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Conversations with Diana di Prima, ed. David Stephen Calonne (University of Mississippi Press)

Conversations with Diana di Prima, ed. David Stephen Calonne (University of Mississippi Press)

Although recognised and remembered as a radical political and feminist poet, Diane di Prima (1934-2020) always questioned what was happening and chose what to engage with. Having read and reviewed a recent complete edition of her Revolutionary Letters I wanted to find out more about the author, and this new book offered just the opportunity. On the very first page of this book, in an interview from Grape, published by the Vancouver Community Press, we get this:

   Grape: You mentioned earlier that you’ve stopped reading underground papers. Why is that?
   Diane: Because I find that level of information just isn’t giving me anything I can work with at this point. It’s not interesting to me. All that’s happening on that level is a kind of sick “history repeats itself” piece of nonsense as far as I can see.’

Which seems, in part anyway, a rational response to the popular and fashionable revolutionary discourse of the time, but is somewhat undermined by the writer’s statement later on that she goes ‘for information to things like astrology, things like . . . whatever . . . like the I Ching’, the first of which gives her ‘concepts of form, a feel of energy nodes, of vortexes and how they might interact’. She talks of stepping back and giving herself time ‘to find out about more of the things that were going down.’

What was going down, according to di Prima, is the fact that she thought there was ‘a lot more black magic involved in the manipulation of the planet that’s been going on.’ She chose different areas to investigate, including those mentioned above as well as homeopathy and self-awareness (rather than science), desiring ‘intuitional leaps’ rather than ‘slow understanding’.

This, of course, is as much of its time as what di Prima was questioning. She doesn’t have any answers that will mend society or heal the planet, but she states that what she is basically saying ‘is that we were all taken in by a bunch of bullshit.’ This includes the counterculture options of back-to-the-land farmers, reclaim-the-wilderness games, commune dwellers, the acid tests, the Diggers, and much else which – along with schooling, ‘food, television, fluorescent lights and the whole trip’ – is resulting in ‘[a]pathy and cynicism’, people who ‘don’t believe anything’.

It’s scary, depressing reading, both diagnosis and di Prima’s answers, and that’s only the first piece. She declares that people must be strong, physically and mentally, and find out how their bodies function, and then ‘find out as much as [they] can about what people used to know’ and start taking ‘things literally like myth and symbol. Just believe ’em.’

Myth and symbolism have informed much of di Prima’s poetry, most of which is not at all like Revolutionary Letters but more complex and difficult. She clearly continued her personal explorations and remained suspicious of much we take for granted, asking if the web actually reached people or facilitated informed learning and thinking. She’s right of course, but at times throughout this book, she seems inflexible and stubborn rather than wise. 

On various pages she buys into the ‘my work is my life’ shtick, and evidences her engagement with a pick’n’mix hodge-podge of new age beliefs, picking bits from magic, psychology, alchemy, Buddhism, occult texts, and meditation (etc. etc.) as suits her; but she also gets stuck into working with children and students to try and counter, indeed subvert, the educational norms of 20th century America. Although she repeatedly states that her poetry has no solutions, only ideas and information, she seems more obsessed with personal action and the content of her writing, rather than any engagement with radical poetry and poetics.

That is disappointing for this reader, but it’s good to be surprised. And if some statements annoy or seem naive, there are fascinating sections in here about di Prima’s surprising friendship with Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg’s Naropa Institute, small press publishing, 9/11, gender, feminism and political correctness, painters and painting, and – however critical – some great reminiscences about the alternative cultures and communities in San Francisco and New York. Contradictory, confused and questioning, di Prima is nevertheless revealed as a fascinating, opinionated interviewee, offering optimism and possibility, despite herself.

Rupert Loydell 16th July 2022


Close to heart: collaborative work and the practice of (heartbeat) listening in Heart Monologues

Close to heart: collaborative work and the practice of (heartbeat) listening in Heart Monologues

The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions” (E.F. Schumach)

“’Cause hearts are the easiest things you could break” (“Some Candy Talking”, Jesus & Mary Chain)

“Poetry is like the human heartbeat. It belongs to everyone” (Imtiaz Dharker)

The meeting (of) minds. In June last year I was invited by Terry Lamb to give a performance of my multilingual poetry (in English, French and Croatian) at the first University of Westminster festival on global culture “World in Westminster”, 15-17 March 2022, celebrating cultural and linguistic diversity. We had discussed the idea of the performance back in 2019 but were unable to develop it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Terry is a fine scholar and his commitment to language teaching and learning, as well a s to multilingualism are exceptional; I was both honoured and extremely pleased to be able to collaborate with him on the festival and to be able to bring my performance to the stage as an alumna PhD student of Westminster University.   

Heart monologues / Les monologues du coeur / Monolozi srca. When presented with an opportunity to give a live performance after two and a half years in lockdown, I immediately thought of my multilingual poetry sequence “Heartbeat monologues” (HM). I imagined it as a multisensory poetry recital incorporating elements of live music performance, sound, and live and recorded voices. I had just finished rewriting HM after having done some important work on it as part of my one-to-one mentoring work and summer workshop with poet, artist, and writer, Caroline Bergvall. This latest reworking of HM coincided with Terry’s invitation, which was perfect timing. 

I want to say here that Heart monologues (HM) would not be the success it has been without Atau Tanaka’s and Delphine Salkin’s unique artistic input, and their dedication and expertise, the contributions made by Robert Šantek and Bridget Knapper, permanent members of my multilingual poetry Unbound project, and the voices by Daniel Loayza and Emma Macpherson, the pre-recorded readers, as well as the voices of so many others that came to life in Delphine’s audio piece “HeartCoeurSrce”. Last, but not least, Jonathan Pigrem, sound technician from the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary, Martin Delaney, free-lance photographer and musician, Richard Woodford, Regents Street Cinema technician, and Ying Man, Regents Street Cinema Manager, all contributed to the success of HM by bringing their enthusiasm and expertise to the HM project.   

Heartbeat matters. I have known Atau Tanaka professionally for several years now and I have the greatest respect for both his cutting-edge scientific research and his avantgarde performance work. Atau’s “Heart Beat Monitor” is a track from the CD, Biorhythms (Caipirinha Music, 2001). It used a stethoscope to record the heartbeat and has been mixed and processed in an analogue electronic music studio to create hypnotic polyrhythms.  I heard “Heart Beat Monitor” some years ago almost by pure chance; my first thought back then was that it would work perfectly with the HM poems I had just finished writing; however, I was not sure how to take the idea of a collaboration further, nor what form it would take; I let this feeling sit with me thinking there would come an opportunity at some point in the future to get in touch with Atau. When I finally invited him to collaborate on HM and he agreed, I knew this was a very good sign. 

“Faites que le rêve dévore votre vie afin que la vie ne dévore pas votre rêve”. After my preliminary chat with Atau at the Mughead Coffee in New Cross in October last year, I started thinking about the artistic direction of the performance and how I would achieve a sonic integration of my multilingual poetry with music, sound and voice.  I knew that I did not have the necessary experience to put such as complex and multidimensional piece on stage; so, I reached out to Delphine Salkin, a Belgian-born theatre director, actress, sound artist and author currently living in Paris, and my best and oldest friend. I know Delphine since we were 12 years old and when I was living in Brussels with my family; we were spending a lot of time together daydreaming as teenagers and on one occasion she left me a note: “Faites que le rêve dévore votre vie afin que la vie ne dévore pas votre rêve / / “Let your dream devour your life, not your life devour your dream”, a quote from the Little Prince that stayed with me until the present day. Delphine’s artistic work on the human voice in performance, and her own very personal journey as an artist and woman who lost (literally) and recovered her own voice, an experience narrated in her autobiographical theatre piece “Interieur Voix” (2015), made her the perfect fit for HM. When I asked Delphine whether she would be free to collaborate with me and she accepted, I knew everything was falling into place. 

“I am muscle, vivant souvenir”.  Whilst the heartbeat sounds of “Heart Beat Monitor” introduced HM in poem 1, HM’s centre piece was Atau’s electronic music piece “Myogram” (Meta Gesture music, 2017) performed live; slowly entering the scene between poem 7 and 8, it continued throughout the second part of the HM recital including poem 9 with its opening line “I am muscle…” and intermittent play during poems 10, 11 and 12.  As Atau explains: “Myogram” is a concert work for performer and the Myo bio-electrical interface as musical instrument. The sensors capture electromyogram (EMG) signals reflecting muscle tension. The system renders as musical instrument the performer’s own body, allowing him to articulate sound through concentrated gesture. A direct sonification of muscle activity where we hear the neuron impulses of muscle exertion as data. Throughout the piece, the raw data is first heard, then filtered, then excite resonators and filters.” Interwoven with Atau’s electronic music were the verses of HM live poetry read on stage by three live readers (Bridget, Robert, myself), and the two pre-recorded voices (Emma, Daniel). The pre-recorded poetry verses and Atau’s music were mixed on his Mackie mixer and a stereo signal was sent to the front-of-house. The three live readers used wireless Sennheiser mics, and all this was mixed by our sound technician, Jonathan. After more than twenty years of practicing and performing his body and gesture work, there is no doubt that Atau has become a virtuoso at it; yet, he remains very modest about his art. 

Multilingual heart, multilingual voice(s). After doing a summary bibliographic review and speaking to an expert in theatre studies at Queen Mary University of London, I realised that the concept of multilingual voice was explored very little – if not at all – in theatre and voice studies. In HM, I wanted to explore the multilingual voice and its relation to the body through textual, sonic and musical expression. The public was invited to immerse her/himself in the different language sounds through the sonic and visual correspondences of the three tongues; I believe this approach to writing and performance allows the reader / listener to experience the multilingual poems without necessary knowledge of the three languages. The theme of the multilingual heart and the question of which languages the “heartsrcecoeur” speaks lie at the centre of HM; the heart is “monologuing” through a change of first, second and third-person narratives as a physical, poetic and philosophical entity. In the last two poems of the sequence (12 and 13) references are made to music research in heart arrhythmia and musical patterns, mixed with somewhat recent medical experiences. The final poem, poem 13 in which the heartbeats of “Heart Beat Monitor” return to the scene, is my poetic statement in which I fully apply the multilingual poetry method.

When trying to conceptualise my own ideas, the first question I asked myself was what does it mean to have a multilingual voice? Where in my body are the different languages I speak located? And more generally, what are the public’s expectations and perceptions of multilinguality? I cannot entirely tell how successful I was in treating these complex questions in the HM performance, yet there is no doubt that the poems in HM spoken out loud gained a quality that transcends any language, something that I believe was achieved through the sonic integration of sound, music and voice, and is the direct result of the collaborative artistic process we undertook as a group. Delphine’s sound piece “Heart Coeur Srce” played between poems 11 and 12 in which the sober notes of Pascal Salkin’s musical score are set against the voices of people (based on thirty different recordings) saying the word ‘heart’ in twenty-nine different languages is a celebration of, an ode to multilingual voice.   

Artistic practice and collaboration. As a multilingual poet interested in collaborative practice and interdisciplinary work my experience so far has been that still exists a view prevalent in the poetry establishment in the UK, and among the poets themselves, that we as poets are expected primarily to work in solitude; solitary work is valued positively as being one of the distinctive traits that defines us; at the same time, these perpetuating views and conditions create a space(s) within which we primarily compete against each other. Luckily, the perceptions and the ideal of the solitary artist have begun to shift in all areas (see, for example, the 2019 Turner Prize that was for the first time ever awarded to a collective of artists, rather than one individual artist). It is true that the artistic creative process in collaborative work can be confusing, messy, unpredictable, and authorship can be difficult to assign. During an interdisciplinary collaboration, we are constantly being confronted with the question of what it is we as artists are willing to concede to give space for other possible modes of expressions to develop; yet, we learn also how to free ourselves up from our own artistic egos. We learn to negotiate our own identity, views, ideas as artists in relation to other existing identities and practices of the other artists we collaborate with. As Bridget, HM reader and group member, observes about HM: “What was noticeable [in the HM collaboration] was the harmonious, egalitarian nature of the group. There was a total absence of competition between the participants, no hierarchy, no directing leader. The author and director held their knowledge and competences lightly, creating a space for us all to navigate the text, the sound, the space.”

Since I became involved in interdisciplinary artistic collaborations through my multilingual poetry performances (I use the word performance here in the broadest of senses), I realised that mutual trust is one of the most important ingredients (if not the most important one) that defines whether such a collaboration fails or succeeds. The second most important ingredient is the right chemistry between the collaborators. Finally, the third one is the ability to trust the creative process, to “let go”. It is true that each collaboration is different, and that each participant has their own views about what makes a successful collaboration; it would therefore be wrong for me to assume we all share the same ideas and goals; however, it is safe to say that all successful collaborations (artistic or other types) invite a specific type of listening, quality of dialogue. 

Collaboration and the practice of listening. Having attended a couple of Caroline’s collaborative practice workshops – most recently the 7-week “Practice conversations” course last summer with nine other artists, (as part of the newly founded Solitary + Solidary Arts Lab) – one of the things I learned is there is both an interdependency and a subtle balance between solitary and solidary artistic practice; an ecological equilibrium. In the messiness of today’s world, a solitary artistic mode of working can no longer function fully without the solidary mode, and the other way around. Embracing collaborative work as a method for the development of one’s own artistic practice not only enriches one’s own development; it also enables the community and work of other artists through the range of active listening practices; listening can become a key element of artistic practice, a “part of a two-way dialogue”, an “action” that leads to change (Farinati & Firth, 2017). It takes heart, openness, and courage to show our own vulnerability as artists before we are ready to embark on any kind of collaborative artistic voyage

A few final words.... The work on HM coincided with the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February. In the first days of the invasion, my memories, and images of the war in ex-Yugoslavia rushed back. I was stunned, speechless, incapable of articulating my own feelings, ideas; the horror of war is unfolding daily in front of our eyes more than 100 days later; so close to the heart of Europe; only three and half hours from London. In that context, any gesture, however small, counts. For me, HM and the collective sound piece “HeartCoeurSrce” represent that very small, but necessary gesture. To have heartcoeursrce. To have courage.

Acknowledgements
I wish to thank the Centre for Poetry, Queen Mary University of London, and the University of Westminster for co-funding Heart Monologues, 16 March 2022, Regent Street Cinema, University of London (Part of “World in Westminster” Festival, 15-17 March 2022). I also wish to thank the Centre for Digital Music, Queen Mary, for their continued support.

References:

Materials from Heart monologues:

Bolfek-Radovani, Jasmina (2m 47s), Heart monologues, 2022, Youtube.

Bolfek-Radovani, Jasmina, Heart monologues (33 m), full audio recording, 16 March 2022, Regent Street Cinema, London, Soundcloud (recorded by Richard Woolford at the Regent Street Cinema, 16 March 2022). Bolfek-Radovani, Jasmina, Heart monologues, moving poster, 2022, Vimeo.  Salkin, Delphine (1m19s), Heart Coeur Srce, Soundcloud. Tanaka, Atau, “Myogram”, Meta Gesture, 2017, Youtube Tanaka, Atau, “Heart Beat Monitor”, Biorhythms, 2000, Youtube.


Related references:
Bolfek-Radovani, from Heart monologues: 1. & 3., The Fortnightly Review, January 2022. Cavanero, Adriana, Towards a Philopsophy of Vocal Expression, Standford: Standford University Press, 2005. Farinati, Lucia & Firth, Claudia, The Force of Listening, New York: Errant Bodies Press, 2017. Inchley, Maggie, Voice and New Writing, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Konstantinos, Thomaidis, Theatre and Voice, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2017. Salkin, Delphine, “Interieur Voix”, (first created in December 2015) Rideau de Bruxelles, December 2019 (With and by Delphine Salkin, Pierre Sartenaer, Raymond Delpierre, and Isabelle Dumont). Practice Conversations, seven-week summer course led by Caroline Bergvall, 17 June – 29 July 2021, Solitary + Solidary Arts Lab.

Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani 29th June 2022

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

On Becoming a Poet edited by Susan Terris (Marsh Hawk Press)

Although this book is subtitled ‘Essential Information About the Writing Craft’, it’s actually more a collection of 25 autobiographical musings from a collection of American poets. That’s quite a relief: I wasn’t looking forward to a how-to-write manual, nor anything that suggested poets were born or relied on muses and inspiration for their work.

What we do have is a mostly enjoyable anthology of people looking back at what informed and encouraged them to start and keep writing. Sheila E. Murphy focuses on the music of language, linking it to the ever-present music in her childhood home. Geoffrey O’Brien wittily deconstructs a nursery rhyme, Philip F. Clark discusses how to ‘sustain wonder’, Burt Kimmelman links it all back to Black Mountain poetics, and Lynne Thompson writes about how her ‘journey to becoming a writer was inspired by my father’, a nice contrast to Denise Low’s discussion of ‘The Womanly Lineage of Writerly Mentors’, which celebrates her feminist teacher Mrs. Sullivan.

David Lehman is a little bit more schoolmasterly, with some sections of his work instructing the reader what to do, but it’s mostly sensible if slightly obvious stuff, such as ‘Write any time, any place. Take a little notebook with you. Jot down possible titles, overheard phrases, unexpected similes.’ More useful is his recognition that poetry is no different to and is informed by other genres:

   Write prose. All the writing you do helps all the other writing
   you do. Learn the prose virtues of economy, directness, and
   clarity. Good journalism or nonfiction writing or speech writing
   or technical writing can help your poetry. Writing to an editor’s
   specifications, on deadline, with a tight word-count, is a sort of 
   discipline not unlike writing poems […]

He’s also astute enough to point out that ‘poetry is not the whole of one’s life, it is a part of it’.

Personally, my two favourite parts of the book are both interviews. Arthur Sze discusses ‘Revealing and Revelling in Complexity’ and declares that he loves ‘the intensity and power of language, and imagination that all come together in poetry.’ He also discusses clarity and the use of specialist language, multiculturalism, science and poetry, and writing with ‘openness and risk’. Jane Hirshfield has to answer some dodgy lines of questioning about inspiration, influences and – worst of all – ‘poetic voice’, but mostly keeps coming back to what she calls ‘deepened language’ and wanting her ‘poems to be stranger’. I’m less convinced by her aspiration to use poetry to make ‘a more full human person’, although I note her hesitant ‘perhaps’ earlier in the sentence.

This feels like a rather old-fashioned anthology, from the rather clunky cover design and disingenuous blurb and Introduction, to the insistence on traditional publishing and the volume’s overall confessional, or autobiographical, approach to things. There is little mention of performance, visual poetics, digital publishing or experimental processes and poetics. Mostly it is as though the late 20th Century has not happened to the poets here, although I know for a fact it has! It would be good to see another volume that focussed on younger writers, what they make with language, and why they do so.

Rupert Loydell 15th April 2022

Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Why is Poetry Important to today’s society?

Poetry, like music, can provide a kind of atmosphere to echo or assure a reader, share in their mood, or provide one. It can also, like novels, serve as a kind of escape, allegory, or humor as we face or need respite from life’s difficulties. But what I find I come back to poetry for are insights into the deeper questions—life, nature, connection, existence, the cosmos. It is not that poetry answers the great questions, but that it asks with us and participates somehow in our being. 

I think of the deep reflective poetry of John Donne (“Death be not proud…”), poems by Gerard Manly Hopkins in moments of depression but also doubt about belief and then a reconnection with his God (ie “Carrion Comfort”) or Frost’s poems which are on one level simple observations of natural spaces he passes along in walks but on another level have to do with how he decides to live and direct his life, or how he keeps on keeping on. 

When I think of contemporary poetry, I think these are the things which draw me to authors like Anne Carson, whose poetry contains characters, philosophy, history and the confusion of everyday being that both interrogates my own existence and allows me distance to watch someone else doing the hard work of wandering along, struggling with love and rejection, meaning and time. Or I think of Shrikanth Reddy’s Facts for Visitors and now-native Georgia poet Andrew Zawacki and the deep beauty in their poetry. 

Lastly, I am a poet who has lived across multiple languages and countries, initially grounded in Iowa but now living in France, so the poetry by contemporary authors which is focused on interrogating family, migration/immigration and ancestral connections in wholly new ways is the writing I come to most: Myung Mi Kim’s Under Flag to Commons, Craig Santos Perez’s first 4 books from his unincorporated territory series telling of his roots in Guam and old family vs attachments to the USA via Hawaii and new family, Bhanu Kapil’s Incubation: A Story of Monsters with its cyborg version of herself—an Indian-Brit residing in the USA trying to figure out how to belong, American author now living in New Zealand Lisa Samuels Anti M which is a new version of an autobiography or the slightly older texts which paved the way to these: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet Lyn Hejinian (My Life but also her recent, exciting text for our times Tribunal) or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s mixed language text Dictée (first and only book, published on the day she passed away). 

Poetry connects me simultaneously to myself, and to the world and universe I am part of. It is a deep form of art which, in this current time of pandemic, is one of the strongest examples of hope, or methods of hoping. This is why I think poetry is fundamental to and for society.

Jennifer K. Dick 14th March 2022

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is out!

Tears in the Fence 75 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, translations, fiction, flash fiction and creative nonfiction by Mandy Pannett, Greg Bright, Penny Hope, David Sahner, Stephen Paul Wren, Alexandra Fössinger, Mark Russell, Maurice Scully, Gavin Selerie, Mandy Haggith, Lynne Cameron, Sarah Watkinson, Jeremy Hilton, Gerald Killingworth, Lesley Burt, Nic Stringer, Sam Wilson-Fletcher, Lilian Pizzichini, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Beth Davyson, Rethabile Masilo, Tracy Turley, Olivia Tuck, Elisabeth Bletsoe & Chris Torrance’s Thirteen Moon Renga, Wei Congyi Translated by Kevin Nolan, Basil King, Robert Sheppard, Lucy Ingrams, John Freeman, Mélisande Fitzsimons, Deborah Harvey, David Harmer, David Ball, Rupert M. Loydell, Jeremy Reed, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Sian Thomas, Chaucer Cameron, Huw Gwynn-Jones and Simon Collings.

The critical section consists of editorial, essays, articles and critical reviews by David Caddy, Elisabeth Bletsoe Remembering Chris Torrance, Jeremy Reed on The Letters of Thom Gunn, Simon Collings’ ecocritical perspective of Rae Armantrout, Isobel Armstrong on Peter Larkin, Barbara Bridger on Barbara Guest, Andrew Duncan on Elisabeth Bletsoe & Portland Tryptich, Frances Presley on Harriet Tarlo,  Simon Jenner on Geoffrey Hill, Steve Spence on Sarah Crewe, Mandy Pannett on Charles Wilkinson, Clark Allison on Ken Edwards, Guy Russell on Paul Vangelisti, Norman Jope on Ariana Reines, Lyndon Davies on Elena Rivera and Scott Thurston, Harriet Tarlo on Carol Watts, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 10 and Notes On Contributors.

THE CITIZEN and the making of City edited by Peter Robinson (Bloodaxe Books)

THE CITIZEN and the making of City edited by Peter Robinson (Bloodaxe Books)

Roy Fisher’s City was one of the first poetry books I remember reading as a teenager (others would be Crow, and The Waste Land, as well as Adrian Mitchell’s and Brian Patten’s work). My friend the poet Brian Louis Pearce lent me his 1961 Migrant Press copy to encourage me to use the actual world around me in my poetry; around the same time a school friend showed me Edwin Morgan’s Instamatatic Poems. Both books were full of physical description, mood, history, clearsighted observation, and what we might now call psychogeography: the feel and mood of a place, dependent upon its history and use. Both felt quite distanced and disengaged from their subjects yet were involving and innovative reads.

Whilst I knew that Fisher had revised City for future editions, I was unaware – like many others, I am sure – that it had been assembled from a previous work, perhaps still-in-progress at the time, perhaps abandoned, called Citizen, and that the version published by Migrant Press had been selected and ordered for publication by somebody else, in a way that its author was not particularly happy with, despite the fact he felt unable to finalise the work himself. He would continue to tinker with, edit, annotate, resequence and reshape the sequence for several years before settling upon a definitive version for republication in various Selected and Collected Poems.

This new book not only offers the reader the first ever publication of Citizen (transcribed from a handwritten notebook), a prose work mostly in numbered sections, but also 1962’s rare Then Hallucinations: City II, all the published versions of City, along with uncollected and associated poems. There is also an astute introduction by Peter Robinson, and some useful published quotes by Fisher himself about the work, as well as excerpts from ‘a Citizen notebook’.

As I get older, I am more and more fascinated by the writing process: ideas and inspiration, source material, revisions, the editing process, and interior and exterior intertextualities (although I still want the work to stand on its own). This new volume is a fantastic compendium of the various incarnations of an important text whose construction took Fisher many years to resolve to his own satisfaction. Despite some clumsy typesetting (too narrow and too deep a text for the page, with too much space between the lines) it’s an informative and useful book. It hasn’t, truth be told, made me prefer later versions to the original, but it reinforces the fact that, along with writing by Allen Fisher, T.S. Eliot, Edwin Morgan and Ken Smith, Fisher is one of the best writers when it comes to articulating urban experience.

Rupert Loydell 2nd February 2022

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

A Forest On Many Stems edited by Laynie Browne (Nightboat Books)

This massive book (580 pages) is a collection of ‘essays on the poet’s novel’, which takes a look at contemporaneous and (mostly 20th Century) historical prose works written by poets. Most are written by poets, so we have an anthology of poet’s critical prose about other poets’ fiction.

I can’t pretend I know all of the critics or the authors and texts under discussion; even the many names I do know, I often haven’t read the works being considered. Yet these essays are open, inclusive and discursive enough to not only encourage me to find and read many of these works, but also to offer themselves as both experimental writing and as informed and more generalised contextualisation and discussion.

That is these essays are informed by and embedded within a sense of poetry and its playfulness, liquidity and experiment, with a particular focus on the works poets have chosen to produce as ‘novels’. Not prose poetry, but novels: fictional prose, although the book starts with a brief section on the ‘Verse Novel’ where texts by Lyn Hejinian, Anne Carson and Alice Notley are discussed and the fourth section includes ‘Prose Poem’ as part of its more elongated title.

Others of the seven sections are more intriguing and open to interpretation: ‘Genre Mash-Ups’, considers work by Barbara Guest, Gwendolyn Brooks and Gertrude Stein and others; ‘Metamorphic / Distance / Aural Address / Wandering’ could perhaps include anything, but its selection of author subjects includes Sebald, Pessoam Lewis Carroll and Leslie Scapalino; whilst Langston Hughes, Michael Ondaatje and Keith Waldrop are amongst those who feature in ‘Portrait / Documentary / Representation / Palimpsest’.

Some questions re-occur – usually with different answers. Why would a poet adopt prose? How does prose differ from poetry?  (‘Why does a poet choose another language to write a novel?’ asks Vincent Broqua.) Do we read poets’ novels with different expectations? What about narrative, authenticity, plot and momentum? Interiority and lyricism? And what genre is the poet’s novel?

Abigail Lang, writing about ‘Jacques Roubard’s poets’ prose, gets to the heart of the matter for me, suggesting that ‘[i]f poetry and prose are maintained as distinct, they can enter into a productive conversation’. Whether engaged in close reading, philosophical discussion, literary discourse or theoretical deconstruction, this book articulates and extends that conversation. It is a challenging, focussed and exciting read.

Rupert Loydell 28th January 2022

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The Personal Art: essays, reviews & memoirs by Peter Robinson (Shearsman Books)

The scope of this quite modestly pitched book of reviews and essays is actually quite considerable, it takes in quite a wide compass in a relatively unassuming way in some 440 pages. Robinson has authors he likes, but he is not into score taking or arguing canonically. I suppose this could have been called a collected or selected prose. But Robinson is not the kind to hammer his points, there’s a considerable openness here to many varieties of poetic expression. 

So the book is bold but lacking in ostentation, which makes a curious combination of assertion and humility. There are a great many reviews here and I’d say they’re all pretty insightful, and the final section is given over to some autobiographical essays. Among things to prioritise are perhaps, a vicar’s son,  Robinson’s 18 years of living and teaching in Japan. Also with considerable candour he discusses his surgery for a benign brain tumour, certainly a life changing experience.

There are actually some 55 pieces here, composed ‘over the last forty years’ (p7), so this in a sense a bit of a summa. But again, Robinson does not seem like someone with an axe to grind. The book is in five parts, beginning with British poets, then Americans, then a more retrospective note in Part 3 and on to more perhaps minor or esoteric pieces in Part 4, and memoirs to close. 

The title is from Marianne Moore,- ‘happy that Art, admired in general,/ is always actually personal’. Again that air of no grand claims. A number of very prominent poets get reviewed here, and the sense is of a close, rather than judgmental engagement, again little sense of what betters or words of a delineated evaluation. Robinson is an appreciative reader quite evidently. I thought perhaps the most indicative piece was on the American poet John Matthias, which is in Part 2, where Robinson reiterates the Marianne Moore quote.

Actually placing the memoirs at the end gives the book a wholly different tone, personal, indeed. What we might be lacking is a sense of an ethos, where what we get instead are, oh, here are some things I liked. Is literature of much help in making a way in the world. There’s a little bit of a sense of drift, ie we like these things, but we make no claims for them. There is a lack of taking position. One might find for example no address to such canonical figures as Hughes, Plath or Heaney. And modernism is acknowledged but we do not get wholly behind it.

This might tend to suggest that the book turns into a sort of miscellany, a grab bag. Here is Robinson for instance discussing Lee Harwood, about whom he is quite favourable,-

‘Presenting himself as a nice person and not afraid or ashamed of weakness, Harwood is frequently candid about the ironies and contradictions that have arisen with his projects.’ (p277)

Well one might think this is somewhere Robinson is coming from also.

Given that, a strength of the book is its wide range. We get, for instance, commentary on Peter Riley, John James, Roy Fisher, Bunting, Elizabeth Bishop and a good many more. Yet also that sense of being without sharp or precise delineation. Equally no or little sense of schools and where we are placed with them, although Robinson is certainly aware of the Movement, rather more than he is of the British Poetry Revival or the Cambridge school. The ‘personal art’ coinage is certainly a plus, and this sense that the introspect must figure, all to the good.

I get the sense I suppose that the book as a whole tends to come out as a sort of personal memoir rather than any positioning alignment regards schools or stylistic tendencies. And it is certainly an engaging read, that personal inflection keeps it well clear of academic journalese. 

The effect is perhaps of an odd sort of softening; the cover design is colourful but quite mild, lacking any jagged edges, red, yellow, green and peach. I suppose I’m of the view that this chimes most with the John Matthias, perhaps a relatively underestimated critic and commentator.

The back cover blurb says ‘an essential guide to the poetry that has shaped and fed the imagination of a distinctive and original poet.’ Now this strikes me as about right. Peter Robinson surely is an original. And again no wider claims; perhaps this is indicative of a certain catholicity. 

That said I think this is a very welcome instance of publication. While no partisan, Robinson has obviously read and appreciated widely, and there are many cues here to pick up on some of the authors discussed. Interested readers might wish to refer back to Robinson’s Selected or Collected.

But here am I thinking about all those things he didn’t say. There is assuredly candour and a welcoming sense, but it is not quite a position statement or a guide book. But there is a lot here, reflecting many years of reading and writing. It’s a satisfying book filled with many an insightful reflection on the present condition of poetry.

Clark Allison 13th November 2021

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is out!

Tears in the Fence 74 is now available at https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction, flash fiction, translations and creative non-fiction by Seán Street, Mandy Pannett, Isobel Armstrong, Jeremy Reed, Andrew Mears, Anum Sattar, Ian Davidson, Joanna Nissel, Simona Nastac, Alan Baker, Lilian Pizzichini, Lucy Ingrams, Beth Davyson, Charles Wilkinson, Scott Thurston, Gerald Killingworth, Gabriela Macon, Kate Noakes, Peter Robinson, Kay Syrad, Huw Lawrence, Lesley Burt, K. V. Skene, John Freeman, Jane Wheeler, Tamsin Hopkins, Rachel Goodman & Elvire Roberts, Andrea Moorhead, Rebecca Althaus, Rachel Goodman, Mark Goodwin, Marina Tsvetaeva translated by Belinda Cooke, Alice Tarbuck, Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana, Adrian Clarke, Nigel Jarrett, Norman Jope, Steve Spence, Maddie Forest, Claire HM, Peter Larkin and Mark Russell.

The critical section includes Richard Foreman’s Editorial, John Freeman on Shelley’s Animism and Ecology, Alice Tarbuck on Thomas A. Clark, Carla Scarano on Margaret Attwood, Jeremy Reed on Yours Presently: The Selected Letters of John Wieners, Sarah Acton on Martin Stannard, Phil Maillard on d.a.levy and Bill Wyatt, Graham Hartill on Phil Maillard’s Bill Wyatt, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Pilgrimage, Simon Jenner on Jay Ramsay’s Other Long Poems, Jeremy Reed on Patricia Hope Scanlon, Andrew Duncan on Will Harris, Belinda Cooke on Peter Robinson, Steve Spence on Ric Hool, Ian McMillan, Mandy Pannett on Sarah Cave, Maria Jastrzębska on Marcin Świetlicki, Ric Hool on Mike McNamara, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue and Notes On Contributors 

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

Things I Have Withheld: Essays by Kei Miller (Canongate Press)

This is a stirring and insightful collection of essays that often reads like a travelogue or reportage; that is that its prerogatives are not speculative or theoretical. Kei Miller from Jamaica, who studied and has taught in Britain, has been lauded for his poetry, especially The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014). 

I was a little reminded of Martin Amis Visiting Mrs Nabokov, which similarly is in a kind of reporter’s prose conveying and getting back about places he’s visited, people seen. Miller’s essays cover a lot of ground, from Jamaica to Trinidad to Kenya to Ghana. 

Reflecting I’d say the main points coming through are to get a bit of local colour, sometimes not without its hazards, in some of these places; and to take measure of Miller’s insistence on his embodiment, no ivory tower here, and the culture and politics of racial or ethnic identification. Miller seems to suggest that he can no more get out of his body than change or forget his skin colour. Identity figures too in Miller’s gay identification. Among topics covered are the circumstances of battyboys in Jamaica through to Trinidad and Jamaica carnival on to corrupt police in Ghana. 

The book is framed with imaginary letters directed to the esteemed James Baldwin, who becomes Miller’s muse for a time, both opening and closing the book. Baldwin, of course, struggled hard for his art, frequently feeling unsafe, and speaking with a rare reach of eloquence.

Miller seems to be following a theme, if you like, of where you belong. That being so, of course there was black livelihood before Jamaica, presumably prompting the trip to Kenya and Ethiopia. But no Roots excavation here. It is also inescapable that skin colour betrays something about roots, be it tanned, mulatto, deep brown and so on. Miller links his skin tone to his body consciousness, something that no amount of cerebralness can countervene. 

Chapter 9 is called ‘There are Truths Hidden in Our Bodies’, and in that sense this can account for Miller’s body consciousness, a means to arrive at the truth if not quite to some sort of felicity. He does sympathise with the battyboys, who will play up the pride and camp at carnival, and how that experience is seen as a time to expunge our ‘worst’ behaviour, albeit I assume harmlessly. It cannot go unremarked that Miller has a short account of the recent police death incident, rendered anonymously, repeating the fatal expression ‘Please, I can’t breathe’ (p197) twenty two times.

Miller says to Baldwin actually, ‘I resent your dying’ (p16) about the same place he concludes that ‘there are histories that haunt our bodies’.

But of course irrespective of that body awareness Miller is able to bring us a persuasive, writerly account of what is going on in some of these places he inhabits. A strong attachment to Jamaica comes through well, of the shoreline, waves lapping on rocks, of the hillside houses, of the different seasons. Miller says he regards the book as ‘an act of faith, an attempt to put my trust in words again,,,to offer, at long last, a clearer vocabulary’. (pxv) While this is a book with an eye to the future, I like to think that it is well on the way to espousing that enhanced clarity. 

Clark Allison   30th May 2021

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