Poetry and market apparatus

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Bit of a Prokofiev day today, after this morning’s Building a Library on R3. Apparently he once said, “[Russia] has no use for music at the moment.”

Turbulent times back then, of course, but it’s not like we’re currently living in an age of wine and roses. Swap ‘Party diktat’ for ‘market diktat’ and many of the same pejorative forces on art are still very much in evidence.

Exploring the relationships between power structures, language and art, has been pretty much my thing for a few decades now. I see it in what gets featured on the BBC, what gets hung in galleries, what trends forecasters forecast, what wins prizes, what book covers look like, what editors and publishers choose to publish – and what they don’t.

I see it in the rules we claim are ‘normal’ and ‘useful’ and ‘valid’, and in the dismissal of artists who don’t apply those rules. I see it in our narrow and mediocre artistic output, and when the same critics and commentators appear over and over again to service the same old endgame.

I see it as we lose our ability to be critical of the mainstream and when we stop being brave in our creativity. I see it when we start to believe all art must have a direct function beyond art itself, and when we value art through numbers (copies sold, social media likes, viewing figures, audience share, bums on seats). I see it when we hear that an arts venue has to ‘wash its face’ and in the box-ticking exercises of funding applications.

These criteria are the tools of political systems that fully understand the potential power of art and popular entertainment. They are fashioned to look democratic and meritocratic but are nothing of the sort. To accept them is to limit our understanding of what might take us forward as a society as a whole. They are tools that seek to suppress knowledge and deny real lived experience.

The worst thing is, in seeking success as artists, and during the honest attempt to promote other artists, so many artists actually end up doing the work of these state systems, and at the very least being apologists for them. They become constituent parts of the market apparatus.

Now, I’d hardly call myself part of the avant garde. I’m not avant garde enough for that! But I think about these things every day as I write. I ask, “Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? What am I writing?” And if it all looks a bit like I’m kowtowing to voices other than my own, I stop, change something, mess it up a bit.

So that’s what I was thinking about when I was thinking about Prokofiev today. And now I’m off to write some poetry about working class voices and the terminology of finance capital.

Sounds like a jolly bunch of laughs, doesn’t it!

Image: Prokofiev, reading this post, earlier.

 

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That Friday feeling

Well, it has felt like a very slow week here. ‘Haulage’, I called it over on my @mwbewick Instagram account. And the world has hardly been light.

Around this time last year I was in thick of compiling entries in a journal that became The Orphaned Spaces (see http://www.dunlinpress.bigcartel.com). The entry for 6 Jan was this:

It’s a reminder that amidst such midwinter gloom, it won’t be long until spring is here. Which in turn reminds me of how much writing I’ve promised myself.

I have three separate poetry projects on the go at the moment, and the trick, I think… is not to stop. Even if at times it feels like nothing more than haulage.

Dunlin Press: Port submissions

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As many of you are no doubt aware, alongside my own writing, I’m also a co-founder and editor over at Dunlin Press. Over ‘there’, we’ve recently opened up submissions for a book that we’ll be publishing later this year. The scope for the project is as follows:

Dunlin Press is inviting submissions for a new book, Port, to be published in 2019. Non-fiction, reportage and journalistic reports, poetry, fictions, local history, biography, exploratory and experimental texts will be considered.

We are looking for contributions from around the UK and that map ports – the cities, towns and villages where they are located, the landscapes they are part of, the places they connect, the people who inhabit them and work there, and the nature that co-exists there.

What is a port? A harbour? A haven? A place of arrival? A point for departure? A port is a place where ‘here’ contacts ‘there’; where known and unknown meet; where perceptions of possible experience are expanded.

From the traditional fishing village to the mechanised container city and the old docks redeveloped into marinas and cultural quarters, time shapes our ports and ports shape people and society. Who lives there? What occurs there? When and why does the success or failure of a port occur? How do ports frame our experience of island life?

Dunlin Press is seeking contributions for a new book that will explore some of these questions, in writing that challenges what we know of ports around the UK. Which port has made an impact on you? What would you write about it?

We are particularly interested in intelligent writing that contends with social issues, psychogeographies, and exploratory and experimental texts and forms. All writing should be original, of high quality and offer something intriguing, insightful and compellingly different.

For full submission details, see here.

We’re really excited by this project and I’m hoping we’ll get a broad range of submissions from across the UK. And, while I know a lot of poetry people, it would also be good to see lots of prose, reportage, or even prose poems, as we’re not aiming for a poetry anthology. I wonder if some poets will submit in alternative disciplines…

The great thing about opening up a project for submissions is that you never quite know what you’ll get, and while we have a clear editorial vision about what we ‘like’, the final form and breadth of such a project will always really be in the hands of the talented writers – many of whom we might not yet be familiar with. The deadline for submissions is end of March 2019, so this is a time of suspense for us at Dunlin Press.

We’re really looking forward to seeing what falls into our inbox.

MWB

Bad bad poems. The worst.

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‘Stories won’t fuel me.
Feed me blank pages
and I’ll score them like Hendrix.
Have you seen my chickens?
My chickens are in the forgeworks
Popping their claws like corn.’

Chris McCabe, from ‘Campfire’, in The Triumph of Cancer, Penned in the Margins, 2018

or

‘this is not to say
she’s like a fish
she isn’t      you’ll think
I’ve said that she
is      like a fish’

Vahni Capildeo, from ‘Charlotte Street’, in Venus as a Bear, Carcanet, 2018

or

‘To eye apart fine arrow key you know leaf
greeted in fading search ahead, acres ready
set aside, nothing happens here…’

JH Prynne, from ‘To Eye Apart’, in Or Scissel, Shearsman, 2018

or even

‘They have so much trouble remembering, when your forgetting
Rescues them at last, as a star absorbs the night.’

John Ashbery, from ‘The Other Tradition’, in Selected Poems, Carcanet, 2002

…being just some of the words I’ve read and liked this year. Did we all understand them? Does it matter? Should I provide more context? Would it help?

What are we looking for here? Are we looking for answers? Should a poem have answers? Is that a good poetic structure – to pose a question and drill down into it, excavate some sedimentary truth, some human remains?

No wonder poets are always concerned with details and parameters. Start small, build out. Write what you know. Don’t run before you can walk. Never fall over.

A falling over poem is a bad poem. Don’t confuse your audience. If you can’t understand your poem then who else is going to read it?

Write poems that appeal. If a poem doesn’t appeal it won’t have an audience. To appeal is to aim for truth, however small. A broad audience is better than a narrow audience.

But big ideas aren’t better than small ideas. If your poem connects with a broad audience it must have something, something good. We are all of us seeking these simple truths. We seek definition, clarity.

Poems that only speak to poets are bad poems. Bad bad poems. The worst.

Are you a poet? Are you not also a person? I am a person. When a poem appeals to me as a poet it also appeals to me as a person, as I am a person before I am a poet.

What are McCabe and Capildeo and Prynne and Ashbery on about? The back cover of Or Scissel puts it like this:

‘This most recent experiment with words on the page continues the duet-passage between JH Prynne and the possibilities of lyrical transformation…’

Ah! There’s that thought! That poetry can transform the word itself, and maybe the world, or our understanding of it (which, surely, is all we have). Is the world any more than the word, in any case? Language, power, etc.

Out, out damned spot! Are these thoughts not harmful to poetry?

‘Poetry should be left-aligned, Times New Roman, 12pt. So much as an indent gives us shivers.’ I wrote that, earlier this year. I was joking, obviously.

I mean, sometimes it’s like the 20th-century never happened. Some terrible detour into imagist, stream of consciousness, cut-up, bricolage, concrete, cubist, surrealist, Dada, postmodern, post-structuralist, post-colonial, deconstructionist radical feminist radical nonsense that we should pretend never happened.

I mean, how would any of that help describe our world? A whole century of sham poetics. Better we return to iambs and hexameters, nice neat quatrains, learn once more how to describe a flower. We all love flowers, don’t we? Or explain how difficult it is to be a mum, to lose a dad. Real lives, real thoughts, real poetry. Those old rhymes in Hallmark cards – at least they meant something. Bring on the Instapoets, the Nationwide ad masses. Don’t try to be too clever. But remember to make it modern (which means urban, not rural – and the hardships, not the joys, of city life).

And let’s remove the complexities. Let’s get to the point, have each metred footstep lead us on to the petits vérités of life.

And then let us sleep, and let our audiences sleep, sound.

The Orphaned Spaces

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For the past year, between writing poetry, I’ve been busy with another project – and it’s launching this week. The Orphaned Spaces is a rumination on life and loss through the prism of liminal spaces – derelict land, brownfield sites, edgelands – caught between moments of dilapidation and regeneration.

I’ve provided the words and a few photos for it, and Ella Johnston has created some beautiful illustrations, still-life nature photography, and pressed flower images. The project takes the form a paperback book (pictured in this post), but also a highly limited edition, made to order box set, with hand-stitched booklets, archival prints, wildflower seeds, a reliquary and more. It’s quite a thing!

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The project was only meant to be a brief interlude for us here at Dunlin Press, but it escalated. We spent a year visiting places that had fallen into dereliction – that had been ‘left behind’ – collecting images and information, and working out what these spaces mean to us. 

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And once you see the sites, they seem to appear everywhere. Suddenly, the perimeter of a car park or building site, a crumbling factory or depot, a canal wall, a railway siding, all become places of interest.

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We also talked to conservationists about the rare flora and fauna that thrives in these places, and about how best to manage their precarious ecologies. Ruderal species, pioneer plants, nature’s order of succession… unfolding in front of us, changing as the seasons turned…

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The words in the book take the form of a diary that runs over the course of a year. They were made from notes made in my journal at the time, in the field, as we explored or passed these ‘orphaned spaces’. They’re about the natural world, and about place, of course. But really they’re about time, and about how we cope with loss and with change. They’re about what we permit ourselves to ‘see’, and what we turn away from.

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Life springs from these deserted places. It persists, even when it seems as if it can’t.

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Fittingly, the magenta cover image of The Orphaned Spaces is of Rosebay willowherb – ‘fireweed’, exploding out of a black background. It is, of course, the plant that sprang from the craters of a bombed-out London after the Second World War to become a symbol of the city – and which has spread, like so many other species, via the conduits of rail and road, naturalising itself in areas of what’s sometimes called ‘waste ground’, all across the land.
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There’s more about the book and box set over at the Dunlin Press shop.

 

Game of forms

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What I admire in some poets is that they know what they want from their writing. They produce work to the same high standard, sure of the form the poems will take and precise in their vocabulary every time. They seem to be able to do this at will. And this means you can throw subject matter at them and they can respond. Ask them to write about a dry stone wall, or a birthday, or some news event, and it will be done, and their voice will ring true.

What I admire in some other poets is their adaptability when set a challenge. They are given an opportunity to write for a journal or competition and they seem to know innately what must be done. They produce work that, though it shape-shifts in form and style, also responds to any given brief with a clarity of purpose, and the poet’s efforts are regularly recognised with publication, commendations and prizes. Writing for prizes is a skill distinct from, say, writing for a collection, and some poets absolutely nail it.

But there are also other types of poet. There are, for example, some for whom purpose and signature voice seems much more about enquiry – the journey, perhaps – than having a certain idea as to the outcome. It’s not that their voice doesn’t make itself known, or that their work is distractingly inconsistent, it’s just that you’re never quite sure where they’re headed next.

I was thinking about these distinctions while selecting some poems for an upcoming reading. I written a lot over the past year – and since the publication of Scarecrow. And in that time I’ve encountered some real dead ends as well as making some decent steps forward with what I want from my own work.

What am I getting at?

At first, post-Scarecrow, my new poems were rather slight on the page. Looking back, it was as if I could barely commit to new words at all. White space was left to illuminate the page. One-word lines, two-line stanzas… new thoughts only hinted at, elemental, stripped back to the point where they were barely there. I wrote a poem about a piece of furniture; another about a potato. Somewhere in all this was a need to get back to the very building blocks of writing, and the creative process itself.

Within a few months, however, something changed. Rain poured on an old cottage in the Calder Valley, and words came, too. Suddenly, lines were flowing across the page and forming long, dense stanzas, and columns of poetry filled my notebook. There was too much to say and it was all coming in torrents.

Formally, the work I was attending to last summer is very different to the poems I’m trying to hone at the moment. Am I being inconsistent? Have I somehow lost my voice, or never gained it? I’m not so sure. I think it’s all part of the same process – part of the ‘digging’ – and part of working out what it is I want to say next. What’s clear is that I’m not allied to any singular form, but I am certain that whatever form a poem eventually takes it should inform the meaning of the piece.

I’m reminded too that I’m not keen on poetry that seems more concerned with adhering to arbitrary formal rules than actually ‘saying’ anything of interest. So you can write a tight Petrarchan sonnet; you’re always delighted to see a sestina, and love some oulipo action… but why? What for? I honestly believe that writing poetry should be more than a game of forms, and formal rules are only one part of a poet’s toolkit.

And I’m meandering, rather like my recent work. And it’s almost time for dinner. And tomorrow I need to hack away at some words that link snow and the night sky, a ‘joke’ in a symphony, an office bin, cherry blossom, and ageing. And the ways to do this are to apply the tools of symmetry, elision, repetition, and deletion (thanks L Bernstein). And then we’ll see what form the poem has taken.

(P.S. All of this is subject to change.)

I am not here

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When we first moved to Wivenhoe, Essex, over six years ago now, my compass still pointed towards London. The railway was a thin chain, a line of landscape that linked our new home with our old home in the city. A combination of changing jobs, Network Rail’s interminable bus replacement services, and a general digging in to our new environment, has seen a shift made.

I wrote no poetry when I left London. I was touting a vaguely experimental novel, playing guitar and singing. Then, after a couple of years here, I started attending Poetry Wivenhoe‘s monthly evening of readings, at which a guest poet, local poet and open mic poets get up on stage for a couple of hours. After a few sessions, I started writing, and reading.

Last year, Scarecrow, a first collection of poetry, was published through me and Ella Johnston‘s own ‘small publishing concern’, Dunlin Press. I had some poems published in journals, too, and I read at poetry events across East Anglia, in London, and in Liverpool.

Wherever I thought I was when I arrived in Wivenhoe, I was not. Some of these thoughts made it into Scarecrow.

So where am I? I appear to have arrived amid a loose, but connected, sometimes neighbourly, sometimes geographically distanced, collective of supportive and curious minds – people who seek out, listen to, read, and most of all write poetry. Some of that poetry rhymes. Some of it doesn’t. Some of its meaning is straightforward and transparent. Some of it is oblique or opaque – a conundrum that doesn’t care whether it’s ever solved.

But what most of the poets I meet these days share, is the knowledge that what they do is outside of direct commercial concerns. It’s not usually seeking large audiences, or existing as some kind of a priori exercise in soliciting funding. That doesn’t mean it’s not good poetry. In fact I often feel the opposite. What it means is that it has other reasons for being. It is created because those who create it feel compelled to do so, compelled to describe – to interrogate, make ambiguous, reinterpret, reimagine – the world in which they live, perhaps for no other reason than they can.

Does poetry make you money? It’s a fair question. But why do you ask? It might help me if it did. But would it help you, too? There’s something about doing something that doesn’t offer financial return that really offends people.

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In December, I headed back from Cumbria/The Lake District to Essex via Liverpool, to give a reading at the launch of issue two of Coast to Coast to Coast, a handstitched journal of poetry edited and produced by Maria Isakova Bennett and Michael Brown, in which I had a poem, Ways.

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December is a busy time in the day-job for me, and I almost said no to going. In a week of travelling, Liverpool was an extra diversion. But there, at the Open Eye Gallery, were these people again. These poets, and an audience that had come to hear the poetry, reading and listening to the world being subtly reinvented, our understanding of the world being polished, muddied, sharpened, blunted.

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It’s strange now, thinking of that high tension line I had drawn between Essex and London six-and-a-bit years ago. So direct, so certain. And now what? Well, it’s January and I’m back in Wivenhoe again. And this is good. Except I am also not here. It’s like everything is starting to be everywhere. And this is good too.

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