Sunday, 17 February 2013

Art Brutness

One of the great things about keeping a highly self-indulgent, non-thematic and barely-read personal blog - as I used to - is that you can actually trace the seeds of various ideas if you care to dig deep enough.  Given that you'll tend to only comment on the things that have had the biggest impact on you in any given week, it's inevitable that some of those concerns will start to bubble up into the "creative work" (if you can forgive that expression).   So while I was digging back through my old entries, I found this one from 2008 about an Outsider Art Exhibition a friend and I went to at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  Clearly whilst I had my moral issues with the exhibition, those questions planted seeds in my mind and later became the inspiration for the "Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" short story which appeared in "The Alarmist" a couple of weeks ago.

The circle was pretty much completed when I eventually saw a young art student hopping on to a Northern Line train bouyantly, on a morning when I was heading off to my day job after about three hours sleep.  She seemed so self-confident, energetic and optimistic that if somebody had given me the power to swap places at that point, I actually might have done - despite having once been an energetic and optimistic BA student myself, and knowing that it almost never leads to an instant life in the limelight.  None of this makes me Peter Gandalf, obviously, and I'd hope that doesn't need to be emphasised, but if you throw enough images at your brain, eventually it starts to draw some peculiar conclusions.

So anyway, here's what I thought. (And yep, it's very self-indulgent to reproduce this, but then it's very self-indulgent to keep a blog about your poetry and writing too).  

My friend Jon visited from Wales this weekend, and in lieu of anything better to do in a rather somnambulant arts and entertainment scene in London at present, we decided to catch a train down to the present Outsider Art (or Art Brut) exhibition at Whitechapel Art Gallery.

Outsider art fascinates me for one over-riding reason: Taken at its most raw meaning - the creation of art as some kind of primary instinct, ignorant of audiences or the possibility of getting any - it seems strangely comforting. That all over the globe men and women are creating sculptures in their sheds and huge, teetering structures of junk that only their visitors or family are ever likely to see, suggests that there's something much more primal about art (even modern art) than anyone usually acknowledges. It takes us back to the concept I mentioned some entries ago - art and literature are not primarily the activities of the wealthy, it's just those tend to be the people that take risks and therefore get ahead. A man from a miner's family in the Deep South is generally much less likely to jump from his day job to spend full time working on his sculpture of "found" motorway hubcaps in the hope that a major New York gallery will exhibit them. Economics has more bearing on what or who becomes known than anyone usually cares to admit.

Rather unfortunately, however, the exhibition I attended seemed to celebrate the more freakish exponents of the genre (if indeed it is a genre). Much of the art seemed scarily totemistic. Sharp jags, teeth, splinters and shard-like shapes dominated elaborate doodles on canvas. Ghostly faces peered out questioningly from collapsing mosaics. I turned to Jon and said: "If you found a derelict village and one of the houses had endless paintings like these stacked up in it, you'd run for dear life in case the person responsible came to get you as well". He could only agree. There was work in the gallery that genuinely gave me a jittery feeling. These seemed to be tribal markers rather than expressions of belief or intent (apart from the ones more geared around religious mania). Fear, true enough, is better than no response at all (which is what ninety per cent of all art manages to achieve for me) but the purpose behind it to me seemed occasionally lost.

Most interesting was the work of Henry Darger and his paintings of The Vivian Girls. Eight thousand of these paintings were found in his flat by his landlord after he died, and all seemed to chronicle the adventures of cherubic children in some underworld. One particularly vivid piece sees them escaping from a concentration camp (you can read more here:

Darger was apparently deemed "frail minded" during his life, and regularly spoke to himself in several different voices and rummaged through dustbins. Nobody had any suspicions that he was creating art in his spare time during his lifetime, least of all in such a ridiculous quantity. I myself am divided as to whether there's any actual worth in what he created or it was essentially just a fantasy world he chose to create as a comfort. And of course, even the latter opinion brings up more complex arguments about self-indulgence and what art should do for the artist as well as the viewer.

My favourite piece in the gallery by far was a rather Alasdair Gray styled effort entitled "Londinium", essentially a futuristic psychological map of the city which was dizzying in its detail. Sadly, I've forgotten the name of the artist responsiblce - if anyone can shed any light, I'd be grateful.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Astronaut Fanzine Launch - Saturday 16 February

(Cross posted with Left and to the Back) 

I'll be DJ'ing again on Saturday 16th February - this particular event marks the London launch of Astronaut fanzine, a Manchester-based publication for young poets. Besides having John The Revelator and I on the decks playing a mixture of mod rock, garage pop, soul, funk and whatever else seems appropriate or takes our fancy, you'll get to hear the following poets:

Tim Wells
Katie Seth
Jon Stone
Rowena Knight
Emlyn Hugill
Chip Grim
Anna Le

This will be taking place at the Mascara bar in Stoke Newington at 72 Stamford Hill, London N16 6XS  from 8:00pm until very late.  It's £4 to get in which, frankly, is probably the best cheap night out you're going to get in North London next Saturday.  The Facebook event invite is here.

Incidentally, the DJ'ing will be attempted on something a bit better than the Elizabethan Astronaut record changer pictured above, but it seemed an appropriate image given the fanzine's name.  And anyway, it's a picture of one of the actual record players I have at home, and any excuse to dig it out...

Monday, 4 February 2013

News and Announcements

Yes folks, it's one of those periodic updates where I plug some things I'm involved with.  These tend not to be huge crowd-pleasers as blog entries go, but hell, I've got to let people know there are things out there they can buy, and hell, you'd do the same if you had to (you probably already do), and hell, I've got to celebrate this stuff when I can.

Firstly, issue two of "The Alarmist" is out now and features my short story "The Private Museum of Peter Gandalf" (all 5,000 words of it).  The magazine/ journal/ whatever it should rightfully be called has been designed fantastically well with an enormous amount of colour, flash and attention to detail - far more than I've seen in most other publications of its ilk.  To cap it all off it smells wonderful, a bit like the booklet that came with the "Nuggets II" box set or a brochure from Thomas Cook. The scent of fresh ink on high quality paper always entices me. But if the sights and smells weren't enough, then rest assured that Fran Lock, Richard Purnell, Rob Doyle, Rob McClure Smith, Joshua Seigal and many, many others are also featured, and it's well worth £6 of your money.  You can buy it here, but it will also be given broader distribution in art galleries and independent bookstores across the UK in March, with copies also being available in some other global cities too.

I'll also be reading as a guest of Roddy Lumsden at "Broadcast" on 23rd February.  I have to read new material about alter egos, material which - I must be honest - I haven't actually written yet.  So this is going to be interesting, but even on the offchance that I fail to deliver anything worthwhile (and I promise I'll try my hardest), Raymond Antrobus, Alex Bell, Sophia Blackwell, Catherine Brogan, Wayne Holloway Smith, Holly Hopkins, Digby Howard, Mel Jones, Richard Tyrone Jones, Rowena Knight, Roddy Lumsden, Michelle Madsen, Kathy Pimlott, Paul Stephenson, Judi Sutherland, Rebecca Tamas, Sarah Wedderburn and Alan Wolfson are also on the bill, so you can't really go wrong. The Facebook invite page is here, but if you're too lazy to click on that, it's taking place at the Betsy Trotwood at 7:45pm, and the entrance fee is £5.  Go here to read about Broadcast Poetry generally.

There are also plans for me to curate something quite unique and disturbing at a major poetry night on the London circuit in March, but some things are spoilt by revelation, so let's just keep quiet about that for now (and in any case, I don't have the full details yet... mystery seems to be something of a theme for this entry).

You may also have noticed that a recent article in "The Independent" talked about "The Death Of Poetry". I found myself more hacked off by the cliched sentiments behind the headline than the inaccurate article itself, and promptly wrote two spoof thought-pieces for my blog entitled "Poetry Is Alive" and "Poetry Is Dead", both contradicting each other and both delivered under the pretence that they had been commissioned by a newspaper editor.  This is roughly what Nathan A Thompson did, writing an article praising slam poetry in The Guardian four months ago, then doing a sudden about-turn in The Independent this weekend.  Most people got the joke.

Nathan A Thompson has since apologised for his original article in an interview with Poejazzi, and that's worth a read if only to see his point of view.  I bear the man no particular ill will as he is just one in a long line of journalists to deliver the old "poetry death" headline - I don't have enough room in my little black book to keep a track record of the people who come up with these stories  - but I do feel that literary and arts editors everywhere desperately need to come up with some different poetry stories besides "Poetry Is Dead" or "Poetry Is The New Rock & Roll/ Comedy".  It can't be hard, but if any of them want to just sub me some money and run the bogus hack-pieces I've drafted from now until 2052, it should help me to pay the bills, and I'm sure their casual readers won't notice that anything is awry.

Anyway, that's it!  See you soon.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Poetry Is Dead

Once one of Britain's most treasured artforms, poetry has long been in decline.  There had been hopes that the spoken word movement would save it, but it's failed, as David Bryant reports.

Poetry is dying.  Actually, scratch that, it's dead.  You didn't need me to tell you that.  When you attended your last dinner party, did anyone bring the topic of poetry up?  Was anyone as keen on talking about poetry as they were, for example, talking about the guilty pleasure to be derived from watching Celebrity Big Brother?  In a very real sense, mass media has taken over the role of poetry in our lives - why trouble yourself to read a slimline volume of someone's profound thoughts when Eminem can do that with beats included?

A few minutes ago, there were hopes that the performance poetry (or "spoken word") scene could revive the ailing artform, but the movement remains trapped in its own ghetto, unable to rise up from the dingy backstreet pubs it seems to have made its unflattering permanent home.  Most crucially, the hip young things littering the circuit have proved over time that far from being lovers of the form, they are really all mouth and trousers, beating their fists close to their hearts to denote passion and integrity whilst uttering only hollow, cliched sentiments.

I had the misfortune to attend a poetry night called "For Better or Verse" last week, and the contents of the poetry were almost as dreary and cliched as the unfortunate title the evening gave itself.    A failed comedian strolled on stage with a cheeky grin and shared his appalling prose about the times he had been embarrassed whilst in the supermarket with his girlfriend - tired, old-hat observational comedy without the comedy, then.  A few laughs were forced out of the mouths of a weary looking audience, but not many.  One had to wonder if the embarrassment of his live failure would create some comedy meta-poems, but he seemed to lack the awareness to realise he'd died on stage.  A raggedy-looking, wannabe-edgy girl called Mary Gold delivered tired polemic about life in Coalition Britain, the sort of tedious ranting you can easily hear at a Socialist Workers Party meet. Seamus Heaney can sleep soundly while this woman remains his biggest threat.  Then the audience - all thirty of them - cheered over-enthusiatically, but only because they seemed to be encouraged by the MC to do so on pain of death.  "C'MOOONNNNN!" he roared as if a stadium full of people stood before him. The problem is, to him it probably did seem like that.

It saddens me to see poetry this poor being held up as the art form's saviour, but we live in a land of ignorance where scholarly thought is frowned upon as being "elitist", and youths have no desire to gently sip at the summer drinking fountain of poetical thought. An MTV generation has birthed another post-MTV generation, and they are getting the art they deserve.  The trouble is, so are we.

(This is a response to the thought piece "Poetry Is Alive" which my editors also paid me to write about an hour ago.)

(For an explanation of what all this is actually about, see my updates section above).

Poetry Is Alive

Amidst the decline in record sales, an arts scene in turmoil and publishers worrying about disappearing bookstores, something has been missed - poetry is actually in rude health, as David Bryant observes.

Last week, I attended one of the most stunning, electric live performances I've witnessed in all my years as a cultural critic. The roars of enthusiasm from the audience left my ears ringing the following morning - they had all stomped their feet and applauded some of the most beautiful, engaging lyricism I've witnessed in a live venue.  It's one of those moments that stays with you for a long time, and as I wandered about London on my business that day, I treasured my ringing eardrum like a momento of the occasion.  The words of the performer were still reeling around my head, and so, in a very real sense, was the aftermath of the applause.

So where was I? At a pop concert by the Kaiser Chiefs, perhaps? At a live comedy show by the brilliant Jack Whitehall?  Not at all. The spectacle I had seen was a new phenomenon known as a live poetry event. It's misleading to say this is anything new, of course - poetry readings have been around since the dawn of the form itself - but they didn't look or sound like this until a few months ago.  Until now, you would have expected a few people sitting thoughtfully in a candlelit room sipping wine, but  "Having A Word" is a night completely railing against such tedious trends.  Staged in the dingy Unigate Diary Club in Camden, essentially a grubby pub backroom usually unbothered by cultural events, it's attracting some of the city's hippest movers and shakers, all there to watch poetry being delivered with passion and intent.  I was in attendance to view and hear Mary Gold delivering rhythmic and rhyming truths about society in Coalition Britain, and everyone, from Kate Nash to the street urchins hanging out at the back, was enthralled.  Just as comedy in the eighties took an alternative bent and began to challenge the status quo, that's precisely what the maligned artform of poetry has only just started to do today.  Never before have I heard such cutting and relevant art delivered in such a stylish and engaging manner.

There are people who will falsely claim that poetry fails to connect with young people, and yesterday I also witnessed something staggering which proves them wrong.  Whilst being robbed by a hoodie in a back street in a bit of Camden quite close to the venue itself, I took the opportunity to ask my assailant if there were any poets he liked.

"Yeah," he said, holding his knife thoughtfully for a moment so it glinted in the sun. "Mary Gold".  Then he stole my Blackberry.  But the loss was worth it just for confirming my conviction that poetry is well and truly Alive, and I almost skipped towards the police station to report him.  You'd better believe it - from street corner hoodies to university professors, everyone knows the Bards are Back.  

(My editor asked me to change my mind and write an article entitled "Poetry Is Dead" a few minutes later).

(For an explanation of what all this is actually about, see my updates section above).