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‘And I am dumb(ed down) to tell’?

Dealing with the Dylan Thomas centenary

By John Goodby

 

An extract from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014

June 2014. We’re halfway through a year-long celebration of the centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas. Under the umbrella of DT-100, hundreds of events have been organised by a slew of organisations, from the Welsh Government down, with the various shrines (Laugharne, the Boathouse, 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Mumbles, the Uplands, Fitzrovia) near-continuous hives of activity. There’s an astonishing amount and variety of it – not just the usual workshops, exhibitions, readings and festivals, but an Under Milk Wood opera, postage stamps, notebooks repatriated from Buffalo, even a travelling Dylan Thomas writing shed. As an ‘expert’ I’ve been involved in a fair bit of it, consulting and broadcasting for the BBC, lecturing in Bangor, Swansea and Aber, holding forth in libraries, theatres, churches. Under the circumstances it might seem churlish, perverse even, to say that there have been worrying gaps in the coverage. Hasn’t Dylan Thomas been done proud, even if he has almost been done to death?

It all depends what you mean by ‘coverage’, and the extent to which Thomas’s writing itself has been addressed, as well as the responses to it. Certainly, the legend, and the rather unrepresentative handful of works everyone knows, have had a good airing. This is as it should be; Thomas himself was an entertainer and a performer. However, he was at root a daring modernist poet. Much of his best poetry is in this vein, and even later works like ‘Fern Hill’ rest on it. Alongside the responses I’ve sketched above, then, any centenary programme worth its salt has a duty to help general readers discover more about what makes Thomas’s work tick, what makes it unique.

There was a better chance of managing this in Thomas’s case than in that of just about any other poet, given Thomas’s iconic status. On the eve of the centenary year, thousands already knew something about his writing, and were fascinated by it as well as by him. It would almost have been easier to offer some bread, as well as the inevitable circuses. And to do so would have meant creating a genuine, lasting legacy; not just an enjoyable nine days’ wonder, but a raising of the cultural level of Wales – indeed, a way of showing that Wales took its culture seriously, as well as knowing how to sell itself and how to enjoy itself.

The two bodies, above all others, with the chance to realise this possibility, were Literature Wales and the British Council. All the other players could legitimately argue that they had other primary agendas; these two alone could be said to have an obligation to broaden horizons, to do more than serve up what people already knew. Yet both, it is now becoming clear, decided to ignore it.

There isn’t space here to deal with the British Council’s failings. Suffice it to say that efforts to throw off their upper-middle class image seem to have led to wild overcompensation, a desire to be seen as ‘street’ at all costs. Their ‘Bible Black and Starless’ Thomas programme, in Argentina, India, US, Canada, Australia and the USA, has been notable for a focus on dance, music, theatre – on anything, in fact, but the actual writings. Its launch to a one-third full Reardon Smith Hall in December, with an African-American keynote speaker, Kevin Powell, an expert on rap and hip-hop who, it was embarrassingly clear, knew nothing about Dylan Thomas, set the painful tone. Apart from a few admirable initiatives, such as the dramatization of Adventures in the Skin Trade, the vast bulk of the literary aspect of ‘Starless and Bible Black’ involves sending abroad the same Welsh poets who would have gone anyway, but under a Dylan Thomas banner. Shunning anything that remotely smacks of analysis, there are no talks, seminars or workshops, nothing picking up on Thomas’s visits to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Ireland and Iran, no reference to the interest European poets such as Tzara and Celan showed in him, or the forty-two different languages he’s been translated into, nothing on his crucial role in breaking West African writing in 1952. You’d weep at the squandered chances if it wasn’t all so ludicrous.

Literature Wales, who promote Welsh literature in Wales itself, have done more that is good. Hannah Ellis, Dylan Thomas’s grand-daughter, is rightly keen to use her grandfather’s work to develop children’s love of literature, and Literature Wales’s Dylanwad schools programme reflects this. But the same fear of seeming too literary (but this is Literature Wales!), of the desperate desire to seem of the moment, has produced a plethora of media-friendly events – ‘mass poems’, competitions, tourist opportunities – whose main aim is to signal popular engagement, without any attempt to increase understanding of Thomas’s work or leave a lasting impression. The commercial flavour is evident in their lavish DT-100 brochure, four-fifths of which is devoted to the ‘Dylan Odyssey’ cultural tourism strand. This may be because Literature Wales’s DT-100 funding comes from the Welsh Government’s Tourism, not its Culture budget, and he who pays the piper calls the tune; yet the absolute absence of events with any intellectual content is striking nevertheless. It’s not that the Dinefwr festival and kayaking in the Towy are bad (though tourism and festivals are arguably better left to the specialists); it’s more that these things, fine as they are, ought to be secondary, not the substance. Just where is the provision for those curious about the origins of the amazing style of 18 Poems works, for example? Or Thomas’s take on science, religion and gender? Or on just where he fits into the story of twentieth century poetry? Nowhere, is the answer – alas. And given that it’s Literature Wales’s specific task to do this (who else if not them?), such a lack amounts to a dereliction of duty.

Apart from the funding tail wagging the literary dog, there are several reasons, it seems to me, for this. An inexperienced leadership and external pressure may be part of it (it’s hard not to see Peter Finch organising a Dylan Thomas centenary poetry festival, for example), but there is the more basic, enduring fact that Thomas’s own paradoxical spirit tends to trouble authority. He’s hard to place in poetic terms, and the current intellectual climate, in which an overweening corporate power tries to project its values into every cranny of the cultural sphere, is particularly inimical to what he represents. While Thomas’s own popular positions invite readers towards his complex poetry, a more market-oriented consumerist populism reduces them to saleable ‘themes’ and ‘messages’, sees textual resistance as an irritant, not as a challenge to be relished, an obstacle to success defined by the tourist pound, attendance figures and accessibility.

As with the British Council, succumbing to this logic has had serious outcomes. No centenary poetry festival. No talks or weekend courses or workshops to dig into the meat of the poems. Nothing on the several new critical studies of his work, or the new edition of the Collected Poems. It’s telling that plans for a bilingual lecture tour of Welsh colleges were dropped in favour of ‘Dylan Live’, a ‘music and spoken word’ show (an account of the creation of this melange of Beat poetry, rap, Thomas excerpts and jazz can be found at www.developingdylan100.co.uk/dylan-live). The excerpts confirm what many who have seen it say about it’s being a rather half-baked affair, and despite the (unattributed) ‘Rave reviews’ on the website a sense of its true appeal may be reflected in the fact that, aside from an appearance at the PEN World Voices Festival, only Literature Wales’ own festival at Dinefwr booked the show. More important, however, was the flawed nature of the basic concept. Thomas may have inspired Beat and African-American poets in his performance and lifestyle. But bohemianism is one of his least interesting aspects, and his poetry has little in common with the improvisational aesthetic of Beat, jazz, and rap. Plus, there is surely a dodgy flavour to a show based on black cultural forms presented by an all-white (all-male) ensemble, and something quite grotesque about its being sent by the British Council to New York, as it was in May. Rather than one of the more egregious examples of cultural coals to Newcastle of recent times, we could have had something that took Thomas’s ‘colour of saying’ out to colleges around the country; but no, that would have been far too elitist and uncool.

The fate of my own main contribution to Literature Wales’s DT-100 programme reflects the same lack of interest in literature unless it is disguised as something else. Back in September 2013 I was asked to give the Gwyn Jones Annual Memorial lecture, on Dylan Thomas, at this year’s Hay Festival. But in April, I discovered that this had dropped off the Hay programme – due, I was told, to Literature Wales’s ‘miscommunication’ with the organisers (although, by odd coincidence, it transpired around the same time that Owen Sheers was giving a lecture on Thomas there). The casualness of ‘miscommunication’– their word – speaks volumes about the lack of interest in a genuine discussion of the poetry. I agreed, slightly reluctantly, to its rescheduling at the Dinefwr Festival. However, when I signalled that I’d be mentioning some of the issues raised in this article in the talk, I received an irate phone call from the head of Literature Wales, and was told that I couldn’t do so because it would be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘upset our sponsors’. When the lecture appeared in the Dinefwr programme it was in a graveyard slot, and had been stripped of its title and my bona fides as a speaker. My own demotion was inconsequential; however, the cavalier treatment of the name and reputation of a leading twentieth century Welsh scholar and writer, Gwyn Jones, was a more serious matter, another sign of Literature Wales’s lack of respect for literature, the final straw which led me to cancel the gig. What’s saddest about all of this is the way that everywhere else is happy to have Thomas’s poetry talked about in detail. I’ve analysed ‘And death shall have no dominion’ and ‘After the funeral’ and others at half a dozen festivals so far, from Dartington to Buxton, and at events in Italy, Ireland and France, and no-one has batted an eyelid or given me the impression that this kind of thing needs sexing up, and can be treated with something close to disdain. It’s yet another dismaying example of a Welsh body grasping at a London trend – the corporatisation and marketising of literature – and copying it slavishly and unthinkingly; the result is Dilute Dylan, Thomas-without-tears, bums-on-seats as the one and only bottom line (excuse pun).

For ultimately, this is the most patronising assumption of all – that Wales can’t take Thomas without some spin or angle added; that he must be dissolved into a word-cloud, packaged as interpretative walks, made over as Dyl.I.an, or even that he cannot possibly be presented by anyone but ‘young Welsh artists’. Why let mere facts prevent the ticks being made in the right boxes, after all? And maybe this is why – though I’d have predicted the opposite in January – the most varied, imaginative response to the centenary has come from the BBC, an organisation sometimes maligned for ignoring Welsh culture. This may be because it is less navel-gazing than others, more resourced, more resistant to commercialism; but it is also, as the Laugharne Live radio festival in May demonstrated, due to open-mindedness. Rather than the faux populism, the BBC took a genuinely populist, eclectic and contemporary approach – Thomas in classical music and radio pub quizzes, Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone and radio essays (personal favourites include Ian McMillan’s ‘Dylan Day’ selection, and Rachel Trezise on Thomas and radio, in which she told of overcoming her dislike of the saccharine bard she encountered at school through her discovery of his darker early imaginings). The BBC wasn’t obliged to cater to intelligent general readers (and their films on the life, poems, and new Under Milk Wood all had their flaws), but at least they gave them plenty to think about.

How, then, might Thomas have been presented? Well, rather than being dumbed down, his apocalyptic, visionary concern with the fundamental issues of birth, death, sex, faith, and (im)mortality should have been faced. He should have been presented for what he is – a Blakean and modernist revolutionary, whose work is experimental and bypasses social surfaces, still a radical challenge to dull contemporary plain-style orthodoxy. ‘Fern Hill’ should have been part of the mix, of course, but poems that more resemble ‘Altarwise by owl-light’ shouldn’t have been treated like dirty secrets. For the point is that, uniquely, unforgettably, Thomas wrote both kinds of poem. He was a hybrid, a product of the industrial-rural, anglophone-cymrophone border zone, caught between two world wars and two literary movements, modernism and 1930s’ realism; his inbetweenness was what allowed to him to fuse Auden’s retro forms with modernist intensity, and also gave him the ability to negotiate ‘high’ and ‘low’ styles. But it also meant that he still straddles the post-Waste Land fault-lines that exist in British poetry, making him difficult to categorise and a provocation to those who prefer neat demarcations.

Tough though it can be, Thomas’s hybridity is central to his universal resonance and his greatness, the way he speaks to our time. He crosses cultures; his body-centredness anticipates modern neuroscience’s feeling minds and thinking bodies; as the first great elegist of the civilian war dead, he writes for Gaza and Homs as well the victims of the Blitz; and his final poems are ecological, deeply concerned for a world threatened by atomic weapons. Above all, he ‘bent the iron of English’, working ‘from’ words, not towards them, mutating fresh meanings within rigorous yet golden cages of stanza, off-rhyme, and syllabic pattern. What greater gift for readers in 2014 than such a challenge to language’s enslavement by the debased discourses of advertising, micro-management and corporate politics?

Although a chance has been missed to develop a longer-term legacy in certain quarters which should have known better, there have been many good things about DT-100. Intentionally or not, it has become a pan-Wales celebration, or carnival, fifteen years on from the Assembly. Despite the efforts of officialdom, some people have found ways to deepen their appreciation of Thomas’s work. Nevertheless, as one advisor to the First Minister warned some months back, unless Wales develops its knowledge economy, its obsession with making itself a tourist destination will soon render it a low-wage theme park. Avoiding this fate requires creating a literary knowledge economy too; one that isn’t afraid of literature as literature, that isn’t based on gimmickry (the old loss of national nerve by another name), the only kind that can make sense of the ‘intricate image’ of reality in twenty-first century Wales.

 

John Goodby lectures at the University of Swansea; he is author of The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013) and the new annotated centenary edition of the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. 

England v Wales, or Why I Hate Slams

by Mab Jones  

It’s as if we are blood cells. Okay, the red cells are smaller, but they are just as important as the big, white blood cells. Each has their own job to do and, normally, we all get on pretty well. Today, however, the reds and the whites have been asked to fight. To compete. To battle against each other. Isn’t this what they call cancer?

I am not really a fan of the poetry slam. I hate competition and I dislike putting people into categories of ‘winner’ or ‘loser’. I always feel my main competition is myself, and in overcoming internal blocks to my work. Neither are my poems made for slams, I don’t have any of the fireworks of some of the performers – I don’t jump about like a jelly bean, I don’t do ‘poet voice’, I don’t air punch, beatbox, sing, or really like to complain about life/my life onstage (anymore – I did this a fair bit when I first started out…). I did win the John Tripp Spoken Poetry Audience Award, and have been a finalist in three big slams; but I can’t seem to ‘please’ people enough with what I do… I always end up being more of a ‘people teaser’. Which I guess is how I like it. Anyway…

Here we are, at RADA in London, with two teams: one representing England, and one representing Wales. We are wearing rugby shirts in white and red (hence the blood cells analogy). We will be competing in a ‘friendly slam’ for the Fitzrovia Festival, which is part of the general Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations. The England team is composed of: Abraham Gibson (captain); Molly Case; Penny Pepper; Sean Wai Keung. Team Wales is: Martin Daws (captain); Clare Ferguson-Walker; Zaru Jonson; and me.

The judges are 5 ladies, all a little well-to-do, and I have the feeling from the offset that they will not like my stuff. England captain Abraham Gibson performs first, with a funny poem about Margaret Thatcher’s sexual exploits (imaginary of course). It has rude words in it, and seems like a bit of fun. The judges score it highly. Perhaps they will like what I do!?

I am up next, and I perform ‘The Man Who Stares at Goats Too Much’ a little ditty inspired by a newspaper headline earlier this year. The headline itself was ‘Man Had Sex With Goat 10 Times, But He Did Ask First’. It was in the Metro newspaper. It is humorous, with rude words and sexual exploits. It is a bit of fun. I get a very loud, resounding, and enthused audience reaction, probably one of the best I’ve ever received. I wait for the judges’ score…

I receive a much lower one than the England Team Captain. I am at a loss to explain why. But this is the thing about slams… They are very subjective things. In the end, it turns out that the final round features four of the eight performers – those with the highest scores – and these happen to be the four male performers (Abraham and Sean from England, and Martin and Zaru from Wales). The four females are left sitting on the sidelines. Again, I am at a loss as to explain why. I have performed at over 700 events now, and I do not personally feel that these were the best poems or performances. But then, this is my own subjective view, albeit one based on much spoken word experience. Clare, at my side, is a strong performer and multi-slam winner, and Molly’s piece was the most interesting and unusual poem, in my opinion.

But, my opinion is not what matters. The red cells lose to the white. I don’t feel bad about getting the lowest score, or about the Welsh team ‘losing’, though. I know that the crowd liked us and, afterwards, lots of people come up to us to say this, too. Poet Tim Key and celebrity Gruff Rhys Jones both come up to me to tell me how much they enjoyed my poem in particular. I am pleased. But after 700 or so performances, I am confident in my ability to please a crowd – or, tease them, I should say. And slams, well, they, they are not the be all and end all, really.

I leave London feeling happy, just because performing was fun, because the poets were all great, and because we all have a drink and a laugh afterwards. This is the most important part of any event. And, at this, we all definitely, as you might say, take the prize.

Find out more about Mab at www.mabjones.com and follow on Twitter @mabjones

Mab Jones with a Rhino on her Boob

Review: White Wings by John Freeman

Jonathan Edwards reviews White Wings: New & Selected Prose Poems by John Freeman, (Contraband, 2013).

 

Devotees of the contemporary poetry scene – whatever that is – might be most familiar with John Freeman for his poem ‘My Grandfather’s Hat,’ third prize winner in the National Poetry Competition for 2012. It’s a warm and witty observation of family, full of precise and telling detail and powerful and memorable imagery, and I’d urge anyone who doesn’t know it to go and check it out. Some readers might come to White Wings hoping for more of the same, but this book showcases a very different side of Freeman’s work. The volume selects the best from around forty years of the author’s work in prose poetry, and speaks of a poetic life at the experimental margins.

For all that, there are a number of poems in White Wings which focus on family or relationships, and these are often the book’s most memorable. ‘Meringues,’ for example, focuses on the narrator’s relationship with an ill woman:

We were all suffering – the children of course, knowing their mother was ill, knowing it was serious. Her, being ill. Me, looking after the children, having no talk with anyone else.

The narrator deals with this experience by buying meringues for the woman, though personally he’s ‘never liked meringues. They grate and collapse against your teeth, gritty like sandpaper.’ The intense focus on an authentically-drawn relationship here might remind us of the tone of books like Greta Stoddart’s At Home in the Dark or Tom French’s Touching the Bones. The risk with such poems is that old piece of advice given to me when I first started writing about family: if you write poems about your family and your relationships, you will write poems of interest to your family and people you know. One might think that, stripped of the music of form, Freeman’s prose poems run a higher risk of this than writers like French and Stoddart, as there is less, beyond content, for the reader to focus on. But ultimately, like French and Stoddart’s work, a poem like ‘Meringues’ is memorable, and makes us return to it, because it manages that tricky balance of the specific and the universal – because it gets to the universal through the specific. At its heart is the detail of those meringues, so idiosyncratic and authentic, pointing beyond themselves and symbolising the relationship, in a way you can’t quite pin down.

Family and relationships, though, are rightly only one focus of the wide body of work which White Wings represents. Those of us who strut round with well-thumbed copies of Return to the City of White Donkeys or even Paris Spleen in our pretentiously-tailored back pockets might be pleasantly surprised by the versatility the prose poem has in Freeman’s hands. The volume begins with ‘Alla Luna,’ a playfully enjoyable poem about the way in which culture makes us look at nature. Looking up at the moon, the narrator reflects on how history and poetry affect his perception of it:

It didn’t look any different now some people had been round it…At the moment when I look at the moon I sometimes think of Shelley and Leopardi, and reproach myself for never having written a good poem about the moon, and for having a bad memory for the Leopardi.

White Wings cover - John Freeman

If White Wings explores a range of themes – and I haven’t even mentioned yet the excellent memories-of-childhood poems ‘Not a Girl’ and ‘Sweet Prince,’ which an imaginative anthologist might place on a facing page to ‘Fern Hill’ – it is also distinguished by a variety of styles and techniques. Alongside the largely sequential narratives already described, Freeman tries an interesting range of other things. ‘Summer’ is an intriguing combination of apparent non-sequiturs which move from the lyrical to the colloquial: ‘A womb of threat looms, surprising me. Don’t move buster, you’re surrounded.’ ‘The Man from Leeds,’ by contrast, is full of colloquial personality and reported speech, and is an excellent character sketch: ‘I’ve got a wonderful wife; and sometimes I want to strangle her; but she’s a wonderful woman you know, I couldn’t do without her. I couldn’t.’

Writing in a recent issue of The North, Michael Hulse offers this vision of the contemporary poetry scene:

[The] middle ground is under attack in our time from the mutually exclusive aesthetic extremes to either side. One extreme is populist in character and includes the range of spoken-word poetries…The other is hieratic in character and includes the range of poetries that depend on cognitive philosophy, linguistics, and a historically-derived understanding of the avant-garde.

If I say that White Wings is a book to admire, grapple with and return to, more than it is to enjoy or to love, that’s probably as revelatory of where my own poetics might sit in Hulse’s spectrum, as it is of Freeman’s book. There’s an alternate world in which writers like Freeman are as widely-read and celebrated as Owen Sheers and Gillian Clarke, in which a book like White Wings receives a review of sufficient length to begin to do its range justice. In this world, I’m rooting of course for Freeman to write more poems like ‘My Grandfather’s Hat.’ But meanwhile, I’m picking up White Wings again and turning to another poem. And hey, just take a gander at the look on my face as I do.

 

Jonathan Edwards’ debut collection is My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014). It has been shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, 2014. 

Review: I’m OK, I’m Pig! by Kim Hyesoon

 Katherine Stansfield reviews Kim Hyesoon’s I’m OK, I’m Pig!, translated by Don Mee Choi (Bloodaxe, 2014).

I'm OK, I'm Pig

Since her poetry debut in 1979, Kim Hyesoon has published ten collections in her home of South Korea. Three have been translated into English and published in the US, and it is selected work from these books – Mummy Must be a Fountain of Flowers, All the Garbage of the World Unite, and Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream – that make up I’m OK, I’m Pig! from Bloodaxe, covering the period 1981 to 2012. The Bloodaxe edition also includes a preface by Hyesoon, transcripts of two fascinating interviews in which she discusses her work and poetics, and an essay by translator Don Mee Choi.

In one of the interviews Hyesoon lists what she considers to be the key words of her poetry: ‘Death, Woman, [South] Korea, You, Seoul, Absence, Illness, Rats, Poetry’. A good example of these themes at work is ‘Seoul’s Dinner’, in which South Korea’s capital is depicted as an insatiable woman:

Pigs enter. The pigs oink and suck on Seoul’s lips. She dips the meat from the pig’s neck in pickled shrimp and eats. Her squirming throat is omnivorous.

The city consumes and digests; she is a powerful, physical presence. Many of the poems are concerned with the body. It is used as a site – often of epic proportions – to explore physical functionality: digestive and reproductive systems, as well as injury. Vomit, shit and rot return again and again, often coupled with violent imagery:

That woman who has worms coming out of her mouth
please don’t hit her too hard
One sack, two sacks of worms fall out of her mouth
because she gets beaten every single day
Later she even pukepukes out her intestines
and her empty body gets mashed
Oh the stench (‘Rainy Season’)

This inversion of the body – puking up the intestines – demonstrates another recurring trope: a concern with entrance and exit points. In ‘Seoul’s Dinner’ the city ‘eats and shits through the same door’. Such notions of inside/outside are central to Hyesoon’s feminist poetics which engage with the gendered history of Korean poetry. Her preface describes the marginalisation of women in Korean’s poetry and its myths but draws attention to one practice that does give women a dominant role: the shaman’s ritual, where ‘the emphasis is on performing songs and dances’. By taking on the mantel of shaman, the poet is able to inhabit a netherworld – conceptualised as a ‘blackened realm’ linked to state censorship by her translator – in which a woman ‘redefines herself, retranslates herself’ in reaction to patriarchal systems. In writing poetry a woman is both inside the ‘blackened realm’ and breaking from it. Though this can mean she is ghost-like, ‘erased’ by the act of writing, this negation isn’t negative but is actually key to participation. In one of the interviews Hyesoon states that ‘regardless of a poet’s gender, poetry is where night is, where absence is’.

The form of Hyesoon’s poems reflects her engagement with the shamanistic tradition. There isn’t a great deal of lyricism but the poems can be incantatory, with chant-like repetition of lines and words that build to crescendos:

The fact that even the whistle stops to talk
The fact that the whistle stop wakes up from sleep, sweating from fever
The fact that the whistle stop even goes for a walk along the tracks deep in the night
(‘Trainspotting’)

Many of the poems are dreamlike, presenting detailed and surreal narratives. Whilst they are undoubtedly powerful I wondered if a symbolic language was in use that I was failing to decode, such as the repeated references to camels. These symbols might be personal or they could be culturally-specific to Korea, or they might be neither. They didn’t detract from my reading of the work but I felt my engagement with it was perhaps partial as a result.

It is difficult to comment on the success of the translation of Hyesoon’s Korean into English, given my lack of knowledge of the original language and the distinctive style of the English-language poems. In one of the interviews, however, Hyesoon explains that Korean is a phonetic language ‘which allows for possibilities of rhyming through countless homonyms’. She notes that in translation it becomes difficult to share such wordplay. Choi’s translations, therefore, must be taken on their own terms, and as such I would argue that assessing their ‘smoothness’ of English isn’t appropriate here. The chaos of the poems’ subject matter, the lack of punctuation and words running into one another all successfully contribute to the surrealism of the work and its sense of urgency.

In terms of Korean history Hyesoon’s poems do not provide a history lesson, yet as a western reader who knows little about the country beyond war, the division of North and South, and brutal dictatorships, it’s tempting to read the violence of many poems as relating to these traumatic events. But should we? Just because the poet is Korean doesn’t mean her writing should be defined by her country’s history, but in places it is clear that real events lie beneath Hyesoon’s surrealism. For example, the book’s title poem is a sequence that takes as its starting point a foot-and-mouth crisis in 2011. Hyesoon informs us in one of the interviews that three million diseased pigs needed to be destroyed but due to ‘difficulties’ in killing them, many were buried alive. Hyesoon saw comparisons with the treatment of human bodies during the years of the dictatorship which subsequently informed the poem. The sequence is compelling and unnerving in equal measure without that information but it’s even more powerful with it.

Hyesoon’s poetry is like nothing I’ve ever read before. This, of course, is a compliment if you believe that poetry should surprise and test a reader, as I do. It might leave you somewhat baffled if you don’t.

 

Katherine Stansfield’s first poetry collection, Playing House, is published by Seren. She lives in Aberystwyth.

Towards a Relational Poetics

Conceptual writing and alt lit


By Steven Hitchins


An exclusive essay from Poetry Wales Autumn 2014 issue

In Uncreative Writing Kenneth Goldsmith considers the impact of the internet on writing, suggesting that writing in the twenty-first century will be about managing the vast amount of text online, simply cutting and pasting text from one source to another, curating links – a conceptual writing where the idea is more important than the actual text.

Conceptual writing is characterised, in the work of Goldsmith, Simon Morris, Vanessa Place and Tan Lin, amongst others, by the techniques of copying, transcription and cataloguing.

Another literary movement that has emerged in the first decades of the twenty-first century might offer an alternative to conceptual writing in considering how the internet affects writing: the writers grouped under the term ‘alt lit’ show how a social grassroots beat- or punk-esque movement can take shape through social media. Some writers often described as alt lit include Noah Cicero, Tao Lin (not to be confused with Tan Lin), Megan Boyle, Brandon Scott Gorrell and Steve Roggenbuck. Alt lit has a less academic feel to conceptual writing, emerging through communities of writers promoting and publishing their work on social media networks. In its obsessive documenting of online life, alt lit is similar to conceptual writing, but while conceptual writing favours appropriation of found texts, alt lit is mostly devoted to autobiographical narratives.

Goldsmith’s proposal of conceptual writing seems to go along with what Brion Gysin once said about writing being fifty years behind art: ‘In 1959, Brion Gysin said that writing was 50 years behind painting. And it still is. So if conceptual art happened 50 years ago, we’re just beginning to get around to it now. These are ideas that have never been explored in poetry.’

I would disagree with this, however, because poetry was engaging with and questioning conceptual art in the 1970s, as can be seen in the work of poets like Allen Fisher, Bernadette Mayer and David Antin to mention just a few. Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing opens up interesting links between poetry and conceptual art, but I feel they can be developed further by looking at what has been going on in the world of art more recently.

In the late-nineties, Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational aesthetics’ to describe the ways in which he felt artists were reacting to the internet’s commodification of social and relational channels with works that were interactive and participatory.

Interactivity might entail actual activity on the part of the audience, such as in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free) where the artist cooked curry and rice in the exhibition space and served it to visitors free of charge; or the activity may be more ambiguous, inviting thought from the audience, as in the corporate stage-sets that suggest platforms for discussion in Liam Gillick’s Discussion Island/Big Conference Center.

While Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics is flawed, such as in the way it lumped together artists with very different concerns, it is an attempt to understand the contemporary situation while ‘ceasing to take shelter behind sixties art theory’ (Bourriaud, p. 7). I find it useful as a model with which to consider conceptual writing because Bourriaud identified differences between the relational art of the 1990s and the conceptual art of the 1960s: how relational art took up many of the issues of conceptual art but ‘relieved of the matter of the definition of art, so pivotal in the 1960s and 1970s’ (Bourriaud, p. 30). Rather than critiquing relations inside the art world (the question of what is art and what is not art), relational art drew attention to external relations, relationships between people and the world.

Bourriaud saw this relational aesthetic as continuing the utopian aims of modernity to ‘emancipate individuals and people’ (Bourriaud, p. 11), ‘to free humankind and usher in a better society’ (p. 12), but without the aim for totality: ‘Social utopias and revolutionary hopes have given way to everyday micro-utopias’(p. 31). The micro-utopias of relational art were utopian in their aim of ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’, though the aim of the art work was ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’ (p. 13). Whereas postmodern art had become disillusioned with modernist utopias, Bourriaud saw in relational art a return to ethical social aims but without the belief in totalising change.

I want to suggest that relational aesthetics could be used to consider how conceptual writing and alt lit, two web-derived genres at the start of the twenty-first century, are trying to find ways to move beyond the irony and relativism of the postmodernist endgame. It could offer ideas for how conceptual writing and alt lit might meet in a kind of social conceptual writing.

 

Copying

In Getting Inside Kerouac’s Head, Simon Morris retypes Kerouac’s On The Road, one page a day. In Day, Kenneth Goldsmith copies out the entire New York Times for a single day. In Statement of Facts, Vanessa Place lifts court transcripts from child abuse cases.

Appropriation has been a common device throughout twentieth-century poetry – from cubism to language poetry, writers have been stealing from other texts – but the dominant tendency has been for transformation of the appropriated text through fragmentation and collage.

In conceptual writing there is not so much transformation, or if there is, it is usually just one layer of transformation, often a simple act of lifting something out of context, keeping it otherwise intact. For conceptual writers ‘the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 3). It involves lightness of touch from the writer.

For readers of twentieth-century avant-garde poetry this lack of fragmentation might make the texts seem boring, but for conceptual writing that is part of the point. Conceptual writing steals boring texts. It favours the neutral tone of news reports, legal documents, bibliographical entries. Copying something that’s exciting might not work because we would end up reading the text for its content. The content is meant to repell the reader, to make us think about the concept.

In contrast to alt lit’s predominantly autobiographical, confessional mode, Goldsmith suggests that in foregoing a personal narrative and simply transposing a found text conceptual writers let the words speak for themselves.

Like conceptual writing, alt lit is characterised by a neutral tone, perhaps derived from the flattened affect experienced when communicating through instant messenger services like Gmail chat. Noah Cicero uses short single-sentence paragraphs to make it easier to read on screen, aspiring to the clarity of instruction manuals.

This is similar to the coherence in conceptual writing: ‘Start making sense. Disjunction is dead. The fragment, which ruled poetry for the past one hundred years, has left the building.’

For conceptual writing, wholeness is to make the content uninteresting; for alt lit writers like Cicero and Tao Lin, it’s to make it readable. Both are shocking due to the lack of that fragmentation that has become so dominant in avant-garde poetry over the course of the twentieth-century.

For Tao Lin, this involves meticulously detailed accounts of his experiences that try to avoid generalisations, assumptions and clichés. He writes ‘from an existential point of view, meaning it tries not to block out any information… In order to have morals one must block out information and make assumptions…’

He says he views everyone’s experience as unique, so tries not to simplify the complexity of experience: ‘I try not to think of anyone (in books, or in concrete reality) in terms of single words or terms. If I do use language that categorizes and simplifies I try to use it in a way that shows I’m aware – and I’d like the reader or listener to be aware – that, for whatever reason, I’m compromising the complexity and actualness of a thing.’

While conceptual writing seems to remain within the cool, ironic stance of postmodernism, alt lit seems to signal a move towards the micro-utopian positions of relational aesthetics. Whereas Goldsmith advocates unoriginality, falseness, inauthenticity, alt lit puts emphasis on sincerity, though not without some sense of irony. Alt lit poet Steve Roggenbuck says, ‘I use the outward trappings of irony … and try to express something sincere through it.’

 

Like relational art, alt lit does not propose to return to any totalising utopian project, but to develop out of postmodernism’s critique of the possibility of any singular, generalised universal truth towards a way of being truthful.

For Tao Lin this involves constant vigilance, as he strives to avoid generalisations while documenting his every thought and action in the hope of perhaps learning about himself and changing his behaviour. For Steve Roggenbuck, it’s a matter of donning an ironic cloak of mock-naivety in order to make startlingly direct statements with the aim of promoting more consciously aware ways of living.

Such moment-to-moment models for living are reminiscent of the micro-utopian approach in relational art; for example, when Rirkrit Tiravanija, in Untitled 1999 (Tomorrow Can Shut Up and Go Away), turns the gallery exhibition space into a replica of his apartment, which visitors are allowed to use. In doing so, he is not necessarily simply bringing non-art elements into the art space to make a Duchampian comment on art. He is asking how we can use the expanded art space opened up by conceptual art. Alt lit might be in a position to do something similar with the space opened up by conceptual writing, to turn it into a social space that can be used.

 

Transcribing

In Fidget, Kenneth Goldsmith transcribes self-made audio recordings detailing his every movement over the course of a day. In Soliloquy, he transcribes self-made audio recordings of everything he says over the course of a week. In the ‘American Trilogy’ of Weather, Traffic and Sports, he turns from self-made recordings to transcribing found recordings of weather reports over the course of a year, traffic reports over twenty-four hours and the commentary of an entire baseball game.

In Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith describes how his transcriptions draw on the methods of Andy Warhol, who used a tape-recorder to record friends talking, then got someone else to type it up for his novel a, and made films such as Sleep, a five-hour film of a man sleeping, and Empire, an eight-hour static shot of Empire State Building. ‘The prevalent trend was the quick edit and jump cut,’ he says, ‘but Warhol did the opposite: he plunked the camera on a tripod and let it run… and run… and run…’ (Goldsmith, Uncreative Writing, p. 145). Goldsmith’s transcriptions of audio recordings are like long static camera shots: though repetitive, static, going nowhere, they emphasise the passage of time. In contrast to the paratactic collage prevalent in twentieth-century avant-garde, Goldsmith just sets up the recorder and lets it run.

Like Goldsmith, Tao Lin uses a period of time as a narrative structure. His novels too are about the passage of time: ‘with all the focus on surface details, with no sentences devoted to thoughts or feelings, and I think that results in a kind of themelessness, that, in its lack of focus on anything else, the theme becomes, to me, the passage of time’.

Alt lit shows how social media impacts on our experience of time: mundane activities become more intensely experienced due to the hyperreal memory of archiving your life online as tweets and posts. In alt lit, this close attention to living in the present is accompanied by a melancholic sense that the present will soon become nostalgically poignant as it recedes into the past.

Social media also provides alt lit with a sense of detachment from experience – like a running commentary on your own thoughts and actions (similar to watching the world through a laptop camera as Tao Lin and Megan Boyle do in their MDMA films). As in Goldsmith’s transcriptions, we experience things at a remove. We read Traffic not as traffic reports but a transcription of traffic reports. This doubling is even more apparent when listening to the recording of Goldsmith reading the text, as he performs the reporter’s hesitations.

If conceptual writing says, ‘The world is full of texts; I do not wish to add any more’, then alt lit says, ‘The world is full of texts; I want to add more’. While conceptual writers tend to work with found texts, modelling themselves on readers negotiating the vast amount of text online, alt lit writers emulate the bloggers, tweeters, facebookers relentlessly adding to the online fabric by documenting their own every thought and action. Goldsmith: ‘social networking updates… fast and ephemeral… their value is in rapid succession… like so many shards they accumulate into a grand narrative of life’ (Uncreative Writing, p. 176). Alt lit is literature of accumulation. Text is churned out at speed.

Recording people speaking, whether on tape recorder or on internet chat, highlights the performativity of everyday conversation. Poetry is all around and as we move through a space we activate it, or catch its imprints, like Robert Rauschenberg’s Automobile Tire Print captures the paint-smeared tyre-print of John Cage’s car as it’s driven over twenty sheets of paper.

One of the main characteristics of relational art is that the art moment is difficult to locate. Liam Gillick says it is about ‘trying to find those aspects in a culture that are hard to grasp … the feeling you get of the light in a nightclub the morning after [or] standing outside a bar’.

The objects, texts, installations feel strangely incomplete, requiring the audience to activate them – perhaps simply by moving through the space. Gillick describes his work as ‘like the light in the fridge … it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art—it’s something else—stuff in a room.’

 

 

Cataloguing

In Via, Caroline Bergvall catalogues all the English translations of the first stanza of Dante. In Bibliographic Sound Track and The PhD Sound, Tan Lin compiles bibliographic lists of his reading materials.

Conceptual artists love things in series, alphabetical or chronological orders. John Baldessari photographed the backs of all the trucks he passed while driving. Ed Ruscha photographed many examples of the same thing: twenty-six gasoline stations, nine swimming pools. This archiving of the same plays on the variation found in repetition. Serial cataloguing shows a concern with time perhaps derived from the increased ability brought about by advances in photography and film to quickly document passing activity. It could also be seen to have developed from the geometric permutations of minimal art, such as the early modular structures of Sol Lewitt.

Tan Lin’s ambient bibliographies are plain and cold like some conceptual art. They are meant to be used like wallpaper, he says: a poetry of boredom; slow-motion PowerPoint poems that play in the background. They play on how we read and manage information; we don’t read bibliographic matter closely – just skim it. It could also give the reader something to do as you might decide to go off and read the works cited in his bibliographies.

Alt lit has a similarly obsessive, processual and repetitive character to conceptual writing, though with a focus on autobiographical material. Megan Boyle’s ‘Everyone I’ve Had Sex With’ and Brandon Scott Gorrell’s ‘All The Drugs I’ve Taken’ each describe lots of examples of the same theme catalogued in chronological order. The repeated phrases and patterns throughout the texts are reminiscent of the recurring forms in Ruscha’s photographs (‘we didn’t use a condom’, ‘I first took [drug] around the age of [age] or [age]’). This is akin to the archiving of the same in Tan Lin and Caroline Bergvall, but while conceptual writing generally draws on found text, alt lit uses personal online diary material (email, chat, posts). Tan Lin says his bibliographies are autobiographical but he records his life through his reading material rather than by writing about it. His alt lit almost-namesake, Tao Lin, isn’t as selective, stating that he doesn’t want to leave anything out, so records everything.

The cataloguing methods of conceptual writing and alt lit show that a book can be documentation of an event. In conceptual writing, the event documented is a writing event and the books are products or traces of those events. The event for alt lit writers is living their lives and this can be documented in tweets or posts. Tao Lin and Megan Boyle’s Muumuu House website publishes transcripts of Gmail chats and selections of Twitter feeds; Steve Roggenbuck publishes poems via Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter then collates them in his books.

Relational artists have also used cataloguing techniques; for example,  the texts, photographs and videos that Rirkrit Tiravanija uses to document a shared car journey to the exhibition in On the road with Jiew, Jeaw, Jieb, Sri and Moo. Like relational art, alt lit is not just about the art object (e.g. the book), but everything that goes on around it. The catalogued documention is part of wider social and community events.

Conceptual artists come up with recipes/scores/machines for someone else to carry out (e.g. someone draws Sol Lewitt’s lines on wall), but relational art shows that designing and carrying out instructions can be a social act. For example, in Streamside Day, Pierre Huyghe provided instructions and all materials needed for a festival to celebrate the opening of a new suburban town, which the community could then carry out each year.


Huyghe3 by Video_Blog_REWF

Like relational art, alt lit is about friendship and ethics . Like relational artists, Tao Lin and Steve Roggenbuck are ‘learning to inhabit the world in a better way’ (Bourriaud, p. 13). For example, Tao Lin says, ‘Art is like friendship. If you like someone you want to be their friend, and you want to introduce them to your other friends… If I like someone’s art I want to show it to people and I want to be their friend.’

While Steve Roggenbuck adds, ‘“success” to me is making people’s lives better.’

Conceptual writing’s obsessive cataloguing shows that the book can be a space to curate, while alt lit shows how that can be a social space. Relational art might suggest ways in which these can be brought together to provide a participatory, interactive poetry that explores and critiques the social spaces of the twenty-first century.

 

Review: Carolyn Jess-Cooke & Kathryn Simmonds

Emily Hasler reviews Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s Boom! (Seren, 2014) and Kathryn Simmonds’ The Visitations (Seren, 2013).

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Boom!, as the cover states, is a book ‘on motherhood’, recording the intimacies, joys and apprehensions of parenting from a personal perspective. Carolyn Jess-Cooke warns us what to expect from her second collection in the opening poem:

There was this baby who thought she was a hand grenade.
[…]
As you might expect, she blew us to smithereens
We survived, but in a different state […]
(‘Boom’)

Boom! CoverLife-changing is too coy, this is a continually transformative process whereby the atoms of identity are violently rearranged. The experience is recreated in poems that are fresh with ideas and imagery:

to rut the fattened mole of myself
[…]
to burrow through the month’s clotted walls —
as though I had to sow and aerate the day
of her birth in time’s soil
like something that had never before existed.
(‘The Days of the Ninth Month’)

The book follows a roughly narrative course, from courtship to labour, from first baby to fourth. The children are only referred to as ‘my first-born child’, ‘my baby girl’, ‘my two-year old’ and so on, so that nameless and numberless they inhabit developing identities as they, and the family, grow. Later in the collection, anxieties of motherhood give way to memories of the poet’s own childhood; dark remembrances of domestic violence and suicide which nonetheless are explored openly and with a remarkable kindness. This is a generous and open book, a record of personal experience that offers comfort rather than judgment to anyone in similar situations.

These poems are often moving and powerful, being both tender and visceral, but the sentiment is sometimes overindulged. In places the imagery is weak or repetitive. A classic extract is ‘[I] kiss where the gosling floss / flicks from the velvet arc of her nape’ (‘To a Zoopraxiscope’). Jess-Cooke is too clever to fall into cliché, but the layering on of such blond, downy phrasing gives this book a consistency that will not appeal to all. Sometimes the vignettes, although emotionally powerful, are confused or unclear. However, if the style is not always winning and the subject matter rather linear, our trust in the poet’s sincerity never falters.

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Kathryn Simmonds’ second collection also tackles motherhood, but it does so as part of a broader range of negotiations with modern life. Simmonds is a poet who revels in the quotidian, brilliantly evoking the aromas and textures of her domestic settings: ‘Sit up and see the sheets fine-wired with pubic hair and eyelashes,/ skin cells scattered like flakes of prehistory’ (‘Oversleeping’). From these cosy (or stifling) interiors the poet addresses universal questions. The opening poem begins ‘Since I’ve stopped praying/ I’ve got so much more done’ (‘Sunday Morning’) and the issue of faith, or lack of it, persists throughout the book. The Visitations are the moments we find in among the laundry and the nappies, because or in spite of everything distracting us from them: ‘Sometimes he comes as creosote / And leaves a nasty stain’ (‘The Visitations’).

Simmonds loves rhyme and form, using it elastically and boldly. The book mixes short lucid lyrics with longer pieces, meditations that lope across the page. These conversational poems are rich and complex, unfolding further with each rereading. ‘On the Island of San Michelle’, among the graves of the departed, the expectant mother and partner fail to find Pound’s grave and instead try out the names of the dead as if summoning a ghost rather than a baby:

jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjj  you buried alive
jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjin your swirl of limbo

Nobone. jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjWetstar.

At the centre of the collection is a sequence, ‘The Life Coach Variations’. There is no narrative or resolution in these short, irregular verses, just glimpses of a ‘hero’ who is vain, arrogant, lonely and aging. There is mockery or satire here; the subtitles, like the names of cautionary prints, hold us at a remove but in the poems themselves free indirect speech allows Simmonds to induce sympathy for a character who is despairing but trying, hopeless but determined. The final lines even hint at veiled self-portrait: ‘This is me he says squinting./ This is me.’ (‘The Life Coach Paints a Self-Portrait’). Elsewhere, Simmonds mocks her own way of living and there is a constant tension about where importance lies:

The end of time is approaching, but, like a country bus,
jjjjjjjjit’ll come when it comes.
jjjjjjjjOther people die, apparently. We have actually seen it happen.
There are lists and box sets,
there are days when it might still be jacket weather or maybe
jjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjtime for the coat.
‘Apocryphal’

It’s not a flawless performance, but actually the looseness, the lack of determined cohesion, is part of this book’s charm. That charm is abundant in ‘Conversation with a Lime Tree’. The title recalls Coleridge’s famous address but the issues are as much economic as spiritual, as much about domesticity as nature, and how all of the above pull at our sense of identity and security. Here is the best of Simmonds; funny, deft, deep but never strained, touching on both modern and eternal issues. I only wish the collection finished on this poem, for it makes nothing happen in the best way; a quiet wonder as if something important has been explained, a fleeting answer visited on us.


Emily Hasler was born in Felixstowe and now lives and works in London. Her pamphlet, Natural Histories (Salt), was published in 2011 and in 2014 she received an Eric Gregory Award. 

 

Review: Tiffany Atkinson & Zoë Skoulding

 

From the Summer 2014 issue: Sarah Howe reviews Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts (Bloodaxe, 2014) and Zoë Skoulding’s The Museum of Disappearing Sounds (Seren, 2014)

 

The striking cover image of Tiffany Atkinson’s So Many Moving Parts shows a crouching human body reduced to a metallic armature, its contours porous like a reef or birdcage. Where the head and torso should be, the body’s inner workings burst out in a spray of a thousand pink magnolia flowers, spreading up the gallery wall. Titled ‘Interface’, this installation by American artist Bradley Sabin reflects Atkinson’s own fascination, in her third collection of poems, with the interface between body and consciousness. The opening poem, ‘Nightrunning’, zooms in on the interior of the chest:

It’s all a mistake, this body,
this job, this love. Somewhere inside
where the heart spins hard on its string
is an animal watching. It scratches
at night, perhaps with a beak or a tusk,
is neither kind nor unkind, just restless.

In this curious melding of anatomy and bestiary (‘where the lungs stretch their intricate wings’) can be glimpsed the book’s coming preoccupation with the ‘strings’ that bind together flesh and selfhood.

That word ‘mistake’ bookends the collection. The final poem, ‘Mantra’, is a litany or list-poem structured around the intriguing refrain, ‘The ego’s a mistake…’, and gives the collection its title:

The ego’s a mistake
sharp with grievance

aaaaaa mistake
in four half-fluent languages
not including body: what a scrum –
so many moving parts

It’s not till the book’s last page, then, that we see the title phrase in situ. The twin emphasis here on body and language reminded me of Descartes’ dualist body-as-machine, but also Wallace Stevens’ mot about poems being ‘little machines made out of words’. Atkinson’s book is fascinated by machinery and mechanisms of a more literal sort, from the brokendown tilling machines and ‘oil- / dulled Raeburn’ of ‘Farm Sale, Tregaron’, to the familiar office coffee machine with ‘Something / amiss’ in ‘Hex’, to the ‘yellow huge behaviours / and deep hands’ of the JCBs in ‘Diggers’. Yet the book also keeps in play complex systems of a more metaphysical variety, as when a bird-colonized atoll dissolves into flight: ‘by will the air becomes / gannets, an idea of geometry / pushed through a ravenous body’ (‘A Film of Gannets’). At such moments the title’s latent pun creeps to the surface: ‘moving’ as both ‘in motion’ and ‘emotionally affecting’.

The paradox of a poem like ‘Mantra’ is the feint by which it take the ‘ego’ as its avowed subject, and yet proceeds entirely in an impersonal third-person: the poet shades herself artfully out of frame. The final lines of the poem – and thus of the book – take a risk that’s characteristic of the collection’s wider movement:

The ego’s a mistake
hence love
hence grief

In leaping away from the earlier, concrete comparisons (‘The ego’s a mistake / with a finely tuned appreciation / of nicotine and Sancerre’), Atkinson makes a final bid for significance out of archness that doesn’t wholly succeed in what is overall a fresh, moving and brilliantly inventive book. For similar reasons, the strand of poems haunted by the speaker’s father – whose military career gave rise to her childhood rootlessness – doesn’t sit quite right in its skin. ‘Avdimou’ recounts an anecdote in which the speaker, taken as a child on one of her father’s habitual sailing trips to Greece, drops a favourite toy soldier overboard: ‘I held my favourite thing over the deck / and let him go’. The girl’s unstated motives for this act speak eloquently enough already without the adult’s editorializing final line-and-a-half: ‘I had / forgotten this; am not sure what it means’.

If all this sounds rather sombre, I should add that some of the most striking, and touching, moments in the book come from its dry sense of humour. Sometimes this emerges in oddball descriptions with a chuckle-inducing rightness, as when ‘The hands of flight attendants’ (in the poem of that title) ‘shake us like napkins / from thin air / and place us helpless in our own laps’. It seems no coincidence that the pair of poems featuring Ira the ‘philosopher’ relates the knotted bonds of human society to the coils of the digestive system. Both ‘Guts’ and ‘Crystal’ dwell on the ‘purgatory’ and/or pleasure involved in taking a shit. The poems’ philosophical speculations are delightfully ‘earthed’: the pensive crescendo of ‘Oh, Ira, what does the world want?’ follows on from a ‘sticky thorn / of crap’ dropped by a black Labrador named, amusingly, ‘Crystal’. Atkinson sees the absurdity in everyday scenarios, but also their poetic potential.

 

Zoë Skoulding’s The Museum of Disappearing Sounds  – recently shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award – is her third collection from Seren. An important reminder of how easy it is for writers to privilege the visual end of the sensorium, Skoulding’s poems revel in their effort to unlock noise and breath from the silent inscription of writing. Before the era of  sound artists, museums were exclusively a repository for things to be seen . (When you think about it, compared with the early graphic technologies of drawing or writing, live sound recording is a remarkably recent innovation.)

The ‘Museum’ of the title poem features a series of exhibits that are, on the one hand, elegies to the transitory nature of sound as an event. But, on the other, their voice is remade – as all poems surely are – in the mind’s ear of each new reader:

in a breath a crackle of static
disturbance
xxxxxxx a detuned radio in one lung

drones erase one other
xxxxxxx electricity sings in D
tyres slur across the street

The slant rhyme of ‘tyres’ and ‘slur’ suggests how far the poet’s traditional resources inform these poems’ more experimental textures. The book encompasses Skoulding’s interest, as a performer and researcher, in the acoustic possibilities of field recordings and electronic music. Its title (but for a slightly modified preposition) comes from an essay by R. Murray Schafer called ‘I Have Never Seen a Sound’, which asks provocatively, ‘Where are the museums for disappearing sounds?’ Schafer sent out his students into Vancouver to record the ambient noises of their city, jotting a card to note the time and place at which each ‘sound object’ was captured.

Skoulding’s poems similarly explore the interactions between sound and physical location. The overlaying of soundscape and cityscape is at its clearest in a peripatetic sequence called ‘From Here’. In ‘The Rooms’, the book’s long culminating series, the poems’ sound world becomes more interior, taking on an architecture part-material, part-mental. (‘Stanza ’ is of course the Italian word for ‘room’.) The titular room numbers and their unknown significance – we jump from ‘Room 321’ to ‘Room 201’ to ‘Room 117’ and so on – multiply the sense of the uncanny: we lack the glossy plan for this museum, which might also be a hotel, or another kind of building entirely. Sounds bounce off walls like surfacing memories:

xxxxxxxxxxxxxx repeating the distance from
door
to bed
xxxxxxxxxx chair to window

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx  window to floor
to mirror
(‘Room 321’)

This sequence’s ping-ponging about the page demonstrates Skoulding making strenuous and convincing use of such layouts, in which white space measures out the duration of a silence, or breath.

‘The Man in the Moone’ is a three-part poem that borrows its title from a seventeenth-century work of science fiction by Francis Godwin. In the following section, the last two lines come from Godwin’s description of the Moon-based utopian civilization of the ‘Lunars’, who communicate in a language of wordless music (a bit like Renaissance Clangers):

distributed in music the tension of a
single note everywhere between breaths
holding inside it weight and distance in

gravity as tightrope stutter they row
themselves through air with giant fans and
utter their minds by tunes without words.

Skoulding’s breathless syntax runs up against the measuring line breaks, enacting the musical ‘tension’ – held ‘between breaths’ – these finely-gauged stanzas describe. For Godwin, the Lunars’ tuneful tongue was a version of the ‘perfect language’ spoken before Babel, which was the questing beast of seventeenth-century philologists. Skoulding’s poems glance at this dream of language as sound perfectly aligned with thought, but at the same time refuse to give up on the crackle and hiss of a more mundane music. The ‘giant fans’ the Lunars use to propel themselves around the Moon’s low gravity nod wryly at the collection’s cover, which shows a tiled collage of extractor fan vents. The Lunars’ celestial music meets the industrial city’s white noise.

The afterlife of Babel comes through in the book’s interest in translation, as in ‘Variants on a Polish Fragment’:

this is glass this is szk?a or szk?o depending on where
it catches the light and I can’t see anything through it
only hear the rasp of broken bottles

The opacity of the glass – and by extension of the foreign word – suggests Skoulding’s sophisticatedly synesthetic play in these poems, which frequently invoke sight and touch en route  to sound. The wonderfully titled ‘Ô’, on the facing page, wears its foreignness on its sleeve, the circumflex diacritic being of course alien to English, except in loan words like rôle . That Skoulding writes from the multilingual environment of Wales becomes important here, since the circumflex (which Wikipedia tells me is known colloquially as bach , or ‘little roof ’) will sometimes be used to disambiguate a long ‘o’ in Welsh. The poem’s opening lines recall the musical language of Godwin’s Lunars: ‘while tones of planets descend / in scales as if thought were pitch / not picture but single note’. ‘Pitch’ is perfectly chosen here, poised as it is between the auditory and visual, suggesting at once the music of thought and a visible angle of declination – like a plane’s pitched nose, or the pitched roof of a circumflex accent. Yet, in the opposite direction, the poem implies there is something universal about the long ‘Ô’ – that producing this sound in the body, with a ‘tightening of the throat’ and the mouth rounded to an O, is a physical constant that might transcend cultures, and the need for translation. These are poems as nourishing in their intelligence as they are satisfying to sound on the lips.


Sarah Howe was born in Hong Kong in 1983. Her first collection is due from Chatto in 2015. 

This review is from the Summer 2014 Issue. Find out more about what’s inside this issue here.

Read an interview with Tiffany Atkinson. 

 

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