Monday, 30 April 2012

The olden days of online communication

I've been online at home for the last twelve years now, initially on dial-up, and eventually in 2002 progressing to broadband. I felt dead posh when the little broadband server arrived in my houseshare in North London, I can tell you, though I tripped over the countless wires leading into the thing from various people's bedrooms more often than I'd have liked to.

I'm reminiscing about all this for the pure and simple reason that I logged into Yahoo Messenger again recently. Yahoo Messenger used to be the chat facility I favoured above all else, and it doesn't really seem to have changed that radically in the last decade. It looks the same, makes the same noises when people come online and go offline, and seems like a pleasant nostalgia trip to use. It very rarely slowed up or went wrong back in the old days, although I would occasionally find myself hiding my online presence purely to avoid certain friends who were slow typists. A simple conversation with them would end up taking an entire bloody hour, and I was left wondering why they didn’t pick up the phone instead.

Recently, I logged in and my friends list was devoid of life. Deserted. A ghost town. I'd be willing to bet that the last time any of my friends used it was probably at the tail end of the noughties when Facebook became the favoured medium for casual chat. The only sense I got that anything had happened since I last logged in was a couple of friend requests from accounts I did not recognise, who inevitably turned out to be online camgirl strumpets. This is actually a shame - I made many transatlantic friends through the service back in the days when I was connected to various Yahoo communities. It feels faster, simpler and cleaner than Facebook, and a warm and comfortable place to be. With the exception of various strange floozies attempting to get you to look at their nude photos through websites with Russian domain names, there's little or no self-promotion involved with a simple chat site - the stripped down rawness of it seems rather quaint now, but somehow refreshing despite its age. Everybody knows what everyone else is there for – logging on to Yahoo Messenger and making your presence known is a bit like turning on the outside light on your house or flat to welcome in guests - and there isn't an overload of superfluous information.

The death of personal blogging is another strange and sad area, particularly in the case of the ongoing demise of Livejournal in particular. At its peak in 2005 I can remember having a brilliant two dozen or so bloggers on my friends list who, without exception, turned out some very witty and very carefully written blogs. For a time, I dived out of online forum politics and treated LJ as a safe-haven from all the nonsense of trolling and hot-headedness, and had some fantastic conversations on there. Whilst mp3 blogs and strictly themed blogs are hanging on in there for the time being, the mix-and-match approach of a supposedly "self-indulgent" personal blog seems very much of another time these days. A few of my LJ friends are still continuing to populate the place with entries, but in almost all cases there's a half-hearted approach to it, with all of us blogging once every week-and-a-half or so instead of every other day, and even then with rather less considered entries.

People may deem personal blogs to be self-indulgence, but I miss the kind of self-indulgence I used to read. I enjoy long, detailed thoughts communicated from friends or online acquaintances. Put a positive spin on the notion of self-indulgence, and you've got careful, considered communication rather than random thoughts just splatted on to the monitor screen. When I log on to Facebook or Twitter at the moment, I feel underfed and frequently none the wiser about what's going on in some people's lives. Account holders speak in code to each other rather than attempting detailed "locked" entries to certain individuals as we used to do on LJ. I'd much rather a long, personal wail of a blog entry than a simple little Facebook update which says nothing but ":(", and is invariably followed by one person replying: "Hey, is everything OK?!" prompting the pithy reply "Email me". (I'm singling nobody in particular out with this observation, by the way - it applies to so many people I've lost count).

I also hate the 140 character Twitter update restrictions. There are actually very few things that can be said adequately within 140 characters without making the writer sound flippant or moronic, and surprisingly few jokes which come off well when we've such restraints to contend with. People re-tweeting other people's praise for their work may also be part of the Twitter culture, but I still find it cringeworthy and very difficult to regard it as anything other than Hollywood styled behaviour. When a dour, self-effacing stand-up comedian retweets half a dozen people telling him he's amazing, it spoils your perception of his act somewhat - suddenly the earthiness of his routine becomes sugar-coated and it seems as much of a stage act as the David Copperfields of this world. I'd rather not take a peek backstage into the lives of cult performers if it turns out they behave in the same vain, self-celebratory and dorky manner as their Premier League peers.  And don’t even get me started on celebrities who use their personal army of Twitter followers to hurl abuse at anyone in the media who dares criticise their output, which is such chillingly oily behaviour it will frequently leave you unable to regard them in the same light again.  So far, Brian Limond (aka Limmy) is one of the only comedians to consistently use Twitter inventively, using a session to slowly weave tall tales or even aggravate his fans for a few hours with insult-ridden interaction.  With most others, the experience of following them is frequently a hollow one, lazy self-promotion (or, on occasion, promotion of their buddies) dressed up as two-way communication. Writers tend to be much better company in the land of Tweets, but the limited format really doesn’t allow them to do what they’re best at, which is detailed self-expression. 

What seemed great about the Internet when I first got it is that we were all suddenly in a position to self-publish, form communities of our own and do and say what the hell we wanted. In the intervening years so many of us - me included - have taken the possibilities for granted and become idle, stifled by sites which impose restrictions. This isn't to belittle the giant strides the Internet has allowed us to take with political campaigning and the access of music and films, but we made a mistake in casting the warm, homely aspects of the online world to one side in favour of celebrity gossip and quick and dirty information. I hope for a revival of ye olde blog and even the well-crafted personal website, but I won't hold my breath. It sometimes seems that promotion and marketing online, even of the amateur bedroom variety, has taken the place of genuine invention and communication. 

Friday, 27 April 2012

Oi you lot...

When I first launched this blog, I put a lot of content up here all in one go with the idea that people would surf around a bit.  Unfortunately, all most people actually did was get to the bottom of the first page and assume that was it for now, rather than clicking on "older posts".  I suppose I should have known better.

Anyway, if you've done this that means you've missed the following old-school poems:

One Central Perfect Circle
Before The Honey
Zone 4
X
Slow Death of Another Trade

And perhaps most importantly, you'll have missed a full-length live audio mp3 which gives you an exciting live experience, although probably not as interesting as actually being in the same room as me.

A proper update will follow shortly. I did have a new poem lined up to put on here, but then I changed my mind. Yes - I know I'm a coward. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Part-Time Poet

I was invited to a book launch last year - not one of those common-or-garden, room-above-a-pub affairs, I'll have you know, but a proper book launch by a major publisher with a budget to waste on cardboard cut-outs as well as wine and nibbles.  While in attendance I was forcefully encouraged by a well-meaning friend of mine to network.  This could only end in disaster.  I'm a mediocre networker at best if I'm promoting the wares of a charity or organisation I work for, but when it comes to my own writing, I manage to put even myself off my output.  This evening was no exception, and one person after another quickly found an excuse to find the ready salted crisps fascinating (one person even tried to politely terminate our conversation by asking what the crisps were like.  This was a difficult question to answer in an interesting way.  They were like crisps, obviously).

Perhaps, then, we shouldn't judge a couple of the attendees for their reactions towards me too harshly.  Upon being asked the usual questions about who I was and what I did, I noticed a visible freezing of goodwill as soon it became apparent that I was not a "full-time writer", nor anyone in the media who would be immediately useful to them.  At one point, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I actually tried to explain why my work was good to somebody who already seemed a quarter of the way across the room in her rush to get away from me.  She'd spun on her heels and had begun to walk off before I could even finish the word "But", nodding and smiling knowingly as she went.

It's something other friends of mine have noticed as well.  There's an indignity to being a part-time writer.  Part-timers are not "in the club".  It signifies either amateurism - which is nothing to be ashamed of in my opinion, but is a deep insult to many - or a lack of courage to just quit the rat race and take a proper risk with your work.  Never mind the fact that most of us probably would quit our dayjobs to spend a year solely working on that great novel if we had sufficient savings to do so, there's an attitude that unless you devote your entire life to your art living under the most trying poverty as you do, you are somehow not being entirely serious.  And of course, I can't discount the idea that at events where people are keen to network, they will tend not to waste too much of their evening on somebody who doesn't appear to be of much use to their own ambitions.

The networking problem is obvious, but I'm not too sure where the other attitudes come from or even how loose the definitions of "full time" are.  A magazine article recently boasted that there were more "full time poets" in the UK than at any other point in recent memory, quoting wild figures to back up its statistic.  This made no sense to me at the time, and still makes no sense now.  I don't know any full-time poets.  It's true to say that I know people who make a living from poetry, but that's an important distinction - these are writers who tour and go from workshops to inner-city comprehensives to universities teaching their trade and explaining themselves to others.  This is a very liberal interpretation of the idea of "being a full-time poet".  A more accurate description would be that this is finding a way of continuing your craft with the minimum of off-topic distractions and disruptions a proper job would bring.  In the dictionary definition of "poet", teaching classes does not feature.
Full-time writers - as opposed to poets - are more common, but given the pathetically low advances offered by publishing houses for many novels, still not necessarily that easy to come by, and they're getting rarer all the time.

"Part-time" is often used as an insult, and I'm wondering if it's time to reclaim the term.  For instance, it's often used to describe non-serious, supposedly frivolous members of underground music movements.
A "part-time" punk was somebody who didn't live their life according to the punk ideology to the full, and similar "part-time" insults are still bandied around for goths and mods.  But here's the crunch - the part-timers are usually the people with sufficient flexibility and awareness to take the experiences of their mainstream life and weigh it up against their weekend activities.  Whilst the full-timers forever wear their uniform, rigidly sticking to the ethics, beliefs and codes of a restrictive system, the part-timers know the alternatives and tend to have a wider life experience.  Part-timers do not constantly put up walls or wear tribal markers which, subconsciously or otherwise, are designed to exclude the straights.  In this context, part-timers are experimenters and travellers, whereas full-timers are the social equivalent of people who still cling on to childhood safety blankets and never quite got around to moving out of their parent's house to brave the wider world.

I wouldn't choose to insult full-time writers in precisely the same way, but the attitude some of them have towards part-timers is similarly unenlightened.  If somebody has been writing part-time for over a decade, cramming their work around a dayjob, a relationship, and possibly bringing up their children, that shows a seriousness almost beyond the often badly paid but still luxurious life of a full-time sprawl.  If somebody carries on writing until early in a weekday morning before commuting to work the next day, doing so fully in the knowledge that what they've written probably won't earn them much if indeed anything, that to me suggests a dedication some full-timers may find they don't possess.  And more to the point, rather than sticking around fellow writers and media types in London and increasingly feeding their work with experiences from a shallow pool of reference (I've read two stories with main characters who live in desirable flats in North London in the last fortnight alone) part-timers are often likely to have jobs which can help them to create much more worldly work. Some of the best observational writing I've heard on the poetry circuit comes from teachers, social workers and labourers.  And let's not forget Magnus Mills, a part-time, award-nominated writer with an enviably sharp sense of dialogue who drives buses for a living.

We've all met people who claim they're writing a novel or theatre play who in reality have only produced four poorly thought through sides of A4 in the last two years.  The arts and media world is full of bluffers, dreamers and fakers, people who have killed more trees printing calling cards than they have through the use of notebooks.  This makes the life of the part-timer no easier, but if you're a full-time writer and you're reading this, please don't assume anything the next time you meet one of us.  Kafka was a part-time writer.  Larkin was a part-time poet.  Literature shouldn't be about competitions to see who is the highest earning or has the best social status, and if a writer does take that attitude, it will always arouse my own suspicions about what they're doing in that world and how their attitude is likely to be reflected in their work.  For example, I did take a look at the work of that woman who span on her heels and walked away from me rudely.  It may have had a major publishing house's muscle behind it, but it wasn't particularly good.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Cropduster

A couple of years ago now, an acquaintance kindly offered me the use of their country holiday cottage (a converted cow shed) out-of-season.  Part of the reason for the escape was to get some writing done in peace in quiet, but as I rapidly found out, it's not peace and quiet I actually respond to.  I like to be surrounded by people, incidents, movement and life, not cows and fields (and those bastard cows never did take to me anyway, huffing and scraping their hooves in an intimidating manner).  The local pub was brilliant and the environment pleasant, but inspiring? No.


So it turned out that this was the only poem I managed to produce in the entire time there, and I featured in The Poetry Society's "Poetry News" periodical to talk about why retreats don't always work for writers, stating that: 


"Disappearing to a converted cow-shed in the middle of nowhere with my wife was one of the most pleasant mistakes I've made in my life.  As a holiday, it was recuperating and refreshing, and we were surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England (near Shaftesbury). In terms of getting things done, however - which for me involved writing new poetry, and for her involved starting her Masters dissertation - it was a disaster.


In my case, this perhaps shouldn't have been surprising.  Anyone who has been to a reading of mine will tell you that I haven't focussed especially heavily (or even fleetingly) on the topic of cows, and nor have 17th Century churches or sprawling valleys been common themes. Unfortunately, our location had plenty of these and a total lack of people and movement, which (very loosely speaking) are the usual things which inspire me to get the notebook out and write.  On the one day I actually forced myself to sit down by the window and not leave
until I'd fully completed something - *anything* - I ended up focussing on the local farmer in his light aircraft, and immediately realised that I might just as well have retreated to the Premier Inn hotel bar at Luton airport.  Nature itself and quiet locations obviously didn't inspire me, and I spent the remaining couple of days just enjoying the holiday.


Where retreats are concerned, I think there's a common assumption that all poets are somehow identical in nature and will respond in an inspired way to peace and quiet, or the same sets of visual stimuli. Literature would be incredibly unvaried and dull if that were actually true. Oh, and I almost forgot.  There was a fantastic award-winning country pub only half a mile away.  If you have a particularly weak will, I would recommend a retreat that doesn't have a high quality bar anywhere near the place you're trying to get work done.  Perhaps poets actually are quite alike after all."

I don't think "Poetry News" actually ran all of the above in the end and I came across as a very smug, contrary, mocking man next to the other writers talking about their wonderful, inspiring retreats (so what's new?) but anyhow... all this is far too much background information for what is actually a very short poem.  Is the below worth a one-week stay in a country cottage? You be the judge.  







Cropduster


Four miles away, the
cars on the horizon
slowly scrape the bushes,
razor blades scuffing stubborn
stubble, as cows take their own
sweet time in shaping the
valley, weeding the
wilderness like bakers
shape the birthday cakes of boys.

You see this all as you
“ohm” overhead, spitting and
surveying,
wasping unwanted migrants
out of the way,
wondering why the walkers
nearby, scowling,
applaud only the efforts
of flesh.  

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Curse of Father Nostalgia

(I do translations sometimes, you know.  Not often - it's on the edge of my abilities, if I'm being honest - but there is a lot of obscure, historically significant, untouched world literature out there which needs to be read, and half a job is sometimes better than none).  

I do not listen to the overtures of the
father of the past.
His rhythms rattle to many
from the distant horizon on
harsh metal drums,
but I have seen they are
mere pots and pans
beaten with wooden spoons.
I have no interest in such kitchen skiffle.
My tastes are more developed.

I do not dine at his banquet of history.
They sample his confectionary with
dulled taste buds and dewy eyes,
sick with the hayfever of nostalgia,
but I have seen him rub his scalp violently,
then proceed to tell you his
dandruff is icing sugar.
I will not eat such cakes!
This pastry is distasteful to my tongue!
I will drink my Coca-Cola.

I do not inflict the whims of the past on others.
With the passing years my
wife’s thighs grow fatter,
but I do not cut one off
as if it were a tree
looking for lines to record her past!
I will not leave lovers disabled,
victims of my cheap yearning!
Such behaviour belongs to barbarians!

I am deaf to pastsong.
I place both fingers in my ears.
There I stand, a petrol pump
to his dreary dirge of half-truth.

Petr Rabik (b. 4th April 1924 – d. ?) is a little-known poet of Russian origin who during Communism managed to get access to some of the more risquĂ© American beat poetry works. These subsequently coloured his entire artistic approach. It is widely assumed that he obtained them through the post discreetly or through convoluted means via a sympathetic American correspondent, since the decadent and distinctly Western flavour of their work was frowned upon by the government of the time, and almost certainly would not have been stored in any state bookstores or libraries.
A particular favourite of his seems to be have been Frank O’Hara, his references to capitalist iconography such as Coca Cola and bright garish supermarkets being symbols to Rabik of a peculiar and distant Free West of which he wrote: “To me it speaks of colours I have not seen, metals I have yet to touch and sounds that seem as if they scream from the stars – and yet I cannot hear them! I live in a dome where such sounds are muffled, such scenes fogged by a polluting mist, and I cannot hear outside. However, I have my ear to the wall of the dome. To attempt to use this imagery from afar, that shall be my poetic mission. My art shall be what I am most removed from, I will describe the free highway that can and should forever be. The sounds I make will be Russian beat poetry, too far removed from Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and their fellow travellers to be truly representative of American beat, but attempting to make sense of the muffled noises from a party I can only dream of attending”.
He disappeared in mysterious circumstances in September 1973 – some say he escaped to another country to begin a new life, but most believe (probably more realistically) that his continual attempts to describe a grand capitalist future to a Russian public through underground poetry events met with punishment by the government. It is highly unlikely he is still alive, though his family claim they received no record or knowledge of his death or imprisonment, and to this day they regard him as a missing person.
“The Curse of Father Nostalgia” is an interesting little piece which has caused some amusement in Western circles by highlighting Rabik’s naivetĂ© of Western fashions. His disharmonious mention of ‘kitchen skiffle’ in the first stanza may stem from the fact that he believed skiffle was a poverty-induced British (and therefore inferior and bastardized) form of “American Rock n Roll Expression”. In reality, of course, skiffle had long since fallen out of fashion in Britain by 1964 when this poem was first read, and the Beatles now ruled the music world and not Elvis Presley as Rabik supposed. In “Ravensong”, an essay on Elvis he wrote around the same time, he elaborated on this topic: “Tommy Steele sings of ‘Any Old Iron’, the cry of British scrap merchants for metal they can recycle – an almost communist war cry of thrift which suits his common, nasal tones. Presley, on the other hand, sings of “Blue Suede Shoes”, sleek and desirable items that define who he is through their unique appearance, items that are not recycled or imposed upon him through lack of choice. While we look west for inspiration, we must be selective about which countries we look to, and I believe only America has the correct vision”.
In fairness, such dated inaccuracies should be forgiven when his distance from the West is taken into account, and his parallel beat universe is occasionally much more interesting and heart-warming than the harsh realities others have described. Rabik would never have written anything like “Scream” about America, only a soviet Russia.
His dislike of nostalgia was referenced in other poems such as “Statues of Bald Leaders” and “Military Melodies and Future Noise”. He wrote on the subject in his diary “Oh how they use nostalgia as a weapon! I grow weary of such tactics. The unified communist past is OUR past, so we are told – it is a foul trick to stir feelings of familiar family warmth through military band music and cloying state-approved literature when there has actually only been perpetual cold and bloodshed in our history, and a denial of the truth. Nostalgia, it is an evil tool, a despicable method of unification”.
Rabik’s poetry is sadly ignored in British study, where poets looking brightly towards a left wing (or at least liberal) society rather than what some have, in Rabik’s case, strangely dubbed a ‘capitalist utopia’ have always been more fashionable. However, his material has an historical merit which should never be undervalued, and he certainly has the somewhat unique statistic of being the only recorded “Russian Beat Poet”.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Welcome

For the time being at least, this site looks set to be my "official online presence", a great big thudding "About Me" section gone wild because the MySpace profile I had was as relevant as having my own special page on Channel 5 teletext these days. At least this looks a damn sight better visually.

But don't panic, this isn't some weary piece of mothballed self-promotion. I'll regularly be putting updates, sneak previews of new work and background snippets of information about work here, so please do link to me/ follow me/ spy on me when you're in the mood.

I'm on Twitter as well, so please join me there if you're of that particular inclination.

Niall O'Sullivan on Poetry Unplugged

Following on from the interview with Emma Hammond, I decided to do something a wee bit more obvious for my second Morning Star article and chatted to Niall O'Sullivan about the long-running "Poetry Unplugged" evening at The Poetry Cafe in London.

Niall and I chatted for a very long time about the history of the evening and some of the memorable guests and memorable incidents there, from Pete Doherty's brief MC'ing stints, to poets bickering with each other over politics, to the big names who took their first nervous steps on the Unplugged mic, to the fisticuffs which seemed to be an occasional feature during the evening's more bohemian days. At the moment, "Unplugged" has settled down into a rather more conventional open mic night where you'll almost never see the same set of poets week in, week out. As such, it's succeeded in becoming London's most important platform for developing new spoken word and poetry talent, free of the stress and competition of slams and being exceptionally warm and welcoming to new, inexperienced readers. If I want to try new material out myself, I'll very rarely go anywhere else to do so - the diversity of an "Unplugged" audience means that the feedback received is always a bit more reliable than at other evenings which have cornered very particular poetry niches in their aim to create a strong identity for themselves. If the evening had to have an advertising slogan, it could possibly be: "If a poem goes down badly at 'Unplugged', it will probably go down badly everywhere"... although that's putting a bit of a negative spin on the whole evening.

The article appeared in "The Morning Star" in March, and in my efforts to keep the whole thing under 800 words long, Niall felt that one of the arguments he was putting forward perhaps wasn't given a completely accurate hearing. Suffice to say, the conversation we had was so interesting and loaded with observations about the history of the London poetry circuit that I could happily have written an article three times the given length and bored no-one, and pulling the entire thing in at the required length felt like a unique form of torture, involving me squirming as I ended up deleting brilliant quote after brilliant quote from the page just to deliver at the required length.

The final article can be found here, and Niall's detailed response where he talks in more depth about one of the key points raised is well worth a read. Apparently this created a lot of social networking gossip after it went to press, but unfortunately I was too busy that week to notice a lot of it - but I'm glad it managed to create a bit of a debate in the end, and hopefully no-one died.

Emma Hammond in The Morning Star

Back in November 2011 I went to interview Emma Hammond about her poetry collection "Tunth-sk" in the hope that The Morning Star would be interested in carrying an article about it in their regular poetry section. It wasn't the most obvious or mainstream choice I could have jumped on, but I'd purchased the book a month prior to our conversation and was blown away by the contents - more to the point, it raised so many questions about writing technique and style and frequently held such a unique worldview that I thought getting some more people aware of the work could only be a good thing. The spoken word scene in London may well be "on fire" at the moment, and there's certainly no shortage of talent, but people with unique and eccentric voices are becoming harder to find amidst the rush to promote writers who seem immediately accessible to casual audiences.

One interview later, and one soaking from some particularly vicious Autumn rain on the way home - always carry an umbrella or at the very least a garment with an attachable hood, fellow writers - I was left wondering if the paper would actually carry the article. After some to-ing and fro-ing later, it finally appeared in the 18 January edition.

Go and read it here

One Central Perfect Circle

He is stuck.
The slow journey home.
Frost on the line
or something.
Doesn’t question it.
It’s not anything
anyone has power over.

When he was young
he’d see tired underwear morose,
clinging on to plastic vines
in tramp hair grass backyards and
ask mother who lived there.
Whose knickers were famous
every cheap-day?
He faces the silhouette
at one of the windows.

Her mouth “o”s as she
sucks on the wooden handle
of a brush,
the oil mounts on the canvas
like grease on skin,
then flakes like dandruff.
It is someone
who is aired to the world.
Her expression is that
of the train with its
one perfectly circular
central headlamp
day dreaming its way
along the familiar track,
forgetting what it was made as and
just doing.

The room is cold.
Frost on the window-pane
or something.
She doesn’t question it.
She looks outside on to the
stuck train on the track.
The passenger still looks through her.