Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Open Letter to the Poetry Trust

Dear Poetry Trust –

I cancelled my Friends standing order, at your request, with a heavy heart.  At least I think I did: there’s no record of the cancellation in my account or of the order itself except that it was last paid, appropriately, in November.  If the money arrives again next November, that’s too bad…  Electronic bank transactions aren’t much good for metaphors so I can’t help thinking that a cheque will fall on the doormat at your Halesworth attic, the letterbox clatter echoing in the emptied office. 

Thank you for going ahead with the 2015 Festival despite accumulating financial and other worries.  Everyone who was there, packing out Snape and Aldeburgh rooms of all sizes, will have been grateful for that.  Of course there were rumours.  One of the things being said was that you’d been encouraged by your sponsors to risk the ambitious move to Snape, and perhaps they were now letting you down. 

When you made your announcement in December there was a predictable outpouring of dismay, lamentation, support etc.  From signed-up Friends and supporters but also from people who don’t go to Aldeburgh, or only occasionally, but still value the festival as a vital part of UK poetry life. 

Since then it’s gone quiet but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still thinking and talking about it: what’s going to happen?  

I haven’t tried to contact anyone for inside knowledge.  I know that you the trustees (and maybe some of the former staff?) are being careful about what you say – fair enough, any comments would spread quickly.  There is a rumour going round that there either won’t be a festival at all in 2016 or it will be very informal, symbolic, enough to prevent a total break in the 27-year-long chain.

Before looking forward I want to go back – to your annual report & accounts for 2014/15 (up to March 2015), see here.  On the face of it, despite the loss of one major donor (the Garfield Weston Foundation) and box office income not rising as hoped, your financial position looks OK, with £270k income and £265k spend over the year… except that any organisation (especially with low reserves) relying on Arts Council Grants for the Arts funding and/or charitable donations is constantly on the edge of a North Sea cliff.

While showing appropriate caution about future funding, the plans suggest a certain optimism.  Your report (p8) set out an ambitious fundraising programme, including a public appeal and a search for major donors to complement Grants for the Arts money.  This is matched by the ambition of the artistic programme built around the Festival, which includes:

A year-round programme of events and projects …a re-introduction of the Schools programme, an increased youth offer, a move towards partnerships, and a widening of access to the benefits of contemporary poetry, delivering a year-round live and digital programme, creative education opportunities, courses, prizes and publications. 

Clearly this didn’t work out for various reasons, perhaps chiefly a combination of staff changes and over-ambition?  I don’t know enough about this and it’s easy to be wise after the event.  A business guru would say: stick to your core competence, which in this case is –


Other near-integral elements, part of the Aldeburgh brand, are the Aldeburgh Eight (though as a former participant I’m biased) and the First Collection Prize.  The rest sounds positive but isn’t core though I’ve heard that the work you did with English teachers, helping them teach poetry in schools, was really good.  Someone should be doing that. 

By now you may be asking, why am I writing to you?  Hardly to say, stick to the Festival, since I’m sure you’ll already have worked that out.  I think I’m writing into what has felt, since Aldeburgh in November, like a vacuum.  I realise you must have decided that you need quiet time for your strategic review, without intrusion from the poetry crowd: fair enough. 

But nature abhors a vacuum.  I can’t fill this one so I’m sending a letter into it.  It’s a plea for communication.

Do you know how much goodwill there is out there, and might it be a good idea to have it working for you /with you?  If you could consult and involve us in your decisions – or at the very least, update us on how your thoughts are evolving – you’d be repaid by Friends, audiences and supporters feeling some ownership of the future Festival and whatever shape it takes. 

This blog should be illustrated by a photo I failed to take in November, of a notice on the sea side end of the Jubilee Hall in Aldeburgh saying that renovation plans were being developed (which at the time made me wonder if a return there might be an option).  Anyway the Jubilee Hall website is now announcing public meetings in February, with presentations and discussion on the future of the Hall.  One building can’t be compared to a whole, complex Poetry Trust, but still it seems like a good idea.  

While writing this I’ve kept thinking about what I read in November on one of
the local history signs by the sea path south of Aldeburgh towards the Martello tower.   Fishing families used to have houses there which would get flooded during sea surges.  They knew about this so their houses were constructed accordingly.  They left the doors open on both sides so the sea washed through and back again.  I’m not sure what this is a metaphor for (there’s got to be one!)  Perhaps it’s about human / festival adaptability.  Or about letting us all in.   
My Aldeburgh friends (ie the ones I always go with) and I are thinking of booking a stay in Aldeburgh around festival time.  If you’re not there we’ll hold our own festival under the stars, by/in the sea, on the marshes and in the pub.  Perhaps others will come and do the same.  But we hope very much you will be there too. 

All the best


All Festival photos by Peter Everard Smith

Friday, 18 December 2015

A revolt against transparency

The New Concrete has been lying around for a while, propped up against bookshelves, looking good: a near-square block in textured concrete white, the title in raised type and crossword style.  A fat white door that says Open Me, a door to all kinds of strangeness. 

ROSEMARIE WALDROP: Concrete poetry is first of all a revolt against the transparency of the word.

The New Concrete: Visual Poetry in the 21st Century is edited by Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe with an essay by Kenneth Goldsmith.  It’s published by Hayward Publishing at the Southbank Centre, who describe the book as an “overview of contemporary artists and poets working at the intersection of visual art and literature”.  I should declare here that I know Chris McCabe and that Hayward sent me a review copy (to my delight).  Also that I lack any background in the visual arts, linguistics or semiotics; what follows is a poetry reader’s review / reaction.

The white door works as a signal, meditation white to put the brain in a receptive state.  I get much pleasure from opening it anywhere and leafing through… looking? reading? being surprised and excited again and again by the inventiveness of the contents.   Most of all, being made to think about the strangeness of letters and words.  They change, disappear leaving an aftermath, are disrupted, superimposed, dissolved, de/reconstructed; they prance, flare or lurk in many different typescripts, pay grungy homage to early typewriter concrete, make/don’t make language and some sort of sense to the regular reading brain.

MAX BENSE: Concrete poetry does not entertain. It holds the possibility of fascination, and fascination is a form of concentration, that is concentration which includes perception of the material as well as perception of its meaning. 

Concrete poetry raises some reviewing questions.  How to describe the poems/pictures?  The contents list calls them ‘artists’ plates’.  There are around 180 of them, in alphabetical order (good decision – looking for ordering reasons would be a distraction).  Each is given its own page, framed in plenty more white.  I’ve just opened the book at random and hit ‘concrete poetry’ by nick-e melville.  Spoiler alert.  Various black geometrical shapes spread across a double page, like off-cuts from a suprematist’s collage session.  Ah, that one’s the inside of an R.  And there’s an O.  Another O with its head cut off like an egg; the top appears next to it.  The inner spaces of stencil letters!  What’s the oblong with a diagonal slash?  The right-hand side of Y.  Ah, it spells CONCRETE POETRY but some of the letters are missing or decapitated.  Mind and eye enjoy the confusion of floating lost among the black and white, then seeing/not-seeing the letters, then the puzzle.  Once the solution’s found it’s not possible to see the page the same way as before.  The strangeness of looking and thinking. 

DEREK BEAULIEU: Concrete poetry momentarily rejects the idea of the readerly reward for close reading, the idea of the ‘hidden or buried object’, interferes with signification and momentarily interrupts the capitalist structure of language.

Another reviewing question is: how to quote?  I’ll play safe and only show the pages that are on the Southbank Centre’s website.  I can't download them properly so please visit the page to see.  Here is ‘Flesh’ (left) by Décio Pignatari, one of the Brazilian founders of concrete poetry in the 1950s, still working in 2002; and ‘fallen’ (right) by Jörg Piringer, a foamy torrent of letters within which words seem to appear, or perhaps a cross-section of the chaos of a brain?  

One of my favourites, for its watery beauty, is Francesca Capone’s ‘Oblique Archive VI: Isidore Isou’.  An underwater book (apparently), its typewritten lines wavily distorted and luminescent as if seen on a poor quality screen.  It’s possible to make out some words: et même si, Rimbaud, lettristes, Tristan, voulons, Marx, tracts pro-soviet, (sym?)boliste. With time more becomes apparent, but which phrases go with which?  They merge and separate with the ripples on the water.  Moving my head around ought to work but no, this is a page.  Isidore Isou was the founder in the 1940s of the French avant-garde movement Lettrism: “many of their early works centred on letters and other visual or spoken symbols” says Wikipedia.

DONATO MANCINI: The typewriter creates the page-as-grid which creates the page of much concrete poetry…

This is ‘Grand Eagle (capitals and columns)’ by Henningham Family Press.  It’s one of the few plates that carries an explanation: “..If only propaganda were this difficult to read”.  The title sends us straight to American power both military and financial yet this could also be a digital-age and multi-coloured (rather than red-and-white) representation of the banners that used to appear in Eastern Europe in the days of the Warsaw Pact, strung across road bridges or on the front of factories.  Structurally it looks like a plan not just of Wall Street, say, but of a Roman military camp, lines and rows split into four quarter-squares.  In much of this book there’s no indication of scale – the original of ‘Grand Eagle’, despite its postage-stamp size on this blog, ought to take up a whole gallery wall or a stadium of North Korean dancers spelling out a message.  It probably fits inside another book.

I’ve opened again at random and come across Christian Bök’s ‘Of Yellow’ which contains no letters at all but a sort of representation of a computerisation / encoding of Rimbaud’s sonnet ‘Voyelles’.  Each vowel has been replaced by an oblong according to Rimbaud’s own colour associations as described in the sonnet.  Consonants are grey.  This is fun (like most of the book: forget what Max Bense said) and it’s interesting to see Rimbaud’s sound-patterns.  

KARL KEMPTON: [While computers and the internet have allowed people to create and publish] compositions that take hours instead of days or weeks or months, it has also generated a lack of respect for discipline and seriousness leading to widespread creation of insignificant works.

The pages that work best for me tend to be the ones where letters/words collide in strangeness and do the old Ezra Pound thing of MAKE IT NEW; where enough sense is made for that sense to be questioned, distorted, undermined, negated.  The space between meaningful language (whatever that means) and alphabet soup.  Some pages I respond to more as works of art, with the letters/words as props or still-life components. Occasionally I feel the sense just goes on making sense... 

This is a multinational collection of concrete poetry from the last fifteen years.  Most of the names are unknown to me; occasionally a known, usually British one leaps out (A code-hand-written page by Edwin Morgan... could be anything, perhaps the Loch Ness Monster singing in Linear A?)  There is some political work but not, I think, covering the Arab Spring and its aftermath or climate change, though the latter may underlie some works such as Richard Skelton’s ‘Limnology’.

The New Concrete has an excellent introduction by Kenneth Goldsmith on the history of concrete poetry and its current reincarnation as, he suggests, “post-digital concretism”.  There’s a sense that some contemporary practitioners feel they are riding on the shoulders of the giants of the 1950s and 60s.  Goldsmith suggests that the influence of social media means that “much of the new concrete poetry takes the form of snappy one-liners”.  I don’t find this when reading/looking through; perhaps the editors have avoided this phenomenon. Each has contributed an essay, subject matter ranging from a chance bookshop encounter to the shape poetry of 300BC.  And the book is book-ended by a wall of extremely quotable quotes, a few of which appear in this review. More on the book here.

IAN HAMILTON FINLAY: Concrete poetry is not a visual but a silent poetry. 

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pattern beyond chance? The story of a poetry collection: guest post by Stephen Payne

Stephen Payne has just had his first collection, Pattern Beyond Chance, published by HappenStance.  I’ve written on Displacement about my own journey to pamphlet publication (also with HappenStance), so this seems like a good place to publish his account of his journey to a full collection. 

But first: hear ye, hear ye all.  On 5 December sixty poets are taking part in a Poem-a-Thon for Refugees – a day-long reading in London.  We are raising money to support the work of Médecins Sans Frontières with refugees in the Mediterranean.  They have two search-and-rescue ships.  They run hospitals and clinics, both mobile and static, in many of the places refugees are coming from, passing through and/or getting stuck.  Vaccination, clean drinking water, safe childbirth, medical and psychological care - they provide all these.  

Each of us is reading for 8 minutes.  I’ll be reading poems from mid-20th century Greek poet George Seferis' Mythistorema, which came out of his own experience of displacement and exile in the Mediterranean nearly 100 years ago.  Plus one poem of my own.

So far we’ve raised over £8,000 and there are still ten days to go…  If anyone would like to contribute, my fundraising page is here!  And if you’d like to come and hear us / cheer us on on the day, the Poem-a-Thon will take place from 12pm-10pm at Vout-o-Renees, The Crypt, 30 Prescot Street London E1 8BB.  Saturday 5 December.

If not now, when?

Now over to Stephen.

If there’s a pattern in the story of Pattern Beyond Chance, it’s a wonky one.  The sequence of events is nothing like a straight line from submit to accept to publish. It seems self-indulgent to tell the story, but I’m keen to acknowledge some kindnesses as well as the role of chance: the sheer contingency of the process and my own good fortune throughout.

I first emailed my publisher, Helena Nelson, in 2006, through a website called Word Doctors. This was not long after I’d moved from Cardiff University to the University of Manchester in an odd career move that had a more positive effect on my poetry, allowing me to join Poetry School classes at Linda Chase’s Village Hall — especially with Linda and Grevel Lindop.

I asked Nell if I could engage her professional critiquing service. After a short email conversation, she suggested instead that if I sent her some poems she’d be happy to give her thoughts for free. It’s better not to dwell on what this might imply for the commercial prospects of HappenStance Press; I’d say it attests to more important qualities for a poetry publisher.

Anyway, I sent a few poems, and received more critique than I’d perhaps bargained for, including overall impressions and advice, and line by line suggestions on the poems. If this was the moment of my ‘discovery’ as a potentially publishable poet, it didn’t feel like it. Contrasting my poems with the prose style of my emails, Nell was drawn to the adjective ‘constipated’. She also commented that I seemed to be avoiding poems where I was ‘at risk as a person’.

It may seem strange to say that I was pleased to receive such feedback, but it’s the truth. Something to work on. And in among the criticism, there was warmth and wit and encouragement, as well as an invitation to keep in touch as a friend.

Which is what we did, through occasional emails. I became a HappenStance subscriber and a reviewer for Sphinx. I read Nell’s own poetry, in particular Starlight on Water (winner of the 2003 Aldeburgh Prize), with its marvellous Philpott poems, and a couple of stunning poems in The Dark Horse, which had been recommended to me by Grevel Lindop as the best magazine in the UK. (And whose editor, Gerry Cambridge was to become a HappenStance poet himself. )

In July 2008, Nell visited Manchester to read for Poets & Players and to stay at Linda Chase’s house, where I was by then a lodger. Several times thereafter, Linda suggested that I submit to HappenStance, and I eventually did in July 2009.

Good news! But soon after I received it, Nell emailed to ask if I’d heard from Michael Laskey. I had no idea what she meant, but the very next day Michael’s (paper) letter arrived, offering me the Smiths Knoll mentorship for 2010: a year of tuition culminating in pamphlet publication, offered on the basis of my submissions to the magazine over the previous few years (most of which had been rejected, of course: evidence in itself about the contingent nature of poetry publishing).

I immediately asked Nell what I should do, and she unhesitatingly said that I should accept the mentorship, despite all the editorial work she had already done on my behalf. The Probabilities of Balance was published by Smiths Knoll in December 2010.

Being mentored by Michael and Joanna Cutts was fantastic, and having a published pamphlet was affirming, even if it didn’t change my life. I received few reading invitations and zero begging letters from major publishers. Three things to mention, though. One is that Nell reviewed the pamphlet herself, for Sphinx, and gave it a lovely review. Another is that Fiona Moore reviewed it beautifully on Displacement, and wrote to tell me. We discovered we were both going to that year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, and agreed to meet up. Now we’re good friends, and see below.

Third, I did send my pamphlet to a well-established publisher, and received a very encouraging response, so that for a long time I was rather confident that they were going to publish a collection. But, after more than a year of interaction, something seemed to shift, and I sensed, before any formal announcement, that the decision would be No after all. I told Nell, who replied, ‘Well, if they won’t publish you I will.’

And so it has transpired. I delivered my first more-than-full manuscript by hand, at the 2014 Poetry Book Fair. Nell and I had our first editorial meeting during the 2014 Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, when Nell told me her idea for the structure of the book. One of the more distinctive aspects, she’d noted, was that the language and ideas of my academic interests inform many of my poems.  So she set me a challenge, to organize the poems according to this undercurrent, and to find some scientific quotations to introduce each theme. The next version of my manuscript, was organized into four sections —Design, Word, Mind, Time — each headed with a quotation from a scientist I revere.

From here on, much of our work was done by email, but the most intense and detailed editorial discussions took place by telephone. Nell has a deal where the first hour of a landline conversation is free. Several times, we would ring off just shy of the hour, and begin again. Perhaps some authors wouldn’t enjoy such an attentive approach to editing, but I love it. I loved it with Joanna and Michael, and I loved it again with Nell. I’m sad it’s over; I hope it might happen again.

What were our phone conversations about? The works: choice of poems (did they belong? —something it seemed possible to judge even without knowing what it meant); order of poems (were they kind to their neighbours?); punctuation of lines; poem layout. Most of the discussion was about accuracy: a tiny adjustment of cross-hairs aiming at clarity, tone or balance. A few changes were bigger. We changed a prose poem to free verse,  partly because Nell worried that it might seem a fashionable token. I’m convinced this improved that poem, because of one line break. We centre-aligned one poem; such a taboo in some parts of poetry-world, but which seemed to us right, and a bit rebellious. We had fun: poetry is too important not to have a good laugh about it.

When we both thought the collection was almost done, it was sent to Charlotte Gann, whose helpful and encouraging comments we were both thrilled to receive.

‘Pattern beyond chance’ is a phrase from a poem. It was almost the first title I thought of, and a couple of friends approved, or didn’t disapprove. Which makes it sound as though I didn’t obsess over it. Let me correct that impression, by observing some of its properties. It chimes with my pamphlet title: probabilities in one, chance in the other, the first a phrase from a poem about my son, the second from a poem about my daughter. It rhymes with my publisher, Happen beyond Stance. It is an anagram of The Payne Concert Band.

Also, as it turned out, it prompted Nell to design a patterned cover which I’m very pleased with, and which could be no other main colour, once it was mentioned, than Payne’s Grey. HappenStance Press styles itself as ‘anti-blurb’, and the cover has only a single, short quote, from ... Fiona Moore! It’s a quote from her review of The Probabilities of Balance, before we knew each other at all, but I enjoy the way it seems to cock a little snook at convention.

The flap on the hardcover also has a short puff by Nell. The publication plan was for hardback only, but one more accident changed things: the printer messed up with the bindings of many copies, and then went bust before they could repair the damage. Now I have the rare privilege of being published simultaneously in soft and hard cover. I recommend buying one of each.

A last detail to mention is the font. I’m interested in fonts, the very idea of them. My first academic article (Green, T.RG. & Payne, S.J. (1983), The Woolly Jumper: Typographical problems of concurrency in information display) was published in a journal called Visible Language, adjacent to a paper by Douglas Hofstadter criticising the suggestion that font design could be fully understood (and represented on a computer) in terms of quantitative variation of stroke thickness, length and curvature, etc. Font is pattern, but more complex and mysterious a pattern than that. Hofstadter used to say that the challenge of AI (Artificial Intelligence) is to know what an A is.

Pattern Beyond Chance is set in Trinité. When Gerry Cambridge was preparing his HappenStance pamphlet on typesetting, The Printed Snow, Nell asked him to nominate a favourite font. Gerry mentioned Trinité as highly regarded by afficionados, but expensive. In another example of love trumping economics, Nell chose to mark HappenStance’s tenth birthday with the ‘crazy’ purchase of Roman Condensed and Roman Condensed Italic, Trinité No 2 .To my eyes, it’s beautiful, and a little strange. I read about it: it has no perfectly straight lines.

Pattern beyond Chance is out from HappenStance.