Roddy Lumsden on new developments in poetry.
The shock of the new, then. Or not, as the case may be. Some years back, I enticed a senior figure in the Scottish literary world along to a reading I thought she might enjoy. She had been complaining that there was nothing new in Scottish poetry, and there was a sparky young writer, achingly shy offstage, who liked to read in fetish gear. On this occasion, she appeared with her girlfriend on a dog leash and delivered a lusty jazz number in the middle of the poems. My older friend enjoyed it, but wearily added, “I really have seen it all before”.
Yet things do come and go. Or are affected by changes in technology, infrastructure or publishing. In this article, I want to look at some of the shifts and innovations, of all sorts, which I have noticed in the past five to ten years. It’s important to note at the start however that new needn’t equate to best. There has been plenty of poetry in the 00s which has emerged in familiar styles, and which is none the worse for it, but my focus here is on poetry which is just that bit diff-erent, where I have found myself thinking, ‘This is new’.
Let’s start with poetry and the internet. In 2000, interviewed by Poetry Kit, I jinked a question on poetry and the web, saying it was too soon to gauge the effect. Back then, ‘listserv’ forums (email based discussion) were the latest innovation, with poets at all levels, from all over the world, in heated discussion; the poetry world might become a global village, it seemed. Yet these lists have waned, their technology is dated and they have been laid low by hoaxers and tired factional arguments endlessly replayed.
In their place, the poetry blog has risen. It’s no longer enough to write – you must write to the world about writing your writing. Frankly, most are dull, a few entertaining only in their navel-gazing or lemonsucking self-absorption. There are some good ones though. The most popular is by American poet Ron Silliman, a bit-part player in the Language poetry movement who, though he is blinkered to non- American culture, and is fiercely partisan and often downright rude in his judgements on poetry, still throws up lots of fascinating items from the margins of poetry and other art forms.
Meanwhile, Intercapillary Space is a collective blog showcasing work and reviews of innovative poetry, a good starting place for those curious to know what is going on beyond mainstream writing. Among British po-blogs, the one I read most often is Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie’s Surroundings, mainly because Rob is a genuine enthusiast, though not without a touch of the cynic. He is a good blog magpie and keen to shine a light in the direction of others as well as himself; his site has an extensive ‘blogroll’ – links to other poets with blog sites.
The web brought forth many sites where people could post their poems for peer review, with inevitably farcical and fractious results. Strict administration has allowed a few of these to pull themselves from the webmire: PFFA (Poetry Free For All) has feverishly strict rules for posters and its admins jump on miscreants, but standards of criticism are fairly high, if a touch prone to workshop truisms and formal strictures. Desert Moon Review is more relaxed, but to avoid scammers, you must prove who you are before joining.
The world of American poetry is vast and complex. A different focus means there has been more of a twoway split between the traditional and the experimental than in the UK. However, the current generation of young poets seems uneasy with taking sides and is emerging as a fresh and engaging alternative to tired positions. To me, this is not simply another breaker rolling over the ever-shifting sea of poetry – instead, it seems a rolling together of the various currents which had run thin, into a powerful new wave of poetry. A good way to witness this is to read Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century (Sarabande, ed. Michael Dumanis and Cate Marvin), the first weighty attempt (85 poets born since 1960) at mapping the new recruits, a large number of whom seem to be realigning the tracks of the supposed ‘parallel tradition’.
Silliman refers to this as ‘third way’ poetry, the critic Stephen Burt has deemed some of it Elliptical poetry. In a recent essay, Tony Hoagland, intrigued but uncon vinced by the fear of narrative among the generation below him, describes “the quintessential Poem of Our Moment: fast-moving and declarative, wobbling on the balance beam between associative and dissociative, somewhat absurdist, and, indeed, cerebral.” He goes on to say that, “some of the stated, advertised intentions of ‘elusive’ poetics are to playfully distort or dismantle established systems of meaning, to recover mystery in poetry, to offer multiple, simultaneous interpretive possibilities for the energetic and willing reader to ‘participate’ in”. That’s about it, and though this mix of brain and baffl e, the pacey and the playful, isn’t for everyone, I’m struck by its ambition, its freshness, its pluralism, after decades of wilful mannerism.
For me, the most seductive sub-category of third way poetry is that termed the “gurlesque” by poet and editor Arielle Greenberg, who describes work which “regularly incorporates and rejects confession, lyricism, fragmentation, humor, and beauty.” She is talking of poets such as the stupendous Brenda Shaughnessy and the brash, difficult but funny Catherine Wagner, “who act as the charm bracelet to bring all of these styles together… veering away from traditional narrative… tender and emotionally vulnerable but also tough, with a frank attitude towards sexuality and a deep, lush interest in the corporeal…”
Two other poets who strike me as doing something close to new, albeit not wholly succeeding, are Jim Behrle and Elizabeth Bachinsky. Behrle is a provocateur, satirical cartoonist and a keen blogger (whose blog shifts around regularly). His own poems appear to merge John Ashbery’s fractured lyricism with Pixies lyrics and activist invective:
You are talented at boring. / Freeze and be
implicated / For many felonies. It’s a / Fun new
dance: the Sleepwalk. / Put your hands on your /
Hips. Those aren’t your hips. / Wander though
watercolors, in / search of an original timepiece.
It’s as if the old NY School of rich-kid improvisation was infected with a neo-punk, political aesthetic, a jackass mix which nonetheless comes near to working: much too (bad) mannered, yet spankingly contemporary with its jump-cuts, tabs and skips and random capitalisation.
Bachinsky is a game-player, and her two books so far have deeply divided critics. A young poet from suburban British Columbia, her second collection Home of Sudden Service has been both praised and bashed for its mix of formal poetics with a punky, gothic spirit and garish subject matter. Meanwhile, its predecessor Curio: Grotesques and Satires from the Electronic Age is something totally different: a book full of linguistic experiments: palindromic sonnets, falsified journals and a version of The Waste Land renamed ‘Lead the Wants’ which sees her anagrammatising Eliot’s masterpiece line by line. Yes, the whole of it!
Meanwhile, that other, more homely sort of Gothic (more Poe than punk) is alive in the work of Brigit Pegeen Kelly, not a brand new poet, but one whose singular and sinister style, shaping new backwater myths and fairy tales rather than dragging the old ones through a hedge once again, seems to be increasingly infl uential. Andrew Grace is another American ‘third way’ poet whose world is essentially rural:
A sparrow, shotgun casing, nightcrawler’s halves
wriggling in opposite directions. Damp loam
strung up by dandelion seeds spinning in place, softball
scalded into overgrowth, hissing.
What is new for me in his work is the way he welds the elliptical mode to the pastoral, to the landscapes of the Illinois farmlands where he was raised. The poems are knotty, tender, sometimes difficult, but essentially lyrical. Still under 30, I expect a great deal of him; his first collection, A Belonging Field was published by Salt.
Which leads us neatly to changes in the UK publishing scene. Cambridge-based Salt, started by Australian poet John Kinsella, was previously perceived as a niche publisher, internationally focussed, but specialising in innovative poetries. It has been widening its scope recently, taking on mainstream poets such as Tamar Yoseloff and Tobias Hill and actively seeking out new and young poets whose work is making waves. This has been aided by a major grant to aid their marketing and distribution and show that Salt’s way of doing things (their publishing operations differ from other presses and have been viewed with suspicion) may be the way forward for specialist presses.
It remains to be seen whether a dedicated mainstream press using Salt’s methods could be viable, though all publishers should look to its vibrant website, where they are not afraid to (whisper it!) promote their authors with photographs and video files. Meanwhile, Bloodaxe continues to prosper, buoyed by their bigselling anthologies but, as with Carcanet, the volume of new poets being taken on has diminished considerably: a necessary slowing down, to consolidate the lists. Welsh press Seren has stepped up the pace and has taken on quite a few new writers and had considerable success.
The commercial lists stick to a handful of books per year; the late 90s fillip of a new, large press entering the poetry market (Picador) somewhat blighted by the fact that these small lists fill quickly and poets must topple off the back end before new ones can be added. Not to do down Picador, mind you, since their new poets this decade (Colette Bryce, John Stammers, Jacob Polley, Annie Freud, Frances Leviston) represent the pick of the mainstream. Chatto, however, has just announced a new editor, and for the first time since Simon Armitage’s brief involvement in the mid-90s, this commercial publisher may again be open to submissions, rather than sitting on the handful of poets they already publish.
Much of the action, as ever, is down among the small presses and in pamphlet publishing, which is hitting a bit of a purple patch. Among the successes of recent years is Bluechrome, based near Bristol, and just four years old, which publishes fiction along with a list of poetry which you can’t put your finger on – and that’s a good thing. London’s Tall Lighthouse and Midlands based Heaventree are other vigorous new players with catholic tastes which offer pamphlets and books. Other new smaller presses worth investigating are Templar (Derbyshire), Donut (London) who produce beautifully designed pocket books, and Happenstance (Fife) who also put out the highly recommended Sphinx magazine which surveys and reviews the burgeoning pamphlet scene.
The landscape of British literary magazines in the 00s seems in a lull. A few years ago, it was suggested many would move onto the web, yet this changeover largely hasn’t happened and some of the best of the first wave of literary sites have come and gone. Though there have been good publications (e.g. Mslexia, Magma, The Wolf) emerging in the past decade or so, many of the more established journals seem to plod on, irregularly, without much ardour. You’d be hard-pressed to make assessments about British poetry from their pages.
So what changes might we detect in recent UK poetry? Even if there is nothing new per se, there must be something coming round again, in the cyclical way of things that has often been noted by Sean O’Brien (“Poetry has had more revivals than the blues and Charley’s Aunt put together” he quipped). The 1990s were seen to be dominated by what Peter Forbes dubbed ‘the New Plain Style’ (Armitage, Duffy) and narrative concerns. Many younger poets I’ve spoken to admire this style, yet want something looser, richer, weirder. Frank O’Hara and Dylan Thomas seem to be in vogue, as are those fence-leaping poets Barry MacSweeney and August Kleinzahler.
We’re not yet in the sway of a ‘third way’ here: the British experimental scene has been too much of a wrangling rattlebag in the last 20 years to have had much infl uence on a younger generation, yet a clutch of new poets has appeared in the 00s with fresh perspectives and engaging voices: Jen Hadfield’s sassy, painterly travelogues, the prose-poems of Luke Kennard, which manage successfully to mix harlequin humour with pomo absurdism, Melanie Challenger’s breathless and sexy histories in her ambitious debut Galatea. I also admire Chris McCabe’s many-edged snaps of society and politics and Daljit Nagra’s mordant monologues and syntactical experiments. All of these poets seem infl uenced by work outside of the mainstream, yet none will be satisfied ploughing the rainy margins.
Regionally, Scotland, it seems, is somewhat dormant, but we were dominant for quite a while! And Northern Ireland and Wales have been producing some fine new poets this decade. Things come round. Some years back, I attended a conference where black poets were suggesting a move away from over-politicised verse, which was becoming too dominant among Afro- Caribbean writers. Young poets such as Inua Ellams and Jeneece Bernard answer this call perfectly without losing any of their identity.
I think I’ve dropped enough names, but I should add that I’m more excited this year than I have ever been by the quality of new poets who I am encountering, in groups, in manuscripts, in journals, at readings and in education. The interplay of poetry and the internet may still be in fl ux, the book trade may be stiffening up, but poetry is primarily about voices and music, not books. Now seems more than good enough.