Thursday, May 24, 2012

Best Living British Poets #99

#99 - Vicci Kone

With her Gregory Award winning pamphlet, I'm Not Bitter!!!, and Forward Prize shortlisted British Poetry is Shit, Vicci Kone quickly established herself, in her own words, as “the enfant terrible of World Literature.” Her celebrity party gatecrashing-on-horseback exploits and trademark headgear earned her instant media notoriety and a weekly astrology column in the Daily Mail. Eminent critic E.R. Silverspoon described her sixty-eight page ‘insistent sonnet’ which, controversially, filled an entire issue of Poetry Review, as “Rambo let loose in a pig sty.” She is married to one-time Stockport County ballboy trialist, Philip Prance, with whom she has co-written an autobiography, All Nobodies Without ME. She is currently studying for a Creative Writing diploma at Shilbottle University.

(photo from ukslim’s photostream, published under a Creative Commons License)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Review: 'More Shadow than Bird' by Nuar Alsadir

The bio note on More Shadow than Bird tells us that Nuar Alsadir is training to become a psychoanalyst and this I can well believe after reading her poems. Her subject is the unknown self, fleeting glimpses into the hidden depths of motivation and personality. Her characters often have difficulty in understanding who they are and where they’re going. They are at the mercy of events, misunderstanding others and themselves, and yet a hazy kind of clarity emerges: “more shadow than bird”, it’s true, but the habitually invisible can hardly be held in easy focus.

The attempt to focus results in remarkably clear and striking images; the connections between them aren’t always immediately obvious but they aren’t arbitrary either. Some poets juxtapose outlandish images for reasons of humour or even stylish obfuscation, but Alsadir is trying to express things that aren’t ordinarily expressible. ‘The Ride Home from Mourning’ begins with the phrase, “My underwear is my backpack/ and I feel true” and later, with a desire for accuracy, “grey, with thin strings”. The mood evoked from such imagery is not self-pity, but a desire to express the impact of loss. The narrator asks the questions people ask at such times: “Where do we go when we go/ no more? The unmooredness puzzles”. There are no answers to such questions, but the narrator reflects on how we mourn:
the unintelligible inside us
and the accurate on our backs.

This final couplet clothing unintelligible unmooredness (which is nevertheless somehow moored deep within us) with the weight of accurate expression sends you back to read the poem again, and it’s true that these poems, like all good poems, need to be read more than once. Her images are perfectly clear but produce complexity in combination. The most similar UK poet I can think of would be Claire Crowther and, perhaps behind both, we might detect American poet, Lorine Niedecker.

‘Disquiet’ is a fairly riveting sequence of short independent prose paragraphs. They read like aphorisms but seem less certain of themselves than traditional aphorisms. It is about disquiet, but some lines could be read as describing Nuar Alsadir’s poetics:

What blooms does so in the space that breaks from knowing.


Reason is like light, it comes in quanta. There are no lines connecting thoughts, only packets and leaps.

Making the leaps and connecting without drawing hard-and-fast lines certainly brings rewards here. Most of these poems can’t be explained or summarised but I was always convinced that something interesting was going on. ‘Breakfast’ would be one example. Phrases repeat and echo throughout the poem – images of eggs, roads, and three characters (one man, one woman, and the first person narrator) having an argument are all jumbled up. Some change has occurred. Anyone who can write lines like

.............He thinks she’s a trail
of cigarette butts to something human


Morning. We crack eggs in the pan,
wait to see what creature will rise

has my full attention. The characters appear disorientated and curiously estranged both from their own selves and from those around them. The man’s perception of the woman as a trail is countered in the final line. He doesn’t notice, but “she’s not the path, but where it begins.” What exactly is being said here isn’t clear to me, but I find the poem intriguingly mysterious and strikingly well written, worth continuing to ponder on.

Other poems are more immediate, such as ‘Walking with Suzan’ and ‘Bats’, both of which you can read in full at Michelle McGrane’s Peony Moon site (along with several others). ‘Bats’ again may tell us something about Nuar Alsadir’s approach to poetry. The bats, “not like you/ or the other rodents” are unashamed and “share their darkness like a piece/ of delight”. The crawlers have to “rise for breath, belief”. In contrast:

The bats do not need applause.
If you clap, they will change direction.

Echoes of W.S. Graham there, of course, from the end of his famous poem, Johann Joachim Quantz's Five Lessons:

...keep your finger-stops as light
As feathers but definite. What can I say more?
Do not be sentimental or in your Art.
I will miss you. Do not expect applause.

The evasion of applause or indifference to it. An immediate change in direction at the first hint of populism. Art, not Commerce. So let’s not clap, at least not loudly enough to be heard. More Shadow than Bird is an extraordinary collection: beautiful, reflective and provocative in equal measure. It deserves readers and perhaps the turn of a page, that near-silent form of applause, is all that matters.

More Shadow than Bird by Nuar Alsadir is published by Salt, 2012, in paperback, currently £7.99.

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Best Living British Poets #100

#100 – Gordon ‘The Onion’ Rummy

Born in a field in North Derbyshire, Rummy is one of a new breed of young poets (anyone under the age of 57) whose risky references to both pop culture and University Challenge make them perfect material for patronising comments from jealous and less talented middle-aged duffers. A key member of ‘The New Acerbity’ school, his seven collections revolve around only two themes: sex and vegetables, sometimes both simultaneously. He is not called the onion for nothing. His “fierce kiss will stay on your lips,” said Carol Ann Duffy. He is number 100 in the Surroundings list of 100 Best Living British Poets, which is a great honour indeed. I might consider revealing the identities of those at numbers 101, 102 and 103 at some point, because they really have done very well indeed and only just failed to make the grade.

(photo from kapongo's photostream, used under a Creative Commons License)

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Fleck Pizza

Look, here comes a flying saucer, FLECK
on top in chopped tricolour peppers!

He has arranged them this way:
the pizza a self-addressed valentine,
rehearsal for the real thing.
- from 'The Bank, part 2' in Fleck and the Bank

This pizza tasted pretty good!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Jessie J, Price Tag and Poetry

Here are a few statistics. Two years and four months ago, I made a video of myself reading a poem. It wasn’t a professional job, just my stepson holding a video camera and me standing in a blizzard reading ‘White Noise’. I guess there is a certain humour about it as the snow beats down on me and the book (which I had to cover in clingflim to save it from disintegration), but there is no other concession to the entertainment industry. I uploaded the video to YouTube where it has received 421 views. Not bad for poetry – that’s about one view every day and half.

Contrast this with a video uploaded one year and four months ago of Jessie J’s Price Tag, the official video of the international smash hit single. The video helpfully reminds us that the money doesn’t matter – just as well for me, although I suspect its budget would have been just slightly more than mine. Even a vertical strip torn from one of Jessie’s outfits would have cost more than my video camera. In case anyone thinks I’m being cynical about her, I’m not. She’s obviously a highly talented songwriter and singer (unlike some of her contemporaries) and Price Tag is an extremely catchy song. I’m not surprised it was a massive hit. And the viewing figures? Well, I measured them over the last four days:

Today - 208,692,483
Friday - 208,405,142
Thursday - 208,250,000
Wednesday - 208,133,000

Basically, the views are rising at a rate of anything between about 120,000 and 300,000 a day! By the time you read this, they will have risen significantly again (edit: 16,000 people have watched it in the 1 hour and 20 minutes since I posted this article). At the time of writing, nearly 209 million (209 million!!) people have watched this video and that’s only the official video. It doesn’t count the hundreds of live and acoustic versions of the song, some of them very high quality recordings.

So there you have it: 209,000,000 versus 421. In fact, if you add another year’s viewing to Price Tag to catch up with me, it would be more like 421,000,000 to my 421. A Jessie J song is officially one million times more popular than one of my poems!

Clearly, there are tie-ups between poetry and music – lyrics are obviously a close relation, and good poems are built on rhythm, sound, music etc, but none of that seems to have entered popular consciousness. Poetry suffers from complete lack of exposure. Most people wouldn’t know where to start. And most of them wouldn’t want to start. The latter is fine by me – I wouldn’t want to start doing all kinds of activities that other people find fascinating e.g. playing computer games, watching basketball, cricket etc. I am also resigned to the fact that poetry is a minority and non-commercial activity, and that brings its own creative freedom from commercial pressure, for which I’m grateful. There is also no point in competing for space with genuinely popular art forms like pop music – there is simply no competition, as the figures above demonstrate.

But somehow, I still believe that good poetry is important and that a society is diminished when it loses sight of it. Good poetry is not entirely invisible yet, even if it is about 99.9% of the time, but I do think that the 0.1% is vital to build on. I don’t think poets should pander to the commercial side of things – poetry is more akin to an obscure Scandinavian trio, with a cult following, playing weird music in 5/4 time with terse Norwegian lyrics, than to a new Lady Gaga single with accompanying superficial ‘shock’ banalities. But I’d bet the Scandinavians would still succeed in reaching a bigger audience than an average Faber poet (let alone everyone else). I also believe there is no reason for that to be the case.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Reading, Two Magazines, and Literature Night

This Sunday, 13th May at 7.30pm, in Henderson's @ St John’s Cafe – that’s the Henderson’s beneath St John’s Church on the corner of Lothian Road and Princes St, Edinburgh – I’ll be reading along with AB Jackson, Roddy Lumsden and Kona Macphee. Entry is free. We will have books/pamphlets on sale, but you have my word that no one will be refused exit if they haven’t bought anything. Thanks are due to the Shore Poets who have allowed us to use their PA system - much appreciated. We could do with an audience though, so please come along! It's a fantastic, atmospheric venue with clear acoustics and terrific local beer and lager bottled behind the bar.

On the subject of publications, I had a poem (‘To Occupy an Absence’) from Fleck and the Bank published the other day on the Ink, Sweat and Tears web magazine. And I have three 'Nocturnes' published in Shearsman magazine’s latest double-issue – 91 & 92.

Finally, I’m quite interested in the Noc Literatury/Literature Night happening next Wednesday 16th from 7pm at the Scottish Poetry Library. Describing itself as an attempt “to offer a platform to European countries to present contemporary writing and new European literary voices in a creative way,” it sounds like the right thing focus on in Scotland at the current time. The best Scottish literature has looked outwards, internationally, while contributing to a distinctive, national (but never ‘nationalist’ in a narrow sense) body of work, and mainland Europe has been, and continues to be, a major source of inspiration for Scottish writers.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Magma, Fleck and More Shadow than Bird

I had been thinking of creating a new blog, a new start and all that, given that this one has been semi-abandoned in recent months, but that would make no sense. Instead, I’m going to re-launch Surroundings today and try to be more organised.

I have had a fair bit on in recent months, which has made it almost impossible to blog. Until the end of April, I was tied-up with the co-editing (with Kona Macphee) of Magma 53, which is now hurtling towards production and will indeed be published on 28th May with a launch on 4th June at the Troubadour in London. I can’t give anything away yet, but I do feel really pleased with the issue.

I was also revising poems for a new pamphlet, Fleck and the Bank, which has just been published. I still haven’t seen a physical copy but a package should arrive today. I know what’s going to happen. I have various things on today, to do with work, which will take me out the house for a fair bit of the day. The package will arrive when I’m out and I’ll have to collect it from the sorting office in the Gyle Industrial Estate, an area full of factories and warehouses. I’ll wander about for ages in search of the sorting office amid dozens of near-identical buildings and, by the time I find it, it will have closed down for the day. Anyway, it's just over five pounds from the Salt website, where you can also download a free pdf sampler.

Finally, just a quick mention of a book I’m reading at the moment. I spent April reading Rilke, WS Merwin and Durs Grunbein and thought nothing would top that combination this year. However, Nuar Alsadir’s first collection, More Shadow than Bird, is outstanding. I will try to say more in a future post, but for now I’ll just say the title is well chosen. The poems deal not so much with flickers of light illuminating the strange or obscured, as with shadows flitting briefly and quickly across a scene – often the shadows of the apparently unknowable self (if the ‘self’ is an iceberg, this collection focuses on the vast section below the surface). That’s not a prescription for vague writing – every word seems precise and vital – but for a persuasive and musical evocation of what usually remains unthought or entirely out-of-sight.