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Covodes 1-19: An Interview with Robert Hampson by Belinda Giannessi

Covodes 1-19: An Interview with Robert Hampson by Belinda Giannessi

BG: I have just finished reading (and listening to) your Covodes.[i] I found them very interesting because they catch not just the historical events that mingled in our memories but also the emotions, the fears and the frustration that we all experienced. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask you some questions. First, do all the references to music give a sort of frame to the collection, keeping together and giving order to all the fragments of the last two years of plague? 

RGH: I think I would see the musical references as a motif rather than a frame. There were various motifs I was conscious of developing as the writing proceeded. The musical references were also to be taken with the references to poetry and the visual arts as a celebration of the value of the arts in the context of the British Government’s attacks on the arts and humanities. There was a notorious government poster about re-training: it showed a ballet dancer in a tutu and said something like ‘next year she could be a computer programmer’. Some of the musical references (I am thinking of the dedication to Juliette Greco and the references to her life in covode 8) were in response to recent deaths.

BG:  Is it possible to see your Covodes as also chronicles of the Covid Age, although it is not possible to have a clear narrative yet?

RGH: Yes, indeed, I was very conscious of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Boccaccio’s Decameron, when I started, and I was thinking of the covodes as a form of documentation. I knew I needed an open-ended form, because nobody knew how this would end – and I wanted to be able to respond to events as they happened. Precisely because there wasn’t a clear narrative, I also wanted a form that permitted multiple voices and a number of different characters. I would write a new covode about every three weeks, using the materials I had accumulated in that period.  Covodes 1-19 covers only the first year of the pandemic. It took a while to put it into book form and to record the CD. Since then, I have written covodes 20-38 to bring the sequence up to the present.

BG: Is the lyrical ‘I’ that appears throughout the collection a sort of linking character? Does the cruise ship have a similar function?

RGH: I allowed myself to use an ‘I’ in this sequence, but the ‘I’ is different characters – none of them necessarily me. I am thinking, for example, of Covode 1 (‘I was an experienced serosurveyor) or Covode 14 (‘I am normally up in retail’). The pronouns are all very unstable – the ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘we’ have shifting referents. The cruise ship enters the poem because of the early stage of the pandemic, when cruise ships were picking up the virus and not being allowed to land, but that historical detail then provides the basis for a motif. It is also combined with other examples of confined spaces (recording studios, luxury bunkers, space capsules and space stations) as a way of registering the claustrophobia of lockdown. Thanks to Elon Musk, there is a whole science-fiction fantasy going on, which also brings in Davd Bowie (the Spiders from Mars and Colonel Tom ‘sitting in a tin can’).

BG: Your style in Covodes 1-19 reminded me of Eliot’s works ‘Prufrock’ and The Waste Land     and American poetry in general. Are there different ideal readers? 

RGH: I think Eliot’s working title for The Waste Land (taken from Our Mutual Friend by Dickens) – ‘he do the police in different voices’ – is very relevant to the effect I was trying to achieve, and I can see the link with Prufrock’s fragmentation (and the use of a character), but the poets in my mind were Pound and Charles Olson. With both, there is the problem about how to write a long poem that is able to respond to contemporary events. Pound had the idea that he would be able to fit it into a Dantean structure and felt that he had failed to do this. For me Pound’s failure is the important lesson. I am hoping to follow Pound’s model – where the Cantos were published originally in small groups (A Draft of XXX Cantos followed by Eleven New Cantos and so on), but there is no over-arching structure. Improvisation is an important principle throughout. As for the reader, I was working so much with my own free associations to the contemporary materials that I am hoping readers will be sparked by the fragments and references to make their own associations with that period.  

BG: Thank you. 

1 Robert Hampson, Covodes 1-19 Artery Editions, 2022. The accompanying CD, a reading od=f the complete set of poems is accompanied on cello by Joanna Levi.

Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

Guerrilla Brightenings by Joanna Nissel (Against the Grain Press)

In this deft and lyrical debut pamphlet, Joanna Nissel explores the beginning of 2020 as seen from Brighton. Throughout these poems, Nissel dances with grief and the sea, as well as the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the unexpected and intense moments of colour: both in the literal or physical sense, and the psychological sense.

Nissel makes eclectic and dynamic choices regarding form. The pamphlet opens with a poem fluid and beautiful with its frequently recurring refrain: ‘every morning                  the beach’.  The prose poem form also emerges throughout the pamphlet, as in ‘Now More Than Ever’ and ‘Meantime’, in which Nissel tackles found poetry, using social media posts recorded between the 4th and 5th April 2020. These posts then comprise prose poems, with each post separated by virgules, allowing the posts to come thick and fast as they did when they flashed across our screens, and to make surprising, often humorous, combinations regarding mood and tone: ‘In lieu of / privileged little cunts / lord bless some of the real ones / the nice weather’. Nissel uses white space not only to establish pace and tension, but to physically create interludes between images and ideas. For example, in ‘The Night Lockdown Came In’, the white space between could be seen to play on social distancing measures visually and allows us moments to rest and absorb each facet of the onset of the ‘new normal’, as well as what has remained of what we already knew: ‘A dog walker            ekes        out        the         minutes’; ‘Orion levitates above  the sea’.

The speaker’s voice is complex and layered. In many of the poems, the speaker is a vessel for their surroundings and the world many of us knew during lockdown. The speaker is an artist of sorts, commenting on a scene by painting – writing – it, giving it to us on the page independent of opinion or interpretation: the lesbian couple spotted walking the beach at dawn, the ‘looped hills and pathways’ of a residential crescent, the ‘low vibrato of scraping of chair legs’ heard from upstairs. These concrete images are immediate and vivid, as well as comprehensive – the smaller details create a three-dimensional sense of lockdown Brighton. However, there is also a confessional aspect to many of the poems – a sense of the artist stepping back, so that we can see inside their own mind, giving us greater context on why they are painting that picture. We brought our individual traumas into lockdown with us; Nissel’s speaker is no exception. The speaker is grieving their father, revisiting their childhood to remember other times in which they witnessed abundant handwashing – to enter a hospital room, to scrub hands of blood – and is visited by their unborn child, whom they ask to ‘please stay here with me… don’t look out to the sea’s heat-hazed horizon / don’t notice the gulls calling you home’. Throughout the collective suffering, it was our individual hopes for our futures that carried many of us through. This speaker’s connection with their unborn child allows them to envisage a life beyond the painful present. Is this a ‘guerrilla brightening’ in itself?

More generally, the pamphlet’s ‘guerrilla brightenings’ are moments of colour found among the bleakness: ‘the runners / slipstreaming around each other like fish / on the promenade’, forests ‘infiltrated with fairy lights’, wiping dust from the leaves of a plant to discover a bud, ‘David Bowie in tight leather trousers’, ‘Noel Fielding prancing – sparrow-footed – into a land of discoballs and rainbow shards’. We also see the darkenings of the 21st Century contrasted with them…a particularly prominent example ‘the new vegan pizzeria…doing its best to signal rejuvenation beside the sleeping bags stowed in the alcoves’. It is up for debate as to whether these poems are highlighting that, even in the darkest moments of the times in which we find ourselves, we must take strength from the ‘guerrilla brightenings’ to be found all around us, or if these brightenings are in fact what we use to deny collective trauma and hide from harsh realities – or perhaps both. One thing is clear, however – as the speaker finds written on a concrete wall ‘Found on the Seafront’: ‘WE CAN’T GO BACK / TO BEFORE. BEFORE / WAS THE PROBLEM.’

Olivia Tuck 21st April 2022

Lockdown Latitudes by Steven Waling (Leafe Press)

Lockdown Latitudes by Steven Waling (Leafe Press)

One way or another many of us have been producing material during the last year or more which relates directly or otherwise to the situation we have been experiencing. Leaving aside Brexit and the all-embracing facts of climate change the Covid virus has been and will no doubt continue to be a source of energy for writers and artists of all kinds. It feels inevitable in fact and there have already been anthologies of poetry appearing to suggest so. Steven Waling’s new book is a mix of diary entry and personal testimony, combing observation with a collage technique which is very appealing.

          ON THIS ROUTE

          there’s lots of farting about   Turning night into day

          the sun wants to lie in bed   gets up full bladder

          rain-packed isobars rumble in from the West

          so I wait five minutes at Random Stop   ten more

          at Just Before You Alright   then flash of hail followed

          by the heavy beauty of blue sky   all the weathers

          in one day   Clouds like buses pile up in threes

          I miss the rush hour   no I don’t   students crammed

          sweatthick into tin cans   talking   who got wasted who’s

          off to Switzerland for Christmas   essays undone

          pick up the Metro for puzzles and sport   after

          the end of the world   green shoots of crocus and

          snowdrops climb on board   poke heads out of verges

          past the park just because you think you’re exempt don’t

          make exceptions   key workers still spend

          half their lives standing    in this fine rain   where’s

          your mask   are you going to be difficult it

          goes on your nose as well as your mouth

Anyone who has used public transport on a regular basis during the past eighteen months will be able to recognise these moments and the mix of fleeting observation and anxiety is well registered. 

     In ‘Sci-Fi Days’ school day memories intertwine with the here-and-now in a manner which attempts to find a way of approaching the changed and estranging situation we find ourselves in – ‘wherever I am / whatever I’m from / it’s not here’ – and name-checks J.G. Ballard (‘Vermillion Sands’), ‘Bismarck and the Entente Cordial,’ the assassination of Franz  Ferdinand and hints towards Bowie and Bolan where on the walk to school ‘aliens / sing   Children of the Revolution / on Top of the Pops.’ In ‘Spring in a Time of Contagion’ where the day-to-day experience appears with occasionally surreal snapshots – ‘next as dolphins swim canals / Only four items of each / product’ – we have a heightened sense of the natural world, interspersed with paranoid snippets and a hinting towards martial law which suggests a wartime footing:

          sky so blue it hurts

          I buy potatoes and a paper

          with puzzles   Crack open buds

          I’ll try to be an optimist

          as poetry makes nothing

          the swallows rejoice clean air

     In ‘Jesus Strolls Down Market Street’ we get a sense of the paranoia and alienation caused by the present situation, allied to a description of a small kindness – ‘Someone pays with his own card’ – which is set in downtown Manchester but could be almost anywhere in the country. ‘Ten Lancashire Words to be Reintroduced to the Language’ introduces an element of playfulness into the proceedings while ‘In Deep Time’ has a contemplative feel which deals with the geological notion while also pondering how our conceptions of time have shifted on a day-to-day basis during the last couple of years. ‘Autobiographica Literaria’ hints at Coleridge and again juxtaposes memories in a snapshot fashion which mixes high art with pop culture and t.v. shows. There’s an overall sense of new opportunities being opened up, at least in terms of artistic procedures, but also an engagement with hard reality as in ‘Showering a Man’ (Steven Waling is a care worker) where we get:

          You must fully engage in the dance

               move shoulders to the middle

               lift the feet onto the plate

               shift the body by degrees

The ending registers an all-too-apt mix of feeling when issues around care and social provision are aired – ‘That’s such a good thing to do. / I know I don’t get paid enough.’

     I’m more aware of Steven Waling as a reviewer of poetry than as a poet as this is the first chapbook of his that I’ve actually read in full. I’ve enjoyed the mix of tradition and experiment which he employs and this memoir set in a hard time has a very human appeal which is easy to respond to while also including an element of playfulness which keeps the pages turning.

Steve Spence 19th November 2021

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