Close, 4

(The previous post involved me testing out and adapting one of Geddes’s ‘thinking machines’ – a little bit of neural coding, if you like. It helped me recognise that my tendencies to withdrawal, incrementalism, slapstickery, and to what I identified from a fascinating article by Charlotte Higgins on Phyllida Barlow as the ‘expedient’, do pretty much govern how I go about my given roles.

Whether as pater, Makar, Professor, or poet, I tend to take the back seat, the low road, the long game, the one take – and to seek out and admire the work of those who do so too.

I’ve mentioned Phyllida Barlow, but I’m about to head off to Oxford to the funeral of an old 80s friend, Helen Kidd, and I’ve been thinking of her work, how she balanced writing and teaching, in the light of one more sad loss, this time to Dundee poetry, Jim Stewart. In all three cases, these were artists who appeared to put their secondary vocation, as teachers, if not first, then in the stronger or yang position in relation to the yin of their art.

In an unsubtle world that would seem a foolish thing to do. But my instinct is that, in an unstrategised way, they got something profoundly right, as Phyllida Barlow’s example shows. I just wish Jim and Helen had also had that late period flowering to explore the consequences of their decision, if clear-cut decision it was.

This closing post of Close, then, is an attempt to look through the lens of Geddes’s machine at the types of continuity possible if one remains true to such tendencies. An alternative name might therefore be ‘Punkademia, The Secondary, and Bartleby Syndrome: My Years of Heroic Struggle’. Or perhaps that’s just what it’s called.)

I was just discussing with co-editor Richard Price elsewhere on social media how we’ve not yet got round to digitising Gairfish, the magazine we co-edited from 1989-94, when Jim Benstead requested permission to do exactly that to an old article of mine on MacDiarmid for Chapman. Way back then, we remarked, it was normal for there to be so many litmags, now it looks almost countercultural, a manifestation of what some have called Punkademia.

Perhaps because the article was written so far back, I had no memory of its contents, and Jim had to send me a copy. I then found to my embarrassment that, in full-on MacDiarmidean mode, I’d used the article as a way to sneak in a couple of unpublished poems, which I had to request to be redacted from the article itself, (Though as the Scots poem was never collected, I’ve reproduced it separately on Tumblr). – An interesting case of rapid transition from far too far away to the closeness of over-sharing.

But the circumstances prompted reflection. If we were, with our librarian’s and archivist’s hat(s) on (and what hats exactly do those professions favour?), to digitise these publications, Richard and I were in agreement that it should be a matter of genealogies not archaeologies, pluralities not provinces, polystylism not perfectionism, contexts not prize-winners. In other words, a further editorial and, therefore, polemical act.

Regrettably, of course – and this goes to the heart of why our early 90s endeavours may seem, firstly, ‘radical’ (because they fell outside the frame of activities subsidised and hence legitimised by arts bureaucracies and/or our universities), and, secondly, so very long ago – this would occur in a literary environment where we would routinely expect such acts not to be noticed, one where such work attracted no-sales not features, hatchet jobs not laudations, youthism not depth perception, retreads not identified traditions.

In mid-career, ‘secondary’ writers and their editorial activities pass through the waist of the critical hourglass: journalism is focussed on youth, academia on the dead. In that formulation, youth ‘equals’ now, and the dead include primary living writers who have proven themselves to be ‘safe’ subjects.

In order to be ‘safe’, publishers, the media, the bureaucrats, and in some cases the academy, require any author who is not already part of a functioning mainstream network to possess a single or dominant identifying characteristic of class, circumstance of origin, race, or sexuality. Their work should either reflect that identity, or at least be monothematic. Work which disturbs this direct mapping cannot, it is assumed, appeal to a broad enough readership to be of primary significance, and is therefore consigned to an unspoken category of far-offness: the Secondary.

At this point in the discussion another friend (from Oxford in the 80s/90s), Keith Jebb, compared the relative importance of writers currently regarded as primary or secondary, and, naming no names (apart from that of Tom Raworth), we noted that while writing which is set aside as Secondary may well complicate the model set out above, it is also useful in casting light on all such acts of framing (as well as sometimes – as in the case of Tom Raworth – being very good at complicating things, as well as very good).

One could indeed argue that it’s only by focussing on the Secondary that a meaningful critical perspective can be reached on the quick or the dead, the complicating or the simplified…but as someone aspiring to be a Secondary Writer, of course, I would say that, wouldn’t I? – and therefore one couldn’t.

Could we nonetheless set up a Punkademic U, Keith wondered, not entirely flippantly, and I thought, not for the first time, that in such exchanges we sort of already have. I was reflecting on how I have come to use this and its brother and sister blogs in preference to conventional publication, whether in literary or academic journals, where I endeavour to continue to publish conventional work – reviews and those poems which ‘really will’ go into the next book.

Here, however, it’s not simply or, rather, primarily a matter of freedom from editorial checks (and rejections), it’s more about a more exploratory approach, essayistic in the original sense of that term, in terms of both critical and creative writing. It’s about a closeness equally to the materials, in the sense of early stage drafting, to the means of production, i.e. ‘expediency’, and to a potential readership, i.e. you.

Yes, there’s a big dash of what I’ve come to regard as The Bartleby Syndrome in that – a reluctance to engage with the PoeBiz of festivals, competitions, and commissions, the pecking orders and latest thing-ness, that many of my colleagues will recognise, although it pursues us even unto the fastnesses of Facebook, etc. We would prefer not to be doing something because it ticks someone else’s box, because somebody whose values we don’t necessarily rate thinks it will be popular.

Sometimes, of course, the clearest manifestation of such commodifying, the commission, can be genuinely inspiring or liberating, and the strategy of using a commission to drive the development of a difficult new direction is part of any writer’s palette of creative strategies. This impulse isn’t really about rejecting the Biz, but about establishing a necessary distance from it, and therefore a closeness to, an intimacy with, one’s deeper processes.

Of course this differs from ‘proper’ publishing, particularly proper academic publishing, in a number of obvious ways to do with rigour and accountability – with, in essence, that deeply problematic idea, seriousness. (When I was exchanging tweets on this matter with Keith, a comment of his prompted the couplet, ‘The joke’s the thing/wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the discipling’).

Fundamentally, a blog embraces and seeks to better define that subjectivity both lecturers and students worry about when it comes to the marking, but wish to encourage when approaching the ideation. Part of embracing one’s Secondariness is getting down off those high distant horses, of doing something that may prove only to be playful or plain introverted – ‘hermless’, in the words of the song – of sharing rather than dominating.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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