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Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Festival Conversation between Simon Collings and Allen Fisher

Questions for Allen Fisher, Answers for Simon Collings

Tears in the Fence Festival 2020

The Friday evening session of this year’s Festival included a conversation between Allen Fisher and Simon Collings. Simon sent Allen written questions before the event and Allen prepared written answers. During the session the conversation took a somewhat different course from the one planned. As a bonus, therefore, we are sharing here the written texts of the questions and answers prepared prior to the event. The discussion was about Allen’s magnum opus Gravity as a consequence of shape, composed between 1982 and 2007. I’m delighted to be able to share this additional material. David Caddy

Q1: You had a structure for the project from the beginning, a framework which guided the subse-quent facturing of the work. You created this framework by marking a number sequence on a card-board tube and then crushing it. Could you say something about the overall structure of the book?
A1: My poetry writing uses processual and procedural methods. For the Gravity project I chose a complex of numerical structure and a small playful book of research into some scientific practices, particularly bio-engineering and quantum physics. The premise behind the initial numerical struc-ture was that the norms of structural pattern put in place in terms of line count and line lengths, but also in terms of overall narrative schemes that you could find in Dante, in Chaucer, in Spenser and in, for example Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis, these are demonstrations of an earlier aesthetic with a basis in coherence, exactness and certainty. We are now in a culture and civilisation that is run by liars focussed on their own riches their ownership. I am not in favour of these criminals. They are de-stroying the planet, they encourage poverty. They support torture. They refuse joy. I explicitly seek to invent, develop and provide a new aesthetic attention. I take into account a decoherent position that comprehended uncertainties but as I wrote elsewhere gives a confidence in lack.

To cut a longer story short, I devised a system of allegedly exact proportions and exponential devel-opment and part of my procedure was to scale these proportions onto a cardboard cylinder. And as you noted, I put the cylinder in a vice and crushed it and folded it so that the exact numbering be-came self-interfering, became visually energetic. It became more exact to the situation it was in the process of producing. There’s no need for anyone reading the text to know the scheme used, the via-ble knowing has to do with understanding the disruption and excitement in unpredictable aspects of what at first seemed like a straight forward narrative or description. This procedural device was then subjected to a variety of improvised and homophonic attentions both intimately in some of the indi-vidual poems, but also across the larger work to provide the potential for a pattern of connectedness.

As you have it, the poems in Gravity each have the title of a jazz dance and the design of the book derives from my earlier small research book called Ideas on the culture dreamed of, which is alphabetical. In the initial scheme I start with African Boog and end with Zip. The reader may enjoy knowing some of this, or may not, but the reading through is affected by the schemes, the reader need only be alert to the variety of patterns and broken patterns, the narrative expectations and then their subversion.

Q2: You use collage extensively, lifting material from a diverse range of sources. We’ll hear references to Blake and Dryden, material from various works on neuroscience and physics, and later on references to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. These discourses are woven together into a poly-vocal text, reflective of the way each of us today is surrounded by multiple disourses, many too technical for us to understand. Could you say something about the poem’s appropriation of these varied discourses? You could characterise the writings in Gravity in terms of their function.

A2: The undercurrent writing takes concepts on contemporary scientific thought and practice be-cause I am paying attention to them. Trying to comprehend them. Much of the material comes from studying bio-technology as it might affect our conditions and futures as physical substance. Quantum physics in how it discusses our conditions in terms of where we are and what we are. These attentions lead into the use of language used by these groups of theory and practice. It’s a matter of taking back the language as part of the poetic material part of its substance. Both of these usages lead into and out of narrative themes in the work and also play with the vocabularies in the text. As substances to transform within the larger text.
Q3: Of course you’re making poetry, not trying to explain quantum theory or the nature of con-sciousness, so these different vocabularies are mixed in ways which produce new and surprising for-mulations. These often serve as a kind of commentary on the poem’s own process. In Cakewalk for example we have the lines: ‘The variety of their phase behaviour/encourages a focus deception/His long range special ordering/fantasises a language progression/from colloidal fluids to crystals.’ You’re interested in creating an aesthetic effect here, in provoking an experience for the reader. Is that right?

A3: Maybe aesthetic effect characterises what this is about, but we need to understand aesthetic, its basis in providing information or thoughts, in delighting the reader, in persuading the reader that it goes on and is saying something albeit elusive that there are a number of small conclusions and openings. The aesthetic effect would be a sense of wonder.

Q4: There are a series of ‘characters’ who appear throughout the text, one of the central figures be-ing the Burglar (capital B.) We’ll hear many references to the Burglar in the material you are going to read. Does the Burglar connect with your practice of appropriating text from other authors?

A4: The Burglar the Painter the Technician the Photographer the Bellman are persona in the work, I have mutual feelings about who they are and what they represent. They are metonyms for different aspects of human conditions. The Burglar steals DNA as a commodity on the stock exchange, he turns human substance into a commodity, he can put it on a USB stick, he steals consciousness, he attends to your sleep. It’s incidental that I gather my texts from texts that already exist. That would be a paradigm for Shakespeare and Chaucer, I only need to be an artist to make use of what is available. The character of the Burglar is multiple, his image is fleeting and unrecordable except as a passing wisp in the air. In a sudden lost breath. In a lost balance, stolen in that moment, in a trip on the step. Persuaded by gravity to drop instead of lift. The Burglar is a device to give the reader you or me, a landline, something to provide a recurrence and catch of bird song as it passes.

Q5: The concept of ‘entanglement’ in quantum physics interests you – the phenomenon where parti-cles remote from each other mirror each other’s behaviour. By analogy texts within Gravity are ‘en-tangled’ with each other. For example, poems at the end of the sequence, mirror texts from the be-ginning. The lines ‘The Burglar’s struggle against gravity/begins in irreversible vertigo/practiced in a periodic and reversible fashion/otherwise the lure of his search of self’ which you’ll read from ‘Bun-ny Hop’ are mirrored by: ‘The Burglar’s confrontation with exactness/held sway in this intuition, his immediate/seeing, in that false concept of a present/ trodden by fiction’ which appears in ‘Stroll’ (which you had planned to read but which we won’t have time for.) These poems were written many years apart and in very different settings. How do these textual entanglements relate to the concept of space-time?

A5: Entanglements characterises a summary of our condition as humans on a planet that is in the process of being destroyed. Our spacetime is a muliplex of where we are. The plurality of worlds that David Lewis and that for example the poet Jacques Roubaud returns to is one dimension of this, this is similar to Robert Duncan’s multiverse. It’s also more connected and interactive and self interfering than their concepts. It is disruptive in a positive way, it is energetic and the basis of our existence. It characterises that we are part of a pattern of connectedness, it’s how our human physiology works, how consciousness works or memory and our immune responses our weather. The mirrors are more extraordinary than a hall of mirrors or singular camera lens they are mobile. They are the basis of my aesthetic and my practice and my cooking. Entanglements are exemplary of the decoherence that we experience on a minute by minute condition. They articulate our loss and gains our uncer-tainty and confidence. Our accidents and corrective attentions. Our collective presences.

Your suggestion attends to composition over a broad time. You say over many years. It is also at that moment of energy that momenergy in a multiple of situations and conditions some consciously experienced others lost in the fleet of being. The benefit of project working is that it articulates the production of a poem as a job to do. It is conceptualised and planned and carried out. The idea over many years is lost to the spacetime of multiplicity and that is where the entanglement takes, is effi-caciousness, is how it is experienced as lost and found at once. Stolen and recovered at once.

Q6: A final question. On first encounter the work may seem rebarbative to a reader. But there’s a great deal of playful humour in the work isn’t there, both at the level of the language and in some of the narrative?

A6: The work is necessarily rebarbative, what a word, it feels like a blurb on the back of the book. The work is as you say playful and has an intension in humour. I can think of no better description of the human condition. In states of adversity we move through in good humour and get on with it. We interface adversity, the whole damaged condition of our planet and motivate a recovery. Maybe it is rebarbative in the sense of the barber, like the Burglar takes from you, when you are face to face with the Burglar you don’t see who it is. It is the activity that you encounter. Rebarbative because it uses vocabulary that you don’t recognise or because it feels like a demonstration of confusion, an underlying need to cohere and quickly understand, Gravity can’t be understood in that way, it offers fleets of comprehension which are continually stolen from you. I resist coherence because coherence is a death. It is lie we have been told all our lives. This civilisation does not cohere except as a death culture. We need to transform that, we need to counter it. We are tired of dying, and seeing the death of others, we are sick of the torturers and the victims of torture, tired of arms dealers and the buyers of armoury. We are rebarbative with the psychiatrist and the loss of memory. We are clowns in a circus that demands we fall over and get up. We have funny faces and cry. We demand fun and playfulness and humour, it is restorative.

Simon Collings, Allen Fisher 14th September 2020

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

Melancholy Occurrence by John Seed (Shearsman Books)

“body partly on the
pavement partly on the road blood
streaming from the back of his head

Cornelius Grinnell of New York
owner of the steam yacht Hawk
lodging at the Royal Victoria Yacht Club

on Pier Street in Ryde
returning to his rooms after midnight
drew up the Venetian blinds

opened the window and stepped out
onto a balcony that wasn’t there
and disappeared”

John Seed opens his new book of poetic vignettes, his windows into another world, with the clear assertion that they are appropriated from mostly nineteenth-century English newspapers or inquest reports and rewritten. As Julian Barnes reminded us some years ago History isn’t what happened it’s what historians tell us happened and when contemplating the enormous canvas of Gericault’s ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ in the Louvre he enquired “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” John Seed’s “rewritten” transforms these pieces of news into what could be the frame for the nouveau roman or, more closely perhaps, le nouveau conte. The margin between historical reconstruction and the world of fiction was tested in 1979 by Milan Kundera in the opening four paragraphs of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“In February 1948, Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to address the hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens packed into Old Town Square. It was a crucial moment in Czech history—a fateful moment of the kind that occurs once or twice in a millennium.
Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing next to him. There were snow flurries, it was cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. The solicitious Clementis took off his own fur cap and set it on Gottwald’s head.
The Party propaganda section put out hundreds of thousands of copies of a photograph of that balcony with Gottwald, a fur cap on his head and comrades at his side, speaking to the nation. On that balcony the history of Communist Czechoslovakia was born. Every child knew the photograph from posters, schoolbooks, and museums.
Four years later Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately airbrushed him out of history and, obviously, out of all the photographs as well. Ever since, Gottwald has stood on that balcony alone. Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.”

The famous photograph was taken on February 21st 1948 and when Vladimir Clementis was executed in 1952 he was indeed erased from the photograph. But it acts as the opening scene for a novel which Salman Rushdie referred to as being full of angels, terror, ostriches and love!
John Seed’s glimpses and glimmerings taken from those nineteenth-century newspapers raise the curtain upon a moment of dramatic intensity. In the poem I quoted at the beginning we are confronted with a conclusion: a body, partly on the road and partly on the pavement. The opening word offers us no description but its bald assertion makes it clear that this is a dead person and the most immediate cause of death may well be the blood that is “streaming” from the head. We are then taken back in time to discover the name of the dead person, his place of origin, his possession of a steam yacht and the place at which he was residing. The deft artistic quality of this little picture is then caught in the last stanza as we are invited into the room from which he fell. We are caught between the historical fact of him stepping out of the window and the immediate awareness of the moment of realisation that is followed by the fall to his death: historical information has taken on a moment of individual and personal vividness. This is very powerful writing indeed.
On the back cover of this remarkable collection of poems there is a quotation from Empire of Signs by Roland Barthes:

“The haiku’s task is to achieve exemption from meaning within a perfectly readerly discourse (a contradiction denied to Western art, which can contest meaning only by rendering its discourse incomprehensible”.

Haiku resists interpretation: it is intelligible and means nothing. Robert Duncan was haunted by this sense of what lurks behind meaning, what he referred to as a “ground of man’s imaginations”, and recalled sitting with his sister, “my mother between us”, looking at pictures as he was read to. The picture that stayed with him was of three young men sleeping on a mat one of whom was Bashō, the seventeenth-century Japanese writer of Haiku who had just woken up: the seventeen syllables of a frog jumping into an ancient pond reverberates down the years. It doesn’t mean anything but it is! And so, on Sunday 26th December 1820 in “French-alley Goswell-street” a watchman going his rounds and calling out the hour of one

“discovered a new-born infant
lying in a corner entirely naked
a few old rags around his head”

Ian Brinton 24th June 2018

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

no particular place to go by Laurie Duggan (Shearsman Books)

In Robert Duncan’s interview with Ekbert Faas (Towards a New American Poetics, Black Sparrow Press 1978) the poet asserts “there are no trivial events for me. This is the question raised by Williams’ famous ‘so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow’. The real point of that question is: Are there any trivial events, are there any trivial people or trivial anythings, trivial beings or propositions? And for me everything happening in the poem is properly apprehended and therefore not trivial.” One consults a map because one has a particular place to reach but Laurie Duggan’s new volume of poems charts a sense of discovery which responds to experience rather than mapping it out first: read this book and you’re on the move!
When Williams highlighted the importance of his red wheel barrow he followed it with a prose statement concerning the “fixed categories into which life is divided”:

“These things are normal – essential to every activity. But they exist – but not as dead dissections”.

Laurie Duggan’s new collection is, in his own words, “an unholy gathering of discrete pieces written over the last fifteen years” but to my mind they hold together in such a way as to give a picture which is more than an accumulation of the discrete. ‘Hegemony’ is a poem which perhaps represents the sense of poetic unity:

“a world of transactions
at war with a world of immanence,
a geography without contours
against a range of singular spaces”

The immediacy of Duggan’s perceptions possess a life which is not held in by the contours of the field but which realises the geography of “range”. This fine collection is more than “singular spaces” and lives as a “world of transactions” between poet and reader. Our guide through the spaces is a perceptive wit which looks closely at the world and concludes with wry humour. Gustave Courbet’s 1854 painting titled ‘The Meeting’ is given a new breath of life by the poet’s close awareness of what the gestures in the painting point to:

“What made him present himself, greeted on the road
by another figure (engaged perhaps

in mere commerce) offer instead of an epithet
a commonplace?”

The poet has captured that “world of transactions” in which the figure on the right, a pedlar perhaps, cocks his head to one side as if appraising the figure in front of him: the painter with courteous gesture of held out left arm as if he might be wishing the man a fine day. It is typical of much of Laurie Duggan’s work that these small moments are given a life, a sparkle of immediacy. So many of the poems are addressed to individual readers and we are given sly insights into character and landscape within which character resides for a moment, a click of the lens. Tony Frazer, Peter Lanyon, Frank Auerbach, Alexander Calder, Basil King, Pam Brown, Angela Gardner, Lee Harwood, Rosemary Hunter and ‘The Ghost of WCW in a Faversham Pub’:

“ ‘I’d love to go back
to Acapulco

it was so different
and so easy’ ”

Those plums in the icebox were indeed delicious and as readers we easily forgive the seemingly inconsequential footsteps of words which step their way through these poems. Duggan’s volume may assert the “inherently occasional” but I am reminded of those Necessary Steps (Shearsman Books, edited by David Kennedy, 2007) in which John Hall reminds us of the derivation of the word “occasion”:

“The Oxford English Dictionary gives as the etymology for occasion: ‘ad. L. occasion-em falling (of things) towards (each other)’. It is not just the things that fall towards each other, though there is always, I would say, a sense of conjuncture or convergence that marks something as an ‘occasion’, even for those with their attention on the ‘everyday’. It is also that occasions are marked incidents that cause certain people to fall together.”

Given these words…there is always a “particular place to go” and I can think of few better guides that Laurie Duggan.

Ian Brinton, 6th February 2017

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

Lunarium by Josep Lluís Aguiló translated by Anna Crowe (Arc Publications)

John Berger’s fictional account of a doctor in the Forest of Dean, Dr Sassall in A Fortunate Man, presents the reader with that reality pointed to by Charles Tomlinson in his poem ‘A Meditation on John Constable’:

“…The artist lies
For the improvement of truth.”

Berger’s country doctor “exaggerates when he tells stories about himself. In these stories he is nearly always in an absurd position: trying to take a film on deck when the waves break over him; getting lost in a city he doesn’t know; letting a pneumatic drill run away with him. He stresses the disenchantment and deliberately makes himself a comic little man. Disguised in this way and forearmed against disappointment, he can then re-approach reality once more with the entirely un-comic purposes of mastering it, of understanding further.” Anna Crowe’s Preface to her convincing translations of the contemporary Mallorcan poet Aguiló highlights some similar ideas concerning the imagination of this tale-weaving poet:

“Already there is a sense that the reader may expect the unexpected. Reading these poems, what is striking is the power of the imagination at work, and the multiplicity of voices that speak through the poems. The power of the imagination might be said to be the underlying argument or leitmotif of Aguiló’s poetry.”

Aguiló creates worlds which can be visited secretly and we can begin “to search for the truth / by finding where the ink is hidden that tattoos us / in the world”. This is a poetry of doors and as they open, one by one, they invite the reader into the next stanza:

“The first stanza is the one that welcomes
you and drags you inside,
grabbing you by the arm and frowning at you;
the one that speaks to you with warmth and trust
while it makes you sit down in the armchair of the second stanza.”

These are magical poems which create a magical world of Mallorca in which “green and yellow words”, written by a botanical god, can be deciphered “every day on the pages of / the thicket of writing”.
This is a Mallorca known to the Americans of the 1950s from which Robert Creeley published his Divers Press books and Black Mountain Review and from which Robert Duncan could write to Denise Levertov in June 1955 about “the desire to have imagination freed again”. This is a world which exists with a perception of exact detail and an understanding that ouvertures are created through which we see another world:

“You had to walk stealthily. Every footstep echoed,
disturbing emptiness and time. The smells of food
from the kitchen did not reach this high and I scrabbled
among lumber and old clothes, savouring the smells
of chicken bran and the dung and damp walls
of this corner of Santanyí and bad Mallorcan cement.”

The importance of Tomlinson’s assertion about imagination and truth informs this whole collection and the emphasis noted in Anna Crowe’s introduction stands sentinel to a landscape which invites further exploration:

“There is a sense of a poet pushing the boundaries of the possible further and further out, of exploring what it means to live on the edge of whatever world he has invented, as well as, at the same time, going further and further in, exploring what it means to be human.”

Ian Brinton 23rd January 2017

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

The Drop by Robert Sheppard (Oystercatcher Press)

When J.H. Prynne gave his Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China on 18th April 2008 he referred to the art of translation in terms of poetic composition:

‘The activity of composing a poem in the first place shares some features with translation-work: pausing to consider exactly which words and expressions to use, building up the form and sound of a poem as if it already exists in your mind and as if you are translating this idea or process of thought into words on a page.’

‘Building up the form’ echoes the note Prynne made one year before that speech in China when he suggested that translation was ‘a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world’. Those bridges may be made stone by stone, brick by brick, word by word, or, perhaps when the bridge connects a world of the present with a world of the past, drop by drop. The drop may suggest Donne’s ‘A Valediction: of weeping’ where ‘each tear / Which thee doth wear’ creates ‘a globe, yea world’. The drops of sorrow at the loss of someone close to one’s whole life may, in Donne’s terms, become

‘Fruits of much grief they are, emblems of more,
When a tear falls, that thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore.’

That disyllabic adjective emphasizes the distance between the lovers, each on their separate shore.
Near the end of Robert Sheppard’s elegy to his father, the poet writes that the ‘Desire the task / Of the poet is elective translation’:

‘To transmute the nothing said
Into the nothing that could

That could talk itself
Into the world the

Shadow that casts wings between
The pillars the poem’s

Ear vibrates unthreads the
Love-whisper

By interruption
Quickens the sparkle-speech scattered

Among injured words love
Intervenes

Cannot resist too
Much in love with its own resisting

Earlier in this powerful elegy Sheppard had referred to the ‘longest story ladders / Up sides of tombs’ and the whole poem explores the ability of language to explore the inability of the past’s reconstruction. Words can never bring back the dead, never ‘talk’ themselves ‘Into the world’, but the ‘translation’ referred to is ‘elective’ and the stumbling forward of language in its climbing out of the past to reconstruct what can never bridge those distances is caught in the repetition of ‘that could’. That passage from near the poem’s end brims over with suggestion: the ‘Shadow that casts wings’ inevitably echoes the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23 and I found myself looking back at Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’ where the poet links the present to the past through imagination. Duncan’s scene is ‘made-up by the mind’ but is definite enough in its concrete reality to be ‘a made place’. Although personal to the poet, it is a place to which he is permitted to return; it has mythological existence as the underworld to which Kora was taken. The architecture of the hall, the domain of the subconscious/past/underworld promotes the palpability of the present in which the poet lives: ‘Wherefrom fall all architectures I am’. Olson also wrote about the impossible distances and suggested that because love is so intense and alive in its feelings it ‘knows no distance, no place/is that far away’ (‘The Distances’).

Robert Sheppard’s elegy opens with two comments which are central to understanding the nature of this unbridgeable loss. The first page opens with the italicized phrase ‘Standing by’ and the fourth stanza concludes with a reference to ‘Elegy lost in action on the outskirts of an event’. The immeasurability of the gap between NOW and THEN, the living and the dead, means that all writers of elegies stand on the outskirts of an event. As Thomas Hardy recognized in the first of his poems about the death of his wife, ‘The Going’, her death was the closure of a term and the single word ‘gone’ on line five has a musical resonance of bell-like clarity. Hardy’s image of the swallow then emphasises the impossibility of bridging the distance between that past and this present. The past cannot ever be reached despite the ability of the migratory bird to fly swiftly over extraordinarily long distances.

Beckett’s short play Krapp’s Last Tape is one of the great elegies and as the recorder of events puts it, listening to himself on tape from a former year, ‘The grain, now I what I wonder do I mean by that, I mean…[hesitates]…I suppose I mean those things worth having when all the dust has—when all my dust has settled I close my eyes and try and imagine them.’ In Robert Sheppard’s world this has become

‘My mind mummified with emotion
I thought everything

Was compiled
On reels of tape piled into temple walls’

The walls of the temple, as Krapp is compelled to recognise, do not keep memory fresh and Robert Sheppard’s ‘drop mourns itself’ and it is not only morphine which will thicken the ‘glassy eye’. The Drop is an extraordinarily powerful poem which grows more lasting each time I read it.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2015

What the Sky Arranges Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

What the Sky Arranges  Poems made from the TSUREZUREGUSA of KENKŌ  by Andrew Fitzsimons, with drawings by Sergio Maria Calatroni, Isobar Press

The forthcoming launch of Paul Rossiter’s 2015 programme of books from Isobar Press, details of which can be found at the foot of this blog, has prompted me to recall an Isobar production from last year: the meditative, witty and long-lasting short poems by Andrew Fitzsimons gathered from a reading of Kenkō.

‘Travel. Wherever you go
the world you bring with you
is washed by the world you see.’

There is a refreshing sense of whole attention in these poems and a quietness of reflection that glimmers long after the little book is closed. There is a merging of closely observed detail with a background that offers years of support:

‘What is bad taste?
too many knick-knacks about the place
too many brushes in the ink box
too many Buddhas
too many shrubs and plants in a garden
too many rooms in a house
too many words on meeting someone
a ledger all plus and no minus?

Myths, tales, stories tell us something about who we are and the American poet, Robert Duncan’s autobiographical essay, The Truth & Life of Myth (House of Books Ltd. New York, 1968), referred to a sense of ‘universal humanity’ which is open to being discovered in the ‘mixing-ground of man’s commonality in myth’:

The meaning and intent of what it is to be a man and, among men, to be a poet, I owe to the workings of myth in my spirit, both the increment of associations gathered in my continuing study of mythological lore and my own apprehension of what my life is at work there. The earliest stories heard, nursery rimes and animal tales from childhood, remain today alive in my apprehensions, for there is a ground of man’s imaginations of what he is in which my own nature as a man is planted and grows.

Duncan’s book was subtitled ‘An essay in Essential Autobiography’ and the poet recalled sitting with his sister, ‘my mother between us’, looking at pictures in a book ‘as my mother reads aloud’:

‘The picture I am looking at is of three young men sleeping on a mat. One of them, the poet Basho, has awakened. Their naked feet are uncovered where they have pulled the blankets up around their necks in the cold. There is a poem that goes with that picture on the page. But this is not the poem that comes to mind even as I see the picture. For as I remember that moment, there is another scene superimposed, a double exposure, in which the very plash of a frog jumping into an old pond appears as if from actual life itself, but this vivid impression belongs to one of the most famous of all Japanese hokkus

In the poem ‘WORLDS’ by Fitzsimons the old world is washed by the new as if the lenses of the eye were being cleansed by focussed attention upon the new moment. When J.H. Prynne, at that time Director of Studies at Gonville and Caius, put together some ‘Tips on Practical Criticism for Students of English, 2006’ he associated close and broad reading skills in a way not dissimilar to this image of one world washed by another:

‘In fact, and in practice, however, close and broad reading skills reciprocally energise and complement each other. Regular exercises in close reading both sharpen and deepen accurate response to local texture and also feed into enhanced perception of larger-scale structure, to make us all-round better readers. One hand washes the other. Principles and foundations of a distinctive personal judgement begin to appear, together with increased range of response and cogency of evaluative judgement, supported by explorative argument within awareness of differing views and opinions. Step by step, as a reader, you begin to tune in and wake up.’
Read What the Sky Arranges and dwell for a moment upon ‘DATES:

‘Don’t wait till dotage for your goodness to begin.
Look at the dates on those gravestones.’

Isobar books are published to a very high standard and it would be worth going to this launch just to buy a copy of Andrew Fitzsimons’ poems let alone the new publications which include Peter Robinson’s poems from his time in Japan.
The London launch of Isobar Books takes place this Friday, 3rd July upstairs in the Rugby Tavern, Gt. James St. WC1N 3ES at 7.00.
Ian Brinton 29th June 2015

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

From Fossils to Fibonacci: Nancy Gaffield’s Be-Hind-Sight Zyxt (Oystercatcher Press)

As Nancy Gaffield’s new chapbook of poems tells us ‘each poem is an exploration / of language in place’. The phrase is followed by a reference to Gaston Bachelard’s influential 1958 volume The Poetics of Space in which he asserted that ‘Inhabited space transcends geometrical space.’ Early on in the book Bachelard quotes from Rilke:

‘House, patch of meadow, oh evening light
Suddenly you acquire an almost human face
You are very near us, embracing and embraced.’

And when I looked at this it was with a leap of recognition that I thought of Robert Duncan’s opening lines to ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’:

‘as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein…’

Combining the Fibonacci accumulation of numbers seen as space on the page, alongside a floor-plan of what appears as a horizontal cathedral, Nancy Gaffield offers the reader an Olsonian journey and provides us with a ‘presence of place to / share words and deeds’. As she says, ‘this is polis’.
Bachelard asserts that a house constitutes a body of images ‘that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability’ and goes on to suggest that, as a building, a house is imagined as ‘a vertical being’ which rises upwards differentiating itself in terms of its verticality. Nancy Gaffield’s poems are constructions which link our presence to our past:

‘Like
poems
ammonites
build their shells around
principles of geometry
the fossil in this stone lived seventy million years
ago by turning in on itself this is slow life in a fortress town
that passes
its days dreaming from within its walls until the last
catastrophe petrifies them
in their stone coffins
a far cry
from the
sea’

Like a mathematical accretion from the thirteenth century the poem builds up before reaching the turning point of ‘passes’ prompting the lines to withdraw to the stone coffin of the printed page and its resonant echo that sounds so far from its original source. These poems are not merely skilful; they possess a haunting beauty that allows history to breathe. The advantage Herodotus has over Thucydides, according to Olson, is that the father of History says the voice is greater than the eye:

‘If you shout—if you tell your story—he listens to you. He doesn’t give you that nod and finger which destroys you, wagging, and saying, look, you ain’t there. He says, you say so? OK, I believe you. Truth is what is said, not what is seen. Your own report is good enough for him. You say you lived here? OK. You did. These things happened to you? OK. Sign here’

These new poems may concentrate upon what can be seen, sight, but their echo is what lasts with me, an ‘undercroft’, a ghost that lives in language, a fluid movement into which I can dive in order to experience the vertigo of the matter-of-fact ‘colliding with memory’. They are built to last!

Ian Brinton February 21st 2015

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

Continental Drift by Nancy Gaffield (Shearsman Books)

When David Herd wrote that Nancy Gaffield’s poetry ‘speaks directly and beautifully to the contours of our contemporary moment’ he touched upon something very important indeed. Not only do these delightful pieces of writing resonate with a contemporary sound but also the contours of their language and focus take us into an imaginative world which breathes that salt-laden fragmentary lyricism to be found in Sappho.

 

The first of two epigraphs placed by the poet at the opening of this fine volume is a quotation from James Schuyler’s ‘Salute’ in which he asserts that the ‘Past / is past’

 

I salute that various field.

 

That salute to the field, that greeting to the long gone, brings to my mind the opening lines of Robert Duncan’s ‘Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow’

 

as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,

that is not mine, but is a made place,

 

that is mine, it is so near to the heart,

an eternal pasture folded in all thought

so that there is a hall therein

 

that is a made place, created by light

wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.

 

I have written more about this Duncan poem some ten years ago in Tears in the Fence 44. That field to which Schuyler refers is ‘various’ as he thinks of the ‘clover / daisy, paintbrush that / grew in that field / the cabin stood in…’ and his poem is haunted by the inability to make a past stand still. As Nancy Gaffield recognises in this, her second collection of poems (Tokaido Road won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize three years ago) the world is in constant flux and the title, Continental Drift, bears a suggestion of both seismic trauma and reflective eyes cast back on a world now gone. I am reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s extraordinarily fine essay on ‘The Task of the Translator, published in Illuminations where he sees the translator not in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge. Translation, like bringing the past into a present, calls into that forest aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. The sounds of such movement can be heard in Continental Drift and as the short prose piece which closes this delightful volume makes clear

 

Something happens when you dislodge the outward aspect of the familiar. A border has been crossed. You become a world-builder. Place-making means multiple acts of remembering. Pas à pas imagination slides between the frames of reference. Not opposition, but apposition. We go by side roads.

 

In his monumental novel Les Misérables Victor Hugo tells us that the past is like a ghostly voyager who, like his main character Jean Valjean, convict and outcast, always travels with a false passport. But as Nancy Gaffield tells us ‘you cannot / wipe the slate clean / language gets used / over and over again / re-coupling / letting see / what has been hidden / beneath’

 

Ian Brinton 25th May 2014

 

Iain Sinclair’s RED EYE

Iain Sinclair’s RED EYE

Soon to be published by Test Centre (www.testcentre.org.uk) in an edition of 500 copies these sequences of poetry, ‘now dusted down and assembled’ were originally written in 1973 at which point they were intended to be a publication from Sinclair’s Albion Village Press. As the notes at the end of this handsome volume tell us the idea was set aside ‘so that Albion Village Press could run with Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time by Chris Torrance and Vorticegarden by Brian Catling.

Sinclair had been highly impressed with the Ferry Press world that Andrew Crozier had founded and had received a copy of Torrance’s Aries Under Saturn and Beyond which Crozier had published in 1969. In a letter from December 1972 he wrote to Crozier ‘the ease & openness of the line; the energy so cleanly played out; a book of internal clouds.’  By April 1973 Sinclair had expressed a wish to do a book with Torrance and in July he reported to Crozier that he had visited C.T. in Wales to gather his manuscript: ‘Walked there, 20 miles over the home mountains. A good spot. Quiet valley, hidden behind the encroaching industrial mess of Neath-Glynneath. A compact & centred existence which has its charms…I now have to find the money to do the book.’  Prynne had looked at the manuscript of what was to become Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time and liked it very much, even to the point of suggesting that he might sell his copy of Robert Duncan’s Letters (Jargon 14), one of 60 signed and specially bound copies with endpapers hand-drawn by the author, to throw some money into the venture. The Torrance book appeared in January 1974 and Sinclair suggested that Vorticegarden, ‘looking , I’m told, like the new English bible, may be, again, our last throw for a while.’

Two sections from ‘Red Eye’ appeared in the summer of 1974 in Volume 7, Nos. 1-3 of Grosseteste Review. ‘Counting The Steps Towards Pollen’ and ‘Frog Killer Memorial’ appear there for the first time and it is a fascinating exercise to compare the changes made from that publication to this final version from Test Centre. For instance, look out for the removal of a host of definite articles. In Turpin Nine, following Torrance’s own extracts from ‘The Magic Door’, Sinclair published ‘The Moon of Making Fat’ and ‘Martian Hymns’. Again the final version now available is significantly different and it would be an excellent exercise of critical reading to put the two versions side by side.

 

Ian Brinton 29/10/13

 

 

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945

The Cambridge Companion To American Poetry Since 1945 edited by Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge University Press 2013) offers a useful guide to post-war and late twentieth century American poetry. It covers a broad range of poetries, although says little about non-institutional poets, with each essay providing a valuable list of further reading.

 

The editor, Jennifer Ashton, opens with an essay ‘Periodizing Poetic Practice since 1945’, which eschews socio-historical grounding in the materiality of poetic endeavour in favour of an approach based on poetry movements linked to aesthetic and philosophical questions. It thus omits the impact of War and violence on the one hand and developments in publishing on the other and does not show how the movements worked and gained dominance in cultural terms.  The approach, whilst attempting to link to questions of the poem’s relationship to meaning, intentionality, materiality, response, value, experience and ordinary language, cuts off a set of deeper questions and divides, such as between print and voice, who bestows critical ascendancy, how the judgement process operates and thus hides alternatives. The Chronology of Publications and Events is highly selective and omits a number of national poetry award winners.

 

Mark Scroggins’ essay ‘From Late Modernism of the Objectivists to the Proto-postmodernism of Projective Verse’ shows the roots of Projective Verse in Objectivism and delineates the far-reaching impact of Olson on Ginsberg and the Beats, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance, Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts movement, and some of the Language poets.  There is another way of looking at this that might see open-field poetics as more of a development that stemmed from William Carlos Williams and the connections around Black Mountain staff and the Black Mountain Review. Certainly the Olson-Creeley correspondence, the work of Robin Blaser and Robert Duncan’s attempts to bring mythology into the poetic field are pivotal. The essay, whilst brilliant on Zukofsky’s relevance, ignores Ed Dorn and Olson’s impact on English poetry. Nevertheless it is a very useful and important essay.

 

I found Deborah Nelson’s ‘Confessional School’ essay curiously limited.  It provides a social-political background stemming from the Cold War and the Supreme Court battles for privacy but fails to fully reference the historical moment with more local and wider connections between the select few poets that it highlights. In contrast, Charles Altieri’s ‘Surrealism as a Living Modernism’, illuminates the relationship between three New York School poets and two schools of painting, figurative and surrealistic, and shows how their concerns fused, has a stronger sense of the social-historical specifics and brings its connections more alive.

 

Michael Davidson on the San Francisco Renaissance, Ronna Johnson on Three Generations of Beat Poetics, Margo Natalie Crawford on The Black Arts Movement, Steve McCaffrey on the political background to Language Writing, Nick Selby on Ecopoetries in America and Lisa Sewell on Feminist Poetries are all strong on radical thought and offer well-written introductions. I found Oren Izenberg’s essay on the plight of the scholar poet to be particularly perceptive. Hank Lazar provides a sociological reading of American poetry and its institutions, with plenty of useful statistics, and a sense that there is debate around the institutionalisation of poetry and differing interpretations of what a poet is. I missed an essay on non-academic poets, such as, Charles Bukowski, Edward Field, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, etc, who are completely ignored. The essay on Rap, Hip Hop and Spoken Word, whilst referencing slam competitions as non-academic, is insufficient in terms of grasping the wider non-academic field. Similarly an essay on the geography of American poetry would have also offered more balance and width as well as producing a more sociological insights. Jennifer Ashton’s essay on the poetry of the first decade of the twenty first century concludes that the poem’s forms and the world’s formal structures are what matters most.

 

‘The force of the work is to remind us that neither it nor the world it inhabits can be altered by our responses to it or by its effects on us – by, say, our feeling “complete”; they can only be altered by a change to their form. In this respect, we may well have arrived at a crucial dialectical shift in the social and aesthetic history of poetry: a new modernism: post-postmodernism.’

 

 

David Caddy

 

 

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