Friday, March 31, 2006

Laurie Anderson

I've no idea how long this video [edit: now removed] will remain on YouTube. I have no idea whether Ms Anderson, or whoever owns the copyright, has agreed to it being posted to YouTube. So I'll just link to the video rather than embed it in my blog.

It is, without doubt, the wierdest record to ever become a top 5 bestseller in the UK. I loved it at the time, and still love it now. If only more good poets could hurdle the mainstream popularity barriers - without losing their vision and integrity - like Laurie Anderson.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Squirrel video

Rather than scare the horses with a video of me committing poetry, I thought I'd start with a shortish video involving fluffy little squirrels.

You have been warned ...

Be very afraid ...

... for Rik has just discovered

Video RikVerse readings coming to a website near you shortly ...

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Things to do with a dead cat

We chose to end Fritz's life simply because she was old - her kidneys were failing, her eyesight was failing, her hips and joints were failing. She was probably a little senile.

Cats just aren't supposed to survive 20 years in the wild, and most cats die before they reach 15. Some people have suggested that it would have been kinder to have her put to sleep last autumn when she started to lose weight - when the vet told us that every day she remained with us was a blessing. She chose to bless us with her presence for another 6 months. But in the end she was beginning to show her pain to us. I think she knew it was time to get us to do the decent thing for her.

Fritz had a good life after she was rescued and taken in by our friend Lucy. And when Lucy decided to spend some time travelling Fritz came to stay with us. She settled in so well with my partner - at a particularly harrowing time in his life - that everyone agreed that it would be cruel to make her move home again. She stayed with us for just over 14 years.

She liked her birthday celebrations - for us an excuse to drink the hair of the cat after the New Year Celebrations. We have no idea when her real birthday was, though it is very likely she was born sometime in 1986. It's also possible that she had had a litter of kittens when she was young - maybe that's why someone chose to throw her out with the trash. She certainly hated the sight of bin-liners.

I don't want to remember her during the last few months of her life. Rather I will remember her as the cat that would go mad at the sight of a bird through the window and yet completely ignore any bird that came near her. She adored warm sunshine, good food and a long session of brushing, but preferred to garner attention on her terms, not ours.

We chose to have her cremated, but first bought her body back home after accompanying her on her last journey. Rather than hand her over to the man from the pet crematorium in a plastic bag we decided to make her her own little coffin.

She was, after all, a lady.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Fritz: 2 Jan 1986 - 27 Mar 2006

I cannot sing for you, my cat:
my throat is poorly shaped for song
and words get stuck behind the plumb
that swings above my tongue. But then
your voice was rarely raised, my cat:
I thought you were a statue kept
beside the fridge, so scared to move
in case some two-leg freak returned
to bag you, bin you. Yet a cat
can overcome - you always sought
the sun to russet up your fur,
the warmth of quiet fuss: no need
to entertain your hosts, my cat,
by chasing ropes or catching birds;
just sit, and eat, and sometimes purr
when watching from the kitchen shelf.

Website housekeeping

I've updated the look'n'feel of my poetry pages - the old look was getting a bit boring. The changes aren't finished yet - I'm in the process of doing some background images to liven up the poem pages. Nothing too obtrusive, though: the text remains the most important part of the webpage!

I've also decided to close the poetry magazine listing service - even though people said they liked it, the data was getting a bit mouldy and past its sell-by date.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A seventh poem of love?

When I first drafted #7, I loved it. This was the Dog's Bollocks, I thought. The next day I wasn't so sure it was the best thing I'd ever written, the day after I thought it was a reasonable draft. Now, I hate the original draft. Reading it pains my eyes.

Let's hope this redraft manages to calm my eyes for a little while:

Love Poem #7
So many garments
rolled tight to fit
in this cupboard.

"When did we stop
dressing up to keep
each other entertained?"

Such a stupid hat, ribbons
and shoddy cloth worn
one day at a fair.

"Prune the drawers:
shirts, jeans, boots -
bag them for charity."

We fleece each other,
let fall rags and jewels:
fingers trace the drapes of skin.

"Let others consider
old skins, browse
for a cap, or a shoe."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Space eagles

This thread on ZBB, started by Eddy the Great, got me thinking about how a creature could evolve to survive both on planets and in space.

On planets, the creature will need all the adaptions associated with living on land, for example: skeletal and protective structures; locomotive features; energy capture, storage and digestion systems; metabolic control and excretion systems; an internal mass transit system; some form of reproductive strategy.

There will need to be a reason for creatures to venture into space. There's no food out there, no potable water. So the only reasonable possibility (to me) seems to be that the creature is either escaping something on the planet, or is aiming to get somewhere better. Which seems to suggest that we're dealing with a twin planet system (2 planets orbiting each other around a common point, which in turn orbits the star), or perhaps a system where 3 (or 6) similar sized planets are locked in similar orbits around a star each roughly at the lagrange points of the other planets. To be exotic, we could go with a combination option.

So, let's start with something that I'll call a space eagle. Big, birdlike, but definitely not a bird. They evolved in a starsystem that had 4 similar sized planets (say between Mars and Earth size) in a lockstep orbit around their star, 2 of the planets circling each other and the other two at the lagrange points to the binary (no, it's not a stable setup, but then we only need it to last for say 20 million years or so to allow the evolution to develop and refine our space cadets).

Now we need a way to get our space eagle into space. From Earth's surface you need to be going slightly faster than 11km/s to escape the planet's gravity well. On Mars the space eagle could soar into space if it were going faster than around 5km/s. The only way I can think of an organism achieving such speeds is through some sort of organic spacegun. Let's imagine a plant-like organism that's developed a gun-like mechanism for launching its seeds into space. Then our proto space-eagles come along and co-adaptive evolution 5 million years down the road leads to a plant - I'll call it gunweed - that will launch an eagle into space alongside its own seeds.

Whatever planet we're launching from, our eagle is going to need some protection against air friction. Let's say our gunweed provides this through the seed's outer layers. So, plant grows seed, waits for eagle to burrow into seed, then completes the growing process and launches seed into space.

Now, if the space eagle stays inside the seed it should be relatively safe in space (if it is in deep hibernation) until just before the seed hits the next planet. We'll assume that the evolutionary deal between gunweed and space eagle is that the gunweed gets seed and eagle into space, but it's the space eagle's job to get the essential part of the seed safely to the surface of the next planet. So the space eagle needs to "hatch" as the seed nears the next planet.

At this point, the space eagle needs some sort of locomotive system - farts could do it. Gas could be generated from food stored in the seed (which the space eagle could eat before breaking the seedcase). Once outside the seedcase, the space eagle needs to be impermeable (except when it's farting) - to maintain body pressure and prevent waterloss, so maybe a structure of interlocking feathers with a tough outer coating of oils and waxes.

Radiation is going to be a bugger. I assume the space eagle is going to develop some sort of sensory apparatus to warn it that a solar flare is on its way, then it can use the bulk of the planet that it's orbiting to hide between during the radiation storm. The alternative would be to have plates of subcutaneous lead, or filigrees of lead across the feathers, but that would be too much weight to launch. A really efficient way to clean up free radicals in the body would be fairly essential, together with especially effective ways of dealing with the resultant tumours. Another option is to just let the older space eagles die of cancer.

What next? Wings, with parachute-like properties, to get through the new planet's atmosphere. We'll assume that the space eagle has enough fart to get it into some sort of low geostationary orbit, after which it's just a case of losing speed and altitude slowly enough to allow for re-entry without excessive incineration.

Then all that's left to do is navigate passport control, declaring the ready-to-germinate remnants of the seed if necessary, and its Welcome to Your New World! Breed! Grow Gunweed! Be Happy! Until it's time for the next space voyage ...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Fourth time lucky

Love Poem #5
When I fed you I set you three courses:
oysters from Whitstable, a carnival
of slime singed with lemon, edged
from ashtray shells and gulped;
a testicle of truffle, shaved
into a soft scramble of eggs and cream
and served on toast - crumbs brushed
from your chin by my thumb, each morsel
followed by a froth of champagne;
figs stuffed with mole, the bitter
chocolate squeezed from the fruit
as you bit the sweet flesh.

When we fed guests you set me:
rings of calamari around a candle
guttering its wax into my navel;
frets of watercress stems woven
through the down between the hooks
of my hips, dripping from the rinse;
a pharaoh's necklace - layers of mango
intersliced with pear flesh, molded
to the folds of muscle and fat
and bone lacing my heart within
its cavity, safe from the scavengers
snuffling through our house.

I'm going to get that second strophe right even if it bloody kills me!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Love Poems: the sequence

Okay, I wasn't planning to do this. My original intention was to teach myself how to write a love poem because I haven't written, well, any proper love poems before. So I dashed off a dozen candidates over the course of a couple of weeks. And then I started workshopping them.

The results of the poems that I have workshopped to conclusion (#s 1, 2, 3, 4 and - just about - 6) are very pleasing to me. My redraft of #5 has distinct possibilities. Of the remaining six drafts I have reasonable hopes that #s 8, 9 and 11 can be knocked into shape with a bit of work, #10 needs some serious root'n'branch work and #s 7 and 12 need to be completely reconsidered.

If I can get this work done before NaPoWriMo kicks off in April then this'll be one of the most productive periods in my entire poetic career ever.

Now then. During the workshopping process a number of people have asked me if these drafts are intended to be a series of poems. I've always said: no! But this morning I had a fresh look at the idea and I think it could - just about - work.

The result is currently just over 5 pages long. If anyone wants to offer feedback on the ordering or anything then that would be great. I'd also welcome views on whether or not the sequencing idea is worth the effort, and if not then which poems (if any) I should concentrate on polishing.

(Not that I'm thinking of publishing any of them. Though I was tempted by the idea of submitting some of them to Reb Livingston's rather fabulous No Tell Motel just for the devilment of it all.)

Now don't be shy ...

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Officially driving me fucking nuts!

Another redraft of the dratted No. 5:

Love Poem No. 5
When I fed you I set you three courses:

oysters from Whitstable, a carnival
of slime singed with lemon, edged
from ashtray shells and gulped;

a testicle of truffle, shaved
into a soft scramble of eggs and cream
and served on toast - crumbs knocked
from your chin by my thumb, each morsel
followed by a froth of champagne;

figs stuffed with mole, the bitter
chocolate squeezed from the fruit
as you bit the sweet flesh. Later

you laid me out as a feast, set
a candle in my navel and drew rings
of caviar around its flame. You wove
watercress stalks through my mound
of curled, smoky hair and set slices
of peach and mango across my chest.

You swallow me whole.

The previous version's close was the total dog. Cutting it left the poem without any close. So, I've written a new close. I am very unsure of the single line strophes, but I'll leave them in for now and hear what folks have to say when I workshop this little darling.


Love Poem No. 5 (revisited)

The previous set of words attempting to form a poem under this title were not playing together nicely. So I've dumped the whole thing and come up with a new set of words:

Love Poem No. 5
When I fed you I set you three courses:
oysters from Whitstable, a carnival
of slime singed with lemon, edged
from ashtray shells and gulped;
a testicle of truffle, shaved
into a soft scramble of eggs and cream
and served on toast - crumbs knocked
from your chin by my thumb, each morsel
followed by a froth of champagne;
figs stuffed with mole, the bitter
chocolate squeezed from the fruit
as you bit the sweet flesh. Then,
after checking the knots
holding the chair to your form,
I licked the salt from your skin
and swallowed you whole.

Now that feels a bit more like it to me. Though I've got worries about the ending. Part of me wants that ending, that little twist at the close - it's fashionable to have a nice, ironic twist at the end of your poem nowadays. It's a bit of a jump, but nevertheless ...

But another part of me wants to end the poem at "sweet flesh". No twist, no closure. Just the food and the act of feeding.

I hate these sorts of conundrums on a Saturday morning.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Drafts: 4 (final) and 6 (working)

I hope people understand that when I say final draft I don't mean to imply that the poem will never change again.

#4 has now seen some changes. The following is the final draft for as long as I can resist the temptation to tinker. #6 is much more of an unfinished work. There was lots of giggling when I workshopped the previous version (a curse on that Wombat Joke); this version is much more "honest" - by which I mean "closer to what I want from a love poem with roses in it to be"

Love Poem #4
My friends ask me: how much does that special smile
of yours cost? I'll warn you now it's pricey:

not a trinket stacked on shelves in giftshops
trading junk. You cannot wipe my palms

with coins and watch it swipe its muscly tricks
across my face, nor will enticements bag you

that act - for a drink I'll swap a grin, and for food
I'll pack a leer into our dialogue. But

my smile, my honest sweat-on-face with blushing grace
stretch of lips and crowfeet tracks towards my ears,

deserves a deal that only you can strike, my love, when
you look at me with lids half-drawn across your eyes.

Love Poem #6
I buy a rose to mark
our anniversary:
stout, black thorns
erupting through the stalk
in whorls; the sawtooth leaves
nestling the tight bud -
sheets of peach and cream
rolled in green folders.

You smile, take my palms
and lag them round the stem,
pluck a petal and press it
inside my mouth with kisses:
"Love", you whisper, "is what
we do with symbols, yes?"

I nod and grin, and bite
the lips that feed me.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

BriNaPoCo Woe

People should pop along to Rob's blog and commiserate with him about the vagaries of judgement that prevented him from winning the latest National Poetry Competition. I for one can't see any particular reason why the three placed poems were deemed to outrank Rob's commended entry.

Maybe that's why I'm a scruffy sideline critic rather than a respectable judge of artistry.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Patronage and the poet

(or, The Why of Poetry, Part 3)

Terry Pratchett, when deciding to import Leonardo Da Vinci (as Leonardo da Quirm) into his Diskworld, decided to give the fictional Leo a particular quirk - he always chose the worst name possible for his inventions.

In my posts on the Why of Poetry earlier this week, I divided the poetry world into two interacting realms: social poetry and commercial poetry. Thinking about it, I can see that the word "commercial" is going to cause massive problems for some people, simply because of the baggage it carries. And yet to my mind the split remains entirely viable. I just need to come up with some better names.

When I was first playing with these ideas, I split the poetry world into "active" and "passive" realms, in that active signified an audience seeking out poetry (this morphed into "commercial"), whereas passive indicated an audience which had poetry done to them. But in the end I didn't like the terms of this split, which is why I went for "commercial" and "social".

A better way of thinking of this split might be to think about how the poetry is being used on each side of the divide.

This looks to me to be much more promising territory. On the social side I can see that poems are being written and performed for specific social purposes - they're helping to develop a child's language, or helping a group build and maintain common bonds, or cementing close ties on an individual level (which jingle poetry mimics in its attempts to get people to buy stuff). It is, indeed, social poetry.

But what are the poets and poems doing on the other side of the divide?

My initial response has always been: "they're entertaining me". But when I look at that statement in the bright lights of my lunch break I can see that this only pertains to a small part of work undertaken in this realm.

The more I look at it, the more I begin to see that poetry is being developed, workshopped, performed, printed, appreciated, sold and forgotten - by poets - for its own sake. All this activity serves no useful function except for those involved in the activities surrounding poetry. Only a tiny amount of this activity results in poems that get reabsorbed into the social poetry side of things, mostly as advertising copy or greeting card verse, much more rarely as a group-defining or canonical poem.

It's like a huge shoal of haddock locked in a group mating frenzy, fertilising billions of eggs in the hope that maybe a few hundred will survive beyond the end of the year.

Few poems make it. And many of those poems that do make it seem to be written by "Anon". I think it's good for a poet to be reminded of these bald, hard, cold facts every now and again.

Let's try out a metaphor here, by visiting the world of the athlete. Most people can run, but only a few can run fast. And only a few of these people get interested in running for the sake of running. These people club together, train together, develop novel running styles and training regimes together, and compete together. For the rest of society, we couldn't give a shit about these athletes most of the time - except when the really big competitions come around. Most people only learn the names of runners after they win medals at the Olympics, yet the whole edifice and infrastructure of athletics continues in the background. And many people continue to do a bit of jogging, for health reasons, for social reasons, for whatever, without ever feeling the need to become involved in the mad athletics thing.

Now there's glory in being the fastest runner in the world. And there's glory in being the best living poet in the world. But to be the best, you have to devote most of your waking life to training, practicing, learning and relearning. Competing. Getting noticed. Getting support - financial and moral - to continue training and practicing and competing until you are the best in the world.

Because lets be honest here: being a fast runner doesn't really contribute much to society. Neither does being a good poet. Remember that very few fast runners, or races, get remembered 50 years down the line. The same goes for poems and poets.

Except when it comes to glory. What function goes glory play in human society? I've never thought about that, so I don't have an answer. But I do get the impression that some people have a very real need to be associated in some way with glory.

And the simplest way to be associated with glory is to support people aiming for glory. There can be moral support, like cheering from the sidelines, or there can be more overt support: patronage.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems to me that the whole edifice of the "non-social" side of the poetry world is built on patronage. The patronage of individual poets by rich benefactors; the patronage of poets through publication and promotion in books and magazines.

Direct patronage - except for laureateships - seems to have died out in the 19th century. For much of the 19th and 20th century "non-social" poetry has been massively reliant on publishers for the patronage needed to make the system work. But this unofficial contract appears to have been deteriorating since the 1950s - perhaps as a direct result of other entertainments such as the rise of TV? The deification of the novel/novelist?

This is, of course, pure conjecture. An argument tossed to the crowds just for the fun of it. But if these musings are right, then what's happened to patronage?

Poets seem to have found new patrons. One is the academic arena, with universities and colleges offering teaching opportunities for creative writing courses. I have no idea why creative writing courses have taken off like they have over the past 20 years or so. I suspect there must be a financial incentive involved somewhere - colleges rarely bother teaching something without some financial recompense being involved. So perhaps creative writing courses have become essential because poets see them as a must-have stripe on their shoulder as they aim for eventual glory. Or maybe it's just this decade's fashion and in 2020 everyone will be clamouring to study social coloraurology or somesuch nonsense.

The other source of patronage seems to be the nation state - most often at arms length - through things such as direct commissions, grants to poetry support organisations and poets-in-residence schemes.

I disagree - profoundly - with the idea of national taxes being used to support poetry. I do not view poetry as a "common good" in the economic sense of the phrase, simply because: it's not a rare commodity; it's not in need of rationing; it is not something that I think everyone should contribute to whether they want to or not. The only use of public funds for promoting poetry should be to make sure poetry gets taught in the classroom from an early age. Taught in an interesting way, that is, not by rote!

I've still not bottomed out what I think of patronage. My gut feeling is that patronage is at best a neutral influence, but has a tendency towards the controlling, the malign.

Which is why I think it's about time for poets to become their own patrons, their own promoters. On an individual basis.

(And, on reflection, I think commercial poetry was the right word after all).

Have I rambled enough yet, Master?

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Final drafts: 3 and 4

I didn't expect to get more than a couple of these poems to final draft stage - the whole thing was an exercise in learning how to write some half-decent love poems. If I can get a couple of the remaining 8 poems into a shape I'm happy with (and I've got good hopes for 2 in particular), then I may be able to fit them together into a single longer poem.

Anyways, less of the daydreaming ...

Love Poem #3
You promise me treasure, offer
your body as the map that leads
to riches. I search for symbols
in the folds of your skin; intercept
clues on tasks to perform morsed
by white eyeflags, semaphored by curls
and angles at the edge of your mouth.

Your hands challenge translations -
they fly to sift through the world.
I have to vector them, pin each digit
with a symbol: here be dragon lairs,
unicorn trails, wells of gold coin.

My finger sketches your face's edges,
the cream henge of pegs cradled within lips.
"The map is not the thing", your tongue
hints. But I know this - I dismiss
the adipose spoils midriffing you,
mere landscaping that can't disguise
the designs etched in your marrow.

I could finish exploring this map,
but instead I let you fold me tight
inside your elbows, watch you build
a map of me in the pits of your eyes.

Love Poem #4
My friends ask me: how much does that special smile
of yours cost? I'll warn you now it's pricey:

not a trinket stacked on shelves in giftshops
trading junk. You cannot wipe my palms

with cash and watch it strut its muscly tricks
across my face, nor will goods-in-kind bag you

that smile. For a drink you'll get a grin, and for food
I'll pack a smirk into your greycoil memory. But

my smile - my honest sweat-on-face with blushing grace
stretch of lips and crowfeet lines towards my ears -

deserves a price that only you can pay, my love, when
you look at me with lids half-drawn across your eyes.

#3 needed extensive redrafting, but #4 came out pretty much as I wanted it on the first attempt. Ho hum ...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The why of poetry (part 2)

I came across this post by Josh Corey which is sort of similar to my post yesterday inasmuch as I was looking for some way to categorise how people consume poetry and Josh seems to be looking at the different types of poetry. Of course, my musings (which have been sploshing around my head for a while now) were triggered mainly by the series of posts by RJ McCaffrey on what he calls Airy Poetics. So yesterday's post was not my fault at all!

I ended up in yesterday's post defining some models for exploring how poetry got consumed. To make it more scary, I added some classifications by dividing poetry into social and commercial, and then further dividing it into formal, informal and personal realms.

Let's try doing a table to summarise all these models:

 Social poetryCommercial poetry
Group entertainment or ritual - formal social eventsSocial meme modelPoetry reading model
Social gifts or study - informal social eventsGift modelBook club model
Workshop model
Discussion-down-pub model
Personal entertainment, targeted interactionJingle modelBook publishing model
Magazine/anthology model
Self publishing model

The first thing that stands out is that the nomenclature needs some work.

The other thing that sticks out is how much all the other blog discussions I've seen over the past 6 months or so have concentrated solely on what I'm calling "commercial" poetry, and in particular on the poetry reading, workshop and book publishing models. Just for the sake of a laugh, I'll try some categorisations:

Ron Silliman's Avant and Post Avant classifications would seem to me to fit squarely in the poetry reading model, assuming that these poetics are in effect long, drawn-out conversations between practitioners. I wouldn't place them in the book publishing model - even though practitioners publish books - because publishing doesn't seem to be the main purpose of the endeavour. Rather, the conversation is more important, and this is done through performance on stage, video, tape and paper.

Equally, Ron's school of quietitude mob would seem to be clearly in the book publishing model, in that publishing, fame and acclaim are the key reasons for them to be writing poetry.

For what it's worth, I would classify my own work in the workshop model, as I write most of my poems as a by-blow of my participation in online workshops (and now blogs). My activities in the self-publishing model are incidental and subservient to my workshopping activities, and I have long refused to suffer the boredoms associated with the poetry reading model.

But I think playing that game is not important compared to the question I asked in the title of yesterday's post: why poetry?

Because there has to be a reason for poetry, and I believe that reason will have nothing to do with god, art, truth or beauty.

Rather it will have everything to do with human evolution.

Because every society that has been investigated to date demonstrates some form of poetry. Just as every society has some form of art, some form of dance, some form of spiritual belief. They may differ in form, but they all seem to play similar roles in their societies.

Poetry, for instance, is different to normal, everyday speech. It's seen as being somehow more special, more rare, more pure, more honest, more evocative, more something than everyday speech. Poems are reserved for special occasions. People who read poetry put time aside to sink themselves into the poems they read. People who attend poetry readings - be they the high tea variety or the slam variety - are looking for something more intense than a chat about this or that.

It stands to reason that poetry has evolved just as human language has evolved, as human society has evolved. It stands to reason that there must be some evolutionary advantage that the existence of poetry confers on the species.

It seems clear to me that the social aspects of the poetry models table are where we find the reason for the why of poetry. The social meme model shows us that poetry is one of the key threads used to identify groups and societies. It is used as one of the basic tools used to teach babies and toddlers the language that the group speaks, and later on it is used by individuals to demonstrate to the rest of the group their adherence, their right to belong as part of the group. These poems are the poems that help build society.

The poems that are used for these purposes are, firstly, the nonsense and nursery rhymes, the playground rhymes of childhood. And secondly they are the Great Poems, the canon of poems which society - somehow - decides are the poems that represent that society. In England, this is specific poems written by Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Kipling. I'm not convinced that any poems beyond the Great War have yet made it to National Canon status in England. I desperately want Wilfred Owen's poetry included, but I don't meet many people on the streets of London who can recite Dulce et Decorum Est alongside Shakespearean Sonnets or Jerusalem.

Equally, the gift model would indicate how people formalise bonds between each other on the individual level. Witness the outpouring of poetry from people following the death of Diana, or the murders in Soham. Witness the deluge of verse following 9/11, the Challenger disaster, the invasion of Iraq. In all of these cases we have people who normally never try to write poetry, well, attempting to write poetry. This is an extension of something that's always gone on: writing poems for parents, friends, people we love, people we want to love, people we want to make an extra connection with above and beyond buying them little presents to mark special occasions.

And we can see the subversion of the gift model in the jingle model - just as printing begat flyposting and the postal service begat junk mail and email begat spam, so social poetry begat spam poetry: the use of poetry to sell commodities, services, beliefs. A good thing? No, but a very human thing, I think.

More questions: what the dribbling parsnip is the relationship between social poetry and commercial poetry?

I'm not sure. I do know there must be one, but I haven't yet worked out how the two sides of the poetry coin might interact. My suspicion is that just as some people are naturally better runners, or better hunters, or better flint chippers, so some people are better poets. And just as fast runners sort of club together to train and compete between themselves, so people with a hint of rhythm and a love of language seek out each other to develop, explore and perform poetry.

In the old days (ie prior to 1980), the very best poets were able to make a living solely from poetry, performing at the formal social events of the day (or from advertising: Salmon Rushdie was responsible for the tagline Naughty, but nice! used to sell cream in England). The most popular poems - note I didn't say the best poems - writtten by these people could find a long-term home in the National Canon.

So the commercial side of the poetry coin developed from the social side, which in turn took what it wanted back from the commercial side. Poets on the commercial side of the coin could despise and belittle the poetry written and used on the social side - both the personal poetry and the canonical poetry, while everybody else on the social side could get on with their lives using and making poetry to fit their needs as and when it was required. Everyone was (relatively) happy.

The last question of the day is: does this supermodel of poetry hold up to close scrutiny - especially for poetry in the 21st century?

Monday, March 06, 2006

The why of poetry.

I'm trying to work out why the poetry market sucks. The common reason I hear cited is that the market isn't working because there's too much crap poetry and not enough readers of crap poetry. This is the Poetry Doesn't Matter Anymore school of thought.

Now some people counter this argument with an argument along the lines of "more poetry books and magazines are being sold today than have ever been sold before" - which is an interesting argument. Except that more of everything is being sold today than has ever been sold before. So if this argument is to be valid someone has to sit down and work out what percentage of (let's make this easier) the total written commodity market did poetry garner in 1800, 1850, 1900, 1950 and 2000. Then if the percentage of poetry has remained stable or has been rising then there is indeed no death of poetry, everything's hunky dory, etc, etc and so forth.

I haven't done the calculations, but my gut feeling is that poetry has a declining share of both the written commodities market and the wider entertainment market. Indeed, I'd be surprised if poetry managed to break 1% total share. Please, feel free to call me a cynic, but I think poetry got sick when newspapers arrived. Modern novels put poetry in the mortuary; movies buried it and TV wrote the epitaph. Only the ghost of poetry survives nowadays, haunting the other media formats with a strophe here and a stanza there.

Even so, this answer doesn't feel right to me. It's too, well, two-dimensional. Too simple an answer. I get the feeling that poetry does matter to an awful lot of people. In fact I'd say most people not only come into contact with poetry on a fairly regular basis, but also make use of poetry at important times in their lives. I'd say that it's not poetry that's been pushed into a corner, but rather commercial poetry, the industry of poetry.

Why say this, Rik?

Well, lets use my abysmal understanding of economics to try and dissect the problem.

Firstly, we need to work out who are the key players in the poetry market. Then we need to consider what markets are at work within the generic "poetry market".

Don't panic, dear reader. This shall be fun!

The key players question is fairly simple - on the "commercial" side at least. We have supply - poets and poems, and we have demand - audiences, readers, consumers of poetry. And then we have the people who bring the supply and demand together. To simplify things I'll call these people organisers, who use manufacturers to mass produce copies of the product.

Summarising the key players, we get:

  • the supplier (poet) writes the product

  • the product is the poem itself, or a collection of poems

  • the manufacturer makes many copies of the product

  • the organiser arranges the exchange of the product between supplier and consumer

  • the consumer is the person who reads or listens to the product

But how do consumers consume poetry? And what do I mean by "commercial" poetry?

I think there are two modes of poetry, which get consumed in different ways. Commercially (C) consumed poetry is where the consumer goes out hunting for poetry, whereas socially (S) consumed poetry is where poetry happens to the consumer without them seeking, expecting or even wanting it.

I also think we need to add in some details about how the poetry is consumed. For this, we can look at the formality of the transaction and the relationship between consumer and supplier:

1. poetry as group entertainment or ritual - formal social events
2. poetry as social gifts or study - informal social events
3. poetry as personal entertainment or study

Mix these up and we get 6 basic groups - or markets - for poetry:

C1 - commercial consumption in groups, with the supplier reading aloud while others listen

C2 - commercial consumption in groups, with all reading and discussing the product as part of a group activity

C3 - the consumer reads (or listens to) the commercial product on their own

S1 - social consumption in groups as part of a formal ceremony

S2 - social consumption as part of a gift economy (eg birthday cards)

S3 - social consumption by consumers coming into casual contact with the product for a short duration, often where the product is designed to entice

Well, this is all very nice, but what does it mean? "Give examples, Rik!" I can hear you both shouting. Well, here's some example models, but only because it's a slow lunch hour and I'm a naturally kind person.

C1 - the poetry reading model: the organiser (who may be the publisher, or an event organiser) brings the supplier and the consumer together into one place where the supplier can give the product to the consumer direct. The consumer generally pays the organiser for entry, who then pays the supplier for their time.

C2 - the book club model: the organiser (which in this case is rarely the publisher, but may often be a group of consumers working as a partnership) purchases copies of the product and then perform and discuss it within their group. Generally the supplier is not present.

Variations on C2 could include:

the workshop model, where the supplier is present and in effect exchanges copies of the product with other group members for their time in critiquing it (though the social contract normally extends to reciprocal conduct so that it appears time is being exchanged betweeen group members and product is incidental to the transaction); and

the discussion down the pub model, where one of the consumers recites the product from memory for the entertainment of other consumers - here the producer, organiser (in as much as pub landlords and website owners are passive participants) and manufacturer are all knocked out of the transaction. It looks a bit like a peer-to-peer filesharing model. Posting poems by third parties to newsgroups, email groups and bulletin boards can be viewed in the same light. (This could be thought of as social activity, but in reality it's sharing commercial product in ways which may often infringe copyrights).

C3 - the book publishing model: this is the classic model, where the producer licences (ie sells a copyright to) an organiser, who in turn contracts with a manufacturer (treat printing and distribution as the same thing) to produce many copies of the product, which then get sold on to individual consumers in the form of books, chapbooks or pamphlets. Risk here lies with the organiser.

Variations on C3 include:

the magazine/anthology model, where organisers solicit material from producers and then sell the resulting compilation of products to the consumer. This is where supply massively outstrips demand, meaning it is a demand-led market with little profit to the supplier (as risk still remains with the organiser); and

the self-publishing model, where producers pay the manufacturer direct to print copies of the product which they then promote and sell themselves to the consumer. Here, the risk remains entirely with the producer, who overtly takes on the role as their own organiser.

Moving onto social consumption of poetry, I'm not sure its as easy to come up with models. Yet it is in these models that we meet the real function of poetry within society.

S1 - the social meme model: every society, every group within society, need ways to identify members within the group, and ways of identifying their group as different to other groups. While some of these methods can be thought of as trivial - clothes, jewellery, tattoos, hair fashions - others are much deeper, and work at a much more subconscious level. Language is a key identifier, in particular dialect and idiolect. Poetry and song probably fit between the two levels - more malleable than language, but less changeable than fashion. Shared poems and songs help bind the group together beyond the casual level of aquaintanceship. Examples can include christian hymns, football terrace chants (which change words, but the chants remain fairly static), playground poetry, and the poems read out at weddings, funerals, christenings and other family and peer group events. This is powerful juju, and is not to be messed with!

S2 - the gift model: somebody actively goes out seeking poetry, but rather than use the product for their own benefit, or for the benefit of the group, they instead choose to gift it to the someone else. Gift exchange is an immensely important function within human societies, and poems are often thought of as being extra special gifts - with no monetary value, but immense social capital invested in them. Hallmark poetry is the most commercial manifestation of this sort of poetry. Far more powerful is the poem written by one consumer (not poet!) for another - love poems, poems of condolence, poems of solidarity: all these manifestations of gift poetry that can rarely reach the level of greatness (or even competence), and yet become some of the most cherished works of poetry both to the giver and the receiver. This juju has the potential to be more potent than any other, and it is the confusion between this model of a poetry market and the commercial models of poetry that leads to the most grief on all sides.

S3 - the jingle model: quite simply, the use of poetry to advertise or pursuade the casual reader or listener to invest in the product, service or belief being advertised. While the intent of the suppliers and organisers may be driven by highly overt commercial considerations, the reality for the consumer is on a social level - they have not sought out this poetry, but rather it is foisted on them, furthermore the purpose of the interaction is not the poetry itself, but other products which the poetry is seeking to promote. Anyways, advertising is as old as the hills, and an intrinsic part of human society so I'm including this model here!

Well, lunch break was over 5 minutes ago. So no time for conclusions. Are conclusions even needed? I'm not sure - just thinking about these different types of model is beginning to help me see the why of poetry a little more clearly. No idea at all if it's of any help to others.

Time for you both to delurk and tell me how mad this idea really is!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Not a final draft

... because the comments I've received on the various incarnations of this one have demonstrated one very obvious point: I didn't have a clue what I wanted the poem to do when I was drafting, and revising, it.

This is absolutely the worst thing anyone can do when writing poetry, in my opinion. If you have nothing to say, then for fuck's sake don't try to say it in poetry! The resulting work will be tripe. Check the previous versions of Love Poem #3 to see this truth being demonstrated.

So anyways the comments I got back on the previous drafts of this poem forced me into a very stark choice: whork out what this poem is supposed to be doing and redraft accordingly; or junk it.

I chose the first option, and this is the result - now ready to undergo another few rounds of the comment-revise cycle.

Love Poem #3

You promise me treasure, offer
your body as the map that leads
to riches. I search for symbols
in the folds of your skin; intercept
clues on tasks to perform morsed
by white eyeflags, semaphored by curls
and angles at the edge of your mouth.

Your hands challenge translations -
they fly to investigate the world.
I have to vector them, pin each digit
with a symbol: here be dragon lairs,
unicorn trails, wells of gold coin.

I observe soft mounds around henges,
uneven cream pegs cradled between your lips.
"The map is not the thing", your tongue
hints. But I know this - I dismiss
the adipose spoils midriffing you,
mere landscaping that can't disguise
the designs sketched in your marrow.

I could finish exploring this map,
or choose to excavate. Instead
I let you fold me tight inside
your elbows, watch you build a map
of me in the pits of your eyes.

Final drafts: 1 and 2

Currently there's nothing bubbling on the Noah front - not even a hint of inspiration. Like I said, it could be months before anything sprouts from that idea.

So in the meantime, redrafts of something else entirely:

Love Poem #1

As the hovercraft puffed its skirts
against the concrete apron, so I flew -
Dover harbour a spray of images
behind my brother as he swung me
over the salt-crust lawns, the edge
of the unguarded cliff, a handgrasp away
from learning the dangers of trust.

Now the last hovercraft has been scrapped
for spares, I can discover new seductions:
the dangers of windy walks through stiff grasses
to watch the sea bolster Dover below; the feel
of rain spattering my neck, my back
as I dance with you, tonight's friend,
on the edge of the cliff - eyes forward
not down - each step an experiment
in my trust of flinty contact.

Love Poem #2

You're drowning me: water
blisters over the river's dirt bed -
a borewall of branches, snakes, garbage
dumped in the forgotten course. This flood
of you pistons me through storm drains.

"Change must come", grumbles
the corpse of a dog flushed
from its grave of dust and tyres.

Now the surge sings, percussion streams
harmonised with outlet gargles. Nerves
get pinched, pressed in my skin - the hands
of a giant who luges alongside me, holding me
safe in his great grasp; he pushes my form
through sewers, curving me into the sea.

You scare me; cleanse my veins
in chemicals and drown my lungs.
"Breed", squirm the maggots in dogmeat -
"Breed like the gods have smashed
the skins of the world!"

Now these poems have been workshopped, first by me doing my workshop of one thingy, then on the poetry newsgroups (with good, useful feedback, I'll say to any people who think only dross and scum play in the newsgroups), then finally on pffa, where most of my stuff usually goes for more detailed comment.

I'm happy with the result. Personally I don't think these need further work as they do exactly what I want them to do. It's a really good feeling when you recognise the poem's cooked. I hope people enjoy the reading of these 2 poems over the course of years as I've had preparing them.