Wednesday 24 December 2014


We got on the train and the sky burned down red and someone made a joke about the last days of Europe, or the world, and we went from the train to a basement full of books to another train and then on foot to the warehouse space where the reading would take place. It was Saturday. There were about thirty or forty people in attendance once everyone had arrived; the space contained bits of art on large pieces of polystyrene and a kitchen with mulled wine and plastic sheets for walls and clusters of art-types and leftists and poets. The atmosphere was convivial – people were pleased to see each other, it was just before Christmas so there was a kind of solidarity with going home to see families and its traumas or joys of what-have-yous, and some sense of emerging from whatever periods of hardship into some kind of holiday, however real or false – there was karaoke afterwards, banter between readings, a sense of excitement at this combination of readers and the work they were doing. Each reader in their own way provided a different spin on how contemporary poets might be figuring politics in poetry, two of them from within the UK – Chalmers and Hayward – two now settled in the U.S. but with strong ties to UK poetries and to particular ways of writing that come very much out of UK poetry scenes – Stanley and Scozzaro – however helpful or unhelpful these geographical demarcations are in delineating and categorizing. From the more ‘purely’ American side, Frost’s work is the most ambitious in scope, in a certain sense, chronicling as it does, in her most recent book,s the struggles and particular violences wrought on a particular generation of ‘Young Americans’. Certainly, ‘YA’ (the book) is a total project in itself, a major statement. Perhaps there’s a certain attitude or collection of attitudes – call it a certain self-confidence – in the history of American poetry which allows this kind of scope in a way that the other writers, from elsewhere, might not allow themselves, or be encouraged to think themselves in. Certainly, the voicings, the insistence on rhetorical weight, come from a particular place which I’d identify as specifically American, which is perhaps as much to do with performance as with text, though the text does encourage that kind of delivery. But we’ll get to that later.

Ed Luker, who’d organized the reading, opened by reading a poem written last week entitled ‘Pouring one out for the Petit-Bourgeoisie’. The poem is a screed of sorts lambasting the gentrification of London, with particular reference to art scenes – bearded poets, “Ur-Bane Outfitters”, “fashion ninjas”, ‘creatives’, shopkeepers seeking a state of violence to maintain their profits, and the counter-cultural recuperations of Iain Sinclair. Indeed, probably the most memorable incident, and a somewhat puzzling one, features Sinclair’s severed robotic head speaking lines from J.H. Prynne’s ‘Questions for the Time Being’, a poem first published in The English Intelligencer in 1968 which critically considers the self-characterisation of a poetic ‘underground’ within that “community of risk”: “so much talk | about the underground is silly. WHEN it would re- | quire a constant effort to keep below the surface.” I guess, in Luker’s appropriation, these lines could be taken to turn on the liberal or ‘apolitical’ arts scene ignorant of or indifferent to the cruelties of the process of gentrification and the concomitant assault on affordable and social housing, the conversion of London into a millionaire’s playground - a self-valorization, a blindness to structural positioning akin to Prynne’s vision of the “mirror of the would-be alien who won’t see how / much he is at home.” That it is Sinclair who speaks these lines maybe complicates things, or maybe not: as a writer who in some senses takes the artistic underground, work often marked by at least ambitions towards political critique, and turns it into marketable fodder, material for heritage tours packaged as anti-heritage tours, summaries of galleries of eccentrics you can spot on a leisurely dérive while wandering through charmingly forgotten corners of London, ‘his’ ventriloquizing of Prynne’s address self-describes his own hypocrisies of strategy as much as it castigates the hypocrisies and illusions of others. In any case, the poem as a whole is funny, and furious. It feels like the kind of lambasting of scenes on which the poet themselves is on the periphery that is useful but also potentially risky: ultimately, the reason it gets away with it is because it doesn’t have any illusions about its own moral righteousness, is not that kind of satire, poses its questions at times with a terrible urgency. “I reach for my balaclava, Nathaniel Turner saw visions of blood on the corn […] How is class constituted in the concrete lobster of post-industry, how does / Its conflict appear, who and how many will die, what songs will we sing to remember them.”

Josh Stanley, on a visit from the U.S., read the first poem from the photocopied book, ‘A Story’, his first in years, put out in the last couple of days by Defector, another new Cambridge small press operating on card covers, staples and photocopying. ‘Salute for Jeffrey Boyd and Lukas Moe’ is dedicated to Stanley’s union organizer and graduate student friends, and seems broadly representative of what he’s been writing recently. Josh told me before the reading that the title was a nod to O’Hara, but I don’t see much O’Hara in this work. The poem seems caught, perhaps deliberately, between two styles which aren’t resolved, but held in suspension; an insistent political address related to unionizing, derived from Stanley’s experiences in New Haven, which in tone and even vocabulary reminds me a little of the 1930s Marxist poetry of Edwin Rolfe, and an ironized address shot through with obscenity and pop-culture references – Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, various forms of edible consumer product – deployed for bathetic effect, most obviously coming from the work of Keston Sutherland, and more in line with Stanley’s earlier writing. The content of the poem and the delivery and reception of the reading seemed in quite marked contrast to the other work that was heard on the night (albeit with the caveat that each reader’s work in its own ways was equally different from each other reader’s). What I mean is that this was a performance of a passionately held political position that speaks in part to or from, or perhaps for, a differently constituted political community than that of the UK poetry scene from which Stanley – who’s not published much recently, in the UK or the US – has been largely absent for the past few years. I wonder if, or how much, he sensed that this position was one which many in the room might shy away from or be nonplussed by or not know much about, and I wonder how much the reading was a form of actual agit-prop, an actual attempt to convince them of the need to “form militant unions.” Here are some of the lines in question, anyhow:

“I wanted my face to fuck / your face […] I will fight with all my life to make you you […] Comrade whoever, I love you […] Destroy your / fucking enemy with your visions of collective life. / Artists, teachers, writers, scientists, all of us who crawl in the dirt, / we must form militant unions and assert the power / of our labour. […] it is our responsibility to use our privilege even / in our despair, born there to fair life give me your hand / and let’s destroy our enemies and love each other and / have everything by rigorous life struggling blessed future.”

That final block comes from the end of the poem, and when these kind of lines appeared at the reading, they provoked laughter, but that laughter was, for me, filled with a kind of joy or delight in the affirmative risk that was taken at these moments, as well as something of the kind of political awkwardness I’ve suggested above. Perhaps this is just contextual: a different politics, and, at those points, a different stylistic mode to all the other work we’d heard. I’m still not quite sure what to do with it all – at times I wanted the poem just to go with its Rolfe-ian impulses and become straight agit-prop; at others I wondered about its unwavering belief in the power of the union as, in the poem, a revolutionary demand or praxis, a suspicion about the substituting of means for ends. Certainly, if Stanley’s work adopts the union as a model of how to do politics, Hayward and Frost suggest different ways of figuring political organisation.

Hayward, like Stanley, in some senses takes his point of departure from Keston Sutherland’s work - compare, for example, the kind of narrative moves, full of substitutions and multiplications of character, in the poem ‘Night Light’ that appeared in a summer Hi Zero magazine, to the narratives in ‘Stress Position’ - but he takes it in an entirely different direction, and one entirely his own. Reading and listening to Danny’s work feels like witnessing a comically and heroically failed attempt to grasp everything at once, all social relations, from the smallest object to the forces of capital by which it is produced or deployed. Something like this: “It goes without saying that whatever is said within this box is not knowledge, or science, but art, and that whatever happens here is not insight into this world but commentary on misapprehension, a struggle to know exactly where it is that we ought to start, gathering together a series of x number of elements…” So the poetry’s dystopian visions often come from a particular English register of pop culture filtered through dark comedy – the game-show piece entitled ‘Noel Edmonds’ for instance – and are also saturated in a close and attentive engagement with the thought of Karl Marx and the conceptualisation of where current political struggles might go. This is not poetry that asks us to consider Danny as THE poet or THE POET writing these lines; rather, it is a poetry that can actually allow thought to happen, without seeking to self-present a persona shot through with lyric authority, however ironized – it is work that thinks hard. It holds itself in suspension, does what it does without pretension, even as the moves it sometimes makes - and the same is true of Danny’s prose writings - may seem deliberately quixotic. The paper he gave a few weeks ago, predicated on a comparative close reading of Nigel Farage and Holderlin, is a case in point - Danny used the comparison in order to make the beginnings of a complex theoretical argument about the changing definition of the petit-bourgeoisie in the work of Karl Marx and what this might tell us about the appeal of UKIP, the status of a precariously-placed class strata who feel threatened from below but excluded from above, and thus turn their ire on scapegoated immigrants, those who do not fit the definition of a fantastical community of national belonging organized around a few symbolic vagaries but ferociously and passionately held to. In any case, every reading I’ve seen Danny give recently has seemed more aggressive in some ways, more charged, read faster and with more almost comically panic-stricken furious emphasis -- but aggression is perhaps not the word I’m looking for, for this isn’t an aggression turned on the audience, or on himself, but a panicked rigour which knows the tasks it’s set itself are bound to fail but doesn’t rest complacently on that, that tries anyway. “That this is nearly the truth; that to be near to the truth is the only way to change it.” So that perhaps this ‘aggression’ – or whatever we might call it – is itself even a tender thing.

Christina Chalmers’ poetry demonstrates an evident acquaintance with European modernism in multiple languages, a knowledge of history and theory, and an engagement with live issues of gender and politics, sometimes through allegory, sometimes through a first-person or first-person plural voice that unsettles its targets but can’t necessarily be identified with Christina herself in lyric first-person address, and where the collective subject is equally uncertain: e.g. “this preciosity I speak as”; “we held pipe in the middle of the noiseless / expanses , we were only ever a worker there , glutting fish and creeping before / expiration”. Christina reads quite often, particularly in London, and has been published a fair bit, yet I sense that her work hasn’t really been fully digested by that many of us yet. This might in part be because the reception of poetry often relies on a strong reading style, demonstrative or assured in particular ways, which gives the work a character adjacent or complementary to how it reads, and because Christina’s own reading style seems to perform a certain distance from her own poetry: it’s unclear whether she likes or even actively dislikes her own work, which is perhaps a quality of nervousness and of a refusal to sit on the levels of an assumed achievement, refusing to let that work sit easy. (The final text she read, for example, was characterized as unfinished, as in progress, fragments towards a more cohesive whole, though if it had been introduced differently, one might have assumed it was the finished thing, which I liked -- it didn’t feel like a presentation of a fait acompli, something else to be ticked off and boxed up for cultural export.) Advantage and disadvantage: because the work itself is quite different from much that’s come out of recent scenes, there’s a particular difficulty, of finding contemporary co-ordinates to relate it to, to characterize its voicings or ranges of references and so on, which could on the one hand spark a more intense and difficult engagement, but on the other lead to a certain mode of appreciation which doesn’t necessarily follow through on what the poetry demands. I include this little write-up in that.

Connie Scozzaro gave a great performance, from what I could see of it positioned in the doorway, translating near every line into a languid parodic arm gesture, reading with cigarette in hand, not really as a cool pose but suggesting something of the lunges in register or mode or position that seem to be going on beneath the surface of the work. The sense I got from the reading was that very real flashes of alienation and despair, often in relation to labour and gender, were presented as part of dialogues which turn on themselves and seem even to mock that despair. Here I’m thinking mainly of the long poem in progress she read towards the end, which appeared to be a dialogue between (perhaps) a therapist and a patient. Maybe that impulse I sense in the work, accurately or not, is a way of coping, with the fact, for example, that the children being babysat by the poet are placed in a structural relation to her which renders her labour invisible: “We have spaghetti hoops and I wish they would / sometimes ask me about my day but they barely conceive / of me as a person. I am a cartoon pair of legs & / so reliable, hand out the food on two manicured scoops.” When I say ‘coping’, what do I mean – certainly not poetry as therapy or as self-insulation, but as a holding in suspension of feeling and structural relation so that the co-ordinates are presented in clear-eyed fashion but with a certain refusal of direct emotional identification, of shifting persona and perspective, of a caustic and sarcastic wit that can at one point lump together Sigmund Freud, Tony Blair and “the British poet John Wilkinson” as “avant-garde daddies”, as “men / I imagine show up when it really matters”, without this necessarily being a complete statement of position, a complete ideological claim. So the work is satire, maybe, in part, but a satire that hasn’t necessarily absolutely determined quite what, or how many, its targets are, where it’s going and what it’s doing with all them – and I think deliberately so. Maybe this is partly to do with the caustic reading style, playing for laughs, but uncomfortable laughs, that the work mimics or enacts a process by which real hurt is being subsumed and overlooked, where gendered and class-based structural victimisation becomes an instance of comedy, or tragi-comedy, shown up all the more for being treated with what can appear to be a kind of flippancy. So that these laughs are laughs that can’t be sunk into, that keep the toes poised, that catch out, that provoke discomfort and thought.

Jackqueline Frost’s poetry, by contrast, chooses to take the stories of desire and despair it presents with absolute seriousness, authoritatively and with gravity, with firm first-person singular and plural oratorical weight. (It is not a poetry much interested in jokes.) Jack read some new work, still in a provisional state (some of it appears, along with Luker’s poem and a few of the poems that Chalmers, Scozzaro and Hayward read, in a little stapled magazine published to coincide with the event), as well as a short excerpt from the book published this summer by O’Clock Press, ‘You Have the Eyes of a Martyr’, and a longer part of the new long poem ‘Young Americans’, again recently published in a U.K. edition by Defector. In conversation afterwards, Josh saw ‘YA’ as a work mourning departure from community – the political and poetic scene in Oakland. Against or in relation to this Frost would insist that a static model of a particular mode of organisation – or ‘organizing’ – as itself a fixed good can be harmful, that communities fuck up, are provisional, that the fixed form of, say, the union, can or often does reproduce bad gender dynamics or bureaucratic complicities that treat the form itself as the end-point, rather than something that might want to self-abolish, to go further. Her work is above all about survival: as she writes in a statement of poetics for the Elective Affinities blog: “A responsibility to render forms of life as they presently exist. To enunciate what occurs affectively in the space of protest and intervention. Desiring the transformation of society into a survivable place.” Its stakes are high, its mourning is not nihilistic or cynical, nor, really, ironic, but a working through of real issues really experienced and really lived – and these are profoundly ones to do with class and gender and violence, with a specific autobiographical resonance that’s far from abstract. So ‘Young Americans’ begins with young girls selling their blood or being positioned to be those who pick up the pieces, or don’t, when men go off to war (“being made for someone who’s made for the war / or being broken by it later”); and goes on to be about the histories of colonisation and gentrification that constitute “the crime of settling a city”; and the anarchists’ “worship of danger / importance / secrecy”; and the problem of envisioning a collective practice based on “total freedom” when that practice betrays that hope, and when “I don’t yet know what I’m willing to do for it” and “I don’t know what will happen now”. Yet, despite all this, that “I imagine that I can feel that I am living and can make a greater gesture or my spirit can”, that “I do have my underground” and that “I know this too is poetry”, “How the song is coming through, clear and absolute.”