Tag Archives: performance

Paxman, Popular Culture and The Poem

In the UK we have a number of national treasures and Jeremy Paxman is one of these. He fronts the BBC Newsnight programme which tries to delve a bit deeper into the stories that politicians spoon feed lazy journalists with. We love Paxo because his interviews of the powerful are a mixture of disbelief and contempt: the humbling of the mighty is always good to watch.

Paxo has become the news this week with the stunning and prescient observation that poetry has lost touch with the public, that it is as remote from popular culture as it is possible to be. This is the gist of his argument as reported in the Grauniad:

“I think poetry has really rather connived at its own irrelevance and that shouldn’t happen, because it’s the most delightful thing,” said Paxman. “It seems to me very often that poets now seem to be talking to other poets and that is not talking to people as a whole.”

He is of course correct, it’s a view that I’ve been known to express over the last four years and have made arduity as an attempt to bridge at least one of the gaps.

Ten years ago I would have pointed at the material that is currently produced as the main problem with work too often being chronically self-indulgent or inaccessible or both. I’m no longer entirely of that view but the problem is real, the same article reports a drop in the value of UK poetry sales from £8.4 million in 2009 to £7.8 million in 2013 yet the response of those poets quoted is largely one of denial.

I’d like to start with some basics; poetry in the UK is enclosed, it has conversations with itself and argues about things that nobody outside of poetry either relates to or cares about; poetry covers a wide spectrum with a variety of styles, genres and subject matter but most of it isn’t very good; poetry’s relationship with academia is not helpful.

There are comparisons to be made, fiction and music do remarkably well and both of these range from the ‘popular’ to the (much) more esoteric. Poetry does the same but very few people care about the Poem compared with those that care about either music or fiction. Unlike these two competitors, there are many more people that write poetry than those who read it.

I’d like to pay some attention to Paxo’s charge of irrelevance because I don’t understand the ‘leap’ from being incestuous and self-obsessed to relevance. At the ‘radical’ end of the spectrum there is certainly material that is pertains to and engages with most aspects of public life. Of course, the ‘message’ emanating from this material may not readily fit into what appears to be the current consensus but it certainly challenges the status quo. So, the material is relevant but some of the most relevant is wrapped up in vocabularies and formats that most people find challenging. Without naming any names it must also be said that most of the mainstream poems and poets (ie those that attract the ‘quality’ press and get awarded prizes) are appallingly bad in terms of skill, subject matter and relevance. There is still too much of the confessional and the observational and little or nothing that gives me any indication at all of what it might be like to live and act in these dismal times.

Then there’s the issue of what we want the Poem to do, a question that is clouded by the Image Problem. A recent and entirely random poll conducted by this blog would suggest that poetry either:

  • expresses strong eomotions or;
  • describes lyrical scenes or;
  • is profound

I must stress that this poll was less than objective and only involved about ten individuals but most people felt that the Poem had lost its way with Eliot and what they see as the descent into obscurity and inaccessible elitism.

Also, in my small part of the world, the only venue for poetry has been an open mic event attended exclusively by poets who read their material. I attended for a couple of years and then decided to produce a few gigs last year that featured a mix of poetry, music, storytelling and elements of the visual arts. We attracted a mixed crowd and managed to change some people’s minds about the Poem. As regular readers might know, most of my output is experimental but I was gratified by the strength of response and by the subsequent interest that was shown, especially from music fans. What surprised me was how the best reaction was to the most experimental aspect of my work rather than material that I considered to be more accessible.

For me, the best result from this is that I’ve been able to broaden my range of collaborators and now work primarily with visual artists, musicians and writers of fiction. I’ve found that I get a much more objective reaction to my work. One evening earlier this week I was working on mixing some multiple vocal / jazz material with a composer and he made the (gentle) observation that my more recent contribution wasn’t as strong as some of the earlier versions. In the past I would probably dismissed this as the response of a non-poet who didn’t fully appreciate the poetic subtlety of what I’m trying to achieve. In this instance, because he wants to make this ‘work’ as much as I do, I reviewed my various versions and am now in the process of radical modification- I need to do this quickly because I’m working with a guitarist tomorrow evening.

So, performance alongside other means of creative expression and collaboration with practitioners in different fields may be a couple of ways of addressing the Paxo challenge in terms of engagement and relevance. It can’t do any harm. Can it?

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How collaborative poetry might work

The Fugalists

Rachael Berry, me, Chris Jones and Keri Highland post-gig 17.8 2013

Regular readers may know that I dabble in making my own attempts at the poetic. Recent efforts have used archive material, photography and/or multiple voices with minimalist piano. After more than a few months of working through permutations I think I’ve got a collaborative ‘form’ that works. I usually define my stuff as ‘working’ when it does what was in my head at the beginning (or thereabouts) regardless of the reaction of others- which has usually been one of mystification and/or disdain. On this occasion however, I seemed to have struck a balance between what I want to achieve and what people like. Last week-end my collaborators performed this vocal improvisation in a yurt at a local arts festival. It was the last item of the evening and I rounded things off and joined a friend outside in the gathering gloom to discuss the evening as a whole. Before we could start I was approached by a lady in her fifties who asked for my contact details, I asked her what she thought and she said the last piece really “worked” and then became quite emotional about how well it worked.

I’d liked to have been able to write this off s a single reaction but there has been positive feedback from equally unexpected quarters. I find myself to be ridiculously pleased about this but the main point of writing about it here is to try and fathom what it is that appeals and why it should appeal to such a broad group of people. I’ll start with the motivation: for many years I’ve been interested in work with multi layered vocals; I’m of the view that there’s too much of the poetic in poetry; I’m incredibly interested in what people say about their passions and how they say it.

So, the initial plan involved a collaboration between myself and Julian Winslow, a local photographer who is also my best friend. Our theme is landscape and my contribution involved interviewing a number of people who worked on or with the land in order to make a multi-layered sound file which would then be played at the same time as people viewed Julian’s pictures.

This ran alongside a series of interviews and discussions with a local musician/song writer, Keri Highland, about mental fragility. I then distilled these down to about twenty phrases each which we improvised around at a couple of gigs earlier this year. We were both taken aback by the response. As part of my collaboration with Julian we’d been recording interviews with each other as to the creative process and he suggested that I should interview others from different disciplines. Rachael Berry and Chris Jones had both been exhibiting their art at the second gig where Keri and I had performed together and I cajoled them both into a series of interviews as to their various processes, I also interviewed Keri on the same subject.

The next few weeks were spent playing the sound files and extracting what seemed to me the most honest and unvarnished things that the subjects had said and subtracting the same from the interview that I had with myself – which was essentially my response(s) to what the other three had said.

We then rehearsed once or twice a week, refining the format. I’d known from previous attempts on the landscape project that three voices talking together mostly descends into incoherence whereas it is possible to make some sense from two voice. After some tweaking we decided to alternate the two male voices (with some cross-over) whilst the two female voices should do the same. This produced a piece whereby a male and a female voice were speaking at the same time but not in response to each other. The improvised element was that people could read the phrase that they wanted whenever they wanted in response to or against what the other had just said.

After some further discussion we decided to try a fairly abstract keyboard backing. After some brief exchanges Keri came up with and recorded something that we all felt that we could ‘lean’ into and which enhanced the work rther than turning it into any kind of song.

I’d produced these events through the summer and could therefore decide on where to place this amongst the poets musicians and story tellers. Because the mental health improv had been so well received in previous gigs, I decided to finish the evening with it and was amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of the response.

I’m still not sure why this material gets this kind of response, now why it should appeal to an audience with different interests and tastes. I’d like to think that it’s because it carries some transparent honesty that people can relate to and be absorbed in. The friend who was waiting outside the yurt is of the view that it demands some audience involvement in that people have to really listen to follow a particular thread. I think he’s right and I’m very pleased that people do seem prepared to pay attention.

The other element that is ideologically important for me in my ongoing war with the poetic is that it made use only of what people said in non-poetic and reasonably ordinary conversations. You may argue that interviewing myself is a bit of a cheat and you’d be right. The first ten minutes of my conversation with me are full of neat and pithy little phrases, I then realised that I wasn’t supposed to be making an impression and wittered on about the material that I think is incisively brilliant and the rest of the world is completely indifferent to.

I also discover that I’m on bit of mission to challenge assumptions about poetry: I red half an episode of a soap opera that I’d poeticised which was very well received and a much more standard poetic rant about cultural saturation that was inventive, lyrical and quite skilled but ws ded after about the third line of many.

The next challenge is to try and maintain the momentum without being too ambitious. The obvious dimensions that I seem to be playing with are: subject matter; number and gender of voices and the nature of the musical backing if we feel we need one. Beyond that there’s visual material but I’m concerned that this might detract from the attention that is currently paid to the words.

For some reason I’m also of the view that we should only perform this at the moment because it appears that this collective involvement / attention might be the core aspect.

A final note on collaboration, I know that some find it intolerable and other projects crash and burn due to big egos but I have to say that my experience both with John Matthias and these three have brought me out of my shell in quite unexpected ways.