Sunday, November 06, 2011

Robert Sheppard at the Bluecoat 2008

Here is a reading (courtesy of poet-cameraman Ade Jackson) of a reading I did at the Bluecoat Arts Centre to launch Twentieth Century Blues in 2008. Reminded by the fact that I read there again a couple of weeks ago, I decided to post this version of the first 'Blues', 'Smokestack Lightning', in which I used some carpet tapes I'd made in the early 1990s for a SubVoicive reading.

There is a also a sound version of it here, made soon after, which uses the second verse paragraph. Ekleksographia Wave Two, ed. Philip Davenport at March 2010, at

The text for the Bluecoat version which isn't (deliberately) clear is drawn from the first verse paragraph of the poem.

from Smokestack Lightning
a mythology of the blues

for Tony Parsons

Twentieth Century Blues 1
History of Sensation 5

Let it all go. As I sing I drive my
dynamite for some strange machine
of this nearly spent century;
the big city calls its sinful
numbers heaven. My fast rolling
kisses are for the stern
lady, dodging me, back of the beat.
Our harp player’s dead - when Pete
told me, we laughed. A quick shimmy
was Elzadie’s goodnight; buttons and
belt loosening, Arvella’s swift farewell.
Pete’s 12 string steam whistle leaves town;
I want you to take my place in this song.
Elzadie lifted her hem and smiled, as he
tuned to an open chord. Bending G on the E,
the dog jumped into the horn as
the KC moaned, with a mocking beauty
mating rabbit foot dreams. Arvella slumped in
the shade, feeling contempt, thinking: give me
the train’s shake. Sweat rolled off
transport as delight, a nervous fix
in this thief’s paradise of form and
necessity possessed by devils. He’d
rehearsed all morning, restless,
couldn’t wait to start again, to howl
out, temporal and grounded, ‘We’ll never
get out of these blues alive’ -
above the frets, trembling. Inside:
shared diction, dancing voices, mojo stomping,
good book palms together in prayer. At night
she wedges the chair against the door,
feels evil thrashing outside the room,
but can’t connect the pose of his
arpeggio muscles above her, de-tuning
slackening; sings down the phone:
‘Take my lonesome love in hand.’
Dancing with her to the juke band,
his tense fingers practise chord shapes
up and down her spine; to be a real person:
a girl adjusting her skirt, singing Twentieth
Century Blues, a pearl on her lips, - her devil
astride two chairs, playing slide
with a Coca-Cola bottle. She
is about to say something over the
gossamer telegraph line, to survive
his strong hands rambling through.

Kid Bailey’s the name I travel with, kidding
around: the name on the only phonograph;
walked up to the shop window, the glitter
of the diamond-fretted Dobro a death squad
tuning up. My handkerchief shields
the chord shapes from
your thieving eyes. Just pull the razor
and shave him. The gun in the guitar case was
no use - jealous man stepped up to Charley
as if to ask for Pony, retuned. Bill-
boards tell women what
to be: a circle of music-stands
dreaming thrills, dancing the Shimmy-She-Wobble -
some guy called it a dry fuck -
the guitar dances too, spins
above Charley’s head. I could see
my own rapt reflection in the shine,
an invisible piano whose pedals are moody
bendings. Love my suitcase and the road....

I can be seen reading some poems from Twentieth Century Blues at part of the Other Room Readings in 2008. (On the first clip I read ‘A Dirty Poem and Clean Poem for Roy Fisher’, ‘From a Stolen Book’ followed by a selection from ‘Empty Diaries’, the sequence with which I continues on the second video.)

I can also be seen trying to read the poem along to the blues band, The Blind Lemons, here

Complete Twentieth Century Blues is available from Salt Publications and the full text of 'Smokestack Lightning' is available also in the earlier Salt volume Tin Pan Arcadia.