because there are some excellent pieces here that show a playful command of language and Clarke’s evident love of his subject.

‘Beach Chalets’ is a lovely piece that conflates the inhabitants of these traditional seaside structures with poems:

Beach Chalets

…are small wooden stanzas
in which words undress
and step from the damp
boards and sixty-watt bulbs
into colossal light,
blinking, rubbing arms,

Lifting a little on their toes
as if trying to see over the cold.

Some of the descriptions are obviously gleaned from direct experience, such as the ‘tinny fizz’ which is the sound of droplets hitting the water in ‘Rain Swim’ (respect for that, John, I’ve never been swimming in the rain), and of the mixture of light and voices carrying across the water in ‘Landing’: ‘warm chirrup, chequered shell – / bright things silvering in, out, a missed / word heard as the sound of you tucked in’.

There are also poems about the atypical muse, Captain Webb (from Dawley), the first man to swim the channel unaided, who also featured in John Betjeman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’, and whose connection with the Scarborough coast is that he once trod water there for 74 hours to win a £500 bet.

At times the poetry floats away beyond the subject of swimming.  I enjoyed ‘Sea Swimming’, which begins with an epigraph from Captain Webb himself, in which he exhorts the would-be swimmer to aim for a small object ‘just out of reach’.  Clarke picks this up and swims with it, beyond literal objects into memory, culminating with ‘fish resisting the barbs / of a lure, a kiss, the first / night of lost earrings’.

The spare, clean language and the meditative tone did lead me back to the otherworldly quiet and distance that we inhabit when swimming in the sea; so different from the clangour of the municipal pool. The pamphlet worked for me, as a call to sea swimming; and the pamphlet makes a suitable fusion of the arts and sport, sponsored by the Cultural Olympiad.  The salty chill of the water is almost palpable in these poems.  I should go down to the sea again. But I’m not going in without a wetsuit.


‘Diidxadó’ by Víctor Terán

In Pamphlets on October 28, 2012 at 4:32 pm

-Reviewed by Judi Sutherland

Víctor Terán is a Mexican poet who writes in his native Zapotec, a minority language of the isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow strip of lowland that divides the Pacific from the Gulf of Mexico. This chapbook of his poems appears with the original – and unpronounceable – Zapotec on the left, and English on the right, of every page, thanks to David Shook, the translator, and editor of Molossus, who grew up in Mexico. The book’s title simply means ‘Poems’.

I’m reminded of Pablo Neruda in a bitter mood.  The poems are about lost love and betrayal, and the long free verse poems with short lines owe something to Neruda’s laconic and confessional style. There’s also a dry wit in these pages, which Shook, in his introduction, calls ‘the poetry of bathos’. There are times it teeters on the edge of the sentimental, but somehow regains its balance just in time.

In ‘From the Palm of my Hand’ Terán acknowledges his melancholy:

Nostalgia has hung
its hammock in my heart
and my grudges
hastily sharpen their weapons.

The chapbook is full of these delightful twists of image when describing the poet’s emotions. In ‘Your name’ he says he has ‘the thorn of your name / nailed to the tip of my finger’.  Over and over he vows not to be laid low by his lover’s betrayal. In ‘You Will Not Manage to Hurt Me’ he tries to convince himself that his memories make him happy: ‘The cathedral of light that you left me is immense, warm and joyful’.

The themes are universal, but sometimes we are reminded that this landscape is the Americas.  Love, Terán tells us, ‘is wild honey that seeps from a tree, / sap of tender maize-cob generous at dawn’ (‘Six Variations of Love’).  In the opening poem ‘the North Wind whips’ he sets the scene in an isthmus village:

Houses moan,
Dogs curl into balls.
There is something in the afternoon’s finger,
a catfish spine,
a rusty nail.

For a feel of the Zapotec language, here are those lines in the original:

Daabi ti xiixa
bicuininá’ huadxi ri’
ti guichi guluxu

Ti guiiba’ tini.

Shook warns us that Zapotec is being displaced by Spanish in the whole of Tehuantepec, and tells us:

When this stage of language attrition is reached, nostalgia-drenched poetries
often writhe in overt politics or accounts of their romanticised demise.

Terán avoids this trap.  His style is graceful and vivid, his subjects compellingly familiar. I was glad of this introduction to his work, and I hope we hear more from him via Shook’s poised translations into English.

Diidxadó by Víctor Terán, translated by David Shook, is available from the Poetry Translation centre for £4.00.

‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’ edited by Mark Burnhope, Sarah Crewe & Sophie Mayer

In anthology on October 24, 2012 at 10:45 pm

-Reviewed by Harry Giles

Catechism is a broad, open-hearted project, an anthology of poems for Pussy Riot, to which 110 poets donated their work in solidarity with the imprisoned protest group. As the editors say, it is “a cornucopia of approaches to freedom and to feminism” – a project which glories in and suffers from its wide range in equal measure.

George Szirtes’s questioning introduction claims it is “a political act in poetic form”, while the editors call it an “offertory” – that is, a collecting of alms. This uneasy dichotomy between charity and protest runs throughout the anthology. Szirtes’s benign bemusement is a good case in point: while in a two-sided war he knows he would stand with Pussy Riot, he is unsure what he as an older male British-based poet is doing introducing the anthology, or what the anthology itself is doing when “it is unlikely to affect the course of events in any measurable way”.

Answering this question, on the one hand, are poems like The Gingerbread Tree’s punk visual ‘This is a free riot’, which claims it has been illegally billposted over Manchester. Then there is Sally McAlister’s rousing and up-front The Queendom of Revolution which calls “For freedom // for feminism // For Revolution”, and Chella Quint’s In Vogue, which mocks the fashionable appropriation of Pussy Riot (“This is a serious cause, guys. My look has to rock.”) alongside instructions for illegal solidarity stencilling. These are punk poems, protest poems, political acts.

Scattered throughout are more oblique poems, poems riffing on the punk and feminist themes. Often these are the more experimental works, which could be seen as punking the poetic form. Karen Press’s Strange is a fine example here, as an erasure which pulls from another poem the lines “Strangers ate my cunt / asking a thousand questions as to its use” and “My word. / A rough demand. / I told them it was a weapon”. Jon Stone’s Balaclavas are also delicious: concrete poems in balaclava form in which “I raise the petrol-soaked / air to my lips and drink it”, as if the poet were downing a molotov.

On the other side of the question, there are poems like Tony Walsh’s Because the Poets Know, a simple, almost truistic list of reasons poetry and speech are important, asking us to join him in saying “Your pressure and violence / will beat neither silence /nor soul from a poet.” Similarly, Karen Connelly’s ‘Here my love, listen.’  says of a Pussy Riot heroine:

“you forsake
every weapon but the hand
thrashing a guitar.
And the voice, the unruly voice,
raising its riot
of song.”

These poems are written in solidarity, praise Pussy Riot’s speech act, and simply call for their release – they are more offering than protest. What coherent political platform there is in the anthology thus reduces to a call for freedom of speech. The poems are often also in solidarity with Pussy Riot’s feminism – but rarely are in solidarity with Pussy Riot’s wider political project: a call for autonomist (often armed) insurrection. The riot in Pussy Riot is not a floating signifier: it is a very real riot indeed. Their own words give the lie  to Laurence Ebersole’s “Pussy Riot sing civil – never violent” (Lyrical Catapult):

“Spend a violent day among strong women
Look for scrap on the balcony, raze the pavement”
Raze the Pavement, Pussy Riot, translated at

“The knuckle-duster’s ready, feminism’s sharpened
Take your soup away to Eastern Siberia
So that Riot will become rough enough”
–  Kropotkin-Vodka, Pussy Riot, translated at

If the poets honestly face the meaning of Pussy Riot’s words, then this anthology of solidarity rarely stretches farther than the Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s apocryphal Voltaire, which with grim inevitabiltiy we find paraphrased in John Ennis’s For Nadia, Katya, Masha in Prison: “I will defend to the death your right to say what you will”. This is an admirable project, but one that seems a little limp in the face of Pussy Riot’s punk.

Some of the poems understand the situation with gorgeous poetic clarity, as in Charlotte Geater’s Avoid Using the Word ‘Pussy’, which confronts the liberal interpretation of Pussy Riot head on, asking difficult questions:

“the punk rock girl band / stop bitching
whose name we can’t say / i call them bitches
on morning television / because they are bitches

the girls are sinners, they’ve made their
choice against christ & real madonna
what pussies, when riots?”

The uncomfortable reference here is to Pussy Riot’s refusal of Madonna’s and Bjork’s financial solidarity: “We’re flattered, of course, that Madonna and Björk have offered to perform with us. But the only performances we’ll participate in are illegal ones. We refuse to perform as part of the capitalist system, at concerts where they sell tickets.” (Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, August 28th 2012)

But alongside these more riot-aware poems, some of the pieces seem bizarre in the Pussy Riot context. In Veronica Zundel’s Prayer and Pussy Riot Have Three Letters in Common, Mennonites, a fairly archetypically patriarchal religious sect, pray for Pussy Riot’s release  and supposedly “God is smiling”, as if Mennonites and God were not high on Pussy Riot’s hit-list. Or there is Tom Spencer’s Dear Pussy Riot, which reduces the group’s protest to a message to “keep at it, no matter what”, a moral no less asinine for all that the author admits that he is “a prick and a jerk” and “angry and bitter / at my failure to finish this work”.

Amongst these are better but still problematic works, like Jack Underwood’s Our Glorious Leader Putin. This piece is a brilliantly-assembled satire of Putin the macho man and throbbing phallus of oppression, but this is Putin as easy target, Pussy Riot as easy cause celebre – the dictator too internationally loathed, the artists too passionately eloquent. It is uncomfortable to find so many British and Western poets condemnding a despot overseas while forgetting the despots at home. Why, for example, is there no 110-poet feminist anthology calling for Barack Obama to free CeCe Macdonald, the African American transgender woman imprisoned on a suspect manslaughter charge? CeCe is not so easy a cause.  And why does America’s kill-ordering, executive-expanding, citizen-murdering President not appear in Philo Ikonya & Helmuth A. Niederle’s Dictators Never: Roll Call, which approves of riot only when the bogeyman is unambiguous. Obama is not so easy a target, and not just because he is more metrosexual than shirtless Putin. But poetry should not just stand up for easy causes and pick on easy targets – that makes for easy poetry.

In short: Catechism risks, in its liberal call for freedom and human rights, being co-opted by a Western-centric anti-Russian sentiment. Unless poets are careful, we can be led to implying that terrible oppression only occurs “over there”, and never where we are standing. In an anthology as various as Catechism, of course,  some poets do square up to this very problematic. Jeff Hilton’s ‘With my Pussy Riot shorts on let me’ speaks of “the Russian the complicated anonymous / Russian” but is “sick of writing about Russians.” Sandra Alland’s Weapons of Minor Destruction concerns itself as much with domestic oppression as international violence and complicatedly says “All the people like me/ are thanking / all the people like you.” In Alex Macdonald’s Please Welcome to the Stage an apparently Western MC talks of “Where brown bears eat cats in dark alleyways” but says “ladies, please put your hands together /And keep them where we can see them.”

Catechism is uncertain what it is doing, but it is a beautiful book. Working rapidly, the editors have anthologised generosity, anger, satire, experiment, hope, and more. But what it captures is less a coherent outcry, protest, thrown brick or prayer, and more a spectrum analysis of (mostly) British ideas, interpretations and appropriations of Pussy Riot. Nevertheless, while its problematics and inconsistencies are important for all readers to understand, it is probably only curmugeonly anarchists like me who are likely to complain very deeply about them: in the grand liberal tradition, the anthology contains something for everyone, which is perhaps precisely my problem.

Catechism can be downloaded by donation or ordered print-on-demand at Pussy Riot can be followed and supported at CeCe Madonald can be followed and supported at, and if you’d like to work on an anthology for her then Harry would like to hear from you ( The editors of Catechism were interviewed by Sabotage here and here.

‘Mass Graves: City of Now’ by Daniele Pantano

In Pamphlets on October 22, 2012 at 9:13 am

-Reviewed by Charles Whalley

Mass Graves: City of Now is a pamphlet about guilt, depravity, fear, madness, desire, unease, meaning, despair, sex, and pain. The cover of Daniele Pantano’s pamphlet is perfect. It is a photograph that alternatively resembles dead rosebuds, rotted bark or burnt paint, and that has a texture which seems to register the most in a sense other than sight (in the same way that a film of ants will make you itch). Its determination to frustrate signification is its most significant feature.

The pamphlet is split into five sections, each apparently representing a selection from an ongoing series of ‘Mass Graves’. This structurally represents the sense in much of the pamphlet of only seeing parts of a whole. Even the epigraph to the pamphlet incorporates an ellipsis, indicating the fragmentary nature of much of the rest of the poems.

The epigraph, from the Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, also does much to introduce the tone of Mass Graves:

“I can only stay true to the stupendous monotony of the mystery […] that’s why in the anxiety of my sins I’ve never been touched by real remorse.”[sic]

It smacks, as does much of the pamphlet, of continental postmodernist philosophers : there is the abstract oxymoron of “stupendous monotony” – paradox for profundity –; the grandness of “the mystery”; the Catholicism of “anxiety of my sins”; the indifference and Existentialist self-scrutiny of “never been touched by real remorse”; and the generally wonky register of translation from a Romance language. Certainly, one of the pamphlet’s faults is that it displays its tonal markers too consciously and too often, as if it is toying with parody, and which, in itself, is a sort of efficiency.

Digressions aside, the sense of being presented with unsettling fragments (and, perhaps, more unnervingly, of finding oneself wanting more) is the dominant mood throughout. One poem, for instance, is entitled ‘Some First Lines (From His Notebooks, #14, University of Zurich)’, and features short bursts of prose, labelled by their source and a date; for example:

‘from “The Caterpillar’s Embrace of a Rotten Fruit”


The literature on the inert nature of the eye is vast … the only
consolation I have is art.’

The speaker is displaced and hidden, as the main character of the pamphlet resembles instead something of a curator (or a detective, or a psychiatrist). This is reinforced as many of the poems are, or purport to be, translations. In all, it seems we are being presented with disparate pieces of a mental world that is entirely alien, although this vagueness helps rather than hinders the effect. The pamphlet seems to acknowledge this in ‘Katzenjammer’: “Nothing you need to know is still missing.”

Pantano frequently uses these fragments to give sudden glimpses of sex or threats of violence. The last ‘first line’ from ‘Some First Lines…’ runs: “We maneuvered her into an abandoned house … she was ten years old.”  (That the horrors are only hinted at also, of course, makes them more horrific, as the worst murders are the ones heard off-stage.) It is especially effective in making the reader wish to continue reading as morbid curiosity is perhaps the most powerful form of curiosity. Furthermore, it twists this curiosity against the reader by making us feel we are complicit in our eagerness to find more, and making us feel that the speakers are somehow doing this to please us.  Indeed, complicity is one of the themes of the pamphlet, with ‘Six Obstacles’ mentioning the “terrible crimes” of which “the Swiss are guilty”, referring to Nazi atrocities and suggestions of Swiss border guards turning back refugees.

The bind between suggested depravity and the complicity of reader curiosity is explored in what is, it seems, the pamphlet’s centre: the long piece ‘A Further Reading of Urs Allemann’s Babyfucker (With Dripping Faucet)’. Much of the pamphlet is conceptual – ‘Six Obstacles’ includes lists as from an art catalogue, ‘Waldau Lunatic Asylum (Partially Translated Catalogue of Responses)’ presents a list of asylum inmates and their works of art – and ‘A Further Reading of…’ can be seen as conceptual, in that the principles of its construction stand out as much as, if not more than, its content. It is split into seven sections of continuous prose, each comprising one long ungrammatical sentence from two to half a page in length. The first lines run:

‘with be different have in the others night day me here a pinkie between
scraping fontanels slide with for the I some a get difference two how
would neither get garret head where of with powder the haven’t none die
all fucking by creel spigot spigot milk I wouldn’t I rush garret life’s with’

And so on. It is defiantly difficult, but compels with the suggestion that something horrible is being revealed. Although there is a drifting cast of characters and a vague sense of place (mostly based on the frequency of certain nouns), the poem’s interest mostly revolves around the appearance of ‘fuck’ (and variations thereupon) and ‘baby’, and their cohabitation within the same text and sometimes the same line. It is a piece that few would feel inclined to read through in its entirety if it were not for the brinkmanship that the text plays with the reader, but it is rare that language produces such a powerful effect (even if, one could argue, Pantano achieves it by the meanest tricks).

It’s a tribute to Pantano skill that this review has come so far without mentioning his skill with word-choice and concise, striking phrasing which, given what this review has discussed, goes on almost in the background. He can be forgiven showboating this skill in a poem near the end of the pamphlet which just lists words. I rarely read a pamphlet that feels as ready as this. Mass Graves: City of Now is an accomplished collection of poems which carries its own complete universe along with it. In all, by its own criteria the pamphlet succeeds completely, which is the best we can ask of any poetry. The question, as it is particularly with conceptual literature, is whether these are criteria you value or can enjoy.  Peli Grietzer writes that pieces of conceptual literature are “perfect by default”. The danger here is that these works can be so complete as to not require the reader at all. (This is why some conceptual literature doesn’t even need to be read, as the reader, as the act of reading, is made almost entirely redundant. Pantano’s ‘…Babyfucker’ , as six pages of disconnected words, risks this fate.) With this in mind, Mass Graves manages to be both impressive and frustrating. I recommend it highly, but I won’t expect you to like it.

An Interview with some Editors of Armchair/Shotgun

In Saboteur Awards on October 17, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Richard T. Watson speaks to Evan Simko-Bednarski and John Cusick

Earlier this year, we at Sabotage opened up voting for the second of our Saboteur Awards (which marked, not coincidentally, our second birthday). At the head of an impressive field was the New York-based magazine Armchair/Shotgun, praised variously as ‘obscure, powerful and entertaining’ and ‘a saboteur in the best and worst ways’.

Armchair / Shotgun Issue 2's front cover

With its selection of short fiction, poetry and visual art, Armchair/Shotgun does conveniently represent both sides of the printed literature Sabotage aims to cover (as you’ll see later, they’re branching out into performance poetry – we don’t have an award for performance poetry…yet); the visual art is an added bonus. For that alone, it deserved recognition in our Saboteur Awards – but it won because it so impressed our readers, its own readers and our reviewer.

Rory O’Sullivan reviewed the magazine for Sabotage in June 2011 (coincidentally, their second instalment) and complimented the ‘refreshing originality’ contained within Armchair/Shotgun #2. The submissions policy at Armchair/Shotgun makes a real virtue out of anonymity (not the only publication on our list to do so: Anon came third, behind joint-seconds Ilk and New Linear Perspective). That focus on the purity of story enabled Armchair/Shotgun‘s content to ‘distract, grip and absorb’ the reader.

As they basked in the glory of winning our second Saboteur Award and set their sights on the third instalment, two of Armchair/Shotgun‘s editors, Evan Simko-Bednarski and John Cusick, answered a few questions we threw their way. [Disclaimer: the Saboteur Award has no prize outside of a logo for your website, and some kudos]

The Saboteur Award 2012, for Armchair/Shotgun

Tell us a bit about the beginnings of Armchair/Shotgun – how and why did it start? Can you explain the name?

ESB: First off, no, I cannot explain the name. We were discussing the magazine at a bar, back when this was just a thing we were discussing at bars, batting around some truly awful names, and John’s face just lit up and he said ‘OK, how about ‘Armchair Shotgun’? With a slash in between?’

Armchair/Shotgun came about at a time where we were all working in nominally creative fields, but were feeling creatively frustrated. The economy had just taken a humongous nose-dive, and we were trying to be writers, but all of the lit journals we could get our hands on had a kind of optimism or polish that seemed out of touch with our experience. We wanted to make the kind of journal that would take a story solely on its merits, and not on the formal training or critical acclaim of its author.

What’s you favourite part(s) of publishing Armchair/Shotgun? What really excites you about it?

ESB: Hands down, my favourite part is getting to develop relationships and friendships with our authors. These are stories that we pore over for months, debate and hash out and fight for at the editing table. Getting to know the folks behind them is a unique reward.

JMC: A close second is participating in the fabulous literary community in Brooklyn. There are so many amazing writers, editors, and publications here; it’s inspiring to be a part of that.

You carry out some activities outside of publishing the magazine, don’t you?

JMC: We’re all involved in other creative and professional pursuits. By day I’m an author of young adult novels and a literary agent. The fiction we publish in Armchair/Shotgun is very different than the kind of thing I write and represent, so it’s a nice balance. One of our managing editors works in textbooks, another for a not-for-profit. Our publicist is a full-time editor at a major New York publishing house.

ESB: I am a freelance writer, a poet, a performing musician and a bicycle mechanic. About once a week, I sleep.

What do you look for in a) creative writing submissions, b) artwork submissions, c) poetry submissions, d) non-fiction submissions and e) a perfect meal?

ESB: With poetry, I’ve never been a fan of flowery verse, or works very beholden to a formal structure. We certainly have published very ornate diction and fairly formal structure, but only because beneath all of that was a gorgeously constructed work of poetry that felt tangible, that begged for a second or third or fifth read. To me, poetry is storytelling without any of the requirements of narrative or grammar. In prose, there’s a linearity to the very structure of a sentence or a paragraph— they necessarily go forward. To my mind the mark of a good poem is to arrive somewhere different than where it started without relying on that linearity, or by playing with it, or by acknowledging it but going somewhere different.

JMC: For fiction, we prize story and character over style. We like to be moved emotionally, rather than wowed intellectually. Finding novel or beautiful ways to write fiction is fine, so long as your literary fireworks are in service of the story. Our taste in art is harder to pin down. We gravitate toward the understated. As with fiction, we’re more interested in craft than concept. As for a perfect meal? After an all-day editing session, nothing beats pizza and beer.

In a similar vein, what makes an Armchair/Shotgun piece an Armchair/Shotgun piece? What marks these things out as being yours? Is there a particular style, say, or theme, maybe?

JMC: So far we’ve published two stories about troubled dogs, and a few about lonely drivers on long stretches of highway. I think due to our name, we tend to receive a great deal of rusticana and rural settings, but we’re not looking for any of that specifically. We’re open to all genres, all styles, so long as the piece makes us feel something.

Is there another publication or two out there that you especially admire? Who else should we really be looking at?

JMC: We’ve modelled ourselves after the Paris Review, somewhat. The local folks we adore include Bomb, the Coffin Factory, Electric Literature, Abe’s Penny, the Atavist, and many more.

What’s coming up for Armchair/Shotgun?

JMC: This autumn we released our third issue, participated in the Brooklyn Bookfair, and were honoured to have a story from our first issue, The Kill Sign by Marvin Shackelford, featured in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading Program. We plan to do many more events in the coming year — panels, readings and the like — and have plans to partner with the Cambridge Writers Workshop for a few literary ‘performance pieces’, for lack of a better term.

ESB: One of the things that thrills me about our latest issue is that, with our anonymous submission policy, all of our poetry and fiction for Armchair/Shotgun #3 turns out to have been written by women. I don’t know if you are familiar with the VIDA count, which tracks the discrepancy between the publication rates of men and women in large literary publications from year to year, but there’s often a lot of talk as to why there is so consistently a bias towards the publication of men. I think it’s pretty interesting that by ignoring our authors names and bios, we came up with an all-female group of authors, and I’m tremendously excited to share their work with our readers.

The cover of Armchair/Shotgun 3

‘The future of publishing is in ebooks and online, not in printed documents’ – discuss.

JMC: Publishing is transforming into an electronic industry, but print products will continue to have a market so long as people want to buy them. I know I still do. The thing most folks forget is that format is not nearly as important as content. I hope the companies who have found success publishing books don’t suddenly decide to get into the software development business. That would be like Ferrari coming out with a line of fragrances.

ESB: The future of publishing may lie in e-books, but the future of the art form very much requires paper. John and I worked at a radio station in college, and we always noted how terrestrial radio differed from the internet: the radio dial is only about yea big; you’re going to find something even if you’re not looking for it. The advantage of print lies in a particular advantage of the bookshelf— you can only fit so many things on it. This means that someone thumbing through a bookstore is going to happen upon authors they weren’t looking for, because the shelf has been curated. So much of e-retailing is based on identifying and pitching to a reader’s comfort zone. And it has to be that way, otherwise you’re staring at an app-store of every title ever written. But it means that the reader never gets jarred out of their routine the way they can be by a well-thought-out bookstore shelf. In an infinite space one only finds what they’re looking for. Happenstance requires certain physical limitations that belong to print. And that means new and different authors finding new and different readers.

One comment from our voters described Armchair/Shotgun as ‘literate’ and ‘fun’, in a world where the two are ‘too often, mutually exclusive’ – do you think they’re mutually exclusive? How do you manage to be both at the same time?

ESB: I think that there is a tendency to gird oneself against the vulnerability of creativity by being self-important. That’s true in any artistic community, and sadly that means too many literary events aren’t a whole lot of fun. But for us the point of all this is story. We wanted to read better stories. And story tellers are intriguing, interesting and fun people at their core. I think the trick is to be very serious about the magazine Armchair/Shotgun while having as much fun as possible with the organization Armchair/Shotgun.

JMC: Why should literature and fun be mutually exclusive? Books are fun to read. They’re fun to write. They’re fun to go to parties and talk about. Book people are some of the most interesting, amusing folks around. At last year’s Brooklyn Lit Crawl, Armchair/Shotgun, along with a few of our authors, performed a live reading of a Flash Gordon Radio Drama. It was a blast, and utterly goofy, and we hope to perform again next year. If you ask me, books are the most fun you can have in New York City.

That same comment goes on to say that Armchair/Shotgun is good for reading with a drink, but also to have a drink with – what would Armchair/Shotgun‘s drink of choice be?

ESB: A lot of what would later become Armchair/Shotgun developed from weekends in the country with typewriters and bourbon, writing short stories until we were sober. The Armchair/Shotgun drink of choice has definitely spent a while in an oak barrel.

JMC: We’ve been developing the ‘Armchair/Shot’, but so far none of the recipes have quite clicked (ingredients considered include black pepper, mango flavoured wine coolers, and gun powder).

Congratulations once again to all at Armchair/Shotgun, and well done to the other publications that made it onto the Saboteur Award 2012 shortlist. To follow on from the interview, as a dessert, if you like, here’s our more recent review of Armchair/Shotgun Issue 3.

Unthology #3

In anthology, Novella, Short Stories on October 16, 2012 at 11:30 am

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

Unthology 3

Unthology 3, the third short story anthology to be released in this series by Unthank Books, is kicked into gear with an introduction that claims, “In these uncertain, frightening and recessionary times… it’s only natural to want to switch off the daily terror and hide in a warm fantasy.” The statement immediately lulled my mind into believing that what may be on offer in this new collection was warm fantasy, though that statement also concludes with ‘there is some sex in it’, so it seems the anthology offers something for a wide scope of readers.

There was however a slight pang of confusion upon reading the opening story, ‘Terra Cotta’ by David Rose; the narrative, which weaves readers through a maze of artistic creations as we find ourselves on the tour of a gallery, is not only original and complex, but also maximises the opportunity to explore the visual side of literature through vivid, convincing and all-round inspired descriptions. Having said that, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat underwhelmed by the overall premise of the story, particularly after I had prepared myself for something much more fantasy-based. ‘So Long Mariane’, by Sandra Jensen, completely redeemed this initial reaction, and explained that this was much more than a collection of fantasy tales, with a relevant tale that begins with, “When Mariane asked me to help her kill herself, I thought it would be relatively easy.” The first person narrative provides a gut-wrenching insight of the perspective of someone playing party to euthanasia. Jensen’s narrative, with infrequent and unmarked speech, revolves mainly around the accomplice and the emotional effects, allowing a truly unique voice to become apparent through the inspired tale.

At a later stage in the collection you will discover ‘Even Meat Fill’ by Gordon Collins. My initial reading of this story left me feeling a little underwhelmed and admittedly, slightly confused. However, after returning for a second reading, I eventually found myself bowled over by not simply the story but the narrative used to articulate it. The introductory paragraph to the piece is repeated throughout, which either accidentally or deliberately, perfectly complements the repetition that can be noted in the action the paragraph itself depicts. The story, through the use of this significant paragraph and the repetitive actions that are addressed, succeeds in telling a tale while clearly capturing the monotony of every day life and, I suppose, every day work. This is followed by ‘The Triptych Papers’ by Ian Chung, which is definitely a personal favourite from the whole collection. The story is broken down into parts, allowing for different narrative voices to be exploited and ultimately collaborate towards an eerie, perhaps even science fiction style piece. Similarly, ‘Before the Song’ also benefits from shifts in narrative allowing for the perspective of each member of a family to be voiced throughout.

‘Paradise’ by Sharon Zink and ‘Trans-Neptune’ by Ashley Stokes, which I will refer to as the relationship stories of the collection, cater to the promise of sex offered during the introduction. ‘Trans-Neptune’, which is significantly longer than other stories in the collection, presents a fairly normal situation (a woman, under-nurtured by her husband, contemplates finding sexual attention elsewhere) however still manages to offer something special through the complicated narrative voice that, despite toying with the idea of infidelity, seems to offer readers something familiar that they may even relate to.

‘A Publisher Surveys the Changing Literary Scene’, by CD Rose, caused a definite smirk for me, as a committed book reader. The detective tone of the piece truly throws you off track whilst addressing regular elements of the publishing industry in a unique and inevitably amusing manner. Skipping ahead again leads to ‘The Theory of Circles’ by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt which is a truly fascinating story executed through the use of a unique, modern and inspired narrative style. The story is told through a series of prose-written paragraphs, Facebook updates, Twitter updates and blog posts which keeps the reader continuously guessing about the next twist of the narrative style. The use of repetition in language contributes to this further by  expanding on the circular idea that suggests itself in the title and lingers throughout the body of the text.

Another clever manipulation of literary techniques is embedded within ‘My Oldest and Dearest Friend’ by Charles Wilkinson; the story seems to follow an unexpected avenue which involves two major characters being calmly murdered by their partners, however the shock is quickly snatched away by the reality that they are all in fact uncomfortably devouring dinner together at the close of the story. An equally fascinating style is presented in the final story ‘Eleanor: The End Notes’ by David Rose, in which the narrator guides us through a tragic love story, which on its own probably offers nothing particularly unusual; however it is an experience heightened greatly by the tendency to directly address the reader through asides such as “(you know the passage, I’m sure)” which inevitably draws in a reader, making the story much more intense and involving.

The collection unquestionably offered a welcome break and did indeed usher me into a world of warm fantasies, although some authors achieve this much more effectively than others. While some contributors to this collection opted to explore a world of fantastic, original and sometimes unbelievable ideas, others, such as Sarah Evans in ‘Terms and Conditions’, addressed real life issues in a touching way, without dressing it up with an overly complicated narrative and such like, which certainly isn’t a criticism. The entire publication was a welcome escape from reality, or in some cases a look at reality through new eyes, and I sincerely hope that there will be a fourth addition to this series in the future.

Review: Brand New Ancients – Kate Tempest

In Performance Poetry on October 11, 2012 at 9:00 am

19/09/12 @ The BAC

– Reviewed by Dana Bubulj

What is Brand New Ancients?

It is a modern poetic epic, written and performed by Kate Tempest (performed with backing musicians),  that follows the lives of several young people as they grow up, their paths crossing occasionally within a tight and heart-breakingly human narrative.

The band, whose music is similar to The Cinematic Orchestra, is illuminated on their stepped stage by light streaming in through small windows. They work well both as support for Tempest’s words and in their instrumentals. Only in the show’s refrains did they become a bit too loud for the vocal. Distress, frustration and hope were all straining through the instruments, with each character given their own clear musical voice that enhanced the storytelling.

Who are the Brand New Ancients?

“We are all still mythical”, Tempest starts, with the theme of the show. This is conveyed well, through her “epic narratives” of several, regular people whose characters are so familiar that they almost become archetypes. Perhaps, in less skilled hands, characters like Clive (whose abusive childhood taught him that violence was a way to get your point across) would have been undeveloped stereotypes, but in Tempest’s hands they are shaped into the modern, almost mythic, and oh so real characters that burst out of this piece. Periodically, Tempest weaves in Classical references (a Diana here, Pandora there), that help add to a sense of shared patterns of behaviour. “Your fears, your hopes are old”, she says, a comfort, perhaps, that the gods who “walked among us” (as well as, she acknowledges, periodically turning into animals and raping us), “fought for us” and were full of “imperfect”, human traits (“the gods can’t stop checking Facebook on their phone”).

It is the vividly drawn characters that makes this show so powerful. Tempest has a way with creating such believable people with humour and empathy (for example, Kevin, a “testament to the cavalry of men”), crafting conversations that sound authentic and paint the scenes as vividly as her narration (“prayers were not spoken in a silence like this”). Indeed, her words paint the awkwardness of youth with knowing brush-strokes, just as she also captures the flaws of their youthful reasoning (such as testing someone’s fireman skills with arson).

The “two man nation” of Clive and Spider, who “might have been warriors” in the olden days but now have nothing but each other to fight for, resigned to their fate as “the bad guys” and act accordingly, driving forward the plot’s violent climax with Gloria at her pub after last call. In a nice change from conventional narrative, Tommy, Gloria’s boyfriend, returns from his own crisis of faith (“by my love I am saved”) to see her rescue herself from Clive’s assault, buoyed by anger at a life of  past abuses.

What’s behind the Brand New Ancients?

Another facet to the narrative is that of the dangers of fame. Not a new concern, by any means, but Tempest takes it on well, panning out and tying the Cowell-led hunger for fame and fortune to her theme: “the gods are on their knees in front of false idols”. In almost a plea to return to the gods “among” rather than those “distant”, Tommy follows the convention of getting what he wishes (a job in the city as a graphic artist), to finally realise the unpleasant nature of his colleagues, all “overblown gestures like mime artists” and regret his decisions.

The conclusion seems to fit the themes of the narrative: the possibility to dip into a plethora of individual stories. Moving to years later, in the skin-crawlingly awful voice of Clive’s father, an alcoholic, abusive man now emigrated to Thailand (“out here, pension is riches”) where he’s surrounded by “men like [him]”, left wondering about what had happened to the central characters, we are distant once more to these ‘gods’, and encouraged to find our own.

Brand New Ancients ran from 4-22nd September at the BAC. 

An Interview with the Editors of ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’. Part 2.

In Conversation on October 10, 2012 at 10:10 pm


-In Virtual Conversation with Claire Trévien

A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie MayerSarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 2 of our interview with them (part 1 can be found here).

4) Many of the poems generated by this project reclaim or play in some way (ooh-er) with the word Pussy, including yours Sophie and Mark. How do you situate the poem within your wider body of work, is it a natural extension of your interests? Or did you find it surprisingly tricky in some way?

Mark Burnhope: For a split second, I hesitated about using the word ‘vagina’ in a poem. But then I laughed at myself for being a pussy, and all was right in the world. Of course, if anything is right in the world, it’s because of vaginas. They are why we exist. The vagina is a symbol not just of womanhood, but of all life. Patriarchal organised religion is embarrassed about that, but human cultures, folk religions, never have been. Vagina is why I am here, in the world. My mother is the reason I was able to go from disabled baby to teenager to out-and-proud-‘crip’ adult. The vagina is a symbol for everything, any kind of path, including the spiritual. But because it’s embodied, steeped in feminine physicality, it – like nearly everything feminine – has somehow been ransacked, made morally and socially dirty. I enjoy playing with stuff like that in my poems, and I loved watching others do it here.

Sophie Mayer: Lots of poems took on the word ‘pussy,’ and its association of the female genitals with an animal (at once infantile and bestial), while others addressed the words ‘vagina’ (like mine) or ‘cunt.’ As editors, we found ourselves fascinated by the power of cat imagery in contemporary culture; from Aslan to Cheetara to LOLcats to Cat Power (in Amy Key’s brilliant response to the project), there’s such a range of feline associations – and those became part of the bold, funny, angry aspect of ‘pussy,’ as opposed to it being a derogatory term. It wasn’t a straightforward reclamation/re-visioning – it was more kittenish and playful than that.

I’ve described ‘Vagina’ as a feminist Dr. Who episode, a way of engaging (as Sophie Robinson’s ‘Free Pussy’) does, with patriarchal culture’s fear of female genitals as this powerful, alien Other. Lots of science fiction is nakedly, if unintentionally Freudian, with its thrusting rocket ships ‘penetrating’ deep space; so the poem says ‘what if outer space and/or an alien race were a vagina?’. I wrote it standing at the back of a Donut Press reading, partially inspired by Matthew Caley quoting the line from Julia Kristeva that’s in the poem. Lots have magazines have turned it down…

Sarah Crewe: A natural extension of my interests covers it perfectly. And actually, it’s been liberating. I would never have used a word like vulva previously, whereas after this project, i’ve found myself far more engaged with body politic in gender issues. Why is society so fearful of talking about vaginas?

5) Following on from that, were you surprised by some of the poems other poets sent to you?

SM: I was surprised by all of the poems! By the fact that there were any at all. And then by the volume, the variety, the swiftness with which they arrived. By the way that many poets found to be political without being didactic, to be wild and free in their language without being offensive. Several poets remarked, when they sent in poems, that they’d been surprised by their poem – that they’d found a new form, subject, voice or method in writing it, that the project had opened some wellspring or given them permission to speak in a particularly energised, open, intense way.

I was surprised to discover just how strong a spectrum of feminist voices there is in UK and Irish poetry at the moment – it’s totally decentralised; there’s no one magazine, anthology or festival that represents it, and it’s rarely talked about. So it was a delight to discover that it was out there, across emerging and established poets. And that it’s very rich and multifarious, and confident.

SC: The variety both surprised and delighted me. I can’t say any of it shocked me, but seeing how other people responded to the subject matter was just a fantastic project to be a part of.

MB: Yes and no. I was surprised at the sheer volume of stuff sent to us. If by ‘surprised’ you mean shocked, then no. I told myself from the outset that I wasn’t going to be offended. It wasn’t my place to get offended. If I was offended by anything well put, whatever it was, I was the problem. I hoped people would send us a massive range of beauty and debauchery, quietness and rage, seriousness and silliness (that was the kind of book this needed to be: serious writing dressed in a neon balaclava). And they did.

6) Another route poets went down is through music, and I love the layering of sounds in your poem Sarah. I’ll confess that I did not know about Sheela na gigs before reading it, how did the poem impose itself on you?

SC: Thanks so much Claire! I have to say, it’s the most sound based poem I’ve ever done. Curiously I’d been meaning to write about Sheela na gigs for several months but was unsure how to find a way in (insert chuckle here). I was also familiar with the fabulous PJ Harvey song. Then this came up, and I thought it was perfect. The fact it starts with a “she” noise made me want to take it apart and work with each sound from a feminist perspective.

SM: Sarah’s poem, Adrian Slatcher’s Huggy Bear poem, Alison Croggon’s poem (which is a dance), Amy Key’s Cat Power poem, Wayne Burrows’ translation of a Czech pop song, Phill Jupitus’ band name puns: lots of the poems paid tribute to Pussy Riot’s choice of punk-pop as a vehicle for their political expressions.

There’s something too – very much present in the sheela-na-gig and Sarah’s poem – about the dangerous association of women with sound and music: the Sirens, the seductive and emotive qualities of music. If language is supposed to communicate stable, singular sense, then sound derails that suggestively, sets up secondary meanings and associations, subvocalic echoes, makes language sing – which undermines its legislative and executive power. So to make much of the music of language is to contest its use in sentencing and law-making, its rigid legalities.

7) Finally, what do you hope Catechism will achieve? 

SM: Catechism’s being published for free (although donations are very welcome, to be divided equally between the Pussy Riot legal fund and English PEN Writers at Risk) under a Creative Commons license, to which all the contributors have consented: that means the book and its contents can be shared, remixed, translated, and reposted. One conversation on Facebook became, via social media, a project with nearly 150 people involved in it, internationally, in just under three weeks. Retweeting a poem may not make legislative change in Russia: but it is part of a wider spectrum of actions that are taking place to support Pussy Riot. We hope, on the one hand, that the anthology directs attention to the case, and – by being funny and smart and sexy – gets noticed where a news article might not. We also hope that the poems reach the band (we’re sending them by as many routes as we can), and make some small difference to them: to know that there are people, all over the world, thinking of them and praying for them, and carrying forward their commitment to freedom of expression and liberation politics.

The anthology has also begun to do something: to make connections, between the poets involved, between poets and translators, and between poets and English PEN. There’s an incredible sense of focus, determination and generosity that I don’t think any of us knew was out there in this way: either so widespread or so organisable. Further projects, campaigns, protests, conversations, actions and poems are going to emerge from the whirl that is Catechism, extended further as new readers get involved. Each tiny step of speaking more freely, of making an alliance, of saying ‘yes’ to a bold protest against power, brings us closer to the world that Pussy Riot envision in their actions, as a band and as part of the radical art group Voina. Another world is possible: Catechism imagines that world in its words, but was also made by us working as if that world existed.

MB: For me, the most exciting thing about the project hasn’t changed: with any luck, the members of Pussy Riot are going to know we stand with them. Poetry is being put to great use here, to build positive bridges, tear down harmful ones. Obviously it will be nice if everyone thinks everything in Catechism works as poetry in itself, but the goal is bigger. At the end of the day, nothing works in or by itself. Everything is connected. If readers grasp that afresh, or again, Catechism has done its job.

SC: Awareness, largely of how very wrong it is that these women are being held behind bars. I hope it invites people to consider freedom of expression, and to be outraged at how it has been denied in this case. I also hope it achieves what it has done for me. I have never felt so engaged with feminism as a political cause, and I firmly believe the time is now, it needs to be out there. Pussy isn’t a dirty word. Neither is feminism and I don’t want to see either brushed under the carpet for any longer.

I also hope it draws more attention to the work of PEN, who are just a fantastic organisation who work hard for writers who don’t enjoy the level of freedom that we do here.

On a personal level, I’d just love it to bring smiles to the faces of three women who have suffered so much this year. The thought of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich reading just how much people care is extremely humbling to me.




An Interview with the Editors of ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’. Part 1.

In Conversation on October 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm

-In Virtual Conversation with Claire Trévien

A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 1 of our interview with them (part 2 will follow shortly).

1) First things first, what drew you to the Pussy Riots trial above all other current events? Do you find that their actions have echoes with your own poetry (or poetry in general)?

Sophie Mayer: I came to political consciousness as a teenager, reaching against an orthodox religious upbringing, through riot grrrl and feminist poetry – writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Chrystos – so Pussy Riot’s case resonated with both of those, with their daring. Their appeal to a tradition of resistance within the Orthodox church, as the church of the people – and the Virgin Mary as a powerful female figure – was so strong, and so immediate. The vivid colours, words and actions, the sense of riotous humour, the energy of their performance carried so strongly internationally via YouTube. We’re the same generation, sharing access to similar kinds of knowledge and tools; that struck me hard, too.

Mark Burnhope: Well, my poetry does have an equality/civil rights/social justice thread running through it; as a disabled person, ‘advocate’ has become one of my default settings through no choice of my own, I think. But my first involvement in Pussy Riot’s story was as a poet for Catechism. I heard that the plan was to send them a poem anonymously. That was my hook. When Sophie asked me to help edit the final e-book with her and Sarah, I won’t lie, I felt like a hitchhiker, particularly on the cause of feminism. I couldn’t just tick off another social issue box to add to my CV. I called myself a feminist, but didn’t know which writers to read. I knew that by saying ‘I am a feminist’, I was placing myself somewhere on a wide spectrum of opinion and argument. Where was I? I didn’t know.

But I knew some things: 1) Governments shouldn’t use churches as buildings of entrapment. They’re meant to be places of liberation. 2) ‘Blasphemy’ as a legal category is always a misnomer: against the backdrop of a religiously diverse Russia, Pussy Riot’s ‘crime’ was to stage a surprise protest – a prayer – not against God, but against a government taking God’s name in vain, trying to monopolise the religious devotion of the people. Their ‘crime’ was exposing the irony that no one comes to the Virgin Mary, the Mother, except through Putin. Finally, 3) Jesus rioted in the Temple, turned the tables on those who had turned God’s house into a den of thieves. The thieves here were of conviction, conscience and voice, and Putin’s government had a network of dens.

In the short time I’ve worked on Catechism, I’ve become more convinced than ever that whichever rope is being pulled – for sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism – the same patriarchy is holding all the threads together. The poets writing for Catechism have heard the same bell ringing as I have.

Sarah Crewe: I had actually heard of Pussy Riot before as my brother in law is a musician and very politically active with LBGT issues, so to see them go from a band he’d talked about to suddenly being propelled into the news like that was bizarre. I think that four Russian women in a punk band, complete with colour, balaclavas and a shedload of attitude was going to be pretty hard for me to ignore personally. I think, or at least, i hope, the fact that i’m interested in women’s issues, Russia, colour and punk comes through in my own work.

2) Did the project quickly crystallize into its current shape? How did you come up with the idea of having the poems translated into Russian and sent to the band?

SM: EngPussyRiot posted guidelines for how to send a letter to the band in prison. Liv Moss, who organised an amazing fundraiser for Pussy Riot in London on 9th September, shared them on Facebook. I re-posted them and suggested we might send the band poems instead of letters, on the thinking that poems might be able to get through the prison censors more easily that direct letters. Several people jumped on it – then the following day, I invited more. Liv contacted me to say she would be able to assist with getting the letters to the band if I could get them translated into Russian.

That’s when I contacted English PEN, to ask for help finding translators. They immediately said they’d like to support the project by publishing the poem. In about three days, it went from a speculative conversation about sending a few poems to an English PEN-supported and –promoted project. And in about three weeks, it became a book.

SC: I think Sophie’s answer covers this perfectly!

3) What place do politics have in poetry? Is all poetry political, just some more explicitly than others?

SC: I certainly don’t think all poetry is political. I’ve heard people argue that just by participating in a creative medium, the act of making this choice is political, and I’ve also heard the same point being used to suggest that all female poets are feminist by this definition. I can’t agree with either. There’s nothing remotely political about writing a poem about, say, the poet’s last holiday. Many people don’t care for writing about politics, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t jump on a bandwagon claiming to be political on the grounds of being a poet.

In terms of the place politics has in poetry, I think, as with all forms of writing, it’s a perfect opportunity to express concerns and raise issue through an artistic medium. Anything that makes people think has to be a force for good and for positive change. However, I also think that with poetry, the poetry always has to come first, i.e. if the politics are great but the poetry is awful, I can’t ignore that, and I don’t think it helps any cause at all to have what sounds like an immature, inarticulate ranting session masquerading as a poem. Good job Catechism is so brilliant really, haha!

MB: As a reader, I think that the only thing that doesn’t deserve a place in poetry is bad writing. ‘Content’ is up for grabs, and I’m not about to say what shouldn’t be written about (if I did, I would only be revealing what I can’t write about well). As a writer, I think that people too easily use ‘political’ and ‘propagandist’ as synonyms, and they’re not. Everything we write, whether we like it or not, carries what we care about. A poem might wear those things lightly or heavily (and lightly is always better, if you’ve been listening to your poetry tutors) but they’re always there. In that sense at least, poetry is always political. If a poem doesn’t invite possible objections, disagreements, disgusts, neither will it persuade anyone of anything. And if it doesn’t do either, it probably isn’t a poem.

Ultimately, I’ve always doubted ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. If people sometimes sneer at ideological ‘feminism’, it’s because they are sceptical of any single-issue politics – of disability, LGBT, any of that stuff – and to me, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ smells of another one. Even if all poetry isn’t political, I reckon it all should be useful.

SM: What the case of Pussy Riot shows is that language is political: the case against them was about the words they used, who used them, and where. Poetry works with and in language and symbols: so, for me, poetry is political and activist, in that it engages intensively with the fabric of political discourse, and can resist the way that the powers-that-be insist on stable, singular and exclusive definition – with punitive effect, in the case of Pussy Riot.

I think that Pussy Riot made lots of us realise, with a sudden shock, just how political what we do is – about the risks that writers run when they put words together. Some of the poets in the anthology – poets involved in feminist poetics, disability poetics, or left poetics – actively practice poetry politically; while other poets may have found themselves finding a political voice for the first time.

zimZalla object 014: ‘A never ending poem’ by Stephen Emmerson

In Object, Performance Poetry on October 10, 2012 at 9:51 am

“This isn’t poetry – it’s mean!”;


a cut-throat adventure in interactive poetics

-Reviewed by Anthony Adler

I knew that something strange was going on when one of my companions left the room, opened the front door, and screamed as loudly as she could before sitting back down. It’s not the kind of thing that I associate with reading poetry – but then A never ending poem read with dice that goes on to explore the possibilities of human intervention within the context & illusion of chance, ‘a fully playable board game which generates multiple aleatory readings of poem text fragments’, is probably quite far from most people’s idea of a poem. In physical terms, it comprises a screen-printed playing surface slightly smaller than a sheet of A4 paper, three translucent plastic playing counters, a small laser-printed booklet, two sets of blank cards to which printed texts and symbols have been carefully glued, two dice (with six and twelve faces respectively), and a box folded out of corrugated cardboard and labelled with playing instructions in which the game may be stored when not in use. The physical components of the game are workmanlike and unprepossessing, but by no means tacky. They are thoroughly ordinary objects, and together they make something altogether different from any other poem I’ve ever read.

A never ending poem comes with two sets of instructions, and I first attempted to play by myself, rolling the twelve-sided die to determine which page of the booklet of texts to read next in sequence. ‘The ACT of reading is also an ACT of construction’, declares point four of the instructions earnestly; ‘There is no resolution’, it states as the final rule for solo play: somehow it’s both sincere and tongue-in-cheek. Stephen Emmenson’s prose poetry oscillates between charming and gnomic, and the randomly ordered sequence is diverting enough in its own way, if eventually frustrating. After a little while I read through the booklet in order, considering briefly whether this fell within or stood in breach of the spirit of the rules, and concluded that the game had yielded all it would.

It was only when I roped in some sturdy companions that A never ending poem came into its own.  Players must travel around the board (on which playing spaces are arranged in an unbroken circle) and pick up poemcards or disaster cards when they arrive at the correct symbols: ‘the first player to collect 12 poemcards and recite the poem in the order collected is the winner’. The apparently innocent rules of the multi-player game, however, lend themselves to a viciously competitive style of play – and while patience initially appeared to be the virtue rewarded by the rules, we swiftly discovered that the disaster cards provided instructions so varied, unlikely, and subversive that they became the greater prize.  We thwarted and baited one another, marvelling at the emotive sting of competition (“This isn’t poetry,” one of my companions exclaimed – “it’s mean!”) whilst wondering whether the victory conditions would be reached before we lost interest. Somehow two of us acquired twelve cards simultaneously (I harbour lingering suspicions of prestidigitation), and we raced through our performances in a breathless jumble of overlapping fragments and full stops.

I’m not entirely sure what impact, if any, A never ending poem has had on my understanding of the possibility of human intervention, nor on my attitudes towards composition and construction. Considered simply as poetry, or as a poetry object, or as a generator of texts, it’s a charming diversion and no more. This isn’t particularly meant as a critique: I suspect that the game’s playful exploration of the ways in which readers construct meaning (or, more precisely, the aleatory processes that it initiates to facilitate this exploration) necessarily render any attempt to read the generated texts for sense and meaning somewhat pointless. Emmenson’s fragments were eminently suited to the task to which they were put, although I did find myself contemplating the practicability of homemade booster-sets to vary the range of poetics available.

Perhaps more interesting were the transformations that the game wrought on its players. A set of simple rules temporarily transformed my family’s relationship with poetry and encouraged an entirely new form of engagement with text – one that was competitive and vigorous. I can’t help but remember the thicket of blogposts published after Casagrande’s Rain of Poems on the 28th of June this year, and Tom Moyser’s piece in particular. Both A never ending poem and the Chilean art collective’s surreal poetry bombing play on and manipulate the ways in which we find value in poetry, encouraging readers – if that’s the right word – to view the texts themselves as prizes instead of the meaning that they may communicate. While the Rain of Poems was in many ways a celebration of shared value, A never ending poem seems more reflective, encouraging us to re-examine how we view success within poetry and how reading and writing help us get our kicks – a project actively served by the basic nature of the game’s props. Emmerson’s texts become a pack of MacGuffins, objects of desire that induce motivation regardless of their content; by so doing they simultaneously efface themselves and bring players to consider poetry as a good that is comparable to any other in the peculiar behaviours the pursuit of it provokes.

I’m not an expert on game design, so I’m not sure how well qualified I am to criticise the mechanics of A never ending poem; and while the game may have been less frustrating had it been quicker to play, I’m not sure that that wasn’t the point. I feel more confident suggesting that it might have been improved by a greater variety of text fragments and more numerous disaster cards, which would certainly make A never ending poem more repeatable – although again I’m not particularly bothered by this failing. Stephen Emmerson’s game is powerful, bizarre, engaging, baffling, frustrating, entertaining, and, above all, fascinating. If you’re intrigued, I can only recommend that you try it for yourself.