Monday, February 27, 2012

Visible Art

A few years ago I was diagnosed by my optician with an eye condition, glaucoma, which has meant I've been on medication to alleviate the problem; and also in 2010 had an eye operation. Glaucoma seems a particularly writerly disease, famously, in the case of James Joyce, whose writing of "Finnegan's Wake" was done in a race against the condition, with regular trips to Switzerland to "bleed" the pressure on his eyes with leeches. My nightly drops are a relatively minor inconvenience in comparison with that.

Does one write about a condition? Perhaps - but rarely directly. A poem I wrote called "Glaucoma" begins "something I can't see comes from the side" and that is the feeling I have, that I sometimes lose things in my peripheral vision. There's an irony in that of course, as writers frequently are about spotting the things in the peripheral vision and making it real. Ironically, my Knives, Forks and Spoons chapbook "Extracts from Levona" came out at this time - ironically, because the collection is set in a "dot matrix print" which is difficult to read. When Alec suggested it, I agreed, partly because of what I was going through.

For a few weeks after my operation I couldn't read books or watch films as the concentration on that white space was too difficult; the computer, oddly enough was easier.

I love visual art - have done since I was eighteen. In my list of obsessions it's certainly above poetry, though probably below music... yet I realise, as I grow older and this eye condition deteriorates, how my vision is suspect. As a critic, as an observer I haven't 20/20 vision. One of the reasons we like visual artists is because of their concentration on the intimateness of the canvas, what happens then if you can no longer see that?

For me, it's not that I am in any way blind, but that I find dark rooms or low light (which you often get in galleries)difficult. Also, I'm not sure what I can now visualise - the small canvas is difficult because of it's intricacies; the large canvas because of it's size. In other words, my appreciation of art is determined to some extent by my vision. In a gallery now I find myself reading up close the description before standing back and seeing the art work, and whereas in the past I may have just been wowed by it, increasingly I'm finding it a little difficult to process all the information. In terms of aesthetic I find myself leaning to the 3-dimensional or the non-visual. So hearing Mark Leckey's performance at Manchester Art Galley on Thursday was perfect for this... but even in visual art, I no longer respond to the picture (did I ever?) but to the shapes, the patterns. In J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned World" the protagonist stays on the reducing archipelago far too long, and what there is, is some sort of epiphany; god is found in extremis. In Laura Oldfield Ford's work at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, it's the lines and depth of her pictures that I really respond to. I begin to see post-impressionism even in the literal,and - perhaps - see that abstraction is often more meaningful to the visually impaired than representation. "Visual" art seems the wrong phrase in many ways - as it implies the eyes - and sculpture, sound art, whatever - become more important in this context of us losing sight.

For me, I realise that as one vision narrows, another expands - and, I do think, this probably goes into my artistic practices as well... that I stop seeing, and start hearing, that I can't live with the endless words of a novel, but require the specific shapes of a poem or a shorter piece. The thing that so many people take for granted - their sight - is something that is (and always has been, to some extent) transitory in me, and therefore I have over-compensated in my love of sound and music, or - even when I look at a painting - my desire to see depth, to contemplate the third dimension.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Best week ever?

I've just realised all the things I've got planned in the next week and a half and its pretty exciting.

Saturday I'm at Walsall art gallery for Laura Oldfield Ford in conversation and talking about Savage Messiah.

Next Wednesday its one of the most anticipated Other Room events for a while with Andrea Brady, Tim Allen and nick-e melville.

Thursday I'm hoping to get to Bolton for the return of brilliant Manchester writer Gwendoline Riley, reading from her new novel "Opposed Positions", alongside the equally excellent Jane Rogers.

Then Friday its avant-art-pop legend Momus at the Anthony Burgess Foundation.

And if I'm not alt.cultured out by then - the highlight for me of the excellent Manchester Histories Festival is a session on the history of fanzines.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Manchester Poetry

I picked up a copy of the Manhattan Review in Oxfam, an anglophilic American poetry magazine. The issue had a feature on Liverpool and Manchester poets for North American readers, edited by Chris McCabe and Philip Fried. The lead essay talks in depth about a Liverpool poetry scene from the 60s and 70s, The Mersey Sound et al, but struggles a little to define a similar Manchester one: repeating instead the musical story of the Lesser Free Trade Hall, the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks, Tony Wilson and Morrissey et al.

I've lived in Manchester since 1991, and though Manchester has always had a literary scene, it would be fairer to say its had a series of poetry scenes, rather than just one, performance, mainstream, experimental, or based around bookshops, magazines and publishers.

There was a Manchester Poetry Festival - which has since morphed into the literature festival - but that grew out of spoken word and comedy; though it didn't ignore the role of Carcanet and the Universities in the city's scene. It's why any truly anthropological collection of Manchester poetry would surely include Chloe Poems' (aka Gerry Potter) "The Queen Sucks Nazi Cock" and Lemn Sissay's "Hardy's Well" poem alongside Morrissey's lyrics to "Suffer Little Children", "Beasley Street" and "The North will Rise Again." Then there's long term resident of the city and poet laureate Carol Anny Duffy, Staffordshire born, Liverpool-linked; not to mention the poets, academic and otherwise, Manchester based, and Manchester exiled, that circle Micheal Schmidt's Carcanet and PN Review - Jeffrey Wainwright and John Ash to name two. Several of the Manchester poets in the Manhattan Review collection, including Matthew Welton, and my publisher Chris (Hamilton) Emery, no longer live here, the latter leaving a long time ago; whilst is Accrington-raised, Withington-based Steven Waling "Mancunian" any more or less, because his accent is geographical closer, than someone like myself who grew up in the West Midlands? A genuinely Mancunian writer such as Lee Rourke (now based in Essex) or Neil Campbell (in the North East) don't necessarily define their poetry by their city of origin. There was an issue of Norfolk based The Rialto a few years ago which included Welton, Campbell, myself and a couple of other Manchester poets - which we joked about being "the Manchester issue." It's also far too easy to forget that the internationalist approach of more experimental writers, like James Davis and Tom Jenks, both living in the city, but through presses like ZimZalla and ifPthenQ seeing themselves part of a non-parochial movement, that nonetheless has a strong physical focus here in the NW.

I'm certainly more of a Manchester poet than a Birmingham one - though I'd say I was more of a Midlands poet than either, if only because I retain both the accent (which does come through in the speech cadences of my poetry) and the memories (that imbue some of my work - and I've never spent more than a couple of nights in the city of Birmingham, never lived there.) I've written substantially about Manchester, but more in fiction than poetry, and the city - I realise - is only explicitly mentioned in two poems in "Playing Solitaire for Money". But York, London and Lancaster where I collectively spent seven years of my life don't get a mention at all; I'm clearly not an Elizabeth Bishop writing of geography, or a Philip Larkin of particular English place.

And that I think is true of Manchester poets in general. There are Manchester poems in books by Les Murray (a frequent visitor to the city) and John McAuliffe (resident here), but defining a Manchester poet is a hard thing. David Constantine has written about the Salford slums where his grandparents lived; and the Manchester poets who wear there city heart on sleeve are those where the accent and the image is so much part of their work, like Mike Garry or John Cooper Clarke. The 2 books that were recently published by Puppywolf under the name "Best of Manchester Poets" have come from the spoken word scene, though making tentative efforts to be more wide ranging.

Whereas there are Scottish anthologies, Welsh anthologies and similar, where nationality can be seen as being something that is "real", I'm not so sure that city's have the same identity; Manchester writers may have been born here, or live here or study here, but they don't necessarily write about here, and why should they after all? New Order, Joy Division and the Smiths have a universality regardless of their postcode or subject matter. Only The Fall retain, through sound and subject matter, a vision that can be so explicitly linked to their city of origin. Parochialism is one of the city's great failings - and its those artists that transcend that, whether referencing their background or not, that make it a great city - and one that can attract writers as diverse as Martin Amis and Carol Ann Duffy. A truly representative Manchester anthology, I think, would struggle hard if it limited itself to writing about the city by residents or sons and daughters of the city; similarly I think the last thing any Manchester poet - whether born, bred or landed here - wants to be told is to write about the Hacienda, Coronation Street and Boddingtons. Identity is fluid, and good poetry reflects that. It matters not where the writer of "Adlestrop" was born or lived, after all.

Beatboxing with a Didgiridoo

Some weeks are like makeshift festivals in your life, adrenaline rushes, exhausted collapses, highs and lows. Hard to get perspective. And sometimes the only thing to do is to "pull yourself out of the oxygen tent" and carry on, and carry on.

Starting a new project always involves a lot of work, and energy, particularly when the kick off meeting takes place in Brussels with a room full of 40 or more people. As an "old hand" you find yourself explaining, talking, explaining again. Brussels is my current favourite grey, rainy city, and nice food, good beer and wine, and a little bar where I danced with a panoply of European colleagues to "Exodus" by Bob Marley, was somehow fitted in between two flights, and 18 hours of meetings. Returning to Manchester on Friday afternoon, I felt tired, but reasonably exhilarated, but keen to get back to normal life whatever that is.

I'd said I'd pop to TV21 for the launch of the Death Jeans album by local band Monkeys In Love. I've only heard them briefly before and this was the first time I've seen them. Riot Grrrl meets Swell Maps, with an added bit of their own art school surreality would sum them up, all in a good, unpretentious way as well. Several support acts were also entertaining including the second (?) gig by Manchester writing stalwarts David Gaffney and Clare Conlon. Taking the short story places it doesn't know it wants to go, Gaffney has previously given Powerpoints a good name in his performance, and he's now gone further off piste, with Conlon reciting his words whilst he plink plonks on a portable keyboard, and in the background, images sail by. Gaffney's tragicomic stories of everyday life are funny and poignant at the same time, though afterwards he said that some people had complained about his Greggs-obsessed opener. I thought it was hilarious (and I went to a comprehensive, so there!) So a good, vibrant, only Manchester can do this kind of night... at least if you could screen out the dickheads and idiots that seemed to be out in full force in the Northern Quarter that evening. Thin-skinned after a tiring week, I remembered why I don't often go out in town. Not that anything bad happened, just the atmosphere was always walking that tightrope of the tense.

So, given that, and the dull reality of the mountains of work that await my return, I was feeling a little battered down; but dragged myself out of bed to go to Liverpool where our little group of "north west poets" met for the 3rd time. Always invigorating, was pleased to discover a little of the Welsh poet, David Jones, who's declamatory style seems to predate Geoffrey Hill, and brought me to musing over the lexicons we now use, and whether my generation - whether religious or not - are the last where the King James Version runs throughout our cultural identity. More of that another time. Coming back into Manchester, and with an hour before I met a friend I sat in Kro opposite the university, having walked down the carnage-zone that is Oxford Road. Manchester seems to have a particularly feral edge at the moment, and almost every town bar you go into has someone drunk and potentially dangerous. Over the road at Big Hands, the post-Kaiser Chiefs crowd wasn't there yet, but Guy Garvey of Elbow was, and seeing how gracious he was with the couple of young fans who came over for a chat and a photograph, was a reminder of what real Mancunia is.

But if I've felt pretty tired of our dysfunctional, self-obsessed, dog-eat-dog city this last couple of weeks, last night at the Contact Theatre remind me that I'd miss it if I was gone. Audio Visual Meditations saw Baba Israel and a number of musicians and video producers put on two sets of improvisational music and visuals linked by video conferencing between NYC and Manchester. With no noticeable latency, a sitar player and vocaliser in New York (Neel Murgai) jammed with a guitarist and double bass player in Manchester, with Baba providing electronic beats and a range of acoustic instruments. A warm, late night, ever evolving set that had numerous melodic highlights (such as when classical double bassist Micheal Cretu "duelled banjos" a little, "trade some eights," said Baba, with Murgai's sitar). At one point, conjurer Israel pulled out a didgiridoo from beneath the desk and preceded to beatbox through it, definitely a first. Overpinning it all, VJ-mixed visuals from the two guys who make up Albino Mosquito and a live visualisation by a New York artist, provided a visual accompaniment to the beautifully balanced sound palette.

It's strange isn't it - the experimental poetry crowd, the digital art crowd, the classical music crowd, the jazz crowd and others would have loved this live collaboration - but though free, the audience was mostly appreciative friends of the Contact Theatre. I'd say its one of the most unexpected and edifying musical experiences I'd had in Manchester for ages. I'm quite into the improvisational at the moment, and if at some times all improvisational music edges into King Crimson territory, this is more because Crimson were one of the greatest bands ever, than because of any tendency to cliche. The mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, and the willingness to use Schwitters-like vocalisations in the multi layered live mix, provides a salutory lesson for so called "real" or "live" music. A one-off collaboration - but hopefully something that will be regularly played around with. Next time, make sure you're there.

Sunday is therefore my shortened weekend, with a lot to come next week. I've writing projects to work on, as well as my February "single". The sun, unexpectedly is shining on this computer screen. All is well in Mancunia.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Love Poems

With Valentine's Day in the middle of the week, the weekend papers are seasonally adjusted to feature poetry. Today's times had a pull out of a few love classics and the Guardian asked writers for their own favourites.

I've posted a sonnet I wrote a few years ago on my author website.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

The Legacy of a Literary Magazine

Literary scenes are a bit amorphous aren't they? I'm reading Stephen Spenders "The 30s and After" and his reminisces about that pre-war decade in particular are illuminating. He admits that they were a "scene" or a "generation" but that it wasn't as if they had meetings, even though they might circulate around the orbit of Auden, and older writers such as Eliot and Woolf. Literary worlds are quite small - and require something more than writers: they need magazines, publishers and readers. It got me thinking about "Lamport Court" the magazine I co-edited with Neil and Julie Campbell for its first 6 issues, with the first issue coming out in late 2003, (Neil would continue editing it until 2008 on his own, and its final issue was #12.) Being based in Manchester and vaguely involved with literature, art and music all three of us were able to suggest writers (and artists) who contributed to our very cottage-industry, hand-produced magazine. I'm just starting to write an essay about the legacy of a literary magazine - since important as they are during their existence, its later that they are more interesting. We published Chris McCabe, Lee Rourke, Togara Muzanenhemo, David Rose, Naomi Kashiwagi, James Davis, Hilary Jack, Max Dunbar, Paul Harfleet, Julie Campbell, Neil Campbell, myself and others during those early issues - and Zoe Lambert, Nicholas Royle, Richard Price, Eleanor Rees, Mike Garry and David Gaffney would also feature during the magazine's erratic lifespan. Not a bad roll-call, and a list of those we already knew, or who were just starting out, or came unknown through the mail, or were already established and kind enough to contribute. Nearly a decade on there's a smattering of books and anthology appearances from that list, as well as art exhibitions and albums; literary scenes not just consisting of writers, after all! There are also lots of names I don't recognise - one off poems that came through the door, or small press stalwarts who appear time and again in the listings, without ever going on (or even wanting to go on) to something more. If anyone's got any memories or thoughts about Lamport Court, or the importance of small magazines in general then please do get in touch either through the comments on this blog (or via email adrian (dot) slatcher (at) gmail (dot) com). And if any magazine (little or otherwise) would be interested in the finished article, then please get in touch!

You can read 3 issues of the magazine online at the Poetry Library.