From the Miniature to the Virtual: Informationist Dundee

Like several  Scottish and Northern cities which have struggled with their changing identity – are they, as formerly, principally provincial conglomerations, or can they become something more, something capable of rebalancing the stacked centre/region dichotomy? – Dundee has performed and continues to perform a series of displacements and rewritings of its history and its culture.

Although I’ve been thinking and writing about this for some time, it wasn’t until I was showing the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano around some key (for me) sites in the city (the Trades Kirk, the Tay Whale skeleton, Groucho’s, the Kahlo portrait in the Taybridge Bar, Mennie’s, the bandstand on the Magdalen Green) that I began to categorise these actions.

One such displacement is or seems permanent: demolition – of Dundee’s monuments and buildings of note, as happened to the Pillars, the Royal Arch, the Overgate (including General Monck’s House), and so on. A lesser version of this is the locking up of sites, or at least rendering them accessible only in limited, controlled circumstances, as continues to be the case with the medieval Auld Steeple in the heart of the city.

Another displacement is the squatting, evident everywhere in post-imperial/tail end of Welfare State Britain, of the short-term profitable – bars and restaurants, mostly – in the formerly civic and state-sponsored – often post offices and libraries. Linked to this last behaviour is atomisation – the breaking up of local department stores, Draffens, D.M. Brown’s, into separate premises, as if the coherence of a community cannot hold, and only national and international enterprises may thrive in their ‘ruins’, which, as with the Anglo-Saxon poet’s meditation on Bath, come to seem the inexplicable ‘work of giants’.

These largely commercial and philistine repressions lead to reactive gestures of nostalgia and memorisation – keeping memories alive through oral history and publications focussed on locality and reminiscence – and the peculiar phenomenon of miniaturisation: tiny models of the Pillars appear on two buildings around the City Square, marking it as an absence, rather than as an open space, a plaza, while the Overgate is reproduced as a model in the McManus Gallery.

Where the Overgate itself (now in its second distinct manifestation as a mall, post-demolition of the historic version) emerges onto that same space at the centre of town, there are a series of small models of landmarks, including Cox’s Stack – as yet undemolished, but clearly occupying a similar place in the Dundonian imagination. Up the Perth Road, too, there is a model of the still-standing Magdalen Green bandstand.

Reality, Dundee people have recognised, is profoundly unreliable, and what it is to be Dundonian must instead be conceptualised as a model, in order to be internalised as an ideal, an icon. (Another aspect of this is represented by the occasional doubling of names, so that there is indeed a bar on the Perth Road called ‘The Speedwell Tavern’, but, as with the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking Glass, everyone knows its name is Mennie’s.)

Could it be the case that: as with Dundee’s buildings, so with its culture? One would think not, with a thriving scene manifested by exhibition, degree course, festival and prize. Indeed, in the run-up to the bid for the City of Culture in 2013, it was thought a good idea to have a Dundee Makar, or city laureate. After all, Edinburgh had one – indeed, Scotland had one, in the estimable form of Liz Lochhead – why not Dundee? I was honoured to be selected as the first Makar, only for the City of Culture bid, almost immediately, to be won by Hull. How very Dundonian. Then my father died. How very, what’s the word? unfair.

Since then I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly what my role could be. A few poems on public occasions, of course – but what are those, and how shall they be disseminated? Football matches (on napkins), a graduation ceremony (on a leaflet), the Referendum and the General Election (online). A bit of editing and contributing to anthologies and panels and readings – Whaleback City, Seagate 3, the Literary Festival. A few talks and schools visits here and there (the McManus, the Grove – I’m also one of Dundee’s Scots Language Ambassadors). Is that sufficient? Is that what every Dundonian wants? And if I’m not answerable to every Dundonian, who am I answerable to?

It struck me a while back that the very idea of the Makar was one which required, as the word ‘makar’ usually does, further interrogation – now Glasgow has one, Stirling is looking to have one, Jackie Kay has taken over at the national level (and we should note in passing that Liz Lochhead came in for some stick for politicising that role).

So what are we? Something between an old style Writer-in-Residence and those writers being absorbed by the universities to teach in the lucrative field of Creative Writing? (Note how that echoes the shift from civic to profit-led policies noted above.) Or something new, outside that frame altogether? How are we to be supported, funded, publicised – should we be, and how much should we be doing?

Back in 1993 I arranged a conference in Elgin at the end of a residency there to discuss how the role of the Writer-in-Residence was evolving from something practice-led (you were given money, you wrote) to something pedagogic (you were given money, you taught). Writers, academics and arts (and other) administrators came and discussed the matter; I wrote some of it up in the magazine I was editing at the time, Gairfish; and then I went to become Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham universities and across the Northern Arts region as was. I didn’t come back to live in Scotland again till becoming Makar twenty years later, and even then it was voluntary and partial – I weekend in a rented flat in Broughty Ferry.

In the meantime I’ve been several ‘fellows’ (including first Fellow at the Wordsworth Trust, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle, and, most recently, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature). I’ve engaged in a large public art scheme in Darlington as ‘chief writer’, recently embarked on a huge new phase. And, since 2013, I’ve represented Dundee at literary festivals in the Czech Republic, Kolkata, Shanghai and Mexico City.

I’ve had a go at a lot of roles, and I’ve seen how several types of administration have evolved over the same period – academic, governmental, organisations with charitable status. All the goalposts have moved to such an extent since the 90s that the game may be quite different, but we all seem to still be playing (at) something.

So it would appear to be time to have that debate again, to gather together all the Makars and the organisations which support them, and find out where we stand and what we stand for. How is funding split between arts organisations, universities, and local councils? What does that say about our responsibilities to whom?

In the meantime, I find myself working in the familiar (to writers) interstices between roles. Between the academic demands of teaching, admin and research, and the more general ways one can be useful as tutor/teacher/mentor, or judge/reviewer/speaker, you write stuff. And between the poems and the essays and the fiction, there’s another kind of writing I’ve found myself doing which relates both to the indefiniteness of what a Makar is, and to the gestures of miniaturisation and memorisation mentioned above.

Years ago, while I was still editing Gairfish with Richard Price, I began a series called ‘Virtual Scotland’, in which I took Scottish history, social or literary, archeological and folkloric, and the tone of the academic or the journalist or the copywriter, and made things up. The results weren’t exactly fiction – they rarely did more than nod to narrative; they weren’t exactly prose poems either – the symbols were usually deployed absurdly or satirically. They were as influenced by the pulp end of genre fiction as by the détournement of the Situationists, and by the absurdities of the Noctes Ambrosianae and Flann O’Brien as much as The Goons or Python. In short, they were Informationist in one of the senses of that term that Richard and I and other Scottish writers of the early 90s were devising.

Informationism was an assertion of a particularly Scottish response to late- and post-Modernism in the face of, well, not being noticed. We were at one level biting the hand that waved us away, and the tactics of parody and ironised scholarship and genuine apprenticeship to writers we saw as equally overlooked – Graham and Morgan and MacDiarmid and Davidson leap to mind – seem to me now to prefigure the sort of resistance Dundonians deploy to the corrosive fragmentation of their town, and the kind of self-identification which is now required of the new position of city and national Makar.

Unsurprisingly, then, when I look at the interstitial writing I’ve been doing, mostly in blogs and on Tumblr, it echoes the device of fictive nostalgia and – not miniaturisation, exactly, but – virtualisation: the creation of a Virtual, or Informationist, Dundee. Perhaps it is inevitable, if a city has not yet defined the role of its Makar, for the writer holding that post to make a city up, one in which the Makar’s role is to be – officially, and on behalf of all that city’s makars – unnecessary, because the poetry the Makar should compose is already completely interfused with the essence of this virtual Dundee.

That’s all very well, you might say, but what do I see my job as, really? Be practical: what am I working on? At one level it’s what I’d always set myself as the main task of this period: the completion of a novel about the great, awful, misunderstood, unignorable, ignored bard of nineteenth century Dundee, McGonagall.

It is, further, to complete the next book of poems in which I note I seem to have embarked on a new series of Doldrums – the first poems I wrote in Dundonian Scots: a depiction of what seemed an unending hiatus in Dundee’s history, when a generation just went blank about its purpose and its identity. Now it’s about that resistance we attempt to the bigger, more terrifying changes like death: the doomed attempt at stasis.

Aligned to these are a series of short essays about returning and mourning – the nostos and algos of nostalgia, as I come to terms with the loss of my father and the regaining of my city.

But at another level which I’m beginning to understand may be of more significance than I’d realised, the work is: to construct a virtual city or country or at least creative state in which one knows one cannot ‘really’ dwell, but which the imagination can attempt to visit.

To describe this is to move into the excitable register of manifesto, since it is inevitably various and experimental, another type of return – to the energies of new form, of strategies and gestures which lie between the editorial and the performative, and between the literary and more conceptual ways of working. Like Informationism, it’s a leap into the fuzzy space between categories and certainties, labels and shelf-marks. Oops.

So. I’d like to attempt this through: clashing tones, fragments, ersatzerie, dehydrated portions of something which may never have been hydrate, disparate wholes such as might fill the Caird or (Wife of) Usher Hall, but are unlikely to trouble the Albert. These being: prose poems/short short fictions/short stories/nonfictions/non-nonfictions/blogs-cum-essais (to distinguish these from, at all times, ‘proper’ instances of the form)/novels where the literary is infected by genre and vice versa (not as a flavour or vampiric transfusion, but as a potentially destabilising ‘What am I reading?’ simultaneity)/poems/long poems and books of poetry which themselves collapse or burst the seams not of form per se, but of the dogmas which impersonate and assume authority over forms, incorporating translations/kyōgen (Japanese for ‘mad words’ or short absurdist interludes)/’songs and sketches/and jokes old and new’/comics/détournement/’art’/public art/verse dramas and libretti of all sorts.

That sort of thing.

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Ten Days a Week

Sometimes you can observe precisely the realm that you are locked out of by the glacial grind of employment, and the willing juggling act that domesticity must add, plus, if you have the creative failing, that other pattern that the ‘real work’, as we like to term it, maintains above and below our awareness of it. So the days and their years pass, juggling on the glacier while staring at the almost blank pages of a book, embedded in the ice.

Despite working seven days a week, as writers are wont to do, despite adding the session before or after the ‘work work’, as we like to term that (and how rarely, once you begin the slide toward the seven day week, will the work work stay in its strict 9-5 confines), either in the early early morning or in the late late showing, depending on your position on the avian spectrum of lark to owl, you can see precisely the thing that sits beyond it all.

This is the shadow of the week, its reflection, its unconscious further realm, which means, as the French revolutionaries correctly determined, that a week should last a neat ten days in total. In those other days, which should (we are, of course, firmly in the duty-bound realm of ‘should’ here) be named after the giants of science – Newtonday, Einsteinday, Hawkingsday – but which languish instead, nameless as undiscovered aliens, we place everything we hoped for in this life.

There we keep up with and catch up with our cultural guilts – books, languages, cinema, musicianship, bowling; there our accounts can be colour-coded, bills paid promptly, and our invoices sent off smartly; there the ‘real’ life sits, in which that nagging sense must somehow survive that something could be actualised, that it could be assessed, and that its true value could emerge.

This is, of course, the very definition of false consciousness that we are told Capitalism perpetuates, wherein we believe we can buy ‘me time’ by selling our labour, where holidays are for happy families, and shopping is indeed therapeutic, where men like Martian football, but women prefer Venusian chocolate. Where we deny that the inverse of the Stones’ song may be the truth: we can’t always want what we get.

I often catch a glimpse of it sitting in a bar or cafe or restaurant lined with mirrors: over the heads of the drinkers or diners, beyond the clatter and the chatter, there is the looking glass realm. Somewhere where time possibly runs backwards, enabling us to regain our dead, or perhaps it expands like the universe, so moments can last for months, or perhaps everything is frozen in fermata, as Nicholson Baker fantasised.

But right now its symbol is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages and have now bought but haven’t time at the moment to read. That combination of fulfilled intent but delayed gratification sums it up perfectly. The book is ‘Zazie in the Metro’ by Raymond Queneau – one of those volumes which, through its associations alone (Parisian, Metro-related, Nouvelle Vague-esque, linguistically playful, obliquely Oulipian), let alone its offshoots (cinematic, the graphic novel, French whimsy from Tati to Amelie to Gondry to Scorsese’s Hugo), identifies a realm I really want to inhabit.

(Here I am conscious of but cannot fully inhabit the irony that Zazie herself wishes to visit the Metro, but it is closed due to a strike, and so can only point to the irony that I am unable to exploit this irony properly without having read the book.)

By writing this I am paying homage to the future act of reading and resisting as we all must through such acts of the imagination the inaccessibility of the Other Days, the looking glass life we long to lead. I am also sacrificing precisely in a Marxist sense my time, which should at this moment be spent in fulfilling one of my less nebulous duties. In that guilt, that sense of transgression and thievery, lies the true relation between the seven and the three, the materialist and the imaginative: our culture has pushed reality as we wish to define it out of time, just as I now am out of time, and must return to the task in hand.

But it is by such small acts of rebellion that we approach an analysis not only of what has been done to us, but what we desire, and how or whether we might achieve those desires. That which we eventually understand we cannot achieve we may no longer tolerate the lack of.

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Whose English Is It Anyway?

(This is a very overdue reposting of a poem commissioned for The Verb as part of the BBC’s 2014 Freethinking Festival. The delay, apart from the usual reluctance to appear to be self-publishing anything beyond the lightest or most spontaneous of creative work – most of which appears over on my Tumblr site, should you be interested, he continued shamelessly – has been caused by me thinking about the role of commissioned pieces in my work. 

In a way that resembles how blurbs come about, rather than more straightforward freelance transactions like teaching or reviewing, the commissioned poem is about your public persona or personae – how you are perceived as a writer. Beyond the crude divider of perceived status, some sense of matching poet to project or fellow writer goes on in both commission and blurb by the editorial or curatorial body. For that reason, I’ve been wondering whether to present this and similarly generated works with pieces I associate directly with being a ‘public poet’ – more specifically the Dundee Makarship.

What this poem has in common with some of those pieces is a particular sense of the plurality of the audience – something of communality if not yet representation that the commission shares with the poem or text appearing as part of public art, but which separates it from the intimacy of lyric that most poets regard as the only valid core of the poetic gesture.

Here the poetry is in the plurality, in that the subject is the political and cultural consequences of thinking of Englishes and indeed Scottishes, rather than a singular proper English, and a bunch of mutually incomprehensible provincial dialects. Imagining those Englishes and Scottishes rhizomatically, as Deleuze might, allows us to think of a democracy of regions, rather than a Londoncentric hierarchy, with the implication that what is thought in dialect must be as improper as its orthography.

Because there is a manifest parallel between hierarchising language and privileging one mode of writing poetry over another, I’m inclined to preserve the variousness of types of more public poems, and present this piece by itself for the time being.)

How we speak is who we are
if you hear what I mean,
but is English without anguish,
the way Westminster dreams?

If the language was London
it’s a giant cut-glass shard,
but if English is an engine
then it’s thrumming to depart.

Let’s head through the Heptarchy –
the nations that we were –
where speech is like cryptography
and the code begins oo arr

Have mercy on us, Mercia
where Big Geoff Hill once played
where Shakespeare’s vowels once were shaped
and also those of Slade.

Here’s stone-head Brigantia
she’s blocking Ro-ome’s gutta –
a goddess for the Geordies
but what, pet, would she utta

in to-ones like wor Cheryl
on mattas of state,
like once the Jocks aal leave wuh
let’s follow – why wait?

Here is the language
nearin the border,
beginnin bewilderment,
Scots and disorder…

Gin the ingyne rins on Anglo
wi a Saxon heid o steam
then Furst Class is a quango
whaur they don’t know what we mean…

‘Oh Darling, look, there’s Ber-whick,’
a Norman type remarks:
‘They’re still at war with Russia,
but then so are we – what larks!’

The issue’s comprehension
but not of what we say,
the issue’s why should 45
declare we waant awa

– Thon rhyme’s agley twixt mooth an lug
the wey a politician’s shrug
isnae solemn like a vow:
whit noo, Paw Broon, eh? What now?

Faur ur we noo and fit is at soond?
– The Doric: at spik o baith quinie an loon
Aiberdeen wey, an twal mile roon:
the nor-east o someplace – mebbe the Mune.

O please stoap the trenn – Eh waant tae get aff;
meh leid is disgracefuhl, meh heid’s gaein saft.
Tho this virus crehd ‘Inglis’ mutates beh thi mile,
it’s no spoken beh money, it’s no spoken beh ile.

Faur owre, faur owre, fae New Aiberdour,
whaur Trump pleys gowf wi an affy shower
o bankers an lairdies an gangsters an Tories
wha aa unnerstaun: own the words, own the story.

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Dehydrating the Narrative

I think of my seven/fourteen tweet pieces and those of my colleagues in Chimera Group such as George Szirtes or James Knight, or the tweet series of Jeff Noon, or his group Echovirus12, not so much as prose poems as dehydrated narratives.

Yes, the regularity of more-or-less 140 characters, plus the limitations of X numbers of pieces, acts as a poetic constraint. But the temptation to play with story is as great. We are so familiar with narrative and its genre structures that a hint of the appropriate texture is enough for the boiling liquid of the reader’s imagination to be added. This leaves space to reconfigure and play without leaving the compressed zone of the poem, where that heightened attention to language can operate.

This is significantly other than the sort of nouvelle cuisine (remember that?) of some forms of short short fiction, or the high art reclamations of, say, SciFi by literary giants, in that the created object, if reconstituted in its entirety, would still be recognisably ersatz. In fact, it is the wobble, the cheese, the pulpiness or B-movie-ness, in short, the Secondariness, that I at least am aiming for at all. (The others may wish to demur at this point.)

The idea that the facsimile is the proper goal is already obvious in both parody and pastiche, but behind both these lies the concept of the imitation as both the apprentice’s task and, in Platonism, all that any artist can achieve: the copy of the copy of the ideal.

Of course, implicit in such thinking is the role of the ideal within any artistic field, the ‘masterpiece’ which must be produced by the ‘genius’. That which in any guild or trade was simply an act of sufficient mastery, the masterpiece, displaying – alongside the payment of enough cash to the correct parties – competence to practise, is fetishised beyond access by all but the primary ones, those whose faces beam at us with cyclical recurrence from the front pages of literary supplements and magazines.

Of course, when these very faces work with genre elements, it is somehow to redeem them rather than to colonise, to perfect rather than to recycle or exploit. (And the familiar recurrence of their appearance guarantees cash or at least the status which sells advertising to the parent papers of those supplements, or attracts grants to those magazines.)

Similarly, the principle of the flawlessness of the text they produce is adhered to by all except the deconstructionist, whose attention is naturally drawn to the self-perpetuating structure which underpins its production. But that attention is itself governed by the same law of the facsimile – if the masterpiece can no longer be relied on to be of Biblical authority, then my hermeneutics must transfer to the critical processes which want to regard it in such a light, and so on, in strict recession.

The worthiness of this is, frankly, for the philosophers. A writer has, while acknowledging and exposing these processes, other means of doing so and indeed other, in the sense of additional, goals. What interests me about the dehydrated narrative is its approach to suggestion, to the larger spaces that lie behind all fictions, and, indeed, between rational progressions of thought. This, which we might think of as a suggestibility in both reader and writer, is a sort of daydream space, an almost communal subjectivity, in which certain shared stimuli may permit drift.

It is also a DIY reaction to the sort of collaborative effort you would have to deploy to enact some of these ideas – the graphic skills or dramaturgic abilities or musical competence or recording or directing or publishing expertise being beyond some of us. There is a laziness, and a solipsism inherent in this, but also a freedom to be impractical, sometimes wildly so: to transform actual settings or depart from the conventions governing fictional ones – particularly the narrative rules which draw some of us to such invention in the first place.

The formulae of ‘Story’ exist for a reason, but it is possible, by withdrawing from reasonableness, to turn to its epiphenomena, and, like the incredible shrinking man, to enter a sub-narrative realm.
Lost Ashton Smith
One example of the sort of speculative drift I’m discussing occurs for me in relation to the stories of Clark Ashton Smith, one of the trio of Weird Stories writers producing a hybrid horror/SciFi/proto-fantasy fiction in the US in the 1930s. Like Philip K. Dick, the other two, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, have become thoroughly exploited mining territories for film makers, heavy metal nerds, and hipsters, but Ashton Smith began as a poet, and ended as a sculptor, and the focus of his fiction is much more on the textures of language and setting, than on what happens in them.

With mechanical recurrence, hapless, venal or intrepid explorers (he doesn’t much mind which) stumble upon a remorseless and grotesquely ‘other’ entity in a lovingly described alien realm, which eats them. It is the realm and, to a lesser extent, the eating, which engages him – and the issue it raises of what arcane vocabulary and elaborate syntax this will require of him.

There are several such places – luxuriantly (and carnivorously) foliaged other worlds, and ancient, desiccated, ruined places at the end of time, where dead (but peckish) creatures may be summoned from slumber by hapless, venal or intrepid necromancers.

The one which particularly intrigued me was the least developed of the set, a Mars on the point of ecological collapse, on which conventional SciFi ‘space traders’ encountered an ancient race of barrel-chested, cadaverous Martians, the Aihai, who perhaps had three mighty nostrils, and occasionally a third vestigial forelimb, and who lived in an ancient metropolis called Ignarrh – that we practically never saw.

The plucky but luckless Earthmen, driven of course by greed or curiosity, were, in the couple of stories Ashton Smith completed, perpetually heading out of or beneath the city in search of their spectacular and grisly dooms. The Aihai themselves were more hinted at than seen, as we would encounter examples, living, dead, and sometimes somewhere in between, of more ancient races still, from which the present, gaunt, croaky Martians had descended if not devolved.

It was the unwritten city, then, and its barely sketched-out inhabitants, which lingered longer in my adolescent mind than any of the more ‘complete’ worlds he wrote of, just as it is the slightly incoherent stage of the Cthulhu mythos, when Lovecraft is first stumbling on its cyclopean outlines, that people fixate on, rather than the more elaborated cosmology of his editor, August Derleth (though he certainly had the name for the job).

Lin Carter did the same for Howard, and Tolkien, in the form of The Silmarillion, did it for or rather to himself – cancelling out the speculative in favour of the grammar. But Ashton Smith has, so far, been spared. In a way, like a hybrid between Raymond Roussel and Don Van Vliet, he was just too damn weird.

This space for the reader as interpreter, illustrator, or even translator, of the fragmentary is in a way supported by the dehydrated space of twitter-generated texts. At present, at least in the manifestations I’m discussing, it plays with the chimeric – that which sits between forms and tones, working with absurdity and the unheimlich rather than the highly serious (it hardly has room to aspire to the sententious).

Neither prose poem nor short short short fiction, and yet partaking of both, it is at once a sort of astronaut food, the strange pills and packets we once thought would feed the future, and an older kind of border space, thin enough to let a kind of collaboration between writers as readers and readers as writers begin. Let’s begin.

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New Cartographies for Old

(An edited version of this review appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Poetry London.)
Sandeep Parmar, Eidolon (Shearsman); Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Wedding (Faber & Faber); Tony Williams, The Midlands (Nine Arches Press).

These three collections in their different ways approach a single question at the heart of what it is to write poetry: how do we gauge that element of cultural significance which distinguishes the poetic from the prosaic? At the level of the individual poem, the collection, or the oeuvre, is it a matter of form, reference, tone, or of some unique formulation of these and other elements, say contemporaneity? Or is there no such distinction, nor any need to formulate one?

While Sandeep Parmar places this issue in the juxtaposition of classical myth and contemporary history – a gesture derived from the modernism of Pound and Eliot – Tony Williams locates it instead in the dialogue between discourse and setting, how place affects our heritage of phrasings and forms, and how we locate and relocate literary tradition. Sam Riviere, by contrast, refuses straightforward access to any of these types of signifiers regarding the status of utterance, effecting instead a confrontation of the poetic mode with found and manipulated content. Riviere appears therefore to present the question in its most radical form, however, both Parmar and Williams are engaged to greater or lesser degrees in similar acts of challenging the reader as to how they assess what they read as a poem. 

This challenge was, of course, previously explored in nineteenth century art and in early literary modernism, which, having explored social and psychological alienation through literary concepts like Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility, mustered aesthetic responses including Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or just a good old Dadaist épater le bourgeois. It was restated very variously throughout the twentieth century, in everything from Surrealism to the Beats, and from Situationism to Language Poetry, as writers and artists sought to find new ways of presenting the concept of alienation to a public which thought of itself as more alienated from modern art, music and poetry, than from either a globalised industrialised society or its mass media, which both encourages cultural passivity and, largely, excludes the artists’ terms of reference. Most people ignore most poetry because it’s easier to keep up with the Kardashians.

Moreover, the challenge itself has for some time now been part of the problem of engagement: how much longer can this issue appear sufficiently central to our experience of literature or art as to concern us over and above any other type of interaction with the poem or artwork? Once you understand you’re being exploited until you die and rewarded with the cultural equivalent of tranquilliser darts, does art really need to keep shouting ‘Am I “Art”? Well, am I?’? What if such gestures are now as peripheral to the poem as journalists like to declare poetry itself is from a politically responsible and culturally responsive citizen’s concerns?

Sandeep Parmar’s book is a fifty part sequence of reflections on the image of Helen of Troy, and, through Helen, how we conceive of the feminine, and indeed the ancient Greeks. The image is evoked via Whitman’s deeply suggestive if programmatic poem, ‘Eidolons’, and indeed the ingenious defence of Helen put forward in Euripides’ tragedy Helen, as explored by the great Imagist poet H.D..

For Whitman, the eidolon is the ‘life of life’ – how we imagine the world in which we live, a phantasm which enables us to conceive of that world beyond our senses. It is also a way of imagining America. For Euripides, it is the answer to the charge that Helen caused the Trojan War, with all its death, destitution and destruction: his play announces that she wasn’t there, but safe and separate in Egypt, while her eidolon, a double created by the gods, took her place on the battlements of Troy. By that token, of course, Helen or her double could be anywhere, and in Parmar’s imaginatively wide-ranging sequence, we find her very much in the modern world:

In her wine-coloured suit

and burgundy shoes

she asks the night manager

to make a reverse call

and he is struck

by her poise
in her hand

the receiver becomes some object

          cut loose

The apparent redundancy of following ‘wine-coloured suit’ with ‘burgundy shoes’ reminds us of the old canard about what colour Homer thinks his ‘wine-dark’ sea actually is, linking ancient literary epithet to Hopperesque nocturne. Then there is the curious atomisation of her hand holding the phone: we see it as almost separated from the rest of her body: the phone is defamiliarised as ‘some object/cut loose’ as if Harpo Marx has just wandered past and snipped the cable with his scissors.    

Anachronistic juxtaposition is used here in a different way from, say, Christopher Logue’s technique in War Music: figures from Greek tragedy appear on a Jerry Springer-type TV show not in order to shock us back into the contexts and consciousness of Classical poetry, but to relocate their tragic extremis among us and in our banal and scripted emotions: ‘Clytemnestra, what would you say if Agamemnon was sitting here right now?’

If Helen’s double can be anywhere among us, then, equally, her world can be doubled or reflected in ours, as when

Four US warships slink up from the coast of the Maghreb

                  toward Minoan water

their sleepless crew tally their charges

as did the Achaeans

Throughout, a parallel is made between the rapaciousness in every sense of the Greeks and American foreign policy and racist attitudes toward its own citizens. Of course for this kind of mirroring to work we must feel that something of significance is revealed by the reflection, or that, perhaps, some element of the uncanny is evoked by the haunting of present by past, of living women by a male construct, from a very distant era, of dangerous female beauty. 

The challenge for Parmar here is indeed to reclaim Helen, to explore the tensions between an unknown or unknowable individual and her endlessly reconstructed image. These poems question our readiness to seek out a person amid the refractions of personae, a readiness which is countered by their recurrent act of naming, as though the Homeric use of a single recurring epithet is no longer fit for purpose: ‘Helen, dispirited…Helen denuded…Helen fails…Helen falls…Helen dethroned…Helen in the cash only express line…’

However, there is sometimes a sense of recurrent contrast without much corresponding momentum, repeatedly pitting a borrowed materialist lexis against a lyric voice which in turn echoes the classicism of the Imagists as we remember it in Pound and H.D., as though the opposition of myth and materiality has induced a sort of stasis. In fact, one of the points where I found myself most engaged and energised by this book was actually outside the main body of the text, in the intellectual sweep of the Afterword, which contextualises the work with considerable brio.

One of the most successful pieces is the penultimate poem, in which an extended comparison is drawn firstly between LA and Troy, and secondly between the widows and bereaved daughters of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, and a mother and daughter attempting ‘to plant a Troy-tree/in our Californian garden’. There is a commanding, almost choral voice – ‘Let us be as a city upon a hill…Let us be as a city/on the stones of other cities…’, but there is also a personal tone which is as if not more persuasive in suggesting that something more is at stake in this relocatory planting:

no, it will not grow on my mother’s lawn

in an exile’s confusion of lavender,

red marigold and lily flower.

Tony Williams’ first collection, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, as its title implies, took locality and the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes eccentric specificities it demands, to a highly individual pitch. You might imagine The Midlands has pulled back a little on the Richard Dadd-like intensity, but in fact this volume is if anything diastole to its predecessor’s systole, a confident demarking of the outer limits of the same territory of quiet terrors and post-pastoral intensities:

The Midlands are crying, crying for haslet and bacon,

      Crying for bridges where railways falter,

Crying for sumpters no longer needed

      On towpaths of moss and built-upon pasture

And troughs of time-stilling water…
Here is neither one thing nor the other.

It is simultaneous funny, moving, and very odd. It establishes his home town of Matlock as the southern tip of a poetic triangle stretching perhaps from Sheffield to Mytholmroyd, and encompassing the Huddersfield/Barnsley scene associated with Armitage, Hattersley and McMillan, as well as a younger generation of writers including figures like Helen Mort, whose first book, Division Street, similarly performed through title an act of cultural positioning. 

Like the Rhubarb Triangle just to the north, famously alluded to in Harrison’s ‘Rhubarbarians’, there is something strange and compelling, if singularly unforced, about the work of many of these writers. It is marked by a surreal, reductive humour, and a keen ear for where the colloquial meets the supposedly higher register of poetry. In this sense, Williams’ work in particular gestures beyond, say, Ted Hughes, to the austere map-making of Auden, marrying saga to the landscape of the lead mines, or the primary Romantic gesture, Wordsworth’s re-visioning of the Lakes. In the opening passage above, we first register haslet as the local cold meat, but then we catch the pun on the great essayist of the Romantic period, Hazlitt (and his predecessor, Francis Bacon).

In this sense, he is engaged in a cartography of discourses, and like Harrison or Armitage, treats this simultaneously as an act of locating oneself within, and critiquing, a tradition. Notions of poetic register are always countered by an invigorating awareness of the prosaic, in the sense of a discourse open to politics and the particular, as much as to the quotidian. 

In ‘The OK Diner’, the status of the ‘diner’ is subjected to a fond critical gaze (‘What is the meaning of “salad”,/here in Ohio-on-Trent?’). Can this really be that aspiration toward an American ideal of commodified plenty beloved of postmodern theorists, with ‘the half-arsed A1 running by past the window to Retford and Donny’? The specificity of naming, the poising of the cafe on the point of closure, is set against a field where, absurdly and poignantly, ‘the donkeys sit down in protest/at rust as the answer and essence of all journey’s ends’, before concluding of the waitress, baffled by guacamole, that ‘Her accent redeems it’. Voice, in other words, momentarily triumphs over false consciousness.

This crux is enacted throughout the collection by a combination of tactics: landscape is defined as simultaneously literary and post-industrial, simultaneously profoundly English and reaching north into types of otherness, simultaneously a topography and a phantasmagoria, by oxymoronic gestures like the phrase ‘The Rural Citizen’: 

I emptied the flask in the river, dropped off my rucksack

As shrine on the roadside, buried my boots

In the mud by the gate where mud-coloured cows

Had thronged to be fed or to die since enclosure,

And set off in trainers and jeans for the commonplace hill.

Poem after poem pushes beyond the mild anecdotal epiphanies of the conventional lyric into this borderland space (as defined by Farley and Symmons Roberts), where the ancient landscape, disrupted or deformed by historical change, is abandoned by modernity, and revisited by the poet almost as the Anglo-Saxons revisited the sites of the Romans, as sites of dissociative or transgressive revision. 

Here it is possible for a seamstress to fall in love with a mole (‘His name is Wudower. He carries a silver watch,/each tick a mole-year…), and, as with the waitress, her voice compels us to believe: ‘A thimbleful of cider is a lot/for a girl like me. I’m perfectly serious.’ Here, Jack Woolley from The Archers, lost to dementia, paradoxically renders his fictional world more real through dream: ‘It is the vale of lengthening shadow, the bridge/which takes each soul beyond its Am.’

Poems enact this extension by literally going over the page, out of the space of the conventional lyric moment, or by performing anaphoric developments of theme (‘Fox prints’, in its recurrent ‘We lunched…’, reveals a gluttonous appetite for transformation as much as digestion – ‘There was not much we thought unlunchable’). They distend time, as in ‘The Photocopier’, where the small miseries of technology mount up into an image of the office as Tartarus, a place where lives are eaten.

Williams works, then, by a layering of discourse with carefully marshalled cultural references, setting this against that type of perceptual strangeness that always threatens to unsettle the intellect with our embodied frailties:

the way of moving stirs

     and I remember me

the shadow of arms and legs

     continually sneaks

behind the brain…

History (and theories of history) feels like an inhabited space, but one haunted by suppressed voices and the discomfort of irreconcilable detail. The poems therefore always seem as on the move between instabilities as their restless protagonists. Their moments of poise come, if at all, as at the end of this composite portrait of another female icon wreathed in over-interpretation and uncertainty, Anastasia, with a decidedly ominous note:

A young girl sitting at a white piano, doing her knitting, asquint

at the edge of a frozen lake, naive, as the clumsy photographer

lets his own shadow intrude on her lap as he shoots.

A carefully poised act of framing allows us ingress into Sam Riviere’s depiction of the dizzying surface of our culture, seen as a species of cool delirium with its millimetre deep portraits of celebrity and its micro-seconds of baffled introspection. At the end, unusually in a single collection, but borrowing from the paraphernalia of the collected poems, two indices are included, one indicating the objects, subjects, places and people who appear in Kim Kardashian’s Wedding, the other listing the titles. 

From this we perceive both the very relative equivalence and the frisson of incongruity implied by placing a cat next to Noam Chomsky, that great gazer at Capitalism’s kings, or indeed by following George Clooney with a cloud. Equally, alphabeticisation demonstrates that there is a precise system by which terms are recombined to provide the different titles. This reinforces the impression given by the contents page, which lists a make-up routine from primer to gloss. The book is demonstrably concerned with the laminae that make up image, and if meaning can be conjured by the limina of systemic juxtaposition, it seems to ask, why is further comment necessary? Indeed, wouldn’t further comment fall into the same vacuous category as the media which surrounds Clooney or Kardashian or, via the sort of designer anarchy we see on T-shirts, Chomsky?

All this would suffice to lead us into an interesting cultural debate if not necessarily into a book of poems, but for a phrase which precedes all these, thanks to Faber’s placing of the blurb on the inner flap of the dust jacket:

‘…the process of enquiry involves the composition method itself…in poems that have been produced by harvesting and manipulating the results of search engines to create a poetry of part-collage, part-improvisation.’

Here, of course, we have to determine how much status to accord to the phrase ‘and manipulating’, and how much weight to give to the apparent equivalence implied by ‘part-improvisation’. Because the rest of the book appears to be wholly generated, as the indices imply, by discovery, selection, and juxtaposition:

You may be wondering how I learned the title.

I’ll tell you how. I have a very annoying problem.

With practised skill I play several hours

And the screen itself…I can’t.

(infinity dust)

Disconnections that suggests a deeper connection, broken off phrases – the underlying intentionality of collage is evident here, as is the discovery made by MacDiarmid in his (avant la Lettrism) use of found or, in his day, plagiarised, elements: that the borrowed material can always be read metaphorically, and that reading occurs most easily in a self-referential context. This was summed up by him in the long poem, The Kind Of Poetry I Want, in which the unacknowledged work of others was filtered to produce a series of analogies for a poetics which was actually being embodied in the poem itself, ie the kind of poetry MacDiarmid wanted was a poem by MacDiarmid about the kind of poetry he wanted. An echo of that Droste Effect occurs here in the first line’s reference to ‘how I learned the title’, especially once we realise all these titles have been generated by a particular method.

So the question of what form this manipulation takes, and to what degree these texts are part improvised, must continue to influence our reading. (‘Improvised’ in particular is a charged term, opening out a referential frame that includes jazz and comedy.) We can never fully give ourselves up to an idea of the free play of registers because Riviere has used the structural apparatus of the slim volume itself to undermine the status of these poems as simply ‘found’. This was something implicit from the outset in the more immediate antecedent to this mode of composition, Flarf. By refusing authorship of found pieces, you affirm an authorial role through selective manipulation:

…They taught me how

to dodge and lie to hide my codes.

Cut and paste the here and there.

Forget what the intentions were…

By focusing on the apparently unpoetic in terms of subject matter, you emphasise that there is a poetic you are constantly alluding to and therefore critiquing by enclosing such a subject matter within the frame of the poem. Crucially, as speakers of estuarial English can already hear, there is an element of entertainment and specifically the comic in this: at the core of Flarf is larfter (‘We’re spreading smiles every minute/with lyrics and jokes for your personal use…’).

Key to this is a kind of textual pareidolia which is at the heart of the lyric gesture. Just as we relentlessly identify faces given the slightest of visual stimuli, so too we respond to the lyric ‘I’ – and especially the lyric ‘you’, the addressee of the ubiquitous love poem, as though they must be a) the poet, and b) an identifiable actual subject – ‘Helen’ in Sandeep Parmar’s terms – and, simultaneously, ourselves: the ‘shadow of legs and arms’ in Tony Williams’ phrase, which responds to its pronoun as a dog does to its name. 

We are very reluctant to think of the ‘I’ as Rimbaud insists we do – ‘Je est un autre’ – and we are always ready to believe that we are at one and the same time eavesdropping and being addressed. Thus we keep trying to ascribe sentiments and opinions to the author regardless of the evidence to the contrary, and part of our aesthetic engagement with this book rests in precisely this area of unsettled reading:

Some years ago, it was.

I just ate some of those

things that make sour

sweet and my blood

powered a plain necklace.

I am trying to locate

variety and a feeling…

You’ll love the feather

tattooed on my flower.

One of the more substantial pieces occurs towards the end, in a position we recognise as the significantly near-penultimate poem. ‘the new heaven’ borrows from, it would seem, the type of rhetoric handed out in the street or posted on social media by evangelicals, in which a voice with the transparent agenda of conversion purports to explain something neutrally, only to reveal its agenda by the end:

This is our final ending in the Lord. following the

     judgement of the great white

throne depicted in the closing verses of chapter 20,

     John’s attention 

is next directed to the The New Heaven & The New 

     Earth’s official profile,

including the latest music albums, songs, music videos

     and more updates.

This is, evidently, another level of revelation from that presumably intended by its possible sources, but it is one which, as much as Parmar and Williams, displays voice through gesture. The conflation of an interpretated eschatology with an announcement of latest products places the irony we presume to be operating here as elsewhere on a certain plane of significance. It’s hard, for the reasons given above, to read this as affectless rather than satirical. This is writing organised with a subtlety of ear and design to demand a response from the reader we can’t help but give, but then must experience difficult in conclusively analysing.

In that, Sam Riviere’s work aligns itself with Tony Williams perhaps more than Sandeep Parmar in that it seems to be reaching less for a poetics, engaging as Parmar does with the major poetic forms of the Classical past, and more for a prosaics, a mode of bringing the poem into confrontation with the major shifts in discourse not just of modernity, but of the last thirty years, marked as they are by technological and cultural decentering, seeking not so much an authority as simply a method of addressing readers who no longer need to be shocked to recognise the new:

You have stalked this blog,

you must really like me.

Message me anytime

even if it’s just to talk.

I blog about whatever I want.

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Psychogeoferric Footnotes

(This is the last of the plunder from Tumblr: displacement activity for not finishing off the Mexico City post, which I have now no excuse not to return to apart from the full time job. And my accounts.

I’m adding these three short pieces because in their various ways they touch briefly on and perhaps even sum up the themes and atmospheres I was exploring in the four previous posts. They arise from specific photos, so, when there is next a moment, I will add those. 

But they also act as a bridge from the re-examination of nostalgia to the later posts with their exploration of the results of procrastination, ‘dark whimsy’, as a response to or coping strategy in relation to trauma, and, particularly, loss.)
1. Slomadicity

How peculiar it is to be at home in a place that at once always was and, for decades, has never been, my home. Just looking at the Tay – the movement of the tides, how the light sits on the water, how the breeze lifts the waves – seems to perform deep suture work down where we suppose we have a soul.

My daughter came up with the Joycean (or is it Carrollian?) portmanteau ‘slomad’, to describe the way we went round the same circuit of places – Newcastle, north-west Crete, Dundee and (formerly) Donegal – over the course of a year.

Slomadicity isn’t exactly the art of going slowly mad, it’s more the condition of living in two or more places on an almost seasonal basis.

Some people holiday in the same place every year, or are rich or lucky enough to maintain a holiday home because they love another place enough. Others simply live in a different city or country from the place they identify with strongly enough to need to return there regularly.

The experience of returning to any of these homes seems to refresh the eye at the very least, lending a sense of immanence to remembered and unnoticed sights alike, as well as a chance to revisit the values which laid them down in our memories in the (often unconsidered) first place.

2. Dream Tenement

There is an immense resonance about looking out of the kitchen window of one tenement in the quiet of the night, and seeing the lights in the stairwell of another tenement across your two back greens. You feel it moving through you like a music through the body. It is the exact reverse of your building, as though you were looking into a mirror, but a mirror you know you can, by leaving your flat, going downstairs, crossing the grass and the invisible boundary – the looking glass symbolised by the low fence – actually inhabit.

The light inside the stairwell seems dimmer, the colours both more muted and more russet, more golden, more intensely nocturnal, as though they were caused by gas lights, as though you were looking at a past building, or this building in its specific past, but somewhere you could still visit, though you feel any attempt to do so would be transgressive, requiring massive effort, as though moving through fathoms of terrors, as though moving into the heart of dreams.

In just this way the dream world stands across from ours, exact in its similarities and in its differences, perfectly accessible – but we resist and reject it, turning our heads away from its expanded realm, its openness to an intensity we dread as much as we desire, thinking it a chaos because we want to call this thin space we cling to an order.

3. Omphalos

This morning, after Andy Jackson and I did a photoshoot for Whaleback City down at the Discovery, I was able to visit the old childhood hub of the bandstand at the Magdalen Green, and check out its approach, interior and views.

I was also able to contrast it with a couple of ‘centres’ I’d visited a lot more recently than it: the actual omphaloi of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dome on the Rock, the Wailing Wall; ‘kilometre zero’ in Madrid, the middle of the Hagia Sophia, the heart of the Forbidden City, and others.

I feel daft saying it, but this little place has the same charge for me. As in a weird way it has for the kid compelled to draw a phallus practically in the centre; or whatever accident it was left that odd little eight/infinity symbol/ampersand; or the little yellow arrow pointing to the gate.

Graffiti surrounds but somehow doesn’t encroach on that central space, in relation to which we are all eccentric, daft. Daft is good, sometimes – daft might mean you’re exactly, momentarily, home

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PsychoGeoFerry 4

(This fourth part of the 2013 Tumblr posts has a semi-conclusive air to it, as I didn’t realise what was to come – the makarship, the death – and so could imagine things were heading to some sort of conclusion. Of course, in retrospect, what was concluding was only that first phase of familiarisation, the process by which we reintroduce something novel and exciting to The Continuity, that other space in which we spend most of our less-considered days. 

The pressure of family was beginning to tell – we were beginning to understand I was there as much as a son as a writer, with the concomitant strain on my roles as husband and father. And McGonagall, that bad verse elephant in every Dundee poet’s room, continued to loom. The novel continued not to be written, as it has done for decades, even when it was being written. Me not writing The Book of McGonagall by every means possible is the secret history of me being Makar if not my writing life, as I produce ever more and more of what is definably Not It.


So the sheen was coming off the Tay, as I began to search for traces of what Michael Donaghy used to refer to as wabi sabi: the scuff and nap of things and indeed ideas. And the old circuitousness, the long-way-roundness of The Project was beginning to reassert itself, what Heaney calls ‘following the sixth sense and proceeding on the off-chance.’ There is a moment when you get the scent, then, regardless of what the job descriptions say, you’re on your own.)

4

Immediately in front of this flat, lining the concrete, barrier-less promenade that receives the waters of the Tay, are a series of dark brown metal rings set into the wall. When I was a child, I used them for scrambling up and down from the pebbly beach, and never thought anything more about them.

Of course they were for mooring boats, the sort of little boats that would be hauled up on the shore, the sort that couldn’t and didn’t survive fluctuations in the fishing industry that meant Broughty Ferry was a former fishing village long before I was born, and that its thirteen fishing families were already otherwise employed.

The rings, as though through the nose of the bay, with the two flanking piers for the horns of the Broughty bull, were genealogical traces, in just the way the name, ‘Broughty Ferry’, attests to another role the town no longer plays. The way I never thought about any of this as a child attests to the manner in which I was inside the idyll of childhood, which gradually acquires accretions of such knowledge, but as myths rather than historical fact.

Thus for me it’s still possible to lay fabulistic tracing paper over the blueprint of the Ferry: to picture the bay as a sort of Minotaur because of the occasional marvellous yacht floating by; to equate those fishing families at some level with the tribes of Israel; to think of the loss of the lifeboat Mona in 1959 as ‘our’ defining wreck, as the Deutschland was to Hopkins; to imagine Dundee, besieged in the sixteenth and seventeenth century by the English, as an after-echo of Troy or Constantinople; and, above all, to consider McGonagall’s three central topoi – the whale, the bridge, the walk to Balmoral – as being of mythic stature in themselves.

I’ve been thinking about our idea of the idyllic more and more over the last few weeks – that place we have commodified as the holiday destination, for instance, or, as I’ve done, romanticised as the childhood home, or, for the writer, compartmentalised as the retreat, the study, the room with a view.

By coming home to Broughty Ferry and Dundee and their hinterlands, I’ve been seeking a combination of all of the above, and to a certain extent have been gifted them, though with the accompanying realisations that a lot of – too much? – time has passed since I didn’t think about the mooring rings, and that not everything about this arrangement is as delightful as I would like it to be.

The last couple of weeks have turned out to be a little tougher than I might have hoped for, in what is basically a holiday period in which I would normally go away with the family and get on with a larger scale work of composition. I’ve tried to swop one idyll for another, and the substitution has inevitably not been smooth.

Family illness and the inevitable difficulties and disputes following such a move, plus the continuing time-hungry work-related duties, have combined to take the gilt off the simple pleasure of being here, and reintroduce that banal but necessary question of guilt: the cost – not financial, but personal – of trying to do something out of the routine.

What was it that I wanted? To normalise my relationship with a place I hadn’t lived in for so long that it had remythologised itself in my imagination. To make it ordinary, subject to the disappointments and arguments, the scares and dismays, but also the intense passions of interrelation, of family and friends and just-don’t-care intrusive strangers or officialdom, all that which is not just the dream.

I wanted to take it from the idyll into the actual, to give it a grounding in grift and grief if necessary, but certainly to subject it to an act of demystification. I just didn’t want to admit that to myself quite so baldly, or deal with the unpleasant consequences. This is one of the acts of lesser hubris writers find themselves performing to get on with the job at all.

And, as we all always already know, this is the only way to integrate a place into your adult life, as well as the best way to clear up any uncertainty as to what that unfortunate phrase might mean. I wanted the paperwork of adulthood signed off in my place of birth, in order to balance bureaucracy against a boyhood, and so must take on the emotional baggage too. I wanted to acknowledge the history of the mooring rings if not accept that their use – outside the imagination – was past; I wanted to tether myself to that past in order to re-tell its fables.

The beloved place becomes important and precious to us on another level, if only because it must be appreciated in the moment as well as the memory, and in the minutiae as well as the myth, while we realise yet again that presence, however problematic, is both an inescapable fact and our actual goal.

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