Reviews of the Ephemeral

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‘The Fluxus President’ by David Berridge

In Novella on November 30, 2012 at 1:30 pm

-Reviewed by Charlotte Barnes

When I began reading this book, I did so completely blindly; by this I mean I lacked any knowledge in regards to the book, what happened within its pages and indeed what the term ‘Fluxus’ meant. The novella, which is David Berridge’s debut in prose, is something of a challenging read; however, when you get to grips with the underlying idea of the publication, things suddenly become clearer.

Fluxus President by David Berridge, Dark Windows Press

To allow the summary of this novella a certain level of fluidity, it seems necessary to provide some context for the intricately-woven plot. The novella is set in Copenhagen, during the 2009 COP15, which involved a meeting of minds in the form of the world’s major governments; during this meeting, the ever-growing issue of climate change was discussed, addressing international protocol and the like. Whilst this important gathering of governments takes place, the novella proceeds to follow the behaviour of a group of outcast delegates who appear to be drifting around the city; a city which, may I add, seems full of rare and fascinating obscurities, and is littered with references to the infamous Fluxus President.

While the novella is marketed as an experimental piece of literature, this fails to do justice to just how spectacular the construction of this publication is. By resisting the regimented rules of continuous prose – by this I refer to the need for clear paragraphing and, more often than not, clear chapter headings – and manipulating the form, Berridge has produced an almost poetic piece of prose.

After applying a high level of concentration to the text and, admittedly, doing a fair amount of research, I did finally find myself involved with the plot line. Although, given that the text is only a short 96 pages long, it would certainly benefit from moving at a quicker pace than it actually does.

Having said that, when you find yourself within the text and comprehend what is truly happening, it becomes an interesting read; made more interesting by the frequent references to Fluxus artists, which is a consistent source of intrigue throughout the book. The Fluxus movement, which was supported by experimental artists, was based around several key ideas: the blending of media – artists adopting this attitude were often keen to intertwine things, such as art and texts, to create something entirely new; Fluxus art is typically simple in nature and never particularly long – perhaps this could offer an explanation for the short length of this novella itself; finally, Fluxus art and artists were eager to resist the serious attitude that they believed lay within conventional artwork. This knowledge, coupled with the information readily available online, might just unravel this book that, for the first few pages at least, feels like a mystery.

Alongside the fascinating complexities, we are also given some truly wonderful moments within the text that beautifully capture the involvement a person can experience with literature and indeed, how literature can become entwined with ourselves. One moment in particular that stood out from the text was, ‘After turning my phone off and sleeping for fifteen hours straight, I became fiction.’ Bold as this statement is, it is just one example of Berridge’s ability to explore literature in a chilling way, something that he does repeatedly throughout this novella.

In discussing the experimental ideas of Fluxus, Berridge has succeeded in creating something equally as experimental ultimately making this an incredibly important and worthwhile book for anyone drawn to experimental literature and art. In using such a unique narrative form to discuss a distinctive area of art, Berridge has succeeded in re-creating what he is attempting to explore in his content. The complexities of this book seem to be never-ending however, while it may be a difficult read to begin with, it is undoubtedly worth the effort for anyone looking for something that breaks stereotyped literary boundaries.

The Fluxus President is a fine example of literary art that will inevitably draw attention to itself, for its uniqueness if nothing else. Berridge has succeeded in making a name for himself with this first novella, creating something that is not only an interesting read, but also something that incorporates and explores vital messages about literature and, more importantly, experimental literature, which seems to be becoming increasingly under-rated. For anyone remotely interested in art writing, this book is most definitely for you.

‘If the world must end, let it be whilst reading books like this.’ The Fluxus President.

‘Loose Ends’ by Bernadette Cremin

In Pamphlets on November 30, 2012 at 10:20 am

-Reviewed by Strat Mastoris

loose-ends

If they gave awards for books with misleading titles, Bernadette Cremin’s Loose Ends would be up there with the winners. These twenty four poems all have endings of one sort or another, but they’re anything but ‘loose’… Her endings are like the barbed hook at the end of a fishing line – you run your hands along the monofilament, everything’s smooth and running freely then suddenly there’s a sharp pain, blood on your hand, and you’re caught and can’t get away.

‘Black’, for example, opens with a woman who’s anything but competent –

‘Fumbling for keys in a black patent bag-

the only one I have with matching heels.
I bought them in the sales, a size too small,
a little too high, half price.’

which gets us a little bit exasperated at what’s obviously going to be a woman with no dress sense, but then six lines on she tells us about

‘the bouquets and wreaths
now left to death at the head of your grave.’

Ah!, so she’s newly widowed. Obviously things are all a bit much at the moment. So did she buy the black shoes for the funeral? Little domestic details are starting to concern us now, and we are given more of them as the woman clings to her dead husband’s memory in the intimate physical forms of

‘the pewter kidney-shaped lighter
that I had engraved for you with love’

and others, even more intimate, like

‘Your tobacco stained dentures,
an incisor chipped on a humbug’

This is starting to get just a tiny bit mawkish, as she finishes with

‘your stopped watch, wedding band
and the St Christopher that you drove
onto black ice.’

Damn. I didn’t see that coming. (but then neither did he …)

That last line gives us the whole story of this woman’s tragedy, jumps us back to the first lines, and completely alters our interpretation of the poem’s title. All in three words.

This is about much more than just last lines, though. The endings are often surprising, and Cremin has a confident mastery of setting and springing a trap, but the poems themselves are elegantly structured, beautifully realised portraits of people that we would like to know better. I probably mean ‘more about’ rather than ‘better’, because most of her subjects have pretty messed-up lives – they struggle against abuse, disease, even death itself – and usually they lose the battle. But the minimalist in the poet drip-feeds us details, line by line, so that we construct our own fully realised portrait of each one, and we feel that we know them well enough to be moved by their plight and to rejoice in their (occasional) victories.

All this is not to say that the collection is perfect – there are poems that don’t leave much of an impression. ‘The Morning After’ probably wasn’t the best choice for the first one. It’s full of these sort of comparisons:

‘Letterboxes twitch like expectant fathers’

and

‘gangs of windswept blossoms lurk
in gutters like pretty terrorists.’

that don’t really work, or take us very far. She seems to be trying too hard to look for links. The redeeming feature of ‘The Morning After’ is that it’s set in Brighton, and so it locates the poet in the city where she lives. It also gives us our first glimpse of the bus stops that seem to be one of Cremin’s obsessions

But then turn the page and you hit ‘Dead End’, and she’s on top form, with the sad musings of a middle aged man in a dull job in a dull office. Week after week

‘of feigned interest, anonymous mistakes’

while

‘My fat wife is fucking the butcher’

His constant, nagging memory is of a woman he met years before; presumably a holiday romance, because

‘I think of surfboards, the futility of regret but
I miss her too much on days like this.
I wonder where she lives, if she ever had kids?’

‘Futility’ is the perfect word here. A choice was made, an opportunity wasn’t taken, and the whole track of this man’s life took a different route. That was years ago, though – years in which he’s had to

‘pay off the mortgage, put my fat daughter
through college, afford a red car.’

while his wife has been constantly unfaithful with the butcher.

Interesting that the car is red. Red cars and sex – what every advertiser knows. He still feels himself to be ‘a player’, and he preens himself a little for a pretty sandwich assistant at Forfars the bakers.

He and his wife still have sex occasionally, it seems. Though

‘When I fuck her
I think of the butcher,
The pretty girl at Forfars

and surfboards.’

A two word ending this time, that takes us back almost to where we came in, with beautiful symmetry. But also, those last four lines together are a little gem of compression, summing up all we have learned about his unhappy marriage, his current fantasies, but mostly his long term (futile) regret.

For we care about this man. We feel for his hopeless regrets. Just as we were moved by the husband’s crash in ‘Black’. Cremin creates believable subjects in her poems, and breathes enough life into them to make them worthy of our concern.

I was first introduced to Bernadette Cremin’s work with ‘Altered Egos’, a one-woman performance piece where she played six individual (and very different) women – women whose lives had been damaged in one way or another. She has a sure feel for the sadness that underlies a lot of lives, and she’s demonstrated that empathy again with these poems.

She has a sure feel for language too, both alliterative and forebodingly symbolic. Who else could end (another) poem by defining a woman’s wrist with the words? –

‘the soft inch
made for a bracelet,
a button or a blade -‘

‘Lowlifes, Fast Times & Occasionally Love’ by Lawrence Gladeview

In Pamphlets on November 26, 2012 at 9:50 am

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

The title and the first poem of this chapbook get you right in the mood for a high-speed read. Although the skinny poems race down the page, there’s no shortage of detail – 35 Chevy, stale Budweiser & aftershave – so you’re instantly in the scene.

It feels cinematic at times, with dry, pithy dialogue (nice set of wheels / i told her // you should see it from the back seat) and a sense of being dropped voyeuristically into an intimate moment. The poems link smoothly, from car to car, to bar, to a party, to an apartment; there’s drinking and sex, there are road trips and random conversations. The chapbook also builds up a picture of the narrator, who believes in spontaneity:

you gonna /be here long?

my plane
left in
10 minutes
but i found
myself
saying
you bet let’s
have another.’

The crisp style is deceptively off-hand, and these could be read as prose if they weren’t written in sharp, often one-word lines, with the title invariably running on into the first line. Gladeview’s use of lower case letters and ampersands also contributes to the casual effect, as though these are simply jottings in a journal. But the narrow, column-like layout evokes a stance, a setting, and it is this minimalist approach that warrants the definition ‘poem’.

It takes a brazen confidence to translate crude humour to poetry, but because of his lightness of touch, Gladview pulls it off. When asked by ‘a college gal’ what he thought of the evangelical poet who read before him in a bookshop, the narrator answers:

every time
I heard him
say Job
all I could
think of
was
blow.

Gladeview’s line breaks give the reader pause – usually to laugh. While there is an absence (possibly blatant avoidance) of metaphor or lyricism, the pleasure of these poems is in their anecdotal liveliness.  These incidents epitomize youth and reckless, free living, and there’s a keen sense of irony in many of the dialogues:

‘you bought
the book
to use as
a coaster?
bob asked

no you
sarcastic
ass i bought it
at a reading

really?
bob said
what’s
shipwright like?

let’s just say
there’s
no signature
for those
beer rings
to ruin

Gladeview’s a Bukowski for the Facebook generation; wry, laconic, a shoulder-shrugging hedonist. The speed and terseness of these narratives are cumulatively effective in portraying the lowlifes, fast times and occasional love of the title. At any moment the narrator might convey arrogant superiority, bravado, or just as readily, empathy with random people, such as the passenger who sits next to him on a bus:

‘clutching
her ticket
to
anywhere
but here’

Not all the poems strike home. ‘Carla took me’ is one that has no impact on me – I fail to see the humour or any cleverness. But most of them do work. And Gladeview comes into his own when it comes to dialogue – most of his poems are snippets of backchat or witty banter, capturing the subtle dynamics between friends, lovers, and strangers. Feminists may baulk at his nothing-to-lose laddishness, but I suspect that’ll only entertain him. Note his repeated use of the word ‘gal’:

teeing up
on eleven
I overheard
barry & sam
talking about
eating
a gal’s
pie

try
spelling out
the alphabet!
I shouted

sam
asked
does that
really work?

i wound up
gave
the ball
a good ride
& said
sam
it works
every time.

What’s enjoyable about Gladeview’s work is his off-hand, cheeky approach and the fact that there’s no self-importance. Gladeview takes nothing too seriously here.   All he’s looking for is that smile of recognition from his reader. And he’s getting it, from this one.

Two Valley Press pamphlets: ‘Form’ by Carl Potter and ‘Phobia’ by Jo Brandon

In Pamphlets on November 22, 2012 at 9:05 am

-Reviewed by Judi Sutherland

Form – Carl Potter

There are flashes of real originality in Form, a new pamphlet from Yorkshire poet and journalist, Carl Potter. The strong opening poem ‘Explaining to Joshua why Snowmen Have to Melt’ discusses the illusion of permanence: ‘Our victory was fantasy / snowblind I and loveblind boy’. Potter goes on to discuss marriage, urban decay, old age and modern culture and media, in a small gathering of fourteen poems.  ‘Imperfect German’ is a heartfelt account of an elderly person’s World War II ‘stories of heroes, courage and gin.’ ‘Tiger Hunt’ describes a mysterious encounter in the marshes that pivots around a lovely line: ‘The shock of claws on feather’. A banker ultimately ‘decides to invest in Lithium’ in ‘Stock Market Crash’.  Potter is alive to the wider world as well as to his own experiences and relationships.

‘Poor Horsforth’ is an elegy to a northern town that is being regenerated as a tourist destination. Potter likens it to a patient being resuscitated on a hospital bed:

Doctor, we’re losing him
the vital signs are flatlining!
Give me forty ccs of heritage stat!
Put plaques on the houses, drain the people,
put them in jars.
Flood it with formaldehyde.

Potter rapidly shifts his metaphor; it seems that the doctor’s efforts were in vain and the town, unrevived, now needs to be preserved in death.  For me, the extract quoted above gathers two possible metaphors and jumbles them together in an enthusiastic wish to use every good idea at once. His poems do suffer a little from an attempt to cram everything in.

Sometimes Potter’s tone lapses into an unconvincing vernacular. Potter uses a range of movie dialogue to comment on contemporary culture, as in the angry and disturbed voice of ‘Walter Mitty Character’, a poetic experiment that for me, doesn’t quite pay off:

I’m thinking everything’s different now, everything’s changed.
This abuse of my body must stop, every muscle must be tight.
As soon as I get out of here I’m gonna find you.
I will find you, I will find you and I will kill you.
I’m number one. King fucking Kong!

Potter is an observer of life and society.  His poetry as demonstrated in this pamphlet is a little raw in style; some clarity and organisation is needed, but this is a voice that, with time and maturity, should emerge as a lucid commentator on human nature and the world we live in.

 Phobia– Jo Brandon

Jo Brandon, a former editor of Cadaverine, the poetry e-zine for the under-30s, has published her first pamphlet, Phobia. She divides the book into two sections; ‘Fear’ and ‘Caution’. The opening poem, ‘These Bones’ is an account of the surreality of seeing one’s own body as an X-ray:

you expect to see your heart resting mid-chest
like a set of bloody, unfeathered angel’s wings
and you think you see your soul as a shadow on the film

Brandon goes on to consider the strangeness of adolescence in ‘Arachne-phobia’ and playground bullying in ‘Flying Bricks’ where; ‘her long smile hits you, just there, in that place you thought was safe’. ‘Gamophobia’ (the fear of marriage or commitment) is a succinct comparison of marriage to cooking, which can be haute cuisine or a cindered disaster. Then there is ‘Mottephobia’ which I had to look up, but it is a fear of moths; a poem occasioned by a visit to a butterfly house. This first half of the pamphlet deals with growing up and an uneasy transition to adulthood. Brandon is still only 26; it’s interesting to read her account of the strangeness of this metamorphosis.  Her poems give us a dispassionate account of the fears; displaying a welcome objectivity rather than a position of teenage angst.

‘Caution’ is a more varied selection of poems with a slightly lighter tone, many of which comment on what it is to be female.  ‘Our Lady’ questions a picture that the Bible and centuries of religious art has presented to us:

I commissioned her to paint me a smiling Mary
in red and black, Warhol style
give her the look, I said, she would have had
the day Joseph believed her story, lent his name.

Brandon provides portraits of a number of women; ‘Kathy’ from a dating ad, the first Lady Hamilton, and the demotic washerwomen in ‘Laundry’ who are somehow the moral guardians of their society, pronouncing on scandal and reputation. The conversation rings true.

Brandon’s language is clear and contemporary, and her images vivid and well placed.  In ‘Picking’ she recalls memories of ‘belly-cramps from overeating / berries sugared with mud’, in ‘Wool’ she pictures the ageing of women’s hands ‘days feel shorter, rings tighten, skin / eats up banded gold’.

Brandon’s work is vigorous and well-observed. It will be interesting to see how her style develops in future poems.

Alderburgh Poetry Festival 2-4 November 2012

In Festival, Performance Poetry on November 21, 2012 at 11:38 pm

-Reviewed by Judi Sutherland

Aldeburgh – huddles of poetry lovers, but not very festive?

Arriving in this quiet Suffolk town on a Friday afternoon in November, you’d be forgiven for not realising there was a poetry festival going on at all. Where were the banners, the bunting and the buskers? I am more used to the Henley Festival, the Edinburgh Festival and Towersey Village Festival, where a range of sideshows, posters and children’s events create a joyful atmosphere of celebration.  The liveliest thing in Aldeburgh was the smoked mackerel stall on the shingly beach. Maybe I’m missing something, but for a festival, it wasn’t very… festive.

To be fair, the Aldeburgh Festival is mostly not in Aldeburgh at all. The audience outgrew the cramped Jubilee Hall, and in this 24th year the events moved to nearby Snape Maltings, where larger venues are available. Aldeburgh veterans told me the whole event felt more ‘corporate’. For the first time, a free shuttle bus took the huddles of poetry lovers off to the huge and well-appointed theatres six miles away; a logistics solution that worked pretty well. Poets of all ages, shapes and sizes mingled in the foyer of the Britten Studio, where books were on sale, and the TLS and the Poetry Paper were interesting, learned giveaways.

Before we got there, we knew we weren’t going to hear everything we wanted to hear.  I booked my tickets on line a month in advance but even so, many events were already sold out. Are the venues not yet big enough? Some other festivals offer festival tickets or day tickets, with which the punter can wander about and get in to any event where there is space.  I found that the Aldeburgh Festival system denied me the spontaneity of the impulse-buy. Nonetheless, I settled in for the Friday night main reading with eager anticipation.

Friday – Nancy Gaffield, Leland Bardwell and Christopher Reid (Olivia McCannon strangely absent …)

It was strange from the start.  The compere, Naomi Jaffa, first of all announced the winner of this year’s Fenton Aldeburgh prize for best first collection, who is Olivia McCannon.  Jaffa told us she hadn’t met McCannon, but believed she was somewhere in the theatre; she wouldn’t invite her down to receive a large cheque because the prize money was nowadays paid by direct bank transfer, and then she misquoted the name of McCannon’s collection, which is, for the record, Exactly my Own Length.  We were then treated to a reading by last year’s winner.  As a PR exercise, this is a disaster.  Imagine building up to the announcement of the winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2012, and then only showing us clips of Harry Judd’s 2011 performance?  Here was a winner, sitting in the audience, with a prizewinning collection to read from, and she was silenced for a full twelve months, allowing all the fizz of interest to dissipate like flat coke.

Nancy Gaffield – last year’s winner – did read beautifully. Her spare and thoughtful collection Tokaido Road was based on a series of woodcuts she encountered when living in Japan. But, for a selection of ekphrastic poems, could we not have seen the inspirational artwork?  I know there was a screen and overhead projector in the studio, because it was used on Saturday.  Wouldn’t some visuals with Gaffield’s poetry have transformed our experience of the work?

Leland Bardwell, the 90-year-old Irish poet, was our second reader.  The aptly-named Bardwell suffered a stroke three years ago, which has left her unable to read, but she recited some of the poems she has from memory. Her son Nicholas read her other poems, and they colluded memorably on the introductions.  This woman has very definitely been A Character.  In an aside to the audience, Nicholas Bardwell wryly commented ‘I’ve been around the block with this one’.  After a fervent round of applause, Bardwell fairly danced back to her seat.

Christopher Reid, who is currently championing the long narrative poem, topped the bill on Friday night. In Nonsense, he thinly disguises himself as the ‘lately widowed and chronically befuddled’ Professor Winterthorn, off to an academic conference on the pursuit of futility. Reid tends to over explain the extracts in advance; the audience can pick up the narrative more easily than he expects.  To my ear, Reid, who reads his poetry with a minimal emphasis on the rhyme and rhythm, sounds very like David Lodge or Tom Sharpe, whose bewildered academics inhabit the world of prose.  I preferred Reid’s shorter pieces, which seemed more meaningful and less self-indulgent.

Saturday part 1 – John Stammers, David Wheatley and Julia Copus

The beauty of a festival like Aldeburgh is the chance to hear poets you know little about.  Being a relative newcomer to poetry, I had heard of all three of the poets reading on Saturday morning, but knew very little about their work.

John Stammers was our first reader, whose low-key style was immediately likeable.  I love the way some poets can take on popular culture as a basis for poetry.  Stammers’ poem ‘The Other Dozier’ wonders about a forgotten Tamla Motown songwriter:

Turns out he had a tin ear
for everything except irony,
so his lyrics all emerged as modern verse

David Wheatley, followed, his poetry sailing close to the coast of zany.  Several of his poems were shorter than their titles.  There were many poems about birds and birdwatching, a popular subject for the introspective nature poet. My favourite, though, was a magnificently mad piece about the mediaeval habit of putting animals on trial. I’ve got to find that poem again.

After a comic first half, we regrouped for a change of atmosphere from Julia Copus, who apologised for not being so cheerful, reading from The World’s Two Smallest Humans. Most striking among these poems are Copus’ account of IVF treatment, in the sequence Ghost. It was not the most comfortable material to hear, but it faithfully charts an important modern human experience and it needs to be told. Lightening the atmosphere was the vibrant ‘L’Esprit de l’Escalier’ – a poem about the perfect putdown.

Saturday part 2 – The Song of Lunch (stealth-poetry?)

Time to grab something to eat – a difficult exercise, as Snape is somewhat under-catered at peak times – before The Song of Lunch, the BBC film of Christopher Reid’s poem.  A middle aged publisher, played by Alan Rickman (Reid in another thin disguise), arranges to meet an old flame in a Soho Italian restaurant.  First, Greg Wise, who wrote the screenplay, and Reid, discussed the making of the film in 2010.  How depressing it was to hear that the BBC had to be cajoled and implored to film some poetry.  ‘It isn’t a genre piece’, said Wise, ‘so the commissioning departments didn’t know what to do with it.  We felt strongly that it shouldn’t have to be good for you, like broccoli or cod liver oil. The audience should not realise what it is watching’.  So there.  The only way to make an audience, or a broadcaster, like poetry is to smuggle it past them unawares.  How utterly depressing. Despite the fact that the Aldeburgh festival is now too popular for Aldeburgh, it will be a while before poetry is the new rock and roll for our public service broadcaster.

Saturday part 3 – Anthony Thwaite, Ghassan Zaqtan and Jackie Kay

Anthony Thwaite, whom, we are told, is in his 83rd year, showed himself to be completely up to date with a poem called ‘Predictive Text’.  I’d noticed that sometimes ‘good’ comes out as ‘home’, but Thwaite made a thoughtful poem from it. His poems were charming and witty. Thwaite told us, jovially: ‘I used to be studied in schools.  Now they think I’m dead’.

The second poet, Ghassan Zaqtan, is Palestinian, and read in Arabic, with translations from Fady Joudah. Zaqtan speaks for his displaced nation, eloquently charting their suffering. ‘Pillow’ is an example:

Mother,
good evening,
I’ve come back
with a bullet in my heart
There is my pillow
I want to lie down
and rest.

Jackie Kay came after that harrowing reading, her warm personality illustrating the other end of the poetic range.  There were of course some very moving moments in her reading; the eighty year friendship between two Scottish ladies charted in ‘My Fierie’, and the tender poem about her four year old son waking after an epileptic fit. But Kay reduced the audience to near hysteria with ‘Ma Broon’s Vagina Monologue’.  As I grew up with the Sunday Post, I got the references straight away, but this poem is really about many women of a certain age, women of our mothers’ generation, and their ignorance of sex.  At one point, Ma Broon cries: ‘But I haven’t got a vagina! I’m a cartoon!’ which made the Britten Studio shriek. It was so good to remember that poetry, although often serious, does not have to taste like cod liver oil.

Sunday – the collections of Sam Willetts, Fady Joudah and Andrea Porter

My last event of the weekend featured three first poets presenting their first collections.  I was overjoyed to see that they were all over forty, therefore there is hope for those of us who come to poetry a little later in life.

Sam Willetts is ‘famous’ for the ten years he spent as a heroin addict. He quoted Beckett in the preface to his reading from New Light For the Old Dark: ‘It passed the time, but the time would have passed anyway’. His poems were indirectly about drugs, charting lost relationships and dead-end jobs, such as his time working with a rag and bone man.  The poem about piles of salvaged furs in a freezing warehouse appealed to me -I’ve got a thing about work poems that allow us into unusual occupations, and this was vicarious labour par excellence.

Fady Joudah read his own work from The Earth in the Attic. Joudah is a Palestinian-American who works as an ER physician in Houston, Texas. He has also worked in Africa for Doctors Without Borders, and his poems describe operating theatres, refugee camps, and soldiers committing sex attacks.  I listened, wondering about Western poets who attend workshops and take part in writing exercises in order to tempt a jaded muse. Joudah’s poetry is fuelled by an insistence that we should see what he has seen. For him, as for Zaqtan, poetry is an imperative.

If I was close to deciding that Western poets often write about trivia, Andrea Porter made me reassess that assumption. In A Season of Small Insanities, Porter addresses brutal aspects of modern life.  In ‘Night Shift at the Petrol Station’ she records her daughter’s job, which included putting black modesty wrappers on porn magazines. ‘Haike With Her Dictionaries’ portrays a friend who worked as a simultaneous translator for the War Crimes Commission:

They brought six soldiers here. They dragged six boys here.
They executed them here. They shot them here.
Gesture left to speak.
They buried them here. They hid them here.
Gesture left to speak.
Pause. Rewind. Play Kosovo.

Her most personal series of poems was about a fatal car crash, caused by a drunk driver, in which Porter lost her partner and her unborn twins. If there is grief to be charted in Africa and Palestine, Willetts and Porter show that there is also grief in England.

I wasn’t able to attend a conversational exchange between Reid and Anthony Thwaite, but I am told they spent some time listing out their favourite bedtime reading.  A canon of international poets from Eastern Europe to South America was mentioned, but not one single woman poet counted among their influences.  I’m afraid that preoccupation with the usual suspects shows in their work.

Coming back next year?

The three of us who shared a seaside cottage for the weekend were all Aldeburgh newbies, and we all want to go back next year. It was exhilarating to spend so much time listening to very high quality poetry.  There were lots of events I missed; the fifteen minute close readings, for example, that I’d like to make more of next year.  I hope the festival takes over the enormous Snape Concert Hall with even more poetry.  I was left reflecting on the atmosphere of the event.  There was nothing much for children, there were none of the fun poetic sideshows that livened up last summer’s Poetry Parnassus. There were no collaborations with visual artists or musicians.  The formats of the events I attended were unremittingly similar – three mainstream poets and a lectern.  There was no slam, not enough workshops, and no bandstand for open mic busking.  There is so much more the Poetry Trust could do with this, the largest poetry festival of the annual calendar, to showcase the whole world of spoken word.

‘The Killing of a Bank Manager’ by Paul Kavanagh

In Novella on November 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

-Reviewed by Richard T. Watson

It’s a title that must have sounded very of-the-moment back in 2010, when The Killing of a Bank Manager was first published. Remember when bankers were the bogeymen of Britain’s public consciousness? They’ve since been replaced by phone-hacking journalists and – at the time of writing – a BBC that seems at worst complicit in paedophilia and at best incompetent. But the grotty feel of these public scandals is still right at home in Paul Kavanagh’s diversely worded novella.

The Killing of a Bank Manager by Paul Kavanagh

But don’t go thinking that this is any polemic on the evils of commercial banking. The bank manger appears near the start and the end, but for the rest of his killing is entirely absent. Instead, Kavanagh’s brutal and wide-ranging prose follows the dissatisfied butcher’s apprentice, Henry, who lives opposite the bank. It’s the story of a man in a world of his own, where all the people are somehow like people he’s read about or heard about somewhere else. Disconnected from everyone else’s reality, he’s invented his own by drawing in ideas and thoughts from a dozen other worlds.

We’re told of Henry’s journey around town – and his memories of previous events there – which isn’t a million miles from Harold Bloom’s journey in Joyce’s Ulysses. Henry too meets mythical creatures in human form, gives inside details on the process of digestion and reminds the reader of the close relation between human eating and animal digestion: the butcher holds up a knife ‘dripping blood and piss’.

Like Joyce, Kavanagh’s fond of his lists, listing the bones broken in an attack, the types of flies bursting from Henry’s body, the parts of animals dealt with by the butchers, rivers and things that are fake. Kavanagh’s lists go on for much longer than that one. They take the reader through every detail of, say, the dead animals being chopped by the butcher, layering towards an anatomical whole. Sometimes the list is Henry flailing around the for the right word, each one supplanting the one before. Sometimes, it’s almost as if Kavanagh wants to show you that he’s read up on species of flies.

Kavanagh knows how to write a breakdown; the book is full of physical and mental collapses, related in intimately graphic detail and all fairly unpleasant. It’s as if our main character – he’s not quite hero material, somehow – stumbles from one disorientating full-body shutdown to the next, via a series of increasingly surreal encounters. By the final pages, it’s a wonder that only the bank manager has been killed:

‘Rolling thunder broke his back. Henry was in Signorelli’s torture chamber. He tried to scream. His spine snapped. He felt his vertebrae undulate. Numbness started in the toes, he could not feel the fabric of his socks. His feet felt as though they would be erased. His legs would be next. He was being slowly rubbed out. Soon he would be nothing, not even a smudge.’

Signorelli is just one of the myriad external references Kavanagh – through Henry – draws into the novella. The text is littered with throwaway mentions and inferences from history, literature, art and mythology. Greek myths – Pan, and, yes, Odysseus – Dante, Archimboldo, Yeats, Don Quixote, Cravaggio, Shakespeare, Dali, Picasso, the Bible, Socrates, Euclid, Nostradamus, Persian myths, Petrarch and manuals on witch-hunting, besides many more. It makes his prose well-fertilised with ideas and thoughts that have gone before, though each of them is only ever really turned over, shown the light of day, and reburied. Like the introduction of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – which I didn’t spot being referenced – The Killing of a Bank Manager‘s external references sometimes feel more like an invitation to see how widely the author has read, rather than necessarily being of service to the story.

The Killing of a Bank Manager takes the reader on a modern odyssey through the wide-ranging references of Paul Kavanagh’s reading, with a prose style that keeps them guessing and pulls no punches. Henry’s story flies about all over the place away from the initial concept of his love for the beautician downstairs and his hatred of the bank manager. As the blurb announces, ‘It’s never as simple as just the killing of a bank manager’.

Review: Wantage Poetry Slam – Wantage Betjeman Poetry Festival 28/10/12

In Festival, Performance Poetry on November 6, 2012 at 9:00 am

– reviewed by James Webster and special guest reviewer Lucy Ayrton

@ Shush

The Event

Last Sunday, I attended the Wantage Slam was part of the wider Wantage (not just) Betjeman Poetry Festival, which featured a slew of interesting readings, performances and workshops (often Betjeman themed due to his long association with Wantage).

The Slam billed itself as ‘a fast and furious, X Factor- style, spoken word stand-off ‘ and for the most part lived up to that description admirably. Featuring 12 different poets, with a variety of different lyrical styles, we were served up some excellent rapid-fire rhyme and thoughtful storytelling as the poets battled it out for first place.

The Slam Style

Splitting the 12 performers into four heats of three (brackets selected randomly from a hat), with the winners going on to the final round, poets were judged on three categories: quality of writing, quality of performance, and audience reaction. It was my first experience of the ‘bracketed’ slam system, and I had to say I enjoyed it, and while scoring by three distinct categories is not always the most popular of judging styles, it does ensure poets are encouraged to give rounded performances.

Where it fell down is that, while billed as ‘X Factor-style’, it actually wasn’t enough like X-Factor … which is a statement I should probably qualify as soon as possible. Allow me to rephrase: where the show fell down, for me, was that while judging on the three different categories is not such a problem, the lack of transparency in scoring is. I found myself really wanting to know the breakdown in scores if only so I knew which judge to cheer/boo when I agreed/disagreed with a score. Plus, it’d be nice for the poets to know where their performance has potential room for improvement.

The Poets

Heat 1: Lucy Ayrton, James Dolton and Graham Eccles

Lucy Ayrton: a Sabotage favourite (we gave her Edinburgh show 5 stars twice), Lucy performed ‘Little China Figures’, a brittle and adorable piece, buoyed by waves of smooth rhyme, the poem told a powerfully realised and bittersweet story. But it suffered slightly from an unusually stilted performance. 17

James Dolton: his poem ‘Reading Too Fast’ was cleverly self-referential to his writing and delivery, with excellent use of performance and slick cadences. It did tend to repeat itself, which may have been the point, but made it somewhat dull towards the end. 24

Graham Eccles: also performed a piece on writing poetry, which had some pretty good gags (especially a cat setting his poem on fire) and amusingly clunky rhyme, but didn’t come to a head nearly soon enough. 20

Heat 2 (points not announced): Kieran King, Nick Short and Brenda Read Brown

Kieran King: performed two pieces, the first ‘Whatever Happened to the Heroes’ had quick-fire delivery and a relatable subject (all the heroes have sold out, let us down or died), but seemed simplistic and perhaps undercut itself (saying ‘I can think for myself’ while bemoaning the dearth of heroes to look up to). His poem on sticking out at metal gigs was a strong, rat-a-tat, one-note joke on metal being in your heart, not your clothes. 2nd

Nick Short: announcing his poem as ‘for anyone who works in an office’, he had decent timing, but it was ultimately comic grumpiness with little real insight and a hint of sexism (deriding colleagues for being excited about their children with a ‘congratulations, you spread your legs’ comment). 3rd

Brenda Read Brown: was ridiculously likeable. Her poem on creating a new ‘old-age’ political party was full of wit and wordplay (‘kids drunk on WKD-40’ and the idea of a ‘drive-by grumbling’) and just about transgressed into being genuinely political. The litany of fears and loss that it built to was also pretty powerful. 1st

Heat 3: Helen Harvey, Joel Denno and Tina Sederholm

Helen Harvey: the third poet to deliver a meta-writing poem, her personification of poetry was reasonably original, with some vivid imagery (‘I carved quills from my fingernails’) in her search for a muse. But some of her delivery was disjointed and her performance fell a bit flat.

Joel Denno: taking the form of a homework assignment for school-children, this poem was disjointed, with various sections that didn’t form a coherent whole, leaving a kind of bifurcated and pointless poem (with bonus gothic gore that, while decent, didn’t lend any more of a point). 22

Tina Sederholm: performed her piece on cupcakes (from her show Evie and the Perfect Cupcake, rated 4 stars by Sabotage) in all its voyeuristic and frosted glory. Her repeated cries of ‘lick me’ build very amusingly, while her sugar-sweet language of hunger and hollow fulfilment pulled the audience in admirably. 22

Heat 4: James Webster, Dan Holloway and Guy Williams.

(Special Guest Reviewer Lucy Ayrton taking over here, so Webster doesn’t have to review himself)

James Webster: came to the stage after a truly ridiculous intro, and his piece ‘MCWASPSM’ had a good tempo and rhythm and his flawed take on socialism was a great section. The piece had a coherent structure and clarity and the line ‘I don’t mean to complain, I don’t mean anything at all’ was a brilliant line that probably would have been a better ending than the unnecessary verses that followed. 22

(Thanks, Lucy, I’ll tag you out now)

Dan Holloway: Dan’s poem ‘Making Fairytales’ contained a plethora of verdant and gorgeous language (‘folded poems into paper planes’), full of magical and dirty imagery, with a thoughtful and assured delivery that was a breath of fresh air. 21

Guy Williams: of his two pieces the better was a dull poem on how he solved problems DIY style by chopping them in half. The worse was a creepy piece best summed up as ‘breasts are nice to look at, which isn’t really sexism is it? Oh, it is? Well don’t worry I’ve checked my sexism at the door after my daughter started growing boobs’. I’m sure it was intended as satire, which it kind of worked as, but it needed more thought and self-awareness to work.

Final: James Webster, James Dolton, Brenda Read Brown, Joel Denno and Tina Sederholm.

(I once again pass over to Lucy Ayrton for reviewing duties, Lucy?)

James Webster’s ‘What Are You Thinking’ had a strong voice, good opening and some amusing back and forth between its different voices. The shift into more resonant imagery was satisfying and Webster nimbly flitted between funny and touching lines, with a lovely lyrical voice. I’ve heard this poem before and it’s improved: very good.

(Thanks again, Lucy, your cheque’s in the post)

James Dolton’s poem was pleasantly abstract, seeming to use different strands/images to chart the course of a life/forming of a mind. The excellent use of on and off mic sections worked well to draw the audience in and delineate different ideas, mixing some cool word-association and plays with meaning together into an effective performance.

Brenda Read Brown cast herself as an appropriately fallible/human God in ‘In the Beginning’, a rollicking ride through Her attempts at creating life, going through some amusing missteps before finally creating evolution and leaving them to it. Funny, clever, and in the end a moving elegy to the excellence that is a God-like humanity.

Joel Denno continued his theme of ‘poems that seem entirely pointless’ with a piece about orchards going on strike. Not weird enough to work as surrealism, yet not biting enough to work as satire or allegory, I was left admiring some of his technique, but wondering ‘why’.

Tina Sederholm’s ‘Love Tokens’ is a heartfelt and humorous piece, with a consummate performance. Reimagining her husband’s messes as ‘love tokens, signs of your devotion’, she utilises a lovely refrain to subtly build a layered performance where her metaphor defeats her own frustrations. Simply excellent.

The Winners and Prizes

  1. Brenda Read Brown – £100 and slots at future festivals
  2. James Dolton – £70
  3. Tina Sederholm – £30
  4. Joel Denno – Wine
  5. James Webster – comedy tickets

Overall

A fun slam, which was well hosted by Anna Saunders with energy and good humour (poets who went overtime were threatened with nebulous punishments to be meted out in the back room). As with all slams there were some mixed performances, but the majority was entertaining, with special praise going to the top three of Tina, Dolton and Brenda who all wowed me.

Armchair/Shotgun: Issue 3

In Magazine on November 5, 2012 at 9:30 pm

-Reviewed by Rory O’Sullivan-

Had you the misfortune, lack of foresight or ignorance to miss either Issue 1 or 2 of Armchair/Shotgun, all is not lost: for the Brooklyn-based magazine has returned and has come up trumps again – surpassing the expectations laid down by the first two instalments, as this literary compendium continues to go from strength to strength.

The cover of Armchair/Shotgun 3

An issue of Armchair/Shotgun is a gathering of bite-size literature, poems, visual art and authorial insight. The latest issue features four short stories, as many miniature clusters of poetry, a photo-essay, a collection of Steve Chellis paintings and an interview with writer Reif Larsen – a piece on which the issue, and the magazine at large, appears to hang its hat.

One of the magazine’s managing editors, John M Cusick, extracts some of the madness behind Larsen’s method, revealing some genuinely interesting thoughts about what authors have to go through in their lives and the lengths it can sometimes take in order to craft a story. Budding writers should take note, but Larsen also fits neatly with what Armchair/Shotgun are all about – and understanding why Cusick speaks to him is to understand the magazine’s philosophy.

Their dialogue delves into a number of concepts that are clearly important to the magazine: the relationship between content and form; the doors that post-modern art has opened for the traditional writer, the roles that marginalia and visual art have to play within the written form; and the importance of telling a story for storytelling’s sake. The penny drops, and suddenly the many components of Issue 3 fall into place – that the purity of story is at the heart of what this magazine stands for.

And they really commit to it. Fiction submissions are stripped of their signature and sender, and the strength of a candidate’s submission is based on the strength of their piece alone; the veil of anonymity is only lifted when the editors have settled on the issue’s content. Once the names behind the short-form prose were finally revealed, Issue 3 threw up a fascinating coincidence: the entirety of its contributors form an all-female cast.

Of those, J.E. Reich makes a stunning debut with ‘Days of Sound’. It tells the story of a British journalist whose quest to find out more about an Islamic terrorist – responsible for assassinating an American journalist live on the internet – whom he knew from his school days, takes him down the avenues of a North London upbringing. The assignment ends – in the story, at least – by telling us how this British reporter came to lose his hearing. The power of the human faculty is brought into focus, as the journalist tries to find something in his home environment – the same home in which he played chess with the future terrorist – to trigger a lead. In the years following his ‘days of sound’, we are not only left to wonder if his other senses will one day lead him to an answer, but feel sympathy for a man who is unable to fully communicate with the woman he loves.

The primary senses are also the thrust of Debbie Ann Ice’s amusing and heart-warming tale, ‘Scrabble’. Young girl Liz is brought over to see her mother’s friend’s daughter, Elsa. She and her mother both think Liz is deaf, but their deadpan visitor can actually understand everything they are saying perfectly well. Liz doesn’t play this to her advantage as mischievously as we might hope or expect, and only does so once she’s reunited with her mother at the end of the story. Liz’s time with Elsa starts with a game of Scrabble. Like her hearing, there’s little wrong with her literacy, either, for she thrashes her opponent. That’s despite the condescending interjections of Elsa’s mother:

“Malefic?” Her mama continued, still behind me, still eating. “Is that a word? I wonder if she meant malleable. We’ll let it go. It’s best maybe to let her win.”

They then head out for an afternoon swim at the local pool. Liz manages not to react when a boy repeatedly shouts “I want to fuck you” at her, much to the amusement of everyone around them. But once out of their earshot, she’s the one who has the last laugh.

A young child is also the subject of Sarah Goffman’s ironically-titled ‘Eddie by Himself’. The story is a snapshot into the the struggle of Eddie’s parents to manage his wandering tendencies – accompanied by his imaginary friend, Hansel – and unpredictable reverie. Unlike his surly sister, Eddie eagerly anticipates the family’s camping trip to the woods. Before they set off, we are given clues about Eddie’s affinity for the natural world and all things outdoors – something that gets the better of him when he wanders into the thick of the forest. It’s a charming tale of an innocent mind giving into curiosity, and one that wonderfully conveys the power of the imagination.

So far, the short-form prose largely goes against the tone of Issue 2. There, the reader was largely greeted with a succession of stabbings, trailer park strife, motherfuckers and car chases.

But those impatient to uncover Armchair/Shotgun‘s sinister streak will be satisfied after reading ‘Pick Up’ by Diana Clark. Sharing a similar feel to the tale that closes Issue 2, it charts the journey of a troubled soul behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. A woman is ostracised from her husband since he got a fifteen-year-old pregnant, and after driving off in her former man’s uncomfortable pick-up truck, depravity ensues as she undertakes (not all willingly) a number of bizarre and sick sexual pursuits. From masturbating while driving through the provincial night, to offering one’s body to get out of prison, the closing piece of Issue 3 will raise a few eyebrows and turn a few stomachs.

Another parallel with Issue 2 is Andrew Wertz’s photo essay, ‘Twelve photographs’. Twelve urban landscapes situated in towns between Massachusetts and Pennsylvania provide a haunting journey through places devoid of any human life, as if in a post-apocalyptic silence. Fans of The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later will enjoy this inclusion. In almost all the photos, something appears in the image that does not actually stand in front of the camera – such as a reflection, a light source or a shadow. For example, the silhouette of a street light and telephone wires lean eerily across the photo of an empty sidewalk in Schuylerville, New York state, a photo that bleaches across the front cover of this issue.

The second piece of visual art comes from Steve Chellis, whose seven paintings and illustrations are introduced by a helpful few paragraphs by managing editor Laura McMillan. One’s instinct is to decipher the story behind each piece, which range in style from Impressionist to Gothic. Fathoming the story behind the painting is, of course, a major reason we enjoy art at all – but Chellis appears to derive pleasure out of the futility of this search: “parts don’t always add up, but why should they?”, he asks us.

Elliott BatTzedek, Daniele Lapidoth and Alison Campbell make multiple contributions to poetry, while four more poets (Liana Jahan Imam, Alanna Bailey, Genevieve Burger-Weiser and Inge Hoonte) each earn a solitary inclusion.

Campbell’s two poems come off the back of Reich’s life-affirming ‘Days of Sound’ and this is an intelligent placement, for ‘Body’ and ‘Cemetery’ each deal with human functions and senses. True to their word after Sabotage recently interviewed Armchair/Shotgun, the poetry included in Issue 3 supports their view that the difference between free verse and traditional form should be recognised. Lapidoth’s ‘Neither’ and ‘Both’ appear somewhere betwixt the two because they are presented in organised stanzas yet still convey a loose structure, while BatTzedek couldn’t strike this balance better, with the sombre ‘After pain has taken you’ erring on the classic and contrasting heavily with ‘Earth Day’ – a lightning-quick, stream-of-conscience consideration of the relationship between a man and his pets.

Like Issue 2, the sections of poetry, prose and visual art are punctuated by agreeable etchings and illustrations. The space occupied in the last issue by old-fashioned maps is now filled with drawings of animal anatomies, parts of the human skeleton, a cross-section of half a tree trunk, and a detailed illustration of the human ear – each providing something unexpected, quirky and interesting to linger on before absorbing what comes next in the magazine.

It is this marginalia that adds to the significance of Larsen’s interview and brings home what Armchair/Shotgun are trying to do. The magazine manages to embrace so many art forms and yet remain a predominantly literary offering; storytelling is at the heart of literature, and indeed central to this publication’s mission statement. But by including the minutiae and everything outside of the verbal domain, Armchair/Shotgun show they really know how to enrich a reader’s experience.

‘Waterloo’ by J.T. Welsch

In Pamphlets on November 4, 2012 at 9:25 pm


Reviewed by Andrew Bailey

I bet it’s not just me that can’t read the opening of ‘Kubla Khan’ without hearing ELO, and who finds ignoring that makes it worse. Acknowledging the unhelpful allusion is what lets it dissipate, so here on the one hand is Abba; on the other, here is the utterly separate Waterloo, a town in Illinois in which Welsch grew up, and a sequence of twenty-four ten-line poems very firmly in the town and environs.

The book opens with a funeral resulting in a gathering of the family for a wake and sharing of effects in which Grandma’s datebook is discovered, in which “every death and birth is written // as if they all happened in one year.” The sequence, spatially precise as it may be, draws on that temporal freedom, so that the poems occur in the right order – Homecoming is before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving before Christmas – but the years don’t seem to matter, allowing the poet to range through time, from the founding of the town, through stories of grandparents and remembered childhoods, to what is figured as now. Later, poems XX and XXI look into an expected future. Welsch’s handling of time as a stacked thing, like a pile of year planners, is a very present pleasure of the pamphlet.

The effects of that can be seen in, say, poem XXIII’s beginning “The paper was open with a post-it / this morning, asking if I knew a kid // who died over the weekend…”? Which morning? Like the opening of Brazil at “8.49pm, Somewhere in the Twentieth Century” we’re offered micro precision in macro uncertainty. It also brings years together, so XIII’s explosion may be set “In the early sixties, when natural gas / was still high-tech” but it feels as immediate in the description as that newspaper. Conversely, it can treat precise points as universal – III tells us that, for relative by marriage Billy, “every year is a a chance to show all / the new impressions he’s taught their bright // orange haired three-year-old”, in which that ‘every’ is mathematically impossible but does not feel emotionally so.

There are further joys, of course. Welsch’s chosen form, five couplets with no line unrhymed, allows him to demonstrate an elegant and generally unobtrusive set of formal skills; the collaging in of newspaper clippings, photos and announcements supports the sense of getting to know the town well. It’s also a particularly handsome pamphlet in its clearly hand-printed cover on soft, thick and rough-edged brown paper, so it’s a bit of a shame that the version I’m holding has sold out. The contents remain the same in what the publisher calls the ‘Standard Version’, I’m sure, but I’ve enjoyed having the object under review in my hands. The publisher, Like This Press, has a range of objects that have equally tangible pleasures, including some that come in boxes, one of which which I was lucky enough to hold at the Free Verse book fair earlier this year.

If I were to register any displeasure, it would be purely that the tone is so resolutely grounded; the quotations so far are demonstrative, and where it flexes a bit of lyrical muscle it’s in passing moments such as XII’s (admittedly delicious) adjective choice when it sees “The bluff was filthy with orange and gold”. If you want jazzy syntax disruptions or dense, chewable rhetoric this may not be the place to look. Yet judging by Welsch’s Salt chapbook, Orchids, that’s a choice of restraint in this piece – it’s harder to imagine the title poem there, for example, passing for overheard speech than the poems here.

Orchids carries quotes from Andrew Motion and John McAuliffe praising its formal grace, cleverness and emotional connection; those qualities are also to be found in the way Waterloo’s selection of detail encourages you to care about the townspeople. It’s not necessary that the details be true, but it’s nice to know that the Wikipedia page for the town seems to back him up on some of the checkable details, and that Welsch’s Crashaw Prize shortlist interview affirms the biography parts. “These are my gods, I guess,” writes Welsch in that interview, “these layers of place and relation.” In those terms, Waterloo offers an appropriate prayer.