Thursday, May 26

Poetry Bins (It's a metaphor, not a condemnation)

Review by Nigel Pickard

Introducing the Hobo Poets by The Hobo Poets
Spontaneous Combustion by John Adair
London Visions by William Oxley
Rooms and Dialogues by Sam Smith
(all from bluechrome)

We recently had one of those recycling bins delivered. It’s silver, which is a shame, but as our original bin is green I guess those who make these decisions were in a bit of a quandary. So we’re now a two-bin family, and this must, I suppose, be a Good Thing; though, if I’m honest, and I like to be, it’s also a bit of a Pain in the Arse. In the silver (Green) bin we’re now supposed to dump plastics, cardboard and paper. This has, however, proved useful on Sundays and after a redraft of the book I’m currently working on. No messing. The silver (Green) bin gulps it all down.

I mention this because I wonder if it wouldn’t be a bad thing for all (mainstream and independent) publishers to have a silver (Green) bin parked right in the middle of their offices/front rooms, just as a reminder that presumably a lot of what has to be recycled could possibly have been avoided in the first place. In recent years, quality control in both sectors seems to have become a Pain in the Arse.

So when in the introduction to "Introducing the Hobo Poets", an anthology of 6 bluechrome poets who also have first full collections with the imprint, Anthony Delgrado, the editor-in-chief of the company, writes "In the short time we’ve been publishing poetry…. we’ve received literally thousands of submissions…. Of these, many have been good (and) a few have been great" I began to worry. Maybe it’s me. I can be a miserable bugger when I want to be. But I’m not sure there is necessarily a lot of 'great' poetry out there. In a calendar year how many new 'great' poets, or even for that matter 'good' ones, do you, a reasonably informed reader of poetry, come across? Of course we can argue about the semantics of 'great' and 'good'; but, surely, at least the former are people you are going to regularly reread, and get that buzz that top-notch art gives you each time you return to them. I reckon I’ve been introduced to one contemporary poet - Mark Halliday – like that in the last 2 years. And that’s fine, because that kind of experience ought to be extraordinary. In the 'good' category in the same period, maybe 6 poets. (And I do mean poets rather than poems – I’ve read plenty of good poems in that time.)

So, in all honesty, there’s 3 poets in the anthology that I’m surprised to see in this format. The excellent production values of the imprint only emphasises the lack of quality in the poetry: it’s imbued with that sub-Georgian vagueness and sense of reverie that the third-rate often has. At the other end of the stylistic spectrum Mr Delgrado demonstrates the variegated nature of his tastes by including an American sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll poet, RC Edrington, who, while verging on the adolescent on occasion, at least sounds as though he is aware of the new millennium, and employs a nicely mordant tone from time to time:

Rita used to be
a model, but then
even I
used to be

('Used Furniture')

For me, the saving grace of the anthology is John Adair, so I gave his first collection, "Spontaneous Combustion", a try. I wish I didn’t know he has a connection with Liverpool because he does seem like a fairly close relation of Messrs McGough, Henri and Patten. Thus 'Kimberley' and 'Sex' are McGough, 'Unrequited Love' and 'The Little Things' are Henri and 'Walking Barefoot to the Moon' is Patten. Adair writes short poems that are readable and generally amusing. I imagine that if you were at one of his readings and you’d had a couple of drinks, you’d have quite a jolly time. You’d probably buy the book (and, again, it looks wonderful), but, at this stage, his stuff seems more suited to being part of an anthology than maybe stretching to a full-length collection.

The title of William Oxley’s new book, "London Visions", promises more than it delivers. Visions as in visionary these poems by and large ain’t. However, as befitting somebody of a more long-standing reputation, Oxley manipulates language far more deftly than any of the other, previously-mentioned bluechromers: "wind-tongued", "nudging dusk", "rain-pimpled" or:

commuters spill from trains, spread
like suds from an upset pail.

('Spare Some Change?')

The poems in the book seem to fall into 3 major categories: autobiographical snippets ('St John’s Wood' replete with the line "Sixties stylish fillies" – yes, young women, not well-dressed horses), mini-Ackroydian lectures ('The Towers of London', 'Bridges', 'A Stab at Chelsea') or contemporary description ('Soho', 'Snack Bar, Leather Lane'). There are some stand-out moments: I like the Blakean 'Thy Vanity':

The walls of the Bank
cloudy with time
pocked and pitted
with unsurious slime

wherein sound-effects proliferate nicely to underscore the stanza’s acerbic intent, while 'View From a Bridge' has an expedient energy (opening line: "That is London! I cried") which, to this reader at least, is lacking elsewhere. It’s also a surprisingly discontinuous collection, given its nominal focus. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that poetry collections should have a generic disposition towards structural coherence: the problem here is that some of Oxley’s poems fail to stand up on their own terms, and would only really work if they were benefiting from that convergent kind of interdependency, collusion of meaning and mirroring that a more successfully aligned book might have produced.

I can’t help thinking that there’s a lack of editorial input evident in "London Visions", and the same seems to be the case in Sam Smith’s "Rooms and Dialogues". Having said that, this is my favourite book under review. Again, bluechrome are nothing if not eclectic: Smith’s work is unlike anything already considered. The first half of the book consists of 67 poems, each with 'notes for reading'. For example:

Room 3

In the room
a television,
two armchairs.
(Sofas are for sitcoms.)
He rubs
His socks
She rustles
crisp packets.

(notes for reading: Point dramatically, as if declaiming, at various members of the audience. Nod vigorously at end of each sentence. If no audience point to objects within room.)

Obviously, you’ll either like this stuff or really, really dislike it. To continue Luke Kennard’s splendid metaphor: if light verse is strawberry flan, then I guess Smith’s Rooms are olives. Just don’t ask me which sort. Anyhow, even if the 'Rooms' themselves don’t do it for you, the Dadaist 'notes for reading' can’t fail. They are extremely funny and should be given out randomly to poets at all future poetry readings – how about Andrew Motion with 'Room 17's notes: "Balance a swallow-tailed butterfly on the back of the hand not holding the page. One drop of golden syrup will hold it there. At end of poem throw hand in the air. If butterfly flies away – dramatic conclusion. If not – laughter." I won’t pretend to understand the connection between the individual 'Rooms' and their 'notes' (their connection is probably their lack of connection), but it’s a pleasant kind of ignorance, and anyway most of the 'Rooms' are of interest in themselves. They are pithy, stark, emphatic pieces, occasionally like fragments of Absurdist drama (Rooms 39 and 50, for example) or very short stories ('Room 40'). I like them best when they’re inhabited: the people in them are depicted like aliens might view humankind:

Every person stands,
a clear space
between themselves
and the next.

('Room 50')

Here, as Charles Olson put it, "Form is never more than an extension of content." Crucially, unlike in Oxley’s collection, the separate poems in Rooms do play off each other, echoing and distorting what’s come before. Smith, I think, is the type of poet you’d hope for from bluechrome, given their stated aim of discovering poets who are "new, exciting and original": he admirably fits the bill. Mr Delgrado tells us bluechrome have published 25 collections (as well as fiction) in less than 2 years. Hats off to that commitment and industry. But keep a symbolic silver (Green) bin in your office/front room, please, Mr D.

© Nigel Pickard, 2005

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