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The Poetry of John James Conference

The Poetry of John James Conference

Last Saturday saw Magdalene College, Cambridge, host this conference to celebrate the poetry of John James. It was organised by the current Judith E. Wilson Fellow, Peter Hughes, whose Oystercatcher Press has published both Cloud Breaking Sun (2012) and Sabots (2015). I recall reviewing Sabots for the Tears blog in August 2015 and concluding that it is “an uplifting sequence of three poems which restores a sense of vitality and endurance within a world threatened by commercial bureaucracy and targets”.

The conference was itself uplifting and by the end of the day I realised that the speakers had taken us on a journey which involved close textual criticism, overviews of the place of John James’s work in contemporary poetry and personal reminiscence. Emphasis was placed on the role of music within the poetry and the importance of the visual arts to a man whose sense of the flâneur is still to be recognised in the laughter and wry awareness exhibited by the poet in the audience who turned to me at one point to say “Who is this poet? I must get hold of some of his work”.

The speakers included Rod Mengham whose Equipage Press has published both In Romsey Town (2011) and Songs In Midwinter For Franco; Andrew Taylor whose debt to James weaves its way through his own Oystercatcher volume Air Vault; Simon Smith, Ian Heames, Peter Riley, Drew Milne and Geoff Ward spoke and read and by the end of the day there was a feeling that the success of this event was partly to do with the range of focus: different takes on a common theme of respect for this poet whose first published volume had appeared half-a-century ago from Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press.

The poem ‘Pimlico’ was read (first published in Tears) as was ‘A Theory of Poetry, twice, and there was a beautifully produced gift from Ian Heames of his own finely published copy of the original Street Editions in comfrey blue. There was a sense in the auditorium of what John James referred to in his ‘Poem beginning with a line of Andrew Crozier’:

“I reach toward the poetry of kindred
where we speak in our work as we seldom do otherwise”

My review of Sabots had ended with a simple statement about the book:

“It is a tribute to the quietly unchanging in a fast-changing world. It’s terrific!” The same could be said of the 2017 Cambridge Conference on the Poetry of John James.

Ian Brinton, 13th March 2017

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The Text Festivals: Language Art

The Text Festivals: Language Art

The Text Festivals: Language Art and Material Poetry, edited by Tony Lopez, (University of Plymouth Press 2013) is a fascinating collection of essays by artists, poets and curators about The Text Festivals, which challenges preconceptions of the possibilities of language art.  The Text Festivals has seen a convergence of Language Art and Material Poetry and continual development since its beginning on 19 March 2005 with Tony Trehy’s The Text Exhibition and a retrospective exhibition of Bob Cobbing’s experimental work in sound, poetry and art. Tony Lopez’s introductory essay notes that Tony Trehy’s approach, as Festival curator, has been that ‘art can be read as poetry and poetry can be viewed as art’. This allows different approaches to language use to work together on each other and work against specialist separation and categorization. The ICA’s June 2009 exhibition Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. added more impetus to the growth of interest in Text / Visual Art. Named after Ian Hamilton Finlay’s magazine of the Sixties and Seventies it showed ‘art that verges on poetry’ and featured Finlay, Dom Sylvester Houédard, Henri Chopin, Robert Smithson, Alisdair Gray, Philip Guston and David Hockney. Lopez’s historical overview, light on definition, notes that visual poetry, as opposed to Concrete Poetry, has continued since the Seventies and that Concrete Poetry, as a more discrete development within art, as opposed to poetry, ended in the Seventies.  The ‘shape poem’ has become a standard teaching aid to help children play with language since the Seventies. There are certainly a great many practitioners from different backgrounds, with variant approaches, that make current developments more than interesting.

 

Tony Trehy offers an insight into his strategies in curating the Text Festivals. Canadian poet, Christian Bök writes about The Xenotext, a literary experiment with biologists that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics, following on from William Burroughs’ famous remark that ‘the word is now a virus’. Liz Collini provides insights into her Language Drawings in her Versions essay. Philip Davenport recalls an inspiring meeting with Bob Cobbing and how it led his curating the Cobbing retrospective. [Bob Cobbing incidentally was the first poet that I ever booked for a reading in 1973.] James Davies, publisher of if p then q magazine and press, encourages thinking about ‘text art’ and explores the value of poem poster art. Poet, Robert Grenier describes his serial drawn poems being exhibited, and Alan Halsey explains how his text-graphic work, Memory Screen (2005) was exhibited and performed, at Bury. Carol Watts’ artist’s book, alphabetise (2005), which consists of 26 chronicles, derived from overheard stories and anecdotes, organised into alphabetical structures in handwritten and digital form on one page, was shown at Bury as an object in a glass case. Watts takes a dictionary word as its arbitrary focus for each entry and cuts it together with an event story as part of an exploration into the arbitrariness of words and alphabetic systems. The alpha part stemming from the first part of the Greek alphabet and as a sequence of status, as in alpha male, and betise meaning something that is foolish, a joke, or nonsense. American visual poet, derek beaulieu accounts for sending The Bury Museum and Archives an empty box in an exploration of the value of nothing and bureaucracy across borders. His piece ends with a John Cage quotation, ‘Nothing more than nothing may be said’. Holly Pester writes about her engagement with the Bury Gallery, Museum and Archives producing an installation that gathered objects, recording and ideas on transmission and the nature of speech apparatuses in order to investigate how archives operate around poetry. In her notes on incorporating text within artwork, Hester Reeve (HRH. the) follows mid-period Marina Abramovic in seeing performance art as a radical philosophical questioning linked to the body and claims her body is protesting against the predictive mind to produce an art text that is not a vehicle for explanation but ‘is the explanation’. Visual artist, Carolyn Thompson details her Festival installations, predominantly cut up’s that are exhibited on walls, and writing an audio guide for Bury buildings that were designed but never built.

 

These absorbing essays are well written, candid and accompanied by photos, colour plates and catalogue of exhibitions, commissions and events. There are few books on this area of poetic enquiry and experience.  This well produced book is trail blazing and essential reading.

 

David Caddy

Writing & the Small Press Conference March 31

 

This was a well-organised and well-attended conference which took place at the Old Fire Station in Salford University. It was heartening to see how time and again the emphasis was placed upon the passionate concern for communicating which was not confined to economic market forces.

Robert Sheppard (Edge Hill University) gave an energetic and high-velocity talk on Bill Griffiths, Nickolai Duffy (Manchester Metropolitan) took us through the fifty years of Burning Deck publishing which was run by Rosmarie Waldrop from the basement in Providence Island and Lila Matsumoto (University of Edinburgh) presented a witty and visually delightful tour of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s connection with Wild Hawthorn Press. Ian Brinton gave an account of the early years of Ferry Press and how J.H. Prynne’s Brass nearly got de-railed.

 

Quote of the day: ‘A culture which despises its artists may be in greater need of those people than the one which values them.’

All credit to Scott Thurston, Lucie Armitt and Ursula Hurley for a terrific day’s word-hammering.

 

Thought for the Day

Fielding Dawson’s account of life at Black Mountain College first appeared in 1970 before being reissued with a lot of new material in 1991. On May 23rd 1990 he wrote the following from New York:

‘Before established narrative will change, ideas must change, and through a speech involving many varied, still changing ideas, a new formula will present itself for us to follow. We’re on the edge of it, have been for most of this century, but our problem—and failure—is we won’t change. And, therefore, we will be stuck with the stylized successful slime that characterizes our bland, and boring, vicious culture.
But a few individuals here and there, including me, do change, and I’m not fool enough to overlook, or deny my responsibility in it. Change must become a discipline’.

More on Fielding Dawson and the British small-press publishing scene to follow and a reminder to those who knew (alert to those who didn’t) that there is a one-day conference at the University of Salford on Saturday 31st March from 9.00-5.00: Writing and the Small Press. For details contact Lucie Armitt at the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT.

Napa Valley Writers’ Conference with Eavan Boland

This may be one just for our American cousins but the chance to work alongside Eavan Boland albeit for a few precious days? Not to be sniffed at! Go and look at Napa Patch for more info.

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