Monday, 21 December 2009

Swift Report 2009

I'll write my report in early 2010, and, not only survey this year, but a decade of work. In the meantime, may I wish you all a holiday blessed by health, peace, and love. As a veritable UK-style blizzard snows down upon London let me wish you a Very Merry Christmas!

Say A Word

Sad news. Brittany Murphy, pictured, one of my favourite actresses, has died, at the age of 32. Murphy, whose best role was perhaps as the silent insane asylum girl in the Michael Douglas thriller Don't Say A Word, was also great in Girl, Interrupted, Clueless, and 8 Mile. She was infamously sexy and intriguing on screen, and, to her fans, endlessly captivating. However, her career had somehow seemed interrupted, too. Eyewear is in shock at her sudden totally unexpected death. In my third book, Rue du Regard, a collection which deals with scopophilia, desire and film, I have a poem called 'Brittany Murphy Adoration Society', which is not entirely apt to quote here, but which explored her effect on those who loved to watch her act. She will be missed.

Bink Noll

As an anthologist I enjoy the bittersweet experience of reading forgotten anthologies of yesteryear - those charming time-tombs. No point in observing that most art is futile and ends in oblivion for most artists; we are mostly not Horace. Save our souls, but forget our names. Chad Walsh that great Champion of CS Lewis from Beloit College edited thanklessly a long unused Scribners anthology from 1964, Today's Poets. 45 years later it mainly holds up well though we no longer speak of wild man poets. Ginsberg is absent. Walsh predicts great things for Walcott but doesn't particularly enthuse about Larkin. The great Eberhart is given his due. Carl Bode we don't much read now. Nor Gil Orlovitz. Good to have them here. Vassar Miller is an intriguing poet. However I most enjoyed encountering Walsh's Beloit friend, Princeton man, the poet Bink Noll.

Noll, born in 1927, has the best poet name, no? I love the name Bink Noll. Anyway, he is too obscure now, but wrote well, if not superbly, in the period style. Noll's life apparently turned in middle age, when he openly explored his gay identity but also sadly became encumbered by illness. He left his family and went on a new path only publishing a third book later in life. Christmas is, among other things, about encountering redemptive origins, small gestures of joy opening to greater demarcations. I wish to think of Bink Noll at Christmas. The least great and lesser are not lost ever fully if love survives.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

End of the world or fantastic day?

Last night I was happy for the first time in four months; for a few hours I forgot I have to take six pills a day and am often in pain or discomfort. Friends took me to Cadogan Hall to see Nick Heyward reunite with Haircut 100. This band had only one album, Pelican West, which went to 2 in the UK charts in March 1982 before Heyward quit the next year to make his masterpiece, North of a Miracle, the great upbeat pop album of the early 80s. The show was only slightly marred by Heyward's Mike Myersesque eccentric tween-song ramblings. Actually the band was tight and hearing Love Plus One again and Fantastic Day - as well as A Blue Hat for a Blue Day - was a pure retreat to when we were all teenagers. This was my Buddy Holly - sweet clever love songs and fun clean tunes.

The audience was almost all late 40s and facebook fans. After the show which was too brief Heyward mingled in the bar with several hundred fans, smiling and genuinely bemused by the adoration. I hope for a Pelican East soon. However while last night reminded me of the power of pop and ska in the early 80s to instill hope and offer change - good songs for good young people - the failure of Copenhagen today and the rise of a Simon Cowell world of corporate pap music makes me wonder if the past may be a kinder ghost of promise than the future.

Oxfam Young British Poets Launch

On Thursday night, Todd Swift and Martin Penny hosted a Christmas launch at Oxfam Books and Music for a new poetry DVD, ‘Asking a Shadow to Dance.’ This DVD, directed by Jennifer Oey, showcases the work of 35 young British poets selected by Todd Swift. The readings were filmed in various locations in and around London’s Southbank and UEA and they are a delight to watch. All the poets have unique but equally expressive and interesting poetic voices.

The event was low-key, attended by those who braved the snow storms on such a cold December night. The atmosphere inside was however warm and welcoming; it was a great night for the young poets to meet each other, share their ideas and also hear each other read. Those who attended were also lucky enough to hear a song performed by Michael Horovitz, poetry veteran and editor of 1960’s poetry anthology, Children of Albion.

There will be another event for this DVD in March, when Todd will hopefully be in better health. Till then, please support Oxfam and the young poets, including myself, who are featured on the DVD. It is available to buy on eBay and you can also get a copy from Oxfam Books and Music in Marylebone.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Robert Earl Stewart

I've been reading the debut collection from Robert Earl Stewart, Something Burned Along The Southern Border. It is from Mansfield Press and is a handsome book. It's an excellent first collection. I'd published his work over the years at Nthposition and in anthologies and so am pleased to see this finally out. As Emily Schulz says, it maps "a seldom-recorded region of Canada, the joint of Windsor-Detroit". From such a potential bleakness the poet has rescued surreal and darkly witty poems. This is one for last-minute Amazon shopping.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Guest Review by Rufo Quintavalle: White Magic and Other Poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Rufo Quintavalle reviews
White Magic and Other Poems
by Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski

Krzysztof Kamil Baczynski was born in 1921 and died in the Warsaw uprising in 1944 leaving behind him a substantial body of poetry, very little of which, up until now, has been translated into English. This book, a selection of his poems in a bilingual edition seeks to remedy this lack. The book is translated by Bill Johnston, Director of the Polish Studies Center at Indiana University, and is published by Green Integer.

The claims made by Johnston in his introduction that Baczynski should rank alongside Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Szymborska as one of the giants of 20th Century Polish poetry do him no favours. He is not (at least in translation) on a par with these poets. Better to consider him on his own terms, if we can, or failing that, to grant him the indulgence we would any poet who died at the age of 23. Excesses of religiosity, lyricism, grandiosity and morbidity – all of which Baczynski on this showing clearly has – are forgivable faults in such a young writer. Better to openly admit these shortcomings than, as Johnston does, state without any support that Baczynski was writing “mature work” at the age of 18 or that by 1942 he was already considered a “major poet”.

Where Johnston’s claims seem more justifiable is in his defense of Baczynski’s love poetry. The poems addressed to his wife, Barbara, are among the finest in this selection

Barbara stands at the mirror
of silence, and her hands reach
to her hair; in her body of glass
she pours silver droplets of speech

This is the opening to the poem, “White Magic” and even without the music of the original this is heady stuff. The untitled love poems on pages 91 and 95 show a similarly imaginative use of imagery.

This extravagance can at times get out of control. So “The Choice” which opens near perfectly:

After a scorching day, the night was green;

its depths soughed like black leaves in which had grown

a milky pith

descends into a lush and breathy exuberance

And so a massive quiet arose like water,

dark, deep, and warm, absorbing shapes and matter.

Above earth, a quiet angel took his hand

and they rose into the cloud’s unfolding flower.

This is bad, although I would argue it is bad in the same way Keats’ Endymion often is – a kind of necessary, free-associative unleashing of lyricism which in each case allowed the young poets to achieve better things elsewhere. So we have Keats’ Odes and so we have a poem like Baczynski’s “Generation” where he successfully contains this declamatory mode within a meticulously constructed architecture.

At other times we are tempted to forgive Baczynski his excesses not so much on technical grounds but because of the context. “Was it a bullet killed you, son, or was it your heart bursting?” concludes one of his later poems. This is overly dramatic but in the mouth of a 23 year old who would be dead six months later, it passes. Does it pass too because it is in the mouth of a Pole? Are Polish writers in particular (and Eastern Europeans in general – think of the cult of Brodsky) allowed a kind of tragic, patriotic lyricism, which would get a British or American laughed out of court? Certainly it is hard to imagine any British writer of the Auden/MacNeice era or even at the time of the First World War getting away with, or even coming out with, this kind of line. Does Eastern European verse serve much the same function as farmers’ markets or urban beehives do – a way to buy into a “reality” that Anglo-American city-dwellers otherwise prefer to keep at arms length?

To return to the matter at hand, these are not, despite Johnston’s pleadings and despite some great moments, poems of the first order. Nor can I imagine that they will have any great influence on contemporary Anglophone poetic practice – they are too much of their time and place for that – but in as much as they form a part of a poetic tradition that has since blended in interesting ways with our own, it is good to have them available. I do not know Polish so am unable to comment on the translations but they read well in English and, if only for the image of thunder rolling “like an apple from the sky” in “Autumn 1941”, I am glad to have this volume on my bookshelf.

Rufo Quintavalle, 2009

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Best Of The Decade

The Sunday Times Culture section ran an intriguing list of the best of the 00s in film, pop, books, last weekend. It was a persuasive list. Best film: In The Mood For Love – which would have been my choice. Best book: Austerity Britain, by David Kynaston – a wonderful choice, and one that makes me particularly pleased because David is a colleague of mine at Kingston University, and also because my doctoral research is in the austerity years of the 40s and British poetry of the period. Best album: Kid A – not a bad choice either. Eyewear’s Top Films of the Decade would include The Lives of Others, The Bourne trilogy, Mulholland Drive, Elephant, The New World, Lost In Translation, Match Point (Woody Allen’s misunderstood film), Before Sunset, Let The Right One In, Casino Royale and The House of Mirth. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is also a noteworthy achievement of the time. In terms of albums, Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft remains the masterwork of the decade. Other acts that impressed include Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, Interpol, Tegan and Sara, Grizzly Bear, Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire and The White Stripes. I am sure there are others I will recall later. The best book of the decade list would have to include Bob Dylan’s first volume of his autobiography; as well as Charles Taylor’s The Secular Age, and Girly Man, by Charles Bernstein. The cultural event of the decade remains the Digital breakthrough of the Internet and social networking, which changed the way younger poets organise their sense of community, their publishing, and their world. This decade was shaped by 9/11 the Iraq War, and it certainly changed the direction of my work with poets. It remains incredible to me, as I am sure it does to many, how Tony Blair, a war criminal, is still at large at decade’s end.

Guest Review by Kayo Chingonyi: ‘The Terrors’ by Tom Chivers

‘The Terrors’ is, by nature, a mysterious book. Even the preface, in
which the sequence is introduced as ‘a series of imagined emails to
inmates at Newgate Prison between […] 1700 and 1760’, is far from
explanatory. However, what might seem an overly complex book is shown
by attentive reading to be an engaging, if not always immediately
understandable, work of linguistic playfulness and incisive satire.

It is, perhaps, the juxtaposition of such a contemporary form of
discourse as the email with the style of the 18th century Newgate
Calendar which throws up the most questions. In some quarters it is
felt that since email has, in many ways, usurped snail mail we might
one day, as Michael Ravitch envisages*, appreciate the email as a
literary form rather than just a means to the end of relaying a

The opening poem ‘A Guide to Email Etiquette’ serves as an orientation
to the world the reader is about to enter as well as an introduction
to the tropes at work in the book as a whole:

Don’t make personal remarks.
Don’t send unsuitable email.
Don’t mention Lilly’s hieroglyph.

The shift in register from the diction of an acceptable use policy to
the historical ‘Lilly’s hieroglyph’ hints at the tonal and referential
shifts that follow in the rest of the book. This approach suggests
that History (or, more specifically, Time) be understood as the
concurrent interplay of past, present and future. Well worn though
this notion may be; what is striking is the absorbing and, ultimately,
compelling way in which it is examined by Chivers.

Of the book’s successes the foremost, to my mind, are the emails
addressed to William Dodd, a clergyman, and sometime poet, who fell
into disrepute after being convicted of forgery. Dodd numbered Samuel
Johnson among campaigners for his release but not even an extensive
petition could save him and he was hanged. The plight of a prisoner
awaiting a very public death is captured with great skill in this
passage from ‘Terra Incognito’:

It’s a doddle, Will: just get yourself a pen to write
your soul’s way
outta there. In place of Shepherd’s rusty nail and
knotted sheets
you’ll have a memoir worth the reading.

This satirical look at the consolation offered by notoriety after
death not only brings into focus our morbid fascination with those who
teeter at the precipice but also the human need for recognition. This
is explored further in ‘speculate to accumulate’ which begins ‘Treat
this as fan mail, or whatever’ and goes on to explore the manner in
which criminality can bolster one’s ambitions for ‘infamy’. In the
face of an increased focus on the description of the ‘criminal
classes’ in today’s society it seems precious little has changed.

Elsewhere in the pamphlet Chivers muses on the fates of some of
Newgate’s other notorious inmates in fine style. Not least in ‘Other
Side’ where the parade to the gallows is described in all its horror
with an ear for the music of the words:

Ox-cart’s a pretty way to go. Clipping, shipping, scaling, lightening.
Thank god you were throttled before you were burnt.

This poem, in particular, is one in which the juxtaposition of
eighteenth century London and that of the present day is employed to
great effect in the shift from ‘Ox-cart[s]’ to ‘burger vans’ humming
in the following stanza.

Though I did find this approach illuminating I did feel that some of
the poems suffered because, since I hadn’t read the Newgate Calendar,
there were a number of references which I didn’t understand. For me
this challenged the notion that a poem must be ‘got’ to be enjoyed but
there are, I’m sure, some readers who would be turned off by the
pamphlet’s occasional murkiness. Ultimately, though, I found the
sequence to hold genuine interest beyond a single reading both as a
way in to the history of London and as an exploration of what can be
achieved in the email format.

What are we, then, to make of Chivers’ exploration of the email as a
literary form? For me the most useful way into the pamphlet is in the
description of the work as a set of ‘imagined’ missives. This sequence
announces a poet awake to the strangeness thrown up by flights of
imagination which variously place the snappy media-speak of our
information age aside the gratuitous crime reportage of 18th century

The fact that this pamphlet was published by Nine Arches Press, a
relatively new player on the scene, says a lot about the freedom of
small press publishing. Here is a poet tackling the contemporary
sphere without recourse to the continual use of explicitly topical
references. It is this freedom which makes the small press and the
pamphlet an essential part of poetry publishing. Long may Nine Arches
release books of this calibre. The Terrors is well worth a look for
those who enjoy poetry that defies easy reduction.

Tom Chivers, The Terrors, (Nine Arches Press, 2009), £5

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Glorious Basterds

A retraction. I finally saw the latest Tarantino film, and think it a work of cinematic genius. While I continue to regret his adolescent violence, this film has at its heart two or three set piece dramatic sequences that, in terms of suspense and wordplay, are among the most brilliant ever presented on screen - most especially the cellar Mexican standoff. As everyone now knows, this is QT's movie about the power of film - to make everything happen. Historically subversive and yet paying knowing homage to Pabst and other classic German film-makers, it is a disquieting guilty pleasure, with superb casting. He even includes a sly reference to the script about Nazi killers I co-wrote, and which his company optioned briefly, A Necessary Evil.

Sweeping all before it

As if to confirm my recent posts, The Guardian's poetry round up this Saturday featured a photo of Don Paterson and a statement from Sarah Crown that his collection Rain "swept all before it" this year. I find such triumphalist language of very limited value, especially as it plays into a marketing-branding-prize-giving perspective that has badly damaged the poetry world over the last decade. It is truly amazing to me to see all the Internet-based poetry initiatives of this decade - most which empowered thousands of poets - continuously ignored or downgraded in the mainstream media's summaries of the decade. Main reason: you can't buy and sell free poetry. Anyway, how did Rain sweep all before it this year? I think, rather, that 2009 was a richly varied year, with many books worth reading. A pity that critics in positions of authority and with wide public reach continue to try to establish a star system for British poets reminiscent of the BBC's internal document, calling Michael Palin of limited appeal. Such instrumental ranking has little or nothing to do with poetry itself.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Eyewear's Albums of 2009

In no order, the following ten albums were the ones that Eyewear found themselves returning to most often, in the pop/rock category. The Priests have a new album that's worth checking out, for those inclined that way. The Pope does as well. Both rise above schmaltz to be genuinely moving at times, if obviously not for all. Anyway, here are the ten:

Fever Ray, eponymous;
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest;
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!;
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion;
The xx; eponymous;
Lady Gaga, The Fame;
Hope Sandoval and The Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly;
Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain;
U2, No Line on the Horizon;
White Lies, To Lose My Life.

Others were close, but no cigar. A few were strictly guilty pleasures, like the latest Ah-ha, or Depeche Mode, or Simple Minds. The new La Roux, and the new Little Boots etc., the synth pop gals, were good but really rather limited. On another front, the best film of the year was Let The Right One In - but then I didn't see many. I look forward to finally seeing The Hurt Locker and also Bright Star. Alan Baban has promised us a round-up of the decade early in 2010.

Noon Time

Two new pamphlets from the indefatigable Alistair Noon, based in Berlin! In People's Park, from Penumbra editions, is only £4.00 and is beautifully put together, both as a physical object, and a series of texts. This is excellent poetry. Someone should give Mr. Noon a full collection soon - Salt? I love the last line: "Around the toppled reptiles ran the gnawing rats". He has also translated Sixteen Poems by Monika Rinck, from Barque. "Absolute romantic zero" indeed! Excellent writing from a German into English. These are both stocking stuffers for the poetry buff in your linguistically-innovative home.

TS Eliot Shortlist

The TS Eliot list this year is impressive. While there are (as always) unfortunate omissions (Lumsden's book was his best) it does feature fine collections from Szirtes, Gross, D'Aguiar, Oswald - perhaps the front-runners - as well as Williams and Olds - and others. It's an intelligent list. There were funnier, more experimental books this year, maybe, but whoever wins this will have competed among some of the very best.

Frank Lists

The Guardian Review has frankly ceased to represent its papers' own social or editorial values. Of late, it has toed an increasingly establishment line. In its recent "50 Books of the Decade" - which featured English-language books from America, the UK, and beyond, only one poetry collection was mentioned: Don Paterson's Landing Light, from Faber. Now, given that Paterson was the only poet selected the week before, for the Christmas list, it is becoming tedious. But what is problematic is not Paterson's being listed - this collection is one of the major Scottish books of the decade, certainly - it is the utter absence of any other poetry books. Where is Alice Oswald? Carson? Muldoon? Something from a smaller press maybe? Some Giles Goodland? Or, .the utterly funny and experimental and daring Girly Man, by Charles Bernstein? Or, for that matter, the most politically inclusive poetry book of the decade, 100 Poets Against The War? Instead, by selecting a collection by a poet who opposed the poets against the war movement openly, and openly villified "postmodern" avant-garde poetry in the decade, the Guardian is exhibiting a rather provincial and conservative streak.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Guest Review : Zoë Brigley on 'Language for a New Century'

A New Hybrid Muse

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia and Beyond, ed. Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, New York and London: Norton, 2008. ISBN: 9780393332384. Pbk, 734pp.

Language for a New Century begins with a question about the meaning and value of poetry. Yet in this anthology, the question of value acquires all the more meaning, because the poetry comes out of postcolonial and diasporic settings. In their preface, the editors suggest that ‘Where the opportunities for fatal destruction, between people and between nations, are intensified, the same age-old questions still exist: What is the role of poetry? What can it do? Can poetry still matter?’. What this anthology offers is a poetry attuned to needs of particular cultures. It is a poetry that works for these needs, by reinventing form, syntax, the lyric mode and themes such as childhood, identity, politics, war, homeland, spirituality and the body.

The writers included originate from regions traditionally sidelined by the West: South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East and Central Asia; as well as other territories like Morocco and Sri Lanka, and the diaspora in Western countries. Some of these poets are well-known while others are relatively new, and the editors only include one poem by each poet, a strategy that aims for the highest possible inclusivity. To create an anthology that gathers these voices together is a remarkable achievement in itself. It is also admirable not simply because it points away from traditional poetic canons, but because it makes such great claims for the value of poetry as a tool for representing the identity and politics of postcolonial and diasporic subjects.

In 2004, Brent Hayes Edwards noted that postcolonial poetry had gained less attention than the short story or the novel and he suggested ‘The point is not that poetry is less prevalent or less important … but that it is less convenient’. The editors of Language for a New Century do not try to make the poetry presented into a convenient product. This can be seen in the structure of the book, which is not defined by an A-Z of poets, but by particular themes or issues. Take the section ‘Buffaloes under Dark Water’. The title is taken from Moniza Alvi’s ‘The Wedding’, a poem in which a bride describes an arranged marriage to a man and a country. Written out of Alvi’s connections with Pakistan, the poem is about encountering a strange or alien person/place that must soon become familiar, and Alvi describes how this dictates sacrifice for both parties who repress their thoughts ‘like buffaloes under dark water’. The editors explain in the preface that this phrase works as a section-title to represent ‘mysterious, shrounded, duende­-tinged luminescent bursts of lyric that resist the notion of taxonomy’. The approach to structure may not serve the researcher so well – what theme is ‘Earth of Drowned Gods’? can anyone guess what ‘Bowl of Air and Shivers’ means?! – but it does present the idea that concepts like home, war and spirituality are complicated, poetic and cannot be reduced to simple concepts.

But this is an anthology that never claimed to be simple in its outlook, and how could it be when it covers such a multitude of voices and outlooks? What is fascinating though is that many of these poets are Anglophone, though the anthology does contain some translations to English too. ‘Slips and Atmospherics’ is a particularly important section in relation to language, because it gathers together poems that ‘stretch[es] the cords of syntax, exploding normative lineation and familiar imageries to present an avant-garde sensibility’. This statement applies to a great many poems throughout the anthology, which feel refreshingly detached from traditional forms and from the kind of uncomplicated lyrics that sometimes dominate Western poetry. The poets writing in English are certainly deterritorializing the language and making it their own, forcing it to work for their own purposes and political needs. It seems to be what Jahan Ramazani in The Hybrid Muse describes as ‘a rich and vibrant poetry … issued from the hybridization of the English muse with the long resident muses of Africa, India, the Caribbean and other decolonizing territories’ – in this case the Middle East, Asia etc.

In Language for a New Century, poetry humanises the experiences of poets working in this hybrid muse, allowing them to maintain their cultural specificity, whilst also creating a seed of familiarity that flowers to understanding. Tina Chang sums this up in introducing the section on the lyric. ‘What is it that we seek to glean from poems but a shadow of our own human experience? When we subtract rationale, logic, even narrative consistency, we are led by the essence, feeling and raw energy of the song, the purity of a given moment.’ And this sympathy, of course, is desperately needed. The East is still a mythic place created by Orientalist discourse, as has been shown more recently by Judith Butler’s Precarious Life which considers how the suffering faces of subjects in the Middle East are not grieved and are even incomprehensible as lives in Western discourse.

This kind of perception unravels in poetry. When, in Saadi Youssef’s America, America’, the speaker challenges the soldier: ‘Why did you come to me from your Nevada desert, soldier armed to the teeth? / Why did you come all the way to distant Basra, where fish used to swim by our doorsteps?’. When Nadia Anjuman writes of ‘The Silenced’ finding a voice: ‘I am not that weak willow twisted by every breeze. / I am an Afghan girl and known to the whole world’. When Suji Kwock Kim writes of the peace in ‘The Korean Community Garden’: ‘All things lit by what they neighbour // but are not, each tint flaring without a human soul, / without human rage at their passing.’

Altogether the breadth of work in Language for a New Century is hardly broached by a short review like this one. It is a pioneering anthology that, for myself, is a roadmap to poetries that I have never encountered before and I find it both inspiring and heartening. Overall, I am inclined to agree with Carolyn Forché , who in her foreword to the book, laments poetry’s lack of meaning in Western culture but tells us to ‘take heart’: ‘We have entered a different epoch, and this anthology is, let us say, our guide and interpreter’.

Zoë Brigley


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...