Friday, June 28, 2013

Impossibly Cool - eighties indie pop remembered.

The release of the boxset "Scared to get happy" and the publicity its getting is part the result of journalists of a certain age being a bit nostalgic for their youth, and partly a sense in younger writers/readers that here's a pre-internet culture of musical innocence that seems utterly alien compared to our currrent media-sophistication. To both groups I  say "approach carefully", for if ever a "movement" was gloriously, ridiculously of its time its "indie pop." So much so though one of the names given to the genre is "C86" to reflect the NME compilation tape that came out during my first year at University.

Indie music as "independently distributed" is there throughout punk rock, but spikey pop like the Stiff roster was still musically sophisticated and aiming for the charts. Indie's ambition were aimed at the indie charts, if that. Musically, the roots of C86 are there in the Postcard roster. Josef K, Orange Juice and Aztec Camera did "indie" better than anything that came after, and if that makes indie a Caledonian music then so be it - and Rough Trade acts like Scritti Politti were also important. Yet, thinking about it, back to that time, in the myriad of styles that were around in the early 80s, the two things I took from bands like this - which I probably didn't get from goth or New Romanticism or industrial - were their kinship with some of the melodic sixties music I loved and a sense of realism about their kitchen-sink lyrics. Being a poetic soul wasn't that easy in the early 80s, and though I might listen to Cabaret Voltaire and Bauhaus, I also had the name Tracey Thorn scribbled on my pencil case. ("Is she your girlfriend?" someone asked, "no, she's my favourite singer," I replied.) The music papers of that time were a little serious; on the one hand caught up in the idea that rock music was important, on the other hand trying to deal with a world of Altered Images and Haircut 100. No wonder I soon ditched the NME and Sounds for the always ironic Record Mirror.

Looking back on my favourite records of the year 1983's the year that matters to me - with my favourite songs of the years being indie 7" "Trees and Flowers" by Strawberry Switchblade, obscure Irish band Microdisney with "Pink Skinned Man" and This Mortal Coil's ethereal "Song to the Siren." That I was also listening to Xmal Deutschland and the Birthday Party is another side of the story.

The Smiths would turn up around this time as well, and I guess the Byrds-y guitar of Johnny Marr meant that we were now allowed to like the 60s again. As I'd been spinning "Forever Changes" and the best of the Lovin' Spoonful I was very receptive. Its easy to forget how much music had been moved to the dumper by the mid-80s, from the Rolling Stones to Nick Drake, only to be "rediscovered" a year or two later. By the time I went to college, I was obviously hoping to see regular bands, but on turning up at Lancaster University the two biggest gigs of that first term were the Sweet and Fairport Convention. I had to look elsewhere - at the flyers in Ear 'Ere records - to find out that some of my favourite bands were coming to town. I saw the Shop Assistants, the Bodines, the Wedding Present, Bogshed, My Bloody Valentine and any other number of "indie" bands, alongside brasher names such as the Inca Babies, Ghostdance and Crazyhead.

This was definitely a time of innocence - and the number of "indie kids" you could count on two hands compared with almost any other sub-genre. Yet there was also something fully-formed about it. It might seem odd to say this now, but indie was impossibly cool. The indie look was very pre-hipster, it was non-sexual (but very sexy) quirky, cutesy, especially the girls. It was as much about the thrift store look as the music.And I have to say that it was a scene that not only celebrated itself, but that wasn't particularly easy to break into. There was a wilful confidence about these bands and their audiences - like a private members club. (Creation records started in this way: above a pub in London putting on nights for this cognosceti.) In retrospect, I think the scene was horribly middle-class, very southern, a bit art school - its no surprise that indie artists have gone on to be TV presenters or authors. Liking hip hop or house or garage rock was almost frowned upon; yet the genre itself was both narrow and derivative, pulling in Velvet Underground riffs or psychedelic sounds. Yet during those couple of years, there was nothing better than picking up a cheap 7" by one of the bands beginning "The..." The Smiths had made ordinariness hip even though they were from ordinary. A band like the Wedding Present could almost sell itself on being Smiths fans 2nd favourite band!

I don't think this kind of indie lasted for me more than a couple of summers. By the time of the Creation compilation "Doing it for the Kids" it was already a little too late; innocence was being hijacked by experience - whether it was the Pixies and Sonic Youth ripping things up, or the Stone Roses and (original C86ers) Primal Scream getting high. I remember going to see Prince on the Lovesexy tour, with my late friend Nick, and Hugh, a guy who worked the record fairs with him, but was also the singer in indie hopefuls Mighty Mighty. Seeing Prince and the Revolution come on a stage in a car attached to a robotic arm in the round in the middle of the NEC was about as far from indie as you could imagine.

It had never been a popular music, though odd 7" singles or 12" e.p.s. by bands like the Woodentops and the Weather Prophets became much loved classics, yet after this time it didn't so much die as retreat to its heartlands. The Sarah label reduced indie to its bare essentials, jangly guitar, and Francois Hardy style vocals, and catered very well for its niche. The naivety and innocence of those early sides was replicated a few years later through the more politicised Riot Grrrl scene - and of course, Oasis and Creation broke out of the indie ghetto in the mid 90s to become briefly the biggest thing in the country.

Five must-have indie records....

1. The Shop Assistants - The Shop Assistants (LP, the one truly sparkling album from the scene)
2. Move Me - The Woodentops (7", their finest moment, and proof you could dance to indie - their album "Giant" was also great, but almost too polished for indie)
3. Therese - The Bodines (7", indie was all about songs about girls, this is the best)
4. Almost Prayed - The Weather Prophets (12" e.p,, could have been contenders, but signed to a major and then flopped)
5. Primitive Painters - Felt (12", in a career of wonderful records, this was their most wonderful)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Praxis and Poetry

I've always been interested in the idea of "praxis" - process and the reflection on process in relation to art. It seems to me that this is the one area that is often missing in creative writing education, which seems strange as understanding the philosophical underpinnings of art is, to me at least, a necessary component of the art - and one that is probably eminently teachable. A fine art education will give you this in spades of course, and its notable that poets from the more experimental end of the spectrum have often come through some such funnel - and may well end up back there.

As often happens when I'm thinking about a new blogpost, several things tend to come together at once; similar to when you first here of someone or something and then they seem to crop up time and again. Alot of the writers I now know are very engaged in process - whether its through initiating projects or collaboration. However, though there's a focus to being part of an anthology or a particular event, I'm more interested, inevitably, about how my own practice works. Though I create individual "units" of art; poems; stories, I've always felt my work is very connected within itself, especially with regard to its themes, and sometimes, its forms (which is not to say form and theme aren't in themselves very connected). Of course, we're not necessarily encouraged, outside of the academic or publicity context, to "talk" about our work. I was reminded of this reading Emily Berry's commentary on her work on the Peony Moon blog.I'll quote the first paragraph in full since it seems very applicable:

"Some people seem to have the language for speaking about their own work very fluently – I am still not sure I have learnt the language for talking about mine. It’s like trying to explain one mode of communication via another very different kind, like telling someone about a phone call through the medium of sculpture. Still, a sculpture about a phone call could be something interesting."

That last line struck a chord: in other words just because it might seem counter-intuitive to be using one medium to discuss another doesn't mean that in itself it isn't somewhat of interest. In contemporary art practice we are seeing a lot of blurring of roles between artist and curator, or artist and performer, or artist and audience. Some of this is about control: at what point of the art work does the originator want to control. This seems more intrigueing than the art-as-factory of a Koons or Hirst's spot paintings; it can be the artist as choirmaster or conductor (Spencer Tunick's use of people as material; Jeremy Dellar's "Procession" and "Battle of Orgreave"); but it can also lead to more participatory frameworks - for instance where a curated show tours, only to be added to at each venue or older practices, such as "mail art" where different artists collaborate in producing a limited edition run. Temporary art spaces, and even temporary art organisations, (such as the Lionel Dobie Project in Manchester, or the DIY Art School that is hosted there).

For the writer there is perhaps less obvious scope for creating a "sculpture about a phone call" or rather, the imperative for dabbling in different medium often comes from commercial rather than artistic imperatives. (Ben Elton writing the er..."libretto" to "We Will Rock You.") Yet, those of us steeped in modernism, see that this is a key part of practice - such as Edith Sitwell's collaboration with William Walton for "Facade". I guess that the energies involved in not just one art form, but the attendant expectations around it (the developing of a "career" as a poet or a novelist) have generally been detrimental to any overt thoughts of developed "praxis." Yes, we may read Eliot mostly for his poems, but certainly when I was at school, his plays were often studied, and then there's the "entertainment" that is "Cats." Inevitably with major figures, they can often seem to be doing more "minor" work when they dip away from what they are best known for. Both Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a play; Fitzgerald and Faulkner dabbled in Hollywood; artists such as Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood have directed successful films.

In the underground, it is artistic as much as financial imperative that sees one "switching codes" - for myself, its important that I have the opportunity to explore those themes which interest me most: its why I will occasionally collaborate on a project like Poems for Pussy Riot, as I do have things that I want to say about art, free speech, protest, and (probably as important to me) rock and roll. As an artist who writes politically, the balance here will be different than someone who is a "political artist." I'm defiantly not an activist, for a number of reasons, and many of them are entangled with my views on the role of (my) art - that I reserve the right to explored different political angles, that I might find more difficult if I was more obviously aligned to a cause or party.

As an artist, I guess my own equivalent statement to "a sculpture about a phone call" would be that I'm increasingly keen to defend the artist's right to be wrong. I'm not talking politics here so much as artistic practice. I guess if you're known for a certain type of work; its quite difficult to explore beyond that - whether its the formalist becoming more avant garde, or the controlled writer becoming looser. I'm interested in those past writers who've adopted (and adapted) within that context. (The sad death of Iain Banks, for instance, robbed us not just of a good man and writer, but a good example when it came to working across genres.) In this space a "bad work" by a writer can be as vital as a good one. Mistakes (and I don't really like the word) are enablers - "what if?" moments. And besides, the themes that I addressed in, say, my pseudonymous cartoon, Treeville, aren't that far removed from a poem like "A Colossal Machine" or a story like "The Ikea in Ashton Can Be Seen from Space"; all three are absurdist takes on modern life, and imaginative templates for our possible futures.

Of course, one thing you lack as an underground or unnoticed artist is a critical culture around your work - or even an explicit engagement with that work. Publication doesn't just provide legitimisation it also gives a historio-cultural framework to your work. Why, a future researcher might ask, did he abandon the experimental poems or the realist stories? Chances are that things aren't as linear as all that. I've always been struck that an autobiographical writer like William Burroughs appears to be most literally truthful at his most absurdist. The things we make up, in other words, are probably the things that appear most plausible. Part of what one does as a writer is truth, but part is also a construct. I like to think that a person can be more complex than a fictional character (or rather that our fictional characters should necessarily be complex if we want them to appear human) - and yet I'm well aware of the roles that people inevitably apply to us.

In talking about my writing, I'm not talking about my writing so much as what I'd like a conversation about my writing to be about. There's not so much of it out there that it tells a coherent or even truthful picture; the "unpublished" writings are often as real to me as the published ones. The new work as vital as the old etc. etc. If there is a reason to talk through what I'm doing then I think for me its more about what I'm trying to do with my work. Sometimes that's about the themes and content of the work but other times about the style and the form. There was a point around the millennium where, perhaps through my increased interest in poetry, or because of the amount of concentration I was putting into my writing, I think I fell for a certain type of fictional aestheticism that probably didn't do me too good (at least not in terms of getting published) - it came, I think from reading American writing but with my English accent - I certainly couldn't put on the voice of a Roth or a Bellow or a DeLillo, but I could extract some of their aesthetic juice and apply it to my own work. Same goes, I think, with poetry. I'll never be able to find much to attract me in the Celtic fringes, as I've a very different (very English?) voice in my head; so I've had to look elsewhere than much mainstream British poetry for models. Recently, that's included an unusual one, the formalism of Thom Gunn, but I've had time for Macniece, for Lowell, for Ashbery in the not so distant past. I'm well aware that sometimes these models won't work for me: but perhaps its about that conversation - that extracting of what juice I can from these vivid blooms.

I'm happier talking about art at this level - and this distance - than "what is this poem about" - though maybe that's because I rarely get asked (other than "is it true?" or "who is it about?") We each of us, I think, need to adopt or develop a language for understanding our own work or at least our own practice. I guess some writers would see this as counter-intuitive, as breaking the mystery: but the very fact that I think there is a mystery makes me want to understand it more. Like the onset of a storm, though we can not tell the future, its useful to know whether or not the wind is blowing in our direction, and from where.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Subcultural Capital

We're all aware of the idea of "cultural capital" - where their is value placed on the cultural activities of a place or person. But what about "subcultural capital"? In other words, does the same equation exist for underground or subversive or even anti- art practice? Where the work and the practitioners are deliberately or accidentally excluded or ignored - is there the same "value"? Many activities, cultural and otherwise are somewhat hermetic; they exist within the bubble of their practitioners - primarily by and for those who are producing the work. Sometimes it might seem that the cultural capital of subcultures is negligible or even non-existent.

I think there are three different kinds of subcultures that I'm thinking of here. Firstly are those activities and institutions that are reactionary in their nature. There can be some snobbishness against certain kinds of "art" and "making". From knitting circles, to networks of cross-stitch fans, to classic car enthusiasts, to fan clubs (including fan fiction) these subcultures are often vibrant, popular, but hermetic. They speak only to themselves: are uninterested in audience; (though perhaps more interested in "market" for their goods). I can't quite dismiss this sort of subculture. Surely a local choir might be applauded for the opportunity it gives people to sing, or the inventiveness of their repetoire, or even the collaborative possibilities with other "professional" musicians. Within this context someone might realise they have a talent that hasn't been explored; or improve technique and skills. Yet there is also a problem of ambition. I have known hermetic creative writing groups, musical groups, art and photography groups where though they may publish, exhibit and perform, the scope of their work can actually be negative for an artist who joins but whose ambitions are slightly outside of the group's more reactionary scope.

The second subculture I'm thinking of may be anything but reactionary, but be self-reverential: about production, more than anything else. It can be the artist moving from one commissioned project to another; the writer endlessly being published in the same small press magazines; the musician spending all their energies on ploughing their narrow furrow without ever expanding it. This kind of grass roots activity has value for sure, but can it exist outside of a certain monomaniacal commitment? Does it self-define in terms of its ambition? In some ways, the micro industries of cult figures like Billy Childish or Momus might be seen in this way. There's an obstinacy here that is admirable whether or not you like the art or not. In a world that tends to let people's creativity wither, there's something to be said about the artist who maintains their production in spite of indifference - and as  Childish and Momus show there are small audiences for this. In many ways, the idea of an artist's own capital, at whatever level, is related to this. There are poets published by Faber and others whose "capital" is merely that they produce and keep producing - they may often exist in a critical vacuum, or one that is purely kept going by acolytes, friends of vested interests. And, full disclosure, isn't this my own practice? And constant productivity by an artist is no different if you're Heaney or Duffy when you come to think of it - maybe the opportunities are more that's all; yet artistic opportunities are different than economic and cultural capital opportunities. The obsessive artist could be seen as a tragic figure, but I prefer to appreciate the artistic purity - i.e. if you've next to no cultural capital, then whatever art you produce is self-sustaining. It doesn't of course, make it good, but the difference between those who have got cultural capital is not the quality so much as the acceptance.

The third and most interesting subculture is the most interesting - the creation or emergency of some kind of "scene." I was thinking about this reading Dan Holloway's piece in the Guardian on Alt Lit and the mainstreaming via the new novel by Tao Lin. This self-defining of something called "Alt Lit" and the uncertainty about the term, as well as the annointing of American models seems a very contemporary - or networked - view on both scene building and subcultures. The literary subculture is almost always amongst friends, or co-existent writers: say in New York, London or Paris. What about a badging against which writers can self-define? Holloway talks of Alt Lit practitioners as mostly writing poetry - yet Lin and others are primarily prose writers. Certainly in the UK there's been little sign of or appetite for an experimental prose literature. Rather, avant garde poets and fellow travellers tend to work in hybrid forms. The comments after Holloway's piece are interesting, and amusing - as everyone's looking for a definition of "alt lit" yet surely the name gives it away a bit. Before social media there were newsgroups and listserves - acting as like-minded people networks. The alt. set of news feeds was a way of defining a wide range of subcultural interests. What pieces like this are trying to do I think is to provide the subculture with some capital. Tao Lin's writing is in its own tradition of course, of discursive, stream-of-conscious, non-linear writing. We're not a million miles from the bratpack writing of Brett Easton Ellis, or Mark Leyner's 1995 novel "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist."  Hardcovers - or at least book length publication - give an impetus here; and I think subcultural capital has to be essential disruptive, anarchic even.

There's also something essentially fly-by-night about the kind of subcultural scene that we're seeing since the millennium. By the time its named, its over. And in the US where nothing apparently exists unless it has economic value, I can see that just as the ironic-sentimentalists at McSweeney's provided a suitable hipster room for the literary establishment a decade ago; there's a belief in commoditisation in America which insists that all subcultures have got capital - that they eventually crossover. I'm reminded that the first time I heard of "flarf", the post-millenial experimental poetry meme, it was in the most august of places, a special edition of "Poetry." Flarf's built in contradictions (where are the good writers going to come from in a literature that is all about "found" texts?) seem to burst at this point. Old avant gardeists were puzzled at the media storm; writers outside the hermetic scene, such as myself, were wondering where a flarf-type poem such as my "Title Poem of the Collection" which was published in the mainstream journal "The Rialto" as long ago as 2000 fitted into this.

So, Alt Lit or not, I kind of think that cultural capital and subcultural capital are anathemic to each other. For a genuine subcultural capital is in the live nights, the zines, the online debates and discussions that are by their very nature happening on the edge - even to the extent of being outside the countercultural online spaces such as 3AM Magazine or Barcelona Review or in the Prague-based print magazine Vlak.  There's also a worry to what extent the academy is providing the "home" for more art-practice based writing; universities being just another kind of hermeticism at times. For subcultural capital is generated for its own purposes often - the writers that hovered online around 3AM and Lee Rourke's Scarecrow magazine a few years ago, have moved up or offstage. Self styled "New Puritans" or "Offbeat Generation" or "Alt Lit" writers provide a bit of a wind in the cultural sails. The citadel remains unbreached however. For subcultural capital isn't quite as clearcut a transference or crossover. It remains in fanzines, blogged, temporary or temporal, and shifts with the moment. If you've heard about it, chances are its over already, but there's something new, something next. Press record. Here's the scene.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Ripples on a smooth sea, or storm in a teacup?

The news that my publisher, Salt, was stopping publishing single collections following a drop-off in sales was alarming. Not only was Salt best known for its poetry, but having gone through a few choppy waters, had appointed a renowned poetry editor, Roddy Lumsden, had had a successful series of anthologies, and was finally seeing commerical success through its fiction arm, and the Booker shortlisted "The Lighthouse." In the way of things, the Guardian, who has conspicuously not reviewed most of Salt's single collections over the years, wrote it up as a news story primarily about the market for poetry. As a counter balance, Billy Mills made the counter-case that one publisher's decision isn't the last rites for poetry, and that poetry is actually thriving.

Serious as I am about my writing, I'm an amatuer writer in one sense: I've never got paid for it - and so I do look on these things with differing perspectives; as a writer, (and as someone published by Salt and in two of the award-winning anthologies mentioned by Billy Mills I guess I can declare an interest), and as a reader. When I hear of a falling off of sales - I wonder where from? I certainly buy more poetry now than I did five, ten, fifteen years ago. Many of these books haven't even got an ISBN. There's certainly more fish in the pool - so I don't think anyone will be making a living out of my largesse; still with books, magazines and readings, I contribute quite a few quid to the local (and wider) literary scenes. Where were these readers who have left off buying poetry? Poets are always poor - and, though much is talked about "poetry on the internet", you'll still be hard-pressed to find much work by published poets on there. I've been saying for years that this is stupid - that making poetry books available to download might actually increase sales rather than decrease them. The devil, I suspect, is in the detail.

Yet Salt did one thing very well; their books were lovely things; better even than Fabers in some ways; and with a much more contemporary look than Bloodaxe for instance. Only Carcanet look quite so well-formed on my shelves. I've bought Armitage,Berry and Riviere from Faber, Donahaye, Kennard, McCabe, Goldsworthy, Croggan and McCullough from Salt, Ivory, Williams and Wright from Bloodaxe and Ashbery, Murray, Welton and Letford from Carcanet in the last couple of years. A good spread, I think, though a mix of the well-seasoned favourites and the bright and bursting newcomers. All lists have their bigger names and more stable favourites, and I guess whoever you are, you need to nurture those if you are going to be able to take risks on the new. I've still no idea why Salt has done so badly in Poetry Book Society Recommendations or Guardian reviews, but Armitage aside I'm not sure when I last bought a PBS recommendation.

Bookshops are still important for picking up books - and you'll rarely find contemporary poetry from any of our publishers in these bookshops. The market may well have changed irreversibly; yet its hard to know really. I do think, same as anything else, a poetry book (or a poet) needs to have had some reviews, to have good word of mouth, to have some contemporary relevance and to be available: and though there are good books out there - not so many get all of these: and where one does (William Letford's "Bevel" for instance), its a tiny splash. In the small world of poetry publishing, there seems an unusually close relationship between press and poet - certainly no big transfer fees between them (though I notice the new Sophie Hannah revised Selected is from Penguin, not Carcanet.)  Yet as the above list proves: I'm not one to choose one press above another as a reader. (Though I don't seem to have much of a liking for Cape or Picador's mainstream lists.)

So we get a bit of a storm in a teacup that makes me think that if I had a large fortune, maybe now would be the time to turn into a small one, by becoming a poetry publisher. I can think of half a dozen Salt poets I'd pick up immediately, and perhaps another half dozen from the Modern Voices series that I'd also find time for. I'm sure some enterprising individual is probably doing the same thing right now. Yes, there is no money in poetry, but as someone else said, there is no poetry in money either.

It may all turn out to be ripples on a smooth sea - Salt may have just been unlucky, publishing widely at a time of industry upheaval, gave it a good strong list, but also without the history to back it up, and, with a back catalogue of 400 or so collections nothing stops them coming back into the market in a few years if they felt it was worth doing so. Poetry as I know it is a cottage industry. Yet culturally its more important than a few jars of home made marmalade. I think that "audience" has long been neglected - both by publishers and bookshops who've not known what to do with their poetry (and that includes long neglect of electronic dissemination) and by the arts establishment. Was it Saatchi's touting of the YBAs or the Turner Prize and Tate Modern that made contemporary art both successful and edgy? I'm not sure; but it was certainly not by "dumbing down" and introducing a National Art Day where we all paint pictures of village greens; which is pretty much where the National Poetry Day has found itself. I've always felt the audience - if there is one - for poetry needs to come from left field; and certainly I've seen large audiences for poetry in Manchester on a regular basis than for Booker listed novelists. The difference is that the poetry reading is the art, whilst the book launch is merely a promotional tour to support it.

Not all of those in the room will have bought a poetry book: but all will have experienced the scene. A little ripple here and there doesn't stop us from seeing the calm straits of the blue ocean: if the horizon is only in our imagination, and really this is no bigger than a duckpond, then I don't much mind: perhaps we're okay in our skiffs, and don't need an ocean liner.