Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Junk in Space

Not that kind of space: we're talking the white space surrounding a poem. For in the wonderful words of Ros Barber, I’ve been wading through the margin notes of idiots.

The growing workload each week devoted to my dissertation (which is now taking form on paper, rather than existing as a bunch of garrulous and contradictory arguments bouncing inside of my head) has lead me to close reading (what an ugly, academic phrase) the selected poems and collections of a number of contemporary poets, borrowed from Sheffield Uni’s library. And the things I find scrawled in the margins of the pages are either pitiful, depressing, or downright stupid. You’d think, given the lack of attention paid to truly contemporary poetry (I’m talking post social atomisation, here, not post-war), that these collections and anthologies would remain largely untainted by vapid scribblings that provide little or no insight into the work in question whatsoever. Most contemporary poetry isn’t covered until the third year, and by then, you’d hope everyone on a degree level course at a redbrick uni would have the sense to 1) not write things like schizophrenic or paranoid next to the line ‘The little people in the radio are picking on me again’ (Duffy, ‘And How Are We Today?’), 2) not underline and circle alliterative and assonantal effects within poems to the extent that they’re barely readable, or 3) write in pencil rather than bloody biro if they feel their thoughtful and certainly-not-thought-up-on-the-spot musings really must be communicated in needlessly large handwriting to the next lucky reader.

Apparently not. And so I have such insightful comments as objectified next to Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’, reflection next to ‘the looking glass’ in ‘Psychopath’, and definitely supports the underdog next to ‘Selling Manhattan’. Oh, thanks: if it wasn’t for your twattish little scribbles I would never have figured out that pitiful summation of the poem’s complexities by myself in the first skim reading. But seriously, and listen up here whoever the hell you are, why did you write image of himself next to the line ‘I watch my gloved hand twisting the doorknob’ (‘Stealing’)? Who is that insight really benefiting? Could you not have just kept it to yourself, or scribbled it in an essay cobbled together in order to scrape a pass? You really think that the voice of the Christ child in ‘The Virgin Punishing the Infant’ proclaiming ‘I am God’ is self righteous? Really? Oh no, wait, you scribbled a question mark in afterwards, so I suppose you’re not so sure after all. Then why did you put such a half-baked suggestion down in the first place? When I’m reading I want to get to know the poem, and in some cases, the poet, but definitely not the thoughts of somebody who was only paying partial attention to what they were reading / analysing / mentally destroying at the time. Is that too much to ask? We’ve all done it at some point: scribble inanities that is, but most of us learnt our lesson after we ruined the NEAB poetry anthology back at GCSE. Why do you minority (please, please let you be a minority) insist on being academic arseholes, then? Maybe the solution would have been to choose a more obscure dissertation topic, then, or at least one so contemporary the book bludgeoning idiots wouldn’t have had chance to sharpen their pencils.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Regina Spektor to Nikola Tesla

She’s the latest thing to almost make it big and a contender for flavour of the month, but Regina Spektor, the Russian-born and self-styled ‘Bronx girl by way of Moscow’, deserves to be much more. Whilst her EP Soviet Kitsch heralded a singer-songwriter with an ethnically diverse array of vocal and musical influences and stylings, her latest offering, Begin to Hope, marks her out as an upbeat and innovative musician, capable of blending playful piano with engaging narratives, all drawn together in a wonderfully imaginative way. And her live performance, which I caught last night at Sheffield’s Leadmill, is truly something: her soaring vocals as distinct as on studio record, given extra verve and energy by an excellent backing band. If you haven’t listened to Spektor’s work before, the following is her myspace page, where you can hear a few songs from Begin to Hope, and in particular, the wonderful ‘Us’ from Soviet Kitsch. The video above is for her recent single, ‘Fidelity’.

Oh, and in a shameless plug, a poem of mine, ‘The Tesla Coil’, appears in this week’s TLS, alongside new poetry by Carol Rumens, Angela Leighton, and regular TLS contributor, Tom Paulin.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Laying Yourself Open

Interesting to note in The Guardian yesterday that Martin Amis, ‘often described as Britain’s greatest living author’, has apparently decided to take up the post of professor of creative writing at Manchester University. Reassuring to also note that, despite his reputation as the once ‘enfant terrible of English literature’, he won’t be casting his sometimes caustic comments in the direction of his fledgling apprentices, stating instead:

I may be acerbic in how I write but I'm not how I live. And I would find it very difficult to say cruel things to people in such a vulnerable position. I imagine I'll be surprisingly sweet and gentle with them.

Calming words for those budding novelists and writers who sign up to study on the course, anyway. But what interested me about the article was Amis’ following assertion:

One of the things I've learned about fiction - you really do lay yourself open in a way that no other so-called creative artist does. Most other art you're just exhibiting a particular talent, even poetry up to a point, but by writing fiction you expose not only your talent but your whole being, your social, sexual and psychological being and you're never more vulnerable than when you do that.

Hang on a second there, Martin. Fiction is the only art form where artists leave themselves open and vulnerable? What about particularly evocative and personal works of art, as in Ron Mueck’s Mask II: a larger-than-life piece that displays the artist’s face in incredible personal detail, each fold of skin and fleck of stubble meticulously crafted and presented to the public en masse? I find it hard to imagine anything more revealing and exposing of the artist’s own identity. You might take the line that, indeed, such an artwork doesn’t necessarily reveal the artist’s psychological make-up, sexual orientation, or political stance. But then how much of literature (novels, poetry, drama, short stories, and so on) is, at least to some extent, smoke and mirrors; reflections and refractions merging and blurring? I don’t think Amis is putting forward a very convincing case: even if it was a relatively flippant and ill-thought-out suggestion, he was nonetheless presumably comfortable with it next to his picture, resplendent on a broadsheet’s cover.

I like Martin Amis’ work. Time’s Arrow is possibly one of the better novels I’ve read, and certainly the best Holocaust novel I’ve ever read, if you’ll forgive me such terrible pigeonholing. But I’m pretty sure all art leaves the artist vulnerable and open in some way, a lot of it having to do with the artist’s own willingness and desire to deal with themselves in their art, of course. But no form, literary or otherwise, is any better, or indeed, more restrictive, in helping artists to achieve this. Is poetry really just ‘exhibiting a particular talent’, then, albeit ‘up to [more of] a point’ than other forms?

In counter, Sylvia Plath springs instantly to mind, but then I’m an advocate of reading her poems with a lack emphasis on her own life and persona, for pretty obvious reasons. But we don’t really have to cast around too much here, do we? Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, and so on, in no particular order. All exhibit a ‘particular talent’, that is, an innovative renewal and reiteration (in a Derridean sense) of what had artistically come before them, but many of their poems are also invested with a considerable piece of themselves: Hughes and Larkin’s existential concerns, for example, or Duffy and Paterson’s philosophies and sexualities. After all, ultimately, how could they not be?

Quoted Guardian article:,,2013359,00.html

Monday, February 05, 2007

Something New

Thought I'd post a draft piece up here for a short while for general viewing and feedback. If anyone has any advice, criticism or general comments they're very welcome.

The Horizon

It was here, but it's gone now...

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Route 57 Issue 2 Now Online

It’s time, in the words of Ms Baroque, for a shameless puff. Or rather, since I’m plugging a whole host of exciting new pieces in the second edition of Route 57 (the fledgling e-journal of Sheffield Uni’s English department), to hopefully introduce a collection of poems, short fiction, and experimental writing that’s well worth reading.

The journal is barely half a year old, but already the writing it’s presenting and encouraging is of an excellent standard, especially considering the School of English has no specific creative writing MA. Back in June '06, the first issue not only included work by Anne and Peter Sansom (editor of The North magazine) and rising poets Claire Lockwood and Andrew Bailey (the latter the winner of Poetry Review’s Geoffrey Dearmer Prize 2005; all alumni of Sheffield’s English department), but also a whole host of work by current undergraduate students, variously flexing their creative muscles.

This issue builds on that tradition, and as one of the poetry editors for the journal, it was honestly great fun meeting up with fellow editor Joe Kriss and discussing the poems over coffee or a pint. All of the work submitted was at the very least interesting (I’m carefully tiptoeing around certain pieces that I didn't get along with here), and many of the poems were genuinely thought provoking, exciting, and enjoyable. Either way, it was an experience putting it together (submissions were higher in number than we expected: I now have a slightly clearer and more terrifying idea of what it must be like, despite the many rewards, to have Fiona Sampson, Mick Imlah, or Michael Mackmin’s editorial job). But now that’s over, the real fun starts.

Take a look at the site. See what you think. Try Maryam Farahani’s culturally rich piece in the Poetry section. Be moved by Katy Tucker’s short story, ‘If It Ain’t Broke’. See the Non-Fiction section for Alison Gibbons’ interesting exploration and discussion of novels that paint the pictures of artists. Or uncover the secret lives behind spam mailers' names in Lucinda Chell-Munks’ patchwork story. Get yourself comfortable and enjoy. There’s even a few poems, reviews and aphorisms by yours truly, ifahem… if anyone’s interested or wants to pass judgement…