Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Aidan Semmens: a reponse to the Fourth Series

Chris Hamilton-Emery writes: "A great deal of innovative writing that comes my way is using tools and techniques which are actually rather hackneyed. Disrupted syntax, linguistic borrowings, indeterminacy, hypo-contextualising, hyper-contextualising, heteroglossia, discontinuous texts, types of spatial arrangement." Well, stone me. What does this prove except that a great deal of people who submit to Salt bother to look at what kind of thing they are likely to publish? If he were an editor for Faber or Hallmark Cards he'd presumably get a very different impression of what people are writing. To suggest that the 'innovative' - or pseudo-innovative - is actually now the 'mainstream' is to overlook everything that passes for 'poetry' in the world beyond our particular cloister, our scriptorium. Roy Fisher might just have made it over the wall into the high street, Denise Riley perhaps - but who else? Is there even one worthwhile poet who makes a living at it in Britain, except by teaching? Even one worthwhile contemporary poem to be found in your local Waterstone's or WH Smith's? {editor's note: of course a large number of Salt collections can be found in Waterstones, many of them quite demanding, Peter Jaeger's book, for instance, and I, for one, am pleased it's there. My own Twentieth Century Blues among them. For me the issue is whether they stay there, i.e., whether they are bought. Sorry, I shouldn't have interrupted.}

Having said that, the techniques and stylistic tics Chris lists have now been around long enough and copied enough for ‘hackneyed’ to seem right, which indeed begs the question whether ‘innovative’ is any longer an appropriate description. It happens to be the stylistic water you and I were brought up in, which makes it a more comfortable and rewarding place (for us) to swim than, say, leftover Augustan, Romantic or Metaphysical pools (and I cannot imagine why anyone would choose to immerse themselves in the stagnant bilge of the Movement, which is still, incredibly and scandalously, the dominant ooze of the high street gutter, malgré Chris Hamilton-Emery). But there is surely little innovative left to do within our kind of poetry (what the hell do you call it? Chris is right about the historical nature of ‘avant-garde’ and to me ‘post-avant’ just sounds silly), which brings the whole business down to where it surely should be – to whit, what is said and how well, not the manner of the saying. I dare say most of the submissions to Salt (or any publisher, in whatever mode of writing) are pure kitsch, merely imitating a manner – part of the challenge for any writer must be to avoid either producing or seeming to produce such empty stuff.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Afterword to Fourth Series

This series of Pages has been slightly disappointing in terms of the volume of traffic in answer to my deliberately naïve question concerning recent poetries. But I haven’t been disappointed by the individual responses I’ve had so far. (I will post more, if there are more, of course, and Scott Thurston promised one last night.)

Clark Allison’s ‘Plural Locutions’ (Feb 27 2008) is probably the best place to start reading because he presents the background and history of the poetries discussed. His final sentence, hailing the plural culture that is potentially coming into being, attempts the rallying-tone of the manifesto, but knows that the era is not receptive to that tone. Chris Hamilton-Emery (Oct 29 2007) poses some heretical questions: is linguistic innovation so innovative? Is it now a mainstream? Is Cambridge poetry dead? Do we now have Allison’s multiplicity of approaches, with perhaps our perspective developing a more European dimension than a trans-Atlantic one? Adrian Clarke (March 1 2008) agrees about the demise of the old ‘schools’ in recent years, recognises the recent growth of compromised centres within Higher Education (Birkbeck, Southampton, and you could add the Universities of Plymouth, Falmouth and Bedfordshire and Royal Holloway and – I’d like to think - Edge Hill). He rejects entirely the output of the ‘mainstream’ and denies the value of bothering with any oppositional stance towards it. He is baffled by Hamilton-Emery’s variable sense of innovation (perhaps there are only innovations). He too looks towards European poetry (as do I, incidentally; it’s a large part of my self-instruction in World Poetry these days). His final assertion that ‘here and now it’s the practice of outside’ points both to the oppositional stance that Clarke values and to the sense of neglect shown towards the most vital poetries in this country. We have to ask: can you have the former without the latter? David Kennedy also wonders whether the innovative is not the new mainstream, an assertion that Clarke’s calls to ‘outsideness’ remind us should be tempered, as they are by Kennedy’s surprise that minor irruptions of innovation still unsettle the mainstream disproportionately. (After all, in the post-democracy of the millennial anthologies that claimed the end of the poetry divisions it is precisely the practices of a writer like Adrian Clarke that are not admitted to the supposedly inclusive consensus.) But Kennedy steps back and, assisted by Ziarek’s analysis, which I recommend (and have used elsewhere), he is astonished by the performative aspects of recent ‘alternative’ poetries, by poetic eventness made flesh. Todd Swift (Oct 15 2008) agrees with Clarke that the practices of innovation and those of the experiential poem are divergent still, and that the former is distrusted, particularly by editors who evince an ignorance of the actual history of this radicalism (send them off to read Allison’s piece and its links). As one who practices the ‘outside’ – though maybe not in Clarke’s terms, exactly – Swift mistrusts careerism that envelopes both Faber, the traditional enemy, and the newcomer Salt (Hamilton-Emery’s press), and the numerous self-regarding small cliques. Tom Jenks (June 26 2008) is a young writer – I saw a great little blue pamphlet of his in Scott Thurston’s office one day – associated with the Openned Poets and The Other Room, based between London and Manchester, a radical groupiscule that raises the spirits and is not at all one of Swift’s small cliques. Although he publishes the magazine Parameter on paper (including the silver paper it is wrapped in; it’s difficult to know whether to read it or put it in the micro-wave!) his piece is mainly a hymn of praise to the internet as the global technology of local activity (such as his own; check out

Personally, I am still uneasy about new technologies, and there is encoded in this project a certain resistance to its very medium. I am most amused to find that this blogzine and my part in it forms the whole of an interview with myself conducted by Graeme Harper to be published as the chapter on ‘literary blogging’ in a book about 'creative environments' (more of that when it appears). Pages was also listed – against my wishes – as part of Edge Hill’s Research Academic Exercise for ‘English’. I hope the assessors found the discussion about recent poetries to their liking. To that we shall return.

David Kennedy raises the question of overview. I’m sorry that he finds my own endeavours as a critic too ‘insider’, for I have tried to document this poetry faithfully, and to facilitate discussion of this poetry. What I am less interested in doing these days is to write about the poetry I don’t admire (though I am open to admiring ‘mainstream’ poetry when I encounter its positive aspects). Indeed, what is ringing in my ears as I churn these terms over again are the words of Michael Palmer, from his recent Active Boundaries. Of Oppen, Celan and Aygi, he writes: ‘What has been little noted critically, is that in each instance, such poetic thought involves stepping away from vanguardist experiment per se… In all three poets, listening and attending take primacy over systematized artistic construction. However resistant it may appear, and may be, poetry becomes a form of encounter, or conversation, a way of being with others.’ Perhaps innovation, taken up as a rallying cry, is not the issue (but perhaps it is simply a label for certain practices). And perhapsd it's about what Badiou says about Mandleshtam, his concern for 'poetry and the very subtle thinking that surrounds poetry', which would include, but is not limited to, poetics. But it is clear that while such language may invigorate someone like me, such a way of conceiving lyric and non-lyric poetry is way beyond the pencil-chewing editors in Swift’s cross-hairs.

I thought contributors would name (new) names. Between them they have turned up Sascha Akhtar, Ronnie McGrath, Trevor Joyce, Elena Rivera, Frances Kruk, Emily Critchley, Keston Sutherland, and Sean Bonney. I noted with interest that the Wikipedia entry on The British Poetry Revival ends with an account of recent years (though not very recent years). It’s worth a look (and perhaps somebody could get in there and spell ‘Sheppard’ correctly) and because it can be altered, I’d like to reproduce it as it stands at the moment and to suggest its named names as a provisional syllabus of the now. (If we can have the excellent Archive of the Now, we can surely have that.)

The current entry on the 'British Poetry Revival' on Wikipedia (I have copied it because it could be modified any time), ends with a concentrated account on the last 19 years, and also gives a link to Piers Hugill’s more capacious account on which contains some of the same names, though both accounts are perhaps too London based and miss the activities in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield at least. It reads:

‘Into the 1990s and beyond poets such as Sean Bonney, Jeff Hilson, and Piers Hugill have surfaced after direct involvement in the Cobbing-led Writers Forum workshop. An interesting sub-development of the workshop was the instigation of the Foro De Escritores workshop, in Santiago Chile, run on similar aesthetic principles. This workshop has contributed to the development of Martin Gubbins, Andreas Aandwandter, and Martin Bakero, to name but few. Those associated with the Barque Press (most obviously Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland), and more recently Bad Press (in particular, Marianne Morris and Jow Lindsay), have made a similarly important impact via the Cambridge scene. From Scotland, Peter Manson, who had co-edited the magazine Object Permanence in the mid-1990s, Drew Milne, editor of Parataxis, David Kinloch and Richard Price (previously editors of Verse and Southfields) also emerged more fully as poets in their own right. New writings have arisen from the involvement of cris cheek, Bridgid Mcleer, and Alaric Sumner, under the direction of Caroline Bergvall and John Hall through the Performance Writing programme at Dartington College of Arts including Kirsten Lavers, Andy Smith, and Chris Paul; and Keith Jebb at University of Bedfordshire's Creative Writing programme, including Alyson Torns, Kevin Doran, Allison Boast. Redell Olsen's Poetic Practice programme at Royal Holloway, University of London (which includes Frances Kruk, Sophie Robinson, John Sparrow and Stephen Willey) continue to offer a fresh and vigorous challenge to the confessional mainstream.’

Talking of PiersHugil, I’d like to alert you to the academic journal he, Scott Thurston and I are editing.

Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry

editors: Professor Robert Sheppard ( Edge Hill University)
Dr. Scott Thurston ( University of Salford)

Reviews editor: Piers Hugill ( University of Southampton)

Publisher: Gylphi: Arts and Humanities Publisher (

We are currently looking for both academic articles and reviews for our first issue and beyond.
The journal is focused upon the poetic writings that have been written in Britain and Ireland since the late 1950s that appear under various names. Peter Middleton, writing on ‘Poetry Since 1970’ for the Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature, writes, ‘These poets … have difficulty naming themselves. Are they “avant-garde” (an adjective not much liked by anyone), or “underground” (even more disliked), “linguistically innovative” or “second-wave Modernist”?’ he asks. Other names have included: non-mainstream, the British Poetry Revival, the parallel tradition, formally innovative, Neo-modernist or experimental poetry. Particular areas of the field have been known as the Cambridge School, the London School, concrete poetry, and performance writing.

While the equivalent North American work is well-represented in academic work, researchers on this British and Irish poetry have no dedicated referred journal, although a number of important books have been published lately.

The Journal aims to answer a lack in the academic market, by proposing to provide a home for critical articles on the history, context, close reading and poetics of this work, generally of 5,000-8,000 but with a maximum 10,000 words, and to carry short reviews (up to 2,000 words) of the stream of monographs and edited volumes in the area. It is intended to appear twice a year.

Meanwhile, the Fifth Series of Pages is going to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Edge Hill University Poetry and Poetics Group on October 21st 2009. Watch this space leading up, and away from, that date.