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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Listening to Fluvium by Martin Archer, Geraldine Monk, Julie Tippetts


On the Discus CD Fluvium, the collaboration of Martin Archer and Julie Tippets with Geraldine Monk is close in that Monk is for the first time performing with them, and she is working with a complex text, free of the expectations of ‘song’, unlike the earlier Angel High Wires. The ‘text’ of a multisystemic formal reading of this ‘fused sonics’ must include this text on the page (even this is offered to us in book publication and in the CD sleevenotes with slight variations) and the music as it is heard on the CD. (It is not separately notated; Archer works directly on his materials and, as with earlier work, incorporates acts of improvisation into the overall poesis undertaken in the studio). This includes the performance of that text, along with the grain of the voice (here with the presence of the author and another voice, one speaking, the other singing, although that distinction is not held to rigidly in the mix), and with every other element of organised sound (to appropriate John Cage’s catch-all definition of music) taken into account: ‘fused sonics (interaction)’ (to use some terms from Monk’s poetics, Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text. I posted the (exhaustively) long version of my account of this on Pages (first of 5 installments here).

These involve acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, and the effect may not be of systems working purposefully together but of working against one another; they run the risk of ‘Sonic v semantic’ (another term from the poetics). To adapt the information theory of Yuri Lotman, the recording as experienced is a multi-systemic artefact, where all elements operate with some degree of autonomy from all others. The resultant complexity, the interinanimation (and non-interinanimation) of its forms, is formed in a multi-sensory act of readerly forming, so that the forming of it because its performance and the trace of that event its meaning. Responding to the Monk poem being recited, to adapt Attridge’s remark, involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing. Responding to the Monk poem being recited as part of a recorded composition by Martin Archer involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing on the recording which, after several hearings, is a composite one.[i]


What follows here are my notes, made listening to the recording, and then immediately ‘cleaned up’ for style and sense. Otherwise, for this post, they have not been changed, other than adding the correct spelling of the Stockhausen piece. Monk’s text was not consulted. The words in inverted commas are what I heard, or thought I heard Monk say, or sing. A generous sample may be heard here.


Archer’s buckled electronics start the piece off, though is there a voice, some sampled trace of utterance, in the jerking word-like chimes, or ringing? Not sure. Glissandi, gratings and swoops crowd together, build up. A single piano note is struck, then returns sampled, several times, transformed, as Monk’s whispers begin, a brief sound at first, but then she clearly recites the text, in a whisper surrounded by, swamped by, outnumbered by electronics (and, a little after, by multi-tracked sax). There are deft and grand electronic sounds that remind me of Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’, but this is the home-brew version (I mean: what took hours in Darmstadt in the 1950s can be done on a lap top today). ‘Lush lush.’ The saxes return with a rondo that sounds like the World Saxophone Quartet, though perhaps more out there like SOS from the 1970s or the Rova ensemble today. Archer will know that. (Brief memory that he name-checks the Soft Machine.) But electronic noises like JLIAT’s thunder and crash there too. The WSQ sound emerges and electronic voicings (literally voices, treated, I think; they cannot be understood) speak over the rondo, which then fades and leaves not silence but a low hum. A space opens, fills with oscillating electronics, a piano note, but it’s preparing for a concentrated and longer reading from Monk: I hear ‘raparapraprparaparp’ (echoed, sampled). The voice recites close. I hear the music of ‘lips lit lips lit’. ‘Dark dark: dark dark’: repeated like that, before a return to the chorus of ‘raparapraprparaparp.’ ‘Is there anybody there?’ is repeated 4 times. It sounds desperate because there is no reply, not even musically.


A pure electronic tone (though interrupted constantly) leads to a juddery fade. We hear a deep indiscernible male-sounding voice and a continuous dirty tone (like a vacuum cleaner) though the pure tone briefly recurs. The guttering low sounds may be speech slowed even further than male-ness. (The voice must be either Monk’s or Tippetts’, if it’s a voice at all.) Tippetst enters, sighingly, improvising one of her melodies that always sound vaguely eastern, a plaint to be sure. Electronics pop (low), saxes repeat a rondo-like riff, a melodica enters and fades. The sax and voice popping against one another continues for some time. An insistent low tone; then Monk reads, slowly, emphatically, close-miked, over the same kinds of sounds as just described. Did she breathe ‘BREATHE’? ‘It is seethe,’ she intones, as the backing textures build in volume, Tippetts breaking into throat-singing and falsettos, louder. ‘Slo-mo blink,’ does she say? Snarling, breathing low. Two Tippett voices improvise behind her and around the repeating melodica. Monk’s voice stumbles, the singing chirps and blips, ‘Is it?’ It’s like birdsong, chittering in confusion. ‘What is it?’ the voices (both, all) cry. ‘It’s like like like like … it’s like animals,’ I hear, but Monk is off on a roll, dancing down a long stretch of language (as I’ve heard her do in dozens of solo readings) and Tippetts glides over the speech, tracking it, it seems. The track segues into the next…


Is that breathing? ‘It was a very very very (Monk’s tones lowering with each iteration) curled up beer mat.’ The voice is clear with arpeggios of warm electronics surrounding it, chilling to a glissando which slides up towards inaudibility and goes. ‘Time dripped unnoticed and then and then it       stopped. Blotted out…..etc.’ The text is clear, slow enough to write it down, not just listen to it, though Monk elongates a word here and there and it merges into sound, is lost. Every new cluster of words evokes electronic build up: a break in one dictates a break in the other. The music and sound are following the words, or more precisely, following the voice, Monk’s speaking voice. This continues throughout. ‘TAKE ANY SHAPE,’ Monk cries, a grainy voice. A sudden solo sax is clear behind the voice, adopts trills and sliding: Monk went ‘looking for night’ (we hear several times). ‘Out there, the condemned …’ You catch that word again: ‘condemned’; it is auspicious and the extended delivery emphasises this. The textures are building over the basic pattern. Did she say ‘Inscape’? Hopkins in this sliding world, the sounds busy but following the presence and absence of the voice with their own. ‘Ghosts/hosts’, I hear, but the stuttered voice turns almost to pure sound in its cutting off, and even sounds non-English at points. Or glossalalic. Then silence. End of track.


A single electronic chime, a blast, and then: there is Monk’s voice, loud, audible. Other instruments around, Tippets again follows the flow of the speech, tracking the text’s vocal realisation, with blips (as does the electronics). Monk swoops her words, she is singing, really. ‘Yip,’ she says. Blip, she sings. She glissandos (that’s a verb now). Tippetts sopranos (that’s verb too: everything is action). ‘Label.’ The roar rolls on: Monk’s rolling r’s across a stretch of r-words. Alliteration recognised, although the meaning isn’t caught. Musique concrete blaps and sax squeaks, like 60s free jazz, but also vaguely the contemporary avant-garde flutterings of a John Butcher. I hear what feels like a list of words, a row of notes accompanying it, climbing, broadly following the voice (again). Throat sounds: ‘oh!’ Phatic social noises are flung around the sound-space. Gong-tones, guitar brush. ‘Arpeggio,’ Monk says. Wisely the musicians (and Archer mixing them, remember: some of them are him multi-tracked) don’t take this as an instruction, resist the worst form of musically mimesis, but blip and blonk again instead (or in definance). ‘GRINGO?’ I’m hearing words, for sure, but I am unsure they are really spoken. It’s no wonder. There is a lot of interfering sound here. Lotman’s multi-systemic aesthetics seems too neat to describe this. The back and forth of a machine, dirty electric acoustic sounds are grinding against cleaner electronic sounds (it seems) in the same way that Monk’s smoky-smoggy voice growls and grounds the purer flight of Tippetts soaring voice, though she begins to emit long clear but quieter notes as Monk’s speech lowers into less audible utterance. The zizzing electronics in echoing reverb grate and blurt rather than chime, though chiming continues, swamped by, and sinking into, the overall grainy texture. By the time there’s no voice left, these noises are breakages, torn sounds across the nerves of audition. They fade. End.    


This text is impressionistic as yet, but there is an awareness of the multi-systemic theory in its descriptions. I am surprised how little of the text I have apprehended, and certainly in no way do I interpret it. I mis-hear it: ‘lush lush’ for ‘lash lash’; ‘dark dark’ for ‘dart dart’, for example. The task of joining up the written text to performance awaits its day. In the meantime I can take joy in having descended very far down into the piece, so much so that the words were only as important as the sounds. ‘Sonics v semantics’ does not so much happen here at this sonic substratum. I listened intently to the music but didn’t hear (or misheard) the words. The whole feeling, on the other hand, is dictated by the auspicious, slow, caressing, but broken tone of Monk’s voice. It’s ghostly, ghastly, and we’re aghast.

TITLES and Text

Titles are important lexical items and formal pointers in most poems, but in the case of this recording they are also the titles of tracks to be selected, and in one case, the title of the entire musical composition. They might be the only words read by a listener. ‘Fluvium’ is not the Latin for river (as I thought). That is ‘fluvius’, though it is derived from fluere, to flow, hence the English adjective ‘fluvial’, of or belonging to rivers. ‘Flow’ is encoded in the etymology. ‘Fusile’ seems to be clustered with similar words as ‘fusible’ or ‘fusil’, a noun meaning melting, the state of fluidity (again) from heating. ‘Metablethers’ sounds strange although we all know ‘Meta’ often implies change. Somehow (how?) I thought ‘blether’ would be Scottish and it is, meaning blather, to talk nonsense, but it implies fluent garrulity. So flow again. Metablether implies transformation (to use a central word for my current researches), transmogrification (to use a word in the text itself) or transubstantiation (to use the word from Monk’s poetics).

‘Espial’, on the other hand, as could be guessed, means ‘the act of espying, observation’, where ‘epsy’ means to watch, from a distance, with connotations of discovering something unexpectedly. ‘Ghast’ can be a verb, the Shakespearean ‘to strike aghast’ or to affright, again the unexpected. Old English.

These words construct a kind of lexical prospectus for this poem (and possibly for Archer’s music): everything is in danger of transforming, at the levels of content and form. Material ‘blather’, the ordinary bits and pieces of our world are focussed upon (‘espial’ might be right for this recognition of banal singularity with its musical but redundant hyper-modification):

…. a very very very
curled up
beer mat.
Singular. Stiff.’ (Monk 2001: 87)

is ‘transmogrified’ in a ‘Night of urban freefall/ funlovers’. (87) The poem identifies flow as life. Even under this city pleasure dome (one of the rare social glimpses of the poem) ‘death and what not’, the ‘ghast’ details, are fended off with the minatory ‘Take any shape but THAT’, with its excessively emphatic typography (which perhaps Archer interprets as authority for sonic excess). Taking shape again suggests transformation (perhaps shamanistic this time), and escape. The world of ‘Abandoned moon buggies’ with which the poem opens (amid all that whispering as though this a secret place, barely audible) is both recognisable, the urban detritus of dumped motor vehicles, and alien; to annex a phrase from the poetics, this is a ‘lunarscape’ as well, with cast-off space-junk scattered across its surface. Archer re-orders the poems (or his realisations of them) so that the work no longer ends at a state of rested totality amid the fragmented urbanism of ‘fisile’,

come-come to me soothing/
(wayafter aching midnight), (Monk 2001: 91)

but with the more ghastly image (and call to music, of course, authorising Archer’s elaborate coda described aboove):

sing while
            ’er blueberry hair
                        stalagmites (Monk 2001: 90)

Only a witch or some ghastly ghostly creature could possess hair made of blueberries. Its transformation into spiky, prickly stalagmites (the word itself transformed from static noun to active verb) is a necessarily slow one, and reminds us that transubstantiation (whether of words or objects, whether in life or performance) happens at a variety at speeds. Additionally, collaborative work such as the recording of Fluvium occurs simultaneously at various synchronised and non-synchronised, but collectively signifying, multi-systemic levels (to use Lotman very loosely again).    


Perhaps the most extraordinary proof of this mode of conceiving of work in performance as the interactions of ‘levels’ is Archer’s composition ‘Aftershock’ which completes the CD: it is a re-mix of ‘Fluvium’, and perhaps of other materials not used, to create a dense remoding of the earlier piece, both voices and musical sounds, though occasionally leaving allusive space for recognition of its fragments. It consists of vocal samples of speech, song and sprechgesang, with minimal electronics. The words are sometimes recognisable (‘Is there anybody there?’ most memorably) but the reprises are transformed, by a much fiercer sampling, cutting, repetition (particularly the ‘Rappa rappa’ chorus) and with formidable overdubs to pulverise the sounds to ‘micro-vocal particles’ (to use Henri Chopin’s words) and non-lexical vocal sounds (but still preserving the timbre of Monk’s voice) while Tippetts’ multi-tracked voice skitters around them. This passage is close to the formal electro-acoustic manipulation of Stockhausen’s ‘Gesang der Jünglinge’. It builds to an echolalic chittering as aural texture. ‘Aftershock’ is a demonstration of much of my thesis about form (in extended inter-media): it is a formal recognition that any formed and formal artefact may be de-formed and re-formed, that any form may be transformed – and that the modes of transformation – re-writing, re-composing, translation, and finally reading, and listening themselves, are stages in an infinitely expandable (though humanly constrained) formal (and thereby human) adventure.    

(For a full description of, and full set of links to, my project The Meaning of Form click here.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

[i] Details of both CDs may be accessed here: Angel High Wires :; and Fluvium: (accessed 18th March 2014).

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Challenge of Writing about Poetry and Music: Fluvium by Martin Archer, Julie Tippetts and Geraldine Monk

Martin Archer at The Grapes, Sheffield

Discus CD Fluvium: details here; listen to excerpts (particularly the first 2.40) here

What is the relationship of the text on the page to the CD I’m listening to? Take the simple device of centring the text on the page (which is not followed in the sleeve-note printing, so is literally not present on the CD if we accept it as material object): a formalist reading must insist upon this as a contributor to the effect of the poem. But all we hear on track one as it opens is the buckled electronic sounds of Archer. As a kind of introduction to the piece, is that the equivalent of my eyes saccading all over the page and establishing that the centring is a particular artifice I must accommodate? Not really.

When Monk begins to read she whispers the text. Where is that sound on the page? Is the text whispered? Empirically not, of course; it’s written. But if I’m reading the text as I listen, does it take the whisper into itself? Is the whisper now on the page as part of my act of forming of the text? ‘Responding to a poem being recited involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing,’ says Derek Attridge. (Attridge 2004: 86) And that includes the whisper. There are some theories of audition which think that this is so. I return to the Christopher Middleton distinction between the exophone and the endophone with which I end The Poetry of Saying more than I thought I might. But even going down that avenue, which I won’t, other than to nudge the sedan into the parking bay, where is the whisper: in the reader, in the ears of the listener, or – more controversially on the page? For a formalist reading this could involve problems unless we follow the model offered by Attridge (usually the fount of contemporary literary wisdom).  Responding to the Monk poem being recited involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing.  Responding to the Monk poem being recited as part of a composition with Martin Archer involves performing the particular performance of it that I am hearing on the CD. (My memory of seeing it being performed is hazy and only contributes a general but largely visual impression, I must admit, dominated by Julie Tippetts.) I have now listened to it several times and now the performance is no longer ‘the particular performance of it that I am hearing’, but is composite. (The same could be said of any piece of recorded sound, from my own voice reading my latest poem, something I do to check on sonic qualities I might otherwise miss, through to the Jack Bruce album I played last night; actually my checking of his version of ‘I Feel Free’ against the Cream original is another kind of composite memory, the assessment of variation.) Somewhere Attridge says that as long as I retain something of the poem as a poem (not a paraphrase) then I retain something of its form. That’s true here: the poem is unparaphrasable and the music has to remain formal because music has no content (leaving the controversy of that statement to one side for a moment).

Is there one form or are there two forms here: the text and the music? The existence of the separate text is clear but there is no separate music, either as performance notation or post-performance description: it can’t exist like the words of ‘Round Midnight’ which I didn’t know for decades and which, when I did (thank you Mel Torme), it altered my perception of other instrumental versions (Monk, Theolonious, and Davis, Miles say), actually altered what I thought of as the melody by separating it more clearly from harmonic structures which a jazz musician’s improvisatory gestures might have blurred, certainly Miles, to form an alternative melody, as it were.

Do we regard the entire piece we hear  – to reprise the information theory of Yuri Lotman – as a multi-systemic artefact, where all elements operate with some degree of autonomy from one another? He talks about ‘everything contributing to the impact of the work upon the reader…. All levels may carry meaning – not just lexical meaning but a full range of esthetic, ideological, and cultural meanings’. (Lotman 1976: xv) That extension goes well beyond the formalist reading I want to hold together (I want to exclude Julie Driscoll’s ‘look’ as the background to the CD; so does Julie Tippetts!). But it allows for such a thought, or an approach that I might find usable to analyse this CD.

It would go something like this: the ‘text’ for the sake of a multisystemic formal reading must include the text on the page (since it is offered to us, in the book publication and in the sleevenotes, however variant) and the music as it is heard on the CD (not as separately notated, although I think Archer works directly on his materials and, as with earlier work, incorporates acts of improvisation into the overall poesis). It includes the performance of that text (here with the exophonic presence of the author and another voice, one singing, the other speaking, although that distinction is not held to rigidly, perhaps combines into a single ‘voice’ level for analysis), with the grain of the voice, and with every other element of organised sound (to appropriate John Cage’s catch-all definition of music. ‘Fusion and interaction are acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, that threaten (in cybernetic language) to produce noise rather than message,’ I wrote earlier on Monk’s poetics. And Monk sees the interaction herself as not one of harmony, but of dissonance:

abstraction of
fighting for
squalled in

To be simpler (and to remove parentheses, like this one!)…

To be simpler: the ‘text’ of a multisystemic formal reading must include the text on the page and the music as it is heard on the CD, including the performance of that text, with the grain of the voice, and with every other element of organised sound.
Fusion and interaction are acts of risk, the clash of two (or more) formal disciplines, formal practices, formal languages, and the effect may not be of systems working purposefully together but of working against one another, each autonomous. The resultant complexity, the interinanimation of its forms, are formed in a multi-sensory act of readerly forming, so that the forming of it because its performance and the trace of that event its meaning. As so often in this research, form becomes content.

Print works cited

Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Lotman, Yury, Analysis of the Poetic Text (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1976).
Middleton , Christopher, Jackdaws Jiving (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998)

accessed 18th March 2014

(For a full description of, and links to every post from, my The Meaning of Form project, click here.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Poetry and Jazz and approaching Monk (Geraldine, not Thelonious)

 Mike Westbrook's Blake with Phil Minton on vocals 

About twelve years ago I thought I might write something (a book, I supposed) on the relation of poetry to jazz. It seemed an apposite subject. I’d noticed that among the poets of my acquaintance, of the linguistically innovative persuasion at least, those who did not listen to jazz could be counted on the leaping fingers of the left hand of a stride piano master. One of my favourite poets, Roy Fisher, one of the two I’d written about in my PhD, was a jazz musician talented enough to have accompanied Bud Freeman.
So there was an interest and, of course, the connection was stronger with the jazz poetry phenomenon: from Kenneth Rexroth and Langston Hughes through to Amiri Baraka and Christopher Logue. Jazz musicians like Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane wrote poems. (See the former’s magnificent ‘Garden’ in Moment’s Notice edited by Art Lange and Nathaniel Mackey, 1993.) Mackey’s own CD work is interesting, sections of his work Songs of the Andoumboulou. Steve Lacy set Creeley and Raworth poems to music. And poets wrote about jazz. Coltrane I thought, from the evidence of David Henderson’s 1960s anthology, was the most written about musician. Henderson had worked with Ornette Coleman, who in turn was married to Jayne Cortez. Etc etc. With connections like this, the ghostly project proliferated through a wild set of connections. Charlie Parker carried a copy of the Rubiyat with him! Do with that fact what you will. (I gave it to Michael Zand who is working on Omar Khayam; I’ve no idea whether he used it).
I bought albums without guilt: the New York Jazz Quartet with Baraka; Mingus’ The Clown; Michael Mantler settings of Beckett with Jack Bruce (and Robert Wyatt). I joked with myself that this was advantageous self-deception: that I maintained the interest long enough to buy loads of albums that I simply wanted and then decided that I couldn’t write the project!
I learnt about groups of poets I wouldn’t otherwise have encountered: the Umbra group, for example, largely through the pioneering critical work of Aldon Neilson. Two spirited sequences, both with graphological deviation, also come to mind: Kenneth Rexroth’s late ‘Written to Music: Eight for Ornette’, written in lower case and Langston Hughes’ late Ask your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, which is all in upper case, and refers to Dolphy and Monk! I’ve never heard anyone mention them. I’m grateful for the widening of my poetic horizons. Here's Hughes in a more conventional mode.

More recently, I even taught an MA module on poetry and jazz with my colleague Mary Hurst – and I keep up the interest. Recent examples include Simon Nabatov’s re-workings of Danil Kharms (with the marvellous Phil Minton on vocals, he who had worked with Bob Cobbing and he who had sung William Blake unforgettably with the Mike Westbrook orchestra, music originally written for Adrian Mitchell’s play about Blake; Mitchell, himself a poet of jazz, makes the comment somewhere that one day ‘Billie Holiday’ will need a note like ‘Achilles’ in editions of his poems; teaching the MA suggests that’s true).  
See what I mean? On and on.

But the meaning of this has eluded me (perhaps on the shifting scree of this associative landscape). As does my ability to find a language with which to speak about music. My own musical abilities were a long way from the atonality and polyrhythmic world of late-Coltrane: I could sing the blues and blow some thrash harmonica (I have in the last two years properly taught myself to strum passably on the guitar: Dylan, Cohen, country and blues, not jazz). I have a secret desire (maybe it’s not so secret) to be a crooner: Sinatra sang a Kipling poem, remember! But none of this provided me with anything approaching the musical knowledge necessary for such a task. The nearest would have been the dance-poetry-music collaborations of ‘Killing Boxes’ undertaken with the improvising bass player Gus Garside (of Ark and other groupings in Brighton). But that was practical poetics, useful elsewhen.
Look at the language I use above: ‘favourite’, ‘magnificent’, ‘marvellous’; it’s a belle-lettrist vocabulary of impression and adulation. The language of a fan, as I am, and as is appropriate. I feel that swelling of fandom as I summon up these nuggets of nerd-speak on the subject. I recently wrote a poem for Philip Jeck’s birthday, ‘Spectres of Breath’ that played around with the curious (but inventive) language you find in the impressionistic music reviews in The Wire (a journal that I have been subscribing to for a couple of years and which only provides further examples of poetry-music interactions). One verse runs:

Washed-out melancholia with junkyard jams alternating with palm-muted bleeps & trickles plangent bird calls & fluttering wings

I don’t want to write like that! But this does not drive off the thought that this is still a fruitful area of scholarship. That there is a formal relationship to be discerned in this strange interinanimation of art forms that happens in so many variegated ways: but I had always thought I could hand these references over to somebody else to make sense of. Perhaps someone has, or will.
            But I keep drifting back. Perhaps there are poems to be written out of this. The best I managed was to rescue an early poem, which I posted here to commemorate the life and work of Stan Tracey (he of the Under Milk Wood Suite of course!) and one about Ray Charles. And maybe I shall. I still have great admiration for Ken Edwards’ late 70s Drumming and other poems which uses music (named tracks, some of them jazz) as formal structures or analogues to compose poems about other matters), and I may return to those to propel me to write a jazz series (and there are plenty of flat anti-models scattered among the anthologies of poems that don’t work at all). I still like my little i.m. to Miles: ‘Improvisation Upon a Remark of Gil Evans, for Miles Davis (1926-1991)’.

Twentieth Century Blues 11
Duocatalysis 6
Midnight Ride 1
IM 2
Soleà 2

Put your flesh on
               a note, a bone
to be feathered for
               flight on the midnight
ride beneath my skin

               : ecstasy bites
in the fast lane

     put your flesh on

I can even sing this (and did, publicly, once). But I don’t want a book of them. (Another of my ‘Petrarch 3’ poems is a country blues to be sung by Little Albert when he’s ready, but that’s largely a joke about the formalism of the blues and the conventions of the sonnet.)
Over the summer I wrote two reviews for the music-loving poet Rupert Loydell’s magazine Stride: of Juxtavoices, the anti-choir led by Martin Archer and Alan Halsey and the latest release by Julie Tippetts and Archer. I wanted the albums, had seen the choir and loved it, had seen Tippetts and admired her, and was moving towards writing on the work of Geraldine Monk (who is in the choir and has written for it, and who has worked with Tippetts on two Archer CDs). I’d also seen Tippetts, Monk and Archer perform together in Liverpool. The review is here and it’s fine. So is my collection of videos here, to constellate these performers and performances.
I have been written on form and poetics, and have written at length on the poetics of form as revealed by the Geraldine Monk piece Insubstantial Thoughts on the Transubstantiation of the Text and I posted the (exhaustively) long version on Pages (first instalment here) before condensing the piece for the book in progress on form (its working title is The Meaning of Form). The last, fifth, poem in the sequence announces its performative focus as ‘Fused sonics (interaction)’. An incarceration metaphor, one that surfaces throughout the poetics, enters first line: we are ‘Released from solitary’, for purposes of collaboration, into the custody of musicians. Their fetishistic fiddling and fastidious preparations, confusing to the non-musician, are the price to be paid for the promised ‘interaction’:

Musicians come with-wires attached 
ill fitted plugs
miscellaneous black boxes
far too many knobs &
forgotten amps behind their
frosted doors.

Obdurate objects of professional mystification threaten to delay the encounter of voice with music.         
As part of the piece I want to describe the fusion and interaction at work in one of the manifestations of the ‘Fused sonics (interaction)’ experiments that Monk conducted with Archer. The compacted songs of Angel High Wires are attractive attempts to emulate or update or springboard-off the song-cycles of Schubert but the singers (Tippetts is one of them) are given the improvisatory freedom to create the melodies themselves over (or under) Archer’s electronics. This makes for a satisfying encounter. Chris Goode remarks that this studio-based process (performers not necessarily meeting) is unusual in improvised music for it is more usual for the performers to be co-present in a real-time exploration of their interactions, as in the choir live, but it is not unknown in the worlds of sampling and electronic manipulation. However, I think I want to write on the much more demanding text and Discus CD Fluvium (that’s not a value judgement but a register of the difficulty for the critic).  Formally, this is exciting, since the text is demanding and the involvement of Archer and Tippets close. The track ‘Aftershock’ is a remix, mash-up, montage, re-forming of parts of ‘Fluvium’, which speaks to my formulation of form as the extistence of forms in the plural in acts of performative forming. (I got the word form in five times there.) Very interesting. A leaflet falls out of my copy of Monk’s Noctivagations (which collects both texts) and informs me that I saw a live performance of some of the songs, plus ‘Fluvium’ and ‘Aftershock’.
However, I have the CD and – despite my reservations about my ability to do this – I will attempt to offer a reading of these works, but I am guided here by my sense of form as forming and by the poetics of ‘The Transubstantiation…’. I shouldn’t go wrong. Read it here and here, but don't forget here.

Live am Schiff bei Imago Dei, Krems, 2012.

Songs of Innocence nach Texten von William Blake, von Hannes Löschel (rhodes) mit Exit Eden feat. Phil Minton (voice): Matthias Koch (drums), Michael Bruckner-Weinhuber(guit), Clayton Thomas (bass)
Video: Christine Schörkhuber, Kamera 2: Florian Fennes

Monday, May 19, 2014

Veryan Weston, Patricia Farrell, Jennifer Cobbing, and Rene Van Valckenborch

‘The film was called [Project 87] because Jennifer Pike was 87 years old the next day. She drove up to the studio with her artwork and equipment in the back of the car and I filmed the event on a little point and shoot camera. Jennifer is a very special person who is a very gifted and imaginative artist, performer and dancer with loads of unique ideas.’ (VW)
Last Monday we went to see Veryan Weston, Hannah Marshall and Jon Rose performing at the Blue Coat School (not the Bluecoat Arts Centre in town) with local boy Steve Boyland (who has collaborated with Scott Thurston).

It was a brilliant exploration of the organ in the chapel and was an experiment in half and quarter tones. I’ve got Veryan playing with Hannah Marshall on the CD Haste. And he has worked with Jon Rose a great deal. I don’t think all three have recorded together, and certainly not with Steve on vocals.

See Veryan’s website here, with a page of films here. Including the one above.
Patricia (Farrell) performed with Veryan and Jennifer Cobbing as recorded years ago here (and the visual text she made for it which was performed at the first Bury Text Festival and in London with Veryan Weston on piano in 2005, ‘something I had secretly wanted when I devised the piece but hardly thought possible’, as she wrote at the time, and which will be published by Veer soon). Go here and scroll down the page for Patricia’s images as separate posts; go here for her explanatory prose. 

 After the gig we retired to The Coffee House (a pub, despite the name!) and Patricia and I talked to Veryan about Jennifer (and many other things). I also fessed up about one of the odder poems in A Translated Man. Asked to write a poem for Jennifer Cobbing’s 90th birthday I was put on the spot. Either I broke my self-imposed (and generational) rule to ONLY write the poems of Rene Van Valckenborch or I had to stay in role. I chose the latter, and remembered in time that I had a recording of Veryan Weston’s brilliant Tassellations recorded – magic! in Brussels – at a building Van Valckenborch had written about in his ‘twitterodes’ (‘fixed point or vortex/canopied ingress egress/the solidity of glass held by black wrought ironwork a cage for shoppers musical instruments’). You can hear Jennifer dancing on the CD and I decided that Rene Van Valckenborch was there (that he is also clearly watching Kevin Ayres in the Waloon south on the same testifies to more than his bilingualism). Thank God Veryan didn’t think that this was the maddest thing ever. Hear an extract of Tassellations here.  

Here is VanValckenborch's poem, written in Walloon. (I would like to have been there with him.)

from background pleasures

from book two

with veryan weston

for jennifer                               for luthéal piano
pike                                          composition
for improviser
too quiet to be heard’

we hear her
dancing in
brussels / rustles

a brush of heels
on floor gushes
printing vibrant scrolls                                                (2003
the clavecin                                                                 14)
stop out the quills
quiver zitherly

the tap with a clap
or slap falls into frenzied
pentatones the harpe-

tirée stop pulled free
felt drops to
strangle an octave & lift it

this                                      (mute)                                      (stone


moment                                   (voice)                                     (mask


jennifer                                   (over)                                      (monument                                                                                       

flattens like a kiss
the floor raising itself
to choreograph its tesserae       

modestly pianissimo her
strings do not vibrate                         
against the quills                                            

Watch Patricia Farrell and myself performing  this part of ‘Background Pleasures’ in the (visible) presence of Jennifer here:

Jennifer is now living in a nursing home in Bristol but we saw her last year at the opening of the Bob Cobbing exhibition at Liverpool John Moores organised by Rosie Cooper and William Cobbing. She seemed well for a woman (artist) of 94.

There is a further posst about Veryan Weston here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Andrew Jeffrey Oldham on A Translated Man

You can read a review of books by Mario Petrucci, Jennifer Wong and my A Translated Man by Andrew Oldham here. Thanks Andrew.

There are two print reviews of the book too, just out: Michael Blackburn's in Poetry Quarterly Salzburg, and Tom Jenks' in Tears in the Fence which says (with some authority) ‘On this evidence, Robert Sheppard is now as Belgian as moules-frites and Herman Van Rompuy.’ 

There's another online review, by Billy Mills, here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Robert Sheppard: The Formal Splinter

Two formal takes on a Picasso ceramic

You can’t point to form. Form is revealed in tracing forms on the page and in acts of reading as forming. The critical function of the work of art is asserted by it being art, by it having form at all. By being form. The poem doesn’t say: it participates, it criticises by operating a rigorous critique of itself in self-reflection. Poems – critical in their forms and forming – participate and criticise. Form operates as transfiguration and guilt in the choice of certain materials and the rejection of others. Form may be sedimented content but is not readable as such. This is not to be confused with the overt content (or paraphrasable content), nor with the forms and formings open to a subtle formalist engagement, with identifiable elements of poetic artifice. That is to be distinguished from material or materials. Form sediments content, subsumes mimesis, becomes material. Form is cognitive, cognition embedded in the sedimentation and in the critical function that is itself called into being by form (and its autonomy). The cognitive content is not a paraphrase of the poem’s linguistic content. The autonomy of art enables all of the above, but is itself predicated on the heteronomy of the work of art. Its materials rather than its content derive from the latter, bequeath its sedimented content as critical form to autonomy, as it were. The autonomous and heteronomous interface results in artists restlessly displaying and playing their formal impulse between three scenarios: art becomes life; life becomes art; life and art exchange properties. None is settled upon and the tension between them drives artistic practice, though not negatively. Dissensus (rather than consensus, both socially and artistically, in relation to hetereonomy as well as autonomy) produces the manifold devices of formally investigative poetry (including that poetry now rather widely called linguistically innovative): varieties of montage and de-montage emphasising disruption, interruption, imperfect fit and unfinish, as well as transformation and transposition, creative linkage in other words. They put disorder at the heart of art’s order, while simultaneously putting order at the heart of its disruption. Resisting signification within signification is the formal splinter at, and in, the heart of the poem. The critical function of art is born in the instant its form de-forms and re-forms in front of us as precisely a representation of freedom. Political formally investigative poetry, will both say and not say, modified by formal resistance and interruption. If form knows, if forms know, anything - they know at least to do these things.

(For a further description of, and full listings of posts relating to, my The Meaning of Form project, click here.) 

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Robert Sheppard: Barry MacSweeney: ‘Even my Earrings Failed the Jury Vet’

I have many posts here and here and here and here about Barry MacSweeney’s work. I have posts here and here and here about politics and art.

I have decided to bring these items together in a reading of Barry MacSweeney’s poems of the 1970s and 1980s, ‘Liz Hard’ and ‘Jury Vet’. I want to bring some of the themes together in terms of a formal but political reading. This is a tall order and it is not one I feel absolutely capable that my acuity as a critic, my sensitivity as a reader and my empathy as a poet (which guides most of my positive critical evaluations) can rise to. (I know I’m tight-lipped and dismissive of work I feel negatively towards, but, hey, there are only so many hours in a day. An hour trapped watching Carol Ann Duffy droning can never be remitted at the celestial ticket office, though you can slip the experience into a poem, in my case into one of my ‘Petrarch 3s’).

There never was a separate book publication of ‘Liz Hard’/‘Jury Vet’. Written ‘May-June 1982 and 1979-1981 respectively – datings that were a surprise when I looked them up, given the reverse-chronological order the poems appear in – they were first published in the Paladin Tempers of Hazard volume ‘(published & destroyed 1993)’ the note to MacSweeney’s Wolf Tongue has it, though not before I’d bought a copy (‘12th May 1993/Wimbledon’ it says in the fly-leaf). This is a significant fact, the fact there isn’t a volume to consult about some of the formal aspects I shall be taking on.

Clive Bush calls them ‘Jury Vet Odes’, working with the titles of magazine publications of the works, so there is some evidence of this, but Marianne Morris says they were called in manuscript ‘People on Trial: Fail the Jury Vet’. (Morris 2004: 9) The title ‘Jury Vet’, Morris tells us, comes from a quotation that MacSweeney wrote on the manuscript near a photocopied image of the actress (with the eyes blacked in, classic doodling or post-punk defacement?): ‘“Even my earrings failed the jury vet” – Catherine Deneuve.’ (Morris 2004: 9) The quotation links the pervasive fashion-world with judicial process, linked in the image of judgement or, more sinisterly, interference in that process. Such a jury is a fixed one, involving the vetting of jurors so they might be selected (unknown to other parts of the judiciary) according to particular ideological preferences. To ‘fail the jury vet’ would be to be condemned to outsider status. The lady is clearly affirming she is a tramp. MacSweeney’s attention is perhaps more on the ‘people on trial’ of his abandoned title. (Perhaps it should be acknowledged that ‘Jury Vet’ itself is an abandoned work, according to MacSweeney’s note.)

It strikes me now that these poems are, in fact, formal continuations of Odes. They share something of the odes’ impaction, the recourse to headline-like phrasing or lines, the centring of the margin (a device he stole from Michael McClure’s lineation). Yet the impaction consists of compound swear-words and obscenities, the headlines are from The Abject Times rather than South Shields Gazette (the use of capitals emphasises the ranting too), the centring is irregular (Wilkinson I think notes this; I’ll find the quote). But – to stay with visual configuration of page-space – whereas the Odes (in the Trigram Odes and the Bloodaxe Wolf Tongue ) are indulged in their lineation and layout (two separate aspects of the poem’s forming, as I try to tell my students), a poem to a page, its central stem (there is a Stem Ode, I believe) stretching down the page (though it looks like up to me), these poems are presented as run-ons as though the rant must never stop. Their movement is horizontal whereas the odes dropped vertically. The titles are in capitals (nothing terribly unusual there) but they are smaller than the often-used caps of the text itself, a clear breach of a minor formal convention. It is difficult to see where one poem ends or begins. In a word, the page is squat, the text all scrunched up, and difficult to read, as eye saccades jump up and down the text looking for clues of where to settle, where a poem might begin. The centring is irregular. The use of asterisks (actually they are stars and often in loud rows) and lines to divide the text (again) horizontally (into verses? into sections? into poems?) is confusing amid this clutter. Adorno’s lecture on Punctuation (it is presented complete on ubu.web) may help with this.

Apollonian Odes: Dionysian ‘Jury Vet’. (Maybe. Too easy.)

This page arrangement is deliberate; it is not the result of bad editing or economics. It’s not the crampness of a cheap edition. It’s the boldness we discover, less in McClure, and more in Vorticist typography and early letter-based concrete poetry. BLAST and Russian constructivist Agitprop. The texts have the loudness (and urgency) associated with the manifesto, in Mary Ann Caws’ expression. Its shouty-ness, though, is not the loud but clear tones of an advertisement’s typographical sloganising, but a less coherent typographical rant, closer to versions of concrete poetry where the edge of coherence is entertained as a marginal practice of materiality.

But the ‘Jury Vet’ poems (I’ll use the phrase for both poems) are not concrete poems, and – despite the formal resistances to our reading – are recognisably poems. Let’s turn to page 106 of Wolf Tongue. Actually my eye settles rather easily because it has the poem’s title at the top of the left folio. The title ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’ is followed by the first line (in larger lettering!): UMBER SLEEPWEAR & ALMOST BED STARRES. Silver’. The eye ignores the ‘Silver’, though associates it with stars, despite the fact it is part of a sentence completed on the next line. These two headline like phrases seek our attention, perhaps the first line before the title: ‘Umber’ is a colour but its etymology carries implications or echoes of shadow (ombre). But I suspect a transcription adjustment: is this a truncation of the word ‘slumber’? Is this an advert for nightdresses and pyjamas? The ampersand joins noun phrase to modified noun phrase. The graphological deviation of ‘starres’ is a favoured spelling by MacSweeney, lifted from Chatterton’s fake medievalism, here rendered in reversed homage as an authentic gesture. But what are ‘bed stars’? Stars on the bedcovers, upholstery perhaps, or the movie stars that recline in bed in romantic comedies, the porn stars that pump their way to showy ejaculation on top of beds? The modifier ‘almost’ is misplaced and slightly jolts ‘stars’ towards a verb function, just enough to draw attention to itself and destabilise the lines. The materiality again asserted. The title, of course, incorporates the name of the sequence (as many of the titles do) and deserves separate attention: ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’ But it is a love bulletin, a report on the unstated amours of Jury Vet (the proper noun seems to function as though it were a name in some of the poems, the outsider of the process he or she is named after). But the slash across the word, cutting it, in an act of punctuational violence makes love potentially deadly, a bullet. There is also a resonance of a ‘bullet in’ something or other. (Another aside: The pun ‘Bullet/in’ I’ve used myself when we refunctioned The Staff Bulletin at B-----ds College as the Staff Bullet, a pun complicated by the fact that the Principal’s surname was Staff. Kevin and I put this roguish little publication together – number 8 so the management would find them and search out the non-existent previous seven – to expose idiocy and resist new working conditions. Oh how I miss the private venal fiefdoms of Further Education, and the resistant humour of the staff, the other, actual, staff I mean. Higher education is so corporate and the resistance minimal and unimaginative by comparison. We need MacSweeney’s bullet.)

‘Silver’ what then? ‘Silver/ pleated hems & jade velour.’ A second pair of noun phrases separated by the resolutely visual ampersand. ‘Velour’: I know it’s a fashion word and look it up: ‘n. a woollen stuff with velvet-like pile’. (‘Velutinous’ as the adjective catches my eye. Nice word.) It’s a description of fabrics, clothes, perhaps the sleepwear, and their complementary colours. ‘SCARF’ line 2 ends, bigging it up, but not a surprising lexis in context, though the context is a line-break, a sudden break, before leading on

knotted in an atmospheric
ploughshare Kiss.

End of verse. We detect the found language of fashion. I can’t un-read what I’ve read in the articles of Marianne Morris and John Wilkinson about the materials that have been formed into these poems; ‘Jury Vet’, William Rowe writes ‘is an anti-production, designed to make the event of Thatcherism impossible, no less. It does this formally by tracing the reduction of the event that could change history, to a fashion show.’ (Batchelor 2013: 82). The first of the two lines, one could imagine in a feature in Vogue saying ‘Miss Deneuve is wearing a scarf knotted in an atmospheric pose.’

But this is not what the cut of enjambment (again) offers us. We get a Kiss, capital K; it is a love bullet/in, and the ploughshares are of Biblical provenance: what the weapons of war are transformed into (bullets included) in welcome time of peace. A person enters the language, as it were, at this point, clearly not settled by this Kiss. Indeed, to be invaded while running suggests a failed attempt at escape, though it doesn’t say that.

Vermillion fingers,
sunset leather
digit pressgangs
invade his running mind.

Fashion noun phrase compounded, without copula, with fashion noun phrase, though the vermillion fingers sound invasive, even suggests a ‘million fingers’ (if we play MacSweeney’s textual slash games ourselves) that form the invasive digit pressgangs. This is not as invasive as Liz Hard’s digital inspections, of course, but perhaps the pressganging (suggesting both involuntary conscription and the gangbanging of male rape) is akin to that single fickle finger of experience:

Digit Durex



(MacSweeney 2003: 97)

It is, after all, the mind that is invaded in ‘JURY VET LOVE  BULLET/IN’, not the anus. This poem (or the first section of it which is cut off with one of those horizontal lines) ends with its own passage of solid capitals:


The same isolated ampersand opens to an exhortation to love’s milder cousin, rather than the bullet. The fashion lexis noun phrase should be no surprise. Perhaps there is a crypt word of ‘surge’ in ‘serge’ that might render the ‘pink’ fabric fleshly and sexually active. Be cuddled and be kind is a double exhortation, although perhaps ‘befuddled’ is encoded in the cuddling and the ‘be kind’ or rather ‘BE KIND’ is more desperate: the plea of a lover during rough sex perhaps.

Such details continue right through the poem (or sequence), horizontal lines (one much longer than the others, dividing the poem and driving our attention to the surface of the poem continually. As John Wilkinson says: ‘The power of Barry MacSweeney’s best poems lies in their creative and integrative summons to their reader, surprised into poetic activity which has not been advertised according to post-authorial dogma; MacSweeney’s prosody shapes the reader into a shaper.’ (Batchelor 105) I’m going to jump to the end, to the last two sections.

Varnished redhead rust woman hair blazing
on the wedding party
hotel lawn.

This is pure epiphany, beginning with a compound noun phrase, the woman is ‘varnished’ (at fingernails), ‘redhead’ (a noun operating as the adjective red-headed, and presumably denoting hair coloration, is it dyed? maybe because it’s) ‘rust’, a term that turns simple depiction of coloration to moral judgement. Is she tarnished (a crypt word beneath ‘varnished’), worn, damaged? The hair blazes, appropriately, at a wedding (this is a love bulletin, remember). Think Rebekah Brooks tossing her hair before the Parliamentary Select Committee.

The final poem (section) picks up on this impressive but ambiguous female figure (she is ‘long-legged’ and ‘cross-thonged’ we are told, bringing the focus close to her sexual organs, but without the obscenity of other poems):

You the varnished curse. You the sin

Small heaven of grins & girls.

& the doors are closed.

The hair is restored from rust to ‘METAL’ but metal hair could be nothing but a weapon, strands of thin steel, for example. The closed doors formally end the poem but lock the now fully operative (male) voice of the poem down. ‘You’, it addresses the woman, are ‘the varnished curse’. Curse condemns him but it also suggests another meaning; the ‘curse’ of menstrual flow which would make the rust analogous to bodily waste (if that’s what it is; or rather: if that’s what it represents in a poetic of wormy turds). ‘You the sin’ leaves the reader hanging for the final operative (and judgemental) word’s near anagram: sign. A sin-/sign. The doors close upon this sign, her. Which leads to the constricted ‘heaven’ of ‘grins & girls’ (rather than smiles and women or laughter and ladies, say). Male abjection arises out of this attempt to read the poem formally prettily powerfully.

Does this poem ‘sing from within degradation, against it,’ as William Rowe suggests. (102)? He’s probably closer when he says of ‘Jury Vet’ as a whole: ‘Its real concern is power. But instead of criticizing the conduct of rulers, the poem goes for the deeper question, how/power is produced, and does that by probing how the desire for the erotic fetish comes into being, who is its subject. A reader is enmeshed in the desiring machine as it assembles itself, its glistening appurtenances of fashion become flesh: an erotic body that embodies the gaze of power – what you are looking at is yourself-in-subjection. By entering right there the poem risks losing itself in the endless proliferation of objects of desire, secret of consumerism. Its tactic is to take them and write with them.’ (Rowe 99-100).

And we read with them.

(If you want to read more on form and have my project The Meaning of Form then click here for a description and a full set of links.)

Update September 2016: For those who can buy The Meaning of Form in Contemporary Innovative Poetry, or order it for libraries, here are the places