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Editors: Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston
Andrea Brady, Caroline Bergvall and Robert Hampson
Birkbeck Launch Event 2009: Selected Papers
Journal of British and Irish
Subscribe online http://www.gylphi.co.uk/poetry
Birkbeck Launch Event 2009: Selected Papers
Journal of British and Irish
Editors: Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston
Andrea Brady, Caroline Bergvall and Robert Hampson
GYLPHI LIMITED Gylphi Ltd, Registered Offices: PO Box 993, Canterbury, Kent CT1 9EP Copyright © Robert Sheppard, Caroline Bergvall, Andrea Brady, Robert Hampson, 2009 Photography by James O Jenkins http://www.jamesojenkins.co.uk Typesetting and design by Gylphi Limited http://www.gylphi.co.uk This work can be freely distributed and displayed under the terms and conditions of the following Creative Commons Licence: Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/uk/
The three poet-critics whose talks have been gathered here – Caroline Bergvall, Andrea Brady and Robert Hampson – are owed a tremendous debt by the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry for helping to launch the journal on 21 October 2009. A debt is owed also to the Poetics Centre at Birkbeck College, University of London, which hosted the event, and whose ethos informed it. William Rowe of the Centre spoke first to pose the questions the speakers had been invited to respond to: whether there was a canon developing through the interventions of critics within ‘innovative’ poetry ; whether the word ‘innovative’ was strictly appropriate, given its use in marketing and elsewhere, though Rowe also acknowledged the Journal editors’ pragmatic, even reluctant, turning to this often-used term; and what was the role of the academy in the developing study of this work (whilst acknowledging that even the most independent groups often share an academic context). All four are on the editorial board of the Journal. Before the speakers began I said a few words about the role of the academy in reflecting and promoting the literary scene and the often uneasy relationship between poets and the academy. But I also contrasted the relatively impoverished situation of criticism that pertained when I began PhD study on Roy Fisher and Lee Harwood in the late 1970s with the contemporary situation, given its many academic centres, publications, PhD studies – and now a dedicated academic journal. During the questions after hearing the talks which follow, I interjected an extemporised remark about the function of the Journal which I would like to record here. I was not merely responding to the excellent papers which seemed to be raising hopes for the Journal beyond the usual, but to the barrage of emails on the British Poets discussion list in the days leading up to the launch, which demonstrated scepticism about what might be called the ‘academicization’ of poetry, and about the editors’ roles as arbiters of taste. The irony of this is that very little of the editors’ taste dictates the content of the Journal (it is much more a collective venture with its system of peer reviewing); indeed, Caroline Bergvall’s plea that the kinds of writing that have come to be known as ‘performance writing’ should be covered by the Journal – they already are, of course – can only be answered by critics offering such work, and we welcome it. My remark was that as editors we saw the Journal as one institution among other institutions for the furtherance of the production, dissemination, enjoyment and study of this work - whether those institutions are what Charles Bernstein calls the ‘provisional institutions’ of reading series or magazines, or more solid affairs, such 9
as academic publications or programmes of study in practice-led research, for example (an area that surfaced in discussion, suggesting how the development of Creative Writing has impacted upon English Studies in the last few years in general, and upon the teaching of innovative writing in particular). The Journal is part of a larger cultural sweep that responds to the contemporary situation of non-mainstream poetry. © Robert Sheppard, 2009
It’s a pleasure to be able to join colleagues in celebrating the publication of this important journal. The remit Will Rowe gave us for this evening is very broad – ‘the necessity or usefulness of academic study of this poetry at this time’! – and I doubt I’d have anything particularly interesting or illuminating to say on this general topic. But I hope to use my few minutes to open up some questions about necessity, usefulness, creative and critical production – or rather to discuss some of the anxieties that I think are embedded in Will’s proposition, and also revealed in Robert and Scott’s editorial to the Journal. Finally, I want briefly to think about the conditions in which those of us engaged as both critics and makers are now working. It seems churlish at the moment we’re celebrating the eventual and hard-won institutional legitimacy of ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry, poetry whose most obvious feature is often its painfully energetic verbal activity, to propose a visual turn; but that is how I’d like to begin. Let’s first have a look at the very intelligently designed logo for the Journal. It seems to me the word ‘innovative’ is handled with kid-gloves, enclosed in the scare-quotes of a box within a box – perhaps an indication of the instability of that term, and the dangerous implications that it might activate if it were let loose. ‘Poetry’, on the lower right in bold, has managed to escape from innovation, but not from the academic discourse with which it must share its gently rounded lozenge (held off on the other side of innovation). Then there are the graphic features, the two bars, which remind me of that optical illusion in which two lines of equal length actually appear to be different due to the curvature of one. Is it poetry or innovation that we overestimate? One of these monoliths is undeniably more massive, leaning or perhaps toppling onto the smaller, yet more firmly grounded block. Is POETRY about to crush or be crushed? I’m going to turn now to a different kind of image regime, symbolized by the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky’s work was the subject of a 2006 documentary, Manufactured Landscapes. I’d like to offer a critique of this body of work, which is extremely interesting and technically so11
phisticated, in order to draw out some comparisons between it and the conditions for the production of both creative and critical writing within the university. Burtynsky is essentially an Enlightenment landscape artist, interested in producing large-scale views of desubjectified landscapes. In these images, the artist’s vantage is always superior, disengaged, and panoptic. The balanced, harmonious and symmetrical perspective, reminiscent of an Alberti composition or an early Stuart masque, offers the king’s place to the modern viewer. The lens confers order and proportion on to the chaos caused by the human deformation of landscapes. The images are highly rational and free of affect; they are also almost entirely devoid of improvisation. This is not just a consequence of their scale, which blots out all ant-like human motion, or the overwhelming monumental stillness of their presentation of constructed and deconstructed objects (although it is peculiar that a documenter of labour seems to desire to erase movement, speed and gesture). They are also free of improvisation because, as the documentary revealed, Burtynsky pays his subjects. For Burtynsky’s series on the Three Gorges Dam project, a peasant with a donkey waits like an extra on a film set for his cue to cross the field of the image, and afterward gets a small fee from the photographer’s assistant. In another scene at a Chinese factory, workers are asked to move forward to fill up the foreground, and they run to do so. Are they excited? Or used to moving quickly on command? Do they know who is looking at them, are they paid extra for their time? The workers’ contribution to the production of the image is part of their early-morning muster with their managers in the factory yard. Despite these revelations, the documentary sheds no light on Burtynsky’s working methods, his ethics regarding his participants, how he negotiates permission to work on location (and whether this is with management, local government, etc., or if the workers depicted in his photographs are also consulted). It tells us nothing about how the subjects of the photographs perceived the working process, or how they responded to the images. Instead, the documentary mimics Burtynsky’s own view from the gantry. The digital video camera is a foil to Burtynsky’s film camera. It provides a less brilliant, less symmetrical, less colourful version of his imagery, using the Wizard of Oz effect – black and white ordinary reality giving way to the flash of technicolour fantasy – to argue for Burtynsky’s extraordinary genius. Put more bluntly, the film is completely undialectical: it makes almost no attempt to interview Burtynsky’s subjects; the long tracking shot with which it opens (which seeks to replicate Burtynsky’s grandeur of scale by its duration) tops all sound communication among the Chinese workers with the low grind of the apparatus. Only one worker (in my recollection) is interviewed in the film. And apart from a brief shot of the upper part of her brow, her eyes cast down onto the abject repetitiveness of her labour, the camera focuses entirely on the complex automotive activity of her hands. She says that she can produce 400 units of a complex circuit breaker per day, and has worked at the company happily for six years. I 13
get out the calculator: that equates to 748,800 units produced. Where is this tremendous output going? Who needs it? Burtynsky is fascinated with this productive capacity, documenting scenes of nature and urbanity transformed by it, with the crystallization of human labour power in the built environment. He does not seem interested in the painful and repetitive physical disciplines of the modern factory; he simply depicts the megamachine at work. Almost inevitably, Burtynsky turned to China as a state of seemingly limitless productive capacity. Perhaps the linguistic and ethnic barriers to individual communication also made it easier to document this scene of fantastic surplus production without worrying too much about the experience of the individual workers who are doing it. But Burtynsky is not sadistically interested in productive capacity alone. Rather, the China sequence depicts the process by which the order and discipline of production becomes the chaos and disorder of waste disposal. His series on recycling shows how the Chinese peasantry breaks down, with little protective equipment or technical support, the commodities produced by the colour-coded, uniformed and disciplined producers from earlier in the narrative. There is no clear allegorical relationship between these images, the film about the artist, and the relationship between poetry and academic criticism. Burtynsky’s popularity (there are dozens of tv specials about him) might tell us something about the ornamental function of conceptions of industrial labour for western post-industrial economies. Rather than analysing that strange predicament, I want to offer five points of comparison with the subject of our conversation tonight, in order to raise some questions about what has been sometimes called ‘the function of criticism’. 1. Burtynsky is interested in the circuit of production, from production, through to reception and influence. These are also preoccupations of criticism, and represented in the complex, generous and comprehensive, if inevitably extremely male, genealogy in the editorial to the Journal. 2. Criticism, like Burtynsky’s images, fetishizes the origins of the artistic product. It moves from the object in hand, backwards to the moment of its birth. However, the scene of composition is a forbidden object: ultimately desired, capable of revealing all sorts of esoteric mysteries, but taboo for the modern critic, who not only knows she cannot replicate the experience of the producer, but that such experience is not allowed to be the ultimate determination of the art work’s meaning – or, in some hardline criticism, is not allowed any determining function whatsoever. 3. Related to (2), modern critical orthodoxy also stresses the material history of the art object (including the poem), rather than the individual 14
character, thoughts, or experiences of the producer. I imagine that like the Chinese worker assembling circuit breakers, but also in almost every important way unlike her, I feel a mixture of pride and futility in my work producing objects. Criticism, or a photographer more interested in dialogue and reciprocity than Burtynsky seems to be, might help to illuminate for me the destinies of this work. But it will probably find that much of my productive capacity goes to waste. 4. Criticism tends to select a vantage point which imposes uniformity, order, and decodability onto the productive process. There is in academic criticism in particular a clear ‘professionalized’ tendency to assume elevated and rationalizing perspectives which can take in large-scale historical and social processes: but also perspectives from which the gestures and movements of individual actors can still be seen clearly (high-resolution criticism). 5. The commodity: mining and other kinds of early supply-chain development transform the random and gradually organized attributes of nature into cubic raw materials; these are then processed through the disciplinary regime of the factory into the commodity, which is identifiable as the condensation of labour in its situation of greatest order, before use and disposal return it to the chaos of retrieval and finally reintegration into a (damaged) nature. The poem: transforms random linguistic and historical events and attributes into discretionary raw materials, whose form, compaction and rough beauty imply a utility which has not yet been fully exploited. These are analysed and packaged by critics, sold on to readers and then returned to feed back into the poetic process. But the order which the critic finds in the artistic object is itself a fiction. Of course, because of my advanced academic training, I could go on like this forever, generating dubious syllogisms out of films and images and recycling them back into my own practice like a one-woman Chinese industrial cycle. But I do think that Burtynsky’s ambivalent relationship to the scene of production, the desire to master and order it and sometimes even to force it to assemble itself according to his pictorial requirements, could serve as a caution for criticism. We might also think about the popularity of his images, in the urban western art market that thrums with the commodities whose birth he documents. The mess, discipline, misery, prosperity, boredom, pride, hope and horror of the construction and deconstruction of modern delights are packaged into an aesthetic object, which contains the ethical demands of those scenes of making and unmaking. As critics, we are also able to transform the personal, social and political conditions that co-produce the artwork into a scenic background, which allows the art work to be hung up on the departmental wall, its gross challenge to 15
the principles of liberal inquiry and solicitous classroom discussion adequately framed. The best criticism is not, like Burtynsky’s images, supreme in its distance and authoritarian perspective, but engaged, in the muck with the shipwrights and the ship-breakers. It is not interested in conferring or receiving legitimation, but in the cut and thrust, the blood and guts, of why writing should matter to anyone. But universities long ago gave up holding free and public anatomies. The modern academy promotes a critical discourse based on scientific method: verifiable, unbiased, methodologically self-reflective, evidence-based. Stepping down from the gantry, unscrewing the tripod and opening the pinhole box, the critic is forced into a relationship of reciprocation and dialogue with its subject. Criticism allows critics time and space to think; it communicates enthusiasm and intrigue; and it can also serve as a somewhat vicarious form of protest. It can also feed back into poetic practice. I have built my own writing on attempts to analyse what’s happening in other people’s poems. Critics have altered my thinking and my writing. For example, Robin Purves’s searching essay on a poem of mine, published some years ago in the Edinburgh Review, pointed out to me in a subtle and intelligent way what I was doing wrong, and helped me to figure out where I might have to go next. The Journal will hopefully facilitate such exchange, as the editorial promises ‘to build up a readership for the journal within the very literary community that is being described’, out of a
recognition that ‘the lack of development in poetries may proceed from lack of critical engagement’ with its full tradition. This is important, because compared to the productive output of the modern poetry factories, very little criticism of ‘this poetry’ is being written. But what if the feedback loop becomes a tourniquet, when the readers of criticism are the community of its producers only? Then we really should answer the familiar charge that the academy is elitist, that it removes important artistic objects from the broader circulation in which they might make some difference, or even worse that it encourages the production of a certain kind of art which can only be loved, interpreted, used or understood within the academy itself. I hear these concerns in the editorial’s phrase, which opposes ‘the academic’ to ‘the irreverently relevant’ (making the academic sound both ecclesiastical and impertinent – as the bishop said to the actress ... ). There are three ways of responding to this familiar allegation. First, that it is true. Second, that the modern university is not an ivory tower in a kingdom far away from the ‘real world’, but is in fact a service provider whose administrative logic is these days drawn from industry (as exemplified by the ubiquitous rhetoric of ‘blue-skies thinking’, ‘practice-led research’ – and, yes, ‘innovation’); and that in this case, requirements to demonstrate ‘impact’ or ‘social cohesion’ transform genuine engagement between professional academics and a generally conceived
‘community’ into an assessment criterion in the excellence framework. (Meaningful engagement between these communities must be fanatically pursued, even in an environment which incentivize ritualistic, fake, or insignificant claims.) Third, that one of the most inspiring and accurate claims for ‘innovative poetry’ might be that it turns its readers into practitioners; there are very few critics of this work out there who don’t also write poems themselves. In that case, the feedback loop between producers and critics can be as tight as it likes. The study and production of creative writing within universities translates the danger (that producers and consumers are the same, that an extramural audience is cut off by that identity) into an institutional geography. ‘Practice-led research’ is not just a term applied by arts research management companies onto the diverse and still largely autonomous practices of the art college. Its implications cannot be safely ignored. As a category for assessment in conventional universities, it foregrounds the subsidiary product of the critical article, the dissertation, the explanation, as the prize, which allows us to include the art work – temporary, flawed and finally irrelevant – on the departmental census. Production is linked without delay to marketing and disposal. Some of my friends believe that these demands by the bureau are justified: that in exchange for the freedom to make a living as an academic and practicising poet or artist, or, more accurately, in exchange for our subsidies, we should be forced to rationalize our practice – to explain, in a ‘narrative’, where the ‘trajectory’ of our art comes from and is going. That any engagement with the wider community is better than nothing, which is all many of us were doing in the old days. That the context does not destroy our art. I hope that this is true, but I am frightened – genuinely and personally frightened – that artwork and criticism produced by people who have learned to cope, by means of evasion, subterfuge, or a splitting-off of their professional and critical personas, with the total victory of instrumental reason, will be fundamentally evasive. If Burtynsky offers an etymology of the commodity, then the Journal promises also to provide a space for the contemplation and analysis of the poem’s past and its future. As Scott and Robert remind us, the past should be contemplated (as is traditional) for its ability to aid us in repeating (or avoiding repeating) history; the future is predicted by practitioners’ assessments of their own work and the challenges it faces. The Journal has the capacity to formalize debates, to force us down from our bandboxes into substantial and substantiated argument. Ideally it could also recruit new readers for ‘this poetry’. It won’t solve the problem that academic criticism is a strangely punitive, elitist, or irrelevant genre; that real engagement between poets, professional writers and critics, and the community of general readers is being masqueraded out of existence; and that the gap for independent thought, negativity and resistance which the universities once held open is now closing, like an exotic sepulchre in an Indiana Jones movie. But it
may give us a bit more breathing space, as we search for the mechanism which would spring us into the fantastic day. © Andrea Brady, 2009
The very existence of this first issue is cause for celebration. The seven articles it contains are a summary of many of the concerns and ideas that have been sustained and favoured within this British experimental scene for at least the past twenty years. The fact that institutional support is now provided for such a venture at a time when many would instead be shutting down is a sign of the dedication of the editorial team but also of the healthy growth of our environment. As we only have a few minutes each, I want to share a few of my thoughts regarding some quite specific poetries that seem to me always to need more discussion than they get, and wish to argue for the development of more continuous and shared resources around such forms. Material noise in relation to verbal articulacy has defined my modes of thinking about writing at its junctures or sutures with media and non-textual environments. The socio-historical, industrialized noise of the page has ruled my understanding of the prime location of the poet, even as I wished it to include audio inscriptions and live readings, and has kept me aware of the authoritativeness of publishing. The still high dominance of verbal material over any other sign system on the poetic page always reminds me that for all the critical and artistic work done this past century, the ideological basis of visual and other poetics are still only reluctantly being factored into the semiotics of the literary. Which is why the fact that this launch issue of an academic journal should open with among others a critical piece by Mandy Bloomfield on O’Sullivan’s visual and textual poetics is extremely encouraging. I want to take it as a sign of things to come. It sends a signal that the UK has an extremely rich culture of visual and performance poetics, a culture that has been favoured and sustained for many years and by among others, by a number of us in this room today in many different ways (from practice to publishing to criticism to teaching), is starting to come in from the outer cold and can generate sustained and supported criticism from younger critics. Can one hope that this is also opening the door for the recognition and study of poetic forms that have hitherto had an erratic, marginalized presence within English. I’m thinking here about the expanded poetics that have emerged for the past say, twenty years and that are radically redefining the terms by which poetics overall will function. Some call it ‘expanded writing’, ‘literary arts’, ‘performance writing’, ‘performative writing’, ‘off-page writing’, etc. They are inseparable from the changing writing, publishing and dissemination modes through which we’re encountering text in social culture. As such, they are imprinted alongside so21
Caroline Bergvall 22
cietal shifts to do with knowledge and memory formation, a shift from strictly instrumental textual mode to more heterographic and often process-led ones. We know that the very notion of ‘literariness’ implictly historicized the link between literature and print culture; and that it therefore also implied its potential endpoint in terms of material culture. Perhaps this is why there is still much suspicion or impatience with respect to projects where the compositional syntax involves working text in space or audiophonically or online. Many poets that find themselves working across media find that this type of work in the end might fall more easily within the realm of art, or music, than within that of poetry. Fair enough. There are material and technical demands more readily met by a gallery and a radio station than a poetry magazine. Who’s to say where and how poetry will be situated in a few years time? Nevertheless, the detail of work as accomplished as that of Aaron Williamson or cris cheek or Fiona Templeton, to mention but those, who publish books and work the instruments of writing as part of their live and installed work should not hence escape the attention of our poetics. Some of this of course problematizes the notion of document in relation to textuality. Ephemeral or performance artforms have had to deal with this in relation to video and photographic documentation notably. In a sprawling piece like Templeton’s You-The City, how can one become certain as to the value attributable to the text itself since it seems here primarily transcribed from various instances of production. The photographic document of her piece partially reads the text too. I expect that Rob Holloway’s soon to be released Permit (from subpress), the product of years of more or less improvised live works, reworked for the page, may carry some of the same questions. Redell Olsen’s latest piece in progress which uses a loud film sequence alongside her live readings will also beg the question as to the integration of this material into the final, potentially combined platforms of her choosing. Projects that make use of film or live bodies or 3D space or audio equipment as an inherent part of their textual production demand of a critic that they think about time and space in ways that are currently not familiar to textual poetics. As is so often the case, the practice leads the way. I think this is the reason why an electronic writer such as John Cayley has always accompanied his poetic project with a critical platform. Not because his work needs it but because the work of poetics demands it. Sound and oralised poetry for instance, with its polemical connection or disconnection between speaking and communicating, and the archaic persistence of the oral address in poetry, has spawned a lot of crucial criticism from practitioners, from Peter Middleton, Robert Sheppard via Nathaniel Mackey, Amanda Stewart, Hazel Smith, Charles Bernstein and Christof Migone who all address variously the aloudness of the text. Am I suggesting here that we all need to keep on shaping our own critical methodologies as part of the process of making poetic work? Perhaps. And perhaps one can also take the cue from a more collective form of criticism as favoured by the electronic platform, such as that put together by Birkbeck, Intercapillary Space and Opened for Alice Notley’s 23
visit (2008). It presents a vimeo of Notley’s reading, followed by close reading discussions by approximately 12 poets, through 12 different, embedded vimeo links. Texts appear in separate frames. This make it a great multi-perceptual online case-study for poetics research. One final thought. The medium of course is not the message. The over-reliance on analysing the media, on the tooling, on the kit, on the procedure, must not therefore make us overly attentive to the effects of the cogs, and not enough to what kind of disciplining machines they are letting through. The trasnformation of art into industry, the intense dislocations and discontinuities of our electronic multi-medial linkage traffic, the always changeable archiving of our blogging culture, social fluency through global telephony, all these are the new terms of access and of collective address that we encounter. Yet, and thinking of this as from within an Anglo-speaking environment, new layerings of social culture that run along various lines of mastery of English as 1st, 2nd or no-English are not fully factored into this. Of course, gendered and sexuated collective revolutions are still not ever fully factored in either. For this reason, the realm of the performative, of the writerly or poetic speech act and its broader ideological implications, does remain to me a leading term for thinking about poetics, writing’s agency and the writer’s own positioning (or identity) in the make-up and manifestations of intertextual and intermedia or transmedia practices.
I wish for the Journal that it will cater for media-related poetics as much as for more established or absorbed modes of working so that the various media of poetry can be seen in full operation. I hope that it will do so as a British journal following a long tradition of materialist thinking always does best: by implicating the machine in the print-out. And by implicating the machine of social identities as part of what enables or disables poetic activity. Let’s remember that there is currently a law in the UK that regulates non-EU entry for academics and artists, which has already caused a lot of damage especially for smaller organizations who cannot afford the cost of refused visas and cancelled talks. This which wants to force us to turn in on ourselves, this being refused our guests, those healthy spanner in our works, this denial of our sharing of specialisms and visions about our fields, sits hand in hand with an enforced spread of provincialism and the proliferation of mediatised ignorance. I therefore also wish for the journal that it can be host to those practices and those poets we may not be able to host in any other way today. © Caroline Bergvall, 2009
I would like to begin by welcoming the first issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, founded and edited by Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston, which is both a very much needed journal and also, I believe, a very timely addition to the field. As the editors note, there have been a number of important books in this area in recent years – including Andrew Mellors’s Late Modernist Poetry (2005), Ian Davidson’s Ideas of Space in Contemporary Poetry (2006), Tony Lopez’s Meaning Performance (2007) and John Wilkinson’s The Lyric Touch (2007) – but there is also a significant amount of doctoral work as well. There is very clearly a growing research community as well as a rich and vibrant poetic community. Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston have a foot in each of these communities: they are well-regarded poets who earn their living in the academy. Robert is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University, where he has played a major role in the development of the Creative Writing programme. Scott, who gained his doctorate in Creative Writing at Edge Hill, now teaches at the University of Salford. In the last few years, Robert has published an important critical work, The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents, 19502000 (Liverpool University Press, 2005), which, as he says, represents the ‘critical counter word’ to his development as a poet, and the long-awaited singlevolume Complete Twentieth Century Blues (Salt, 2008), an 11-year project, a network of interconnected texts, most of which had appeared in different versions and showings over this period. Scott’s work has appeared in Ken Edwards’s 4 Pack Series, in the first volume Sleight of Foot (1996), and he has two collections out from Tony Fraser’s Shearsman Press, Hold and Momentum. Hold was Scott’s first major collection and brought together 10 years of work. Although both are now firmly established in the North of England, they were both figures in the London innovative poetry world in the 1980s and 1990s. I have known both of them, I believe, since they were schoolboys, when they first started to attend readings in London: it’s pleasing to see how well they have turned out. I first met Robert at Mike Dobbie’s reading series at the White Swan. In the 1970s Robert was at East Anglia and was editing a cassette-tape magazine called 1983, a journal called Rock Drill and another journal pages, which still continues as a blogzine. I certainly met Robert and Scott at Gilbert Adair’s SubVoicive reading series. They were also both actively involved in Bob Cobbing’s New River Project. Scott’s first two books, Poems November 1989–June 1991 and Stateswalks, were both published by Writers Forum; his third, Two Sequences, by Laurence Upton’s RWC. 27
Robert has made a significant contribution to the development of this field, not just through his own work as a poet, but also through his work as an editor and critic. What has been particularly important has been his prolonged attempt to articulate a poetics through a critical and theoretical engagement with the work of precursors and contemporaries and his own practice. He has written on Roy Fisher, Bob Cobbing, Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood and Allen Fisher – and has edited the Salt Companion to Lee Harwood. In 1991, he and Adrian Clarke edited Floating Capital: New Poets from London, an important early attempt to register the 1980s London scene in which both he and Adrian Clarke had developed. Accordingly, the anthology begins with Cobbing and Allen Fisher – in recognition of their role as influential precursors, exemplary figures in terms of their prolific production and their sustained poetic innovation. The anthology also sought to draw a line beneath the obsession (in 1970s London innovative poetry) with place and Olsonian open field poetics, and to present a poetics based on ‘a willingness to deal with the materials that are readily to hand or impose themselves in the act of writing’. The editors’ ‘Afterword’ also included a series of ‘operational axioms’ with which I will conclude: … that poetry must extend the inherited paradigms of ‘poetry’; that this can be accomplished by delaying, or even attempting to eradicate, a reader’s process of naturalisation; that new forms of poetic artifice and formalist techniques should be used to defamiliarize the dominant reality principle in order to operate a critique of it; and that poetry can use indeterminacy and discontinuity to fragment and reconstitute text to make new connections so as to inaugurate fresh perceptions, not merely mime the disruption of capitalist production. This was a brave attempt to articulate a position for the poetry being produced in London in the 1980s, and the afterword to the anthology is, to that extent, an important document. In their editorial to the first issue of the Journal, Robert and Scott write about the need to historicize the work of the last 30 or more years, and it is for this reason that I have dwelt on the 1991 anthology. On the one hand, they argue, there is a need to explore and document what has been achieved so that younger writers have a sense of the tradition within which they are working and are not required to constantly re-invent the wheel. For reasons with which we are all familiar, a lot of the practice of the last 30 or more years has not been recorded; the debates and discriminations are often part of personal memory rather than public record. On the other hand, the editors suggest that ‘a lack of development in these poetries may proceed from the lack of critical engagement bold enough to declare some practices exhausted’. This more bracing prospect was something already attempted in Floating Capital, and it is a function that I hope the journal will be able to fulfil. © Robert Hampson, 2009 28
William Rowe 29
“one of the most inspiring and accurate claims for ‘innovative poetry’ might be that it turns its readers into practitioners”
“The Journal is part of a larger cultural sweep that responds to the contemporary situation of nonmainstream poetry.”
“a very much needed journal”
“I wish for Gylphi that it will cater for mediarelated poetics as much as for more established, or absorbed, modes of working”
Second Launch Event: University of Salford Room 103 Salford M5 4WT 4 pm, 9 December 2009 Featuring: Allen Fisher, Robert Sheppard and Scott Thurston
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