Me

I was fully aware
with this
that made me laugh out loud
funny and sad
but rather more absurd

the knife to cut
instantly and quickly
slices for later
that I also had
as I was fully aware

entirely on my lonesome
the surprise exultation

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Willy Vlautin – Northline

Originally posted September, 2011

Northline

Storyteller

I’ve just finished reading my signed copy of the short novel Northline by American author and front-man of band Richmond Fontaine, Willy Vlautin. It is a simple and yet powerful story of the damaged and self-damaging life of Allison Johnson, and it seems to me that as a male, Vlautin has empathised with and realised effectively in his narrative the female voice and perspective. There is simplicity in the telling of this everyday girl’s life that is typically American – though it isn’t Carveresque, for example, in that it isn’t pared back to that ordinariness – which is realised through the naturalistic dialogue and strong sense of place, essentially Las Vegas and Reno, as well as bars, beer parties and shopping malls.

The story is full of painful and violent episodes but the overriding theme is one of hope and endeavour, these latter positive attributes found in the kindnesses and support from various disparate people Allison meets on her escape to a better life.

There isn’t a distinctive literary style other than direct and simple narrative. There is the literary ruse, however, of Allison talking with her film hero and secret lover Paul Newman, someone who supports her most in times of need. At these times, the references to various characters and scenes from what appears to be most of his films sounds a little too contrived [apart from the fact he speaks to her!], but it does provide a narrative thread.

Most effective are the juxtapositions of Allison’s painful falls and optimistic retrievals. A particularly dramatic one is where Allison is raped – a situation she has in some ways fatalistically placed herself [though there is no authorial justification for the rape, and its brutal description speaks for itself] – and this is set two chapters later against Allison going for a telesales job and meeting Penny who is as ordinary and real as an average person can be and yet her plain speaking, encouragements and simple kindnesses provide, in the circumstances, a powerful alternative experience in a difficult life.

WiTH 25 – Falmouth University

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actively again
reflects
cut-ups engaged
with journeys
from experimental
students
nurtured through
escapades

and celebrates
discarded
teaching

[a mimetic introduction, cut-up from the following intro]:

WiTH 25 is the latest anthology of writing from students at Falmouth University, and it yet again reflects and celebrates the creative spirit nurtured through its English degree courses. This is a collection of what seems predominantly experimental writing from found poetry and narratives to cut-ups to humuments – with other playful escapades and journeys. As someone who always enjoys such writing, including the teaching of it – and being actively engaged in writing a sequence of cut-ups from discarded sonnets – I have a strong interest in and affinity for this kind of challenging work.

As a broad selection from various writers, and because I have a personal leaning to poetry, this review will necessarily focus on some writers at the expense of others but it is genuinely the case that all of the contributions represent a high and consistent level of creative focus and at times intensity. Credit therefore goes to every writer for making the impact of the whole, and the student editors as well as Senior Lecturer and editor Rupert Loydell must have enjoyed their rich resources.

That experimental spirit is evident from the off, Mel Johnston’s tirade of verbs generating interest through their shifts and juxtapositions across physical and mental human attributes, whilst Kieron Nightingale’s Finding the mostly abstract is a linguistic tapestry of, I am guessing, found writing and expressions from the contemporary world in which we live, especially social media, and as fragments from this or as a re-presentation of its ideas/ideals with satirical to caustic asides.

As a fan of humuments [research Tom Philips for origins] I was pleased to see a smattering of fine examples of these from Nicole Donegan, Charlotte Kirkpatrick, Bethany J Noall, Jodie Chapman and Jodie Palmer [back cover, excusing the blurred reproduction below]. There are varying degrees of securing readability in these: whatever experimental process one adopts, the writer can own the rules – I know that sounds paradoxical for such approaches – but crafting should always be a key following to the initial exploration, and with humuments I was always rather anal about making sure the words selected from a text were clearly visible/readable when obliterating the rest. Just saying.

Greg Fiddament’s The Flushing Ferry seemed at first more formal/conventional, but its cut-ups are carefully and cleverly constructed with rhyming and repeats, as in its increasingly alliterative last line in each stanza, concluding ‘Still the fucking ferry’s fucking running just fine’.

There is, by the way, quite a bit of fucking and other expletives [and yes, crudities] playfully asserting their found presences throughout this collection. It makes one imagine the prime resources were eclectically wide and diverse….

Whilst earlier emphasising my proclivity for poetry, I did enjoy particularly Anna Cathenka’s radio play Eloquent Pebble, and would love to have heard this recorded/performed as it is an aural delight, even extrapolated from the writing on the page.

I called this collection a ‘challenging’ read as a whole, and it is. When it comes to experimental writing [sweeping statement alert] I don’t expect meaning to be concrete, certainly, and am personally incredibly tolerant of the most tenuous gestures. If I have no idea, I am still content with the walk-around of trying. So I enjoyed Ben Kritikos’ Vegan Tories, not understanding much but enjoying the view of most; and I think ‘challenge’ embraces that risk of reaching the potential limits of some readers’ acceptances, so the crude playfulness of Felix Kingerlee’s poem tickled my fancy but may bristle with some, though that latter sounds like I am trying to emulate the ‘hairy’ effects of the poem’s occasional content. Anna Cathenka seems to weave the literal within engaging word patterns in her poem daytrippers, and again, it is the importance of impression over the literal that matters in this reading.

Another tangent from my pro-poetry focus was the considerable pleasure I got from reading Gavin Hughes’ Columbian Tuesday. Its two pages of gangster/crime narrative contain many bright re-creations of the echoes of this genre, for example the emotively languid cynicism of this paragraph,

Lapping at the opposite bank of the river is today’s colonial atrocity. Nineteen naked tribal bodies, bloated and bloodied, limbs all overlapping and interweaving like some exaggerated art installation, and somewhere out in the dense jungle a pair of Franciscan priests whose faith weakens with each step

as well as the Chandler-esque quip of

He taps a strange, shifting rhythm against his legs and grins at Hanlon like a donkey with a mouthful of cactus.

Mel Johnston’s Mule and Charlie Onions’ ‘neath both exemplify the thematic pornography I’ve intimated as existing throughout the collection, and the former is a potent cut-up of defiant, sexual assertions, with the latter expanding on its similar eruptions within a wilder narrative full of richly machine-gun shifts and trajectories.

The selection doesn’t conclude on but there is the inclusion of an academic essay near the end about the use/significance of the ‘pastoral’ in both Milton and Marvell by Sarah Cave – convincingly done – and this helps to illustrate the breadth of the contributions to this book.

I was going to conclude myself by composing from another cut-up, this time from the rest of the review, but the reconstituted text was much too long, so, in a different kind of found empathy, I thought, fuck it.

P1000415

 

Cicada Shells

Blue jays swooping and
slapping with wings –

with flashes of surge
not bombs wedged in their beaks

and suckered to the off for an
escape into something different –

fireflies are igniting each flight
with cherry red terrestrial blood

along that lucky chasing
never to return, never to return

and cicada shells of balm disguise
their screeches, claws anchored.

John Steinbeck – Burning Bright

Originally posted November, 2011

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Artifice Alight but Alright

If you teach GCSE English in this country, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is the holy grail of engaging in educational pragmatism: teaching a book of unquestionable literary quality that is accessible, meaningful, challenging and examinable for all. That this is the only prose literally hundreds of thousands of young people here will ever know in any depth is both glorious and despairing, but I’m not pursuing that paradox now. Come January 2012, my next examination period, I will no doubt be reading and assessing hundreds of more OMAM responses, and I love it.

Like the other millions who know Steinbeck’s work well, I am a devoted fan, both as reader and teacher. I read most of his work when I was 19 years old: in brief, whilst working on the farm I once spent a few weeks driving a tractor and trailer that collected silage and this entailed long periods of simply waiting my turn to have the latter filled, and in these moments I read Steinbeck’s novels, there in the tractor cab. That said, I do recall exactly where I was when I finished The Grapes of Wrath, my favourite novel of all authors: in the small second bedroom of my cottage. I can’t remember where I was when JFK was shot, or the moon landing, but I do when I read that astonishing ending. And what a colossal work: the storyline, the politics and philosophy, the dialogue, the intercalary chapters with their metaphoric reflections, the biblical prose and the expansive descriptive narrative.

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This is by way of introducing and writing briefly about Burning Bright which I have just finished. As I said recently, I thought I had read all of Steinbeck’s work but found this untouched on the shelf. It is problematic as a read in a way his other work isn’t. I chose not to read Steinbeck’s own forward at the beginning, though I did after the first Act, a clue I had missed when I began. The opening descriptive detail is classic Steinbeck, for example in the introduction to Joe Saul,

A lithe and stringy man of middle age, Joe Saul. His jaws muscled against strain and cables down the sides of his neck. His arms were white and blue-veined, with the long chords of clinging and hanging rather than the lumps of lifting. His hands were white, the fingers spatulate, and palms and fingers calloused from the rope and bar.

The setting for Act One is a circus, and the opening detail is typically taut and clear in presenting place and the four main characters: Joe Saul, Friend Ed, Mordeen and Victor. We see immediately the tent where Joe is getting ready to perform and the stubbled field where this and others are pitched. We also see immediately that he is a trapeze artist and Friend Ed is a clown, and so on. Simple and succinct and vivid. It is soon apparent, however, that the dialogue is full of artifice. When Friend Ed enters, he speaks with a knowing that doesn’t ring true, but background detail – Joe’s loss of his wife and partner – is quickly conveyed in the rather heavy opening exchanges.

At this point I sensed the theatricality of the dialogue and turned to the forward where Steinbeck talks about the experimentation of writing this as a ‘play novelette’ and his rationale for doing so – obviously referencing the roots of this in Of Mice and Men – so my instinct was correct though I should have known this anyway, considering myself to know his work well!

And here is an example of the artifice and melodrama in the speech,

Joe Saul stirred. ‘Yes, I know that. But something like a ceremony, something like a golden sacrament, some pearl like a prayer or a red flaring ruby of thanks. Some hard, tangible humility of mine that she can hold in the palm of her hand or wear dangling from a ribbon at her throat.’

The artifice is carried into the structure too, the four Acts taking us with the same characters and situation/plot into wholly different contexts – from circus, to farm, to the sea [on a freighter], and to a hospital room. The central plot twist is also quite evident near the end of Act One, so it is a highly crafted, and visibly so construction. As a tale of love, friendship, self-sacrifice, deceit and human compulsion, it tackles the major literary and real human themes. I think I would find a stage production as inevitably stilted, and because Steinbeck attempts to embrace both prosaic and theatrical genres, it is ultimately – but because it is him – a jack of both and marginal master of each. And perhaps my experimental appropriation of a summation is equally contentious.

So would I recommend it? Of course – it’s Steinbeck! Even with the stylised dialogue and plot projection I found the story compelling, from simply wanting to know how it ended, to being fascinated by the experimentation and wanting to see/read it through. When first published in 1951 [as a companion piece to The Pearl; it was first published as a single volume in 1971] it was, apparently, criticised in reviews both as prose and as a play, though the experimentation was acknowledged more positively, this a little condescending though if I’m honest I suspect I too value it for this creative impulse over its realisation.

I have located a video version of a 1959 stage production of Burning Bright and I am intrigued enough to want to see if I can get this. I wasn’t able to find a picture of my single volume Pan edition, but I do like the two versions I did find, which both focus illustratively on BB rather than The Pearl [the latter of course highly regarded] and it is interesting how those images so clearly ‘sell’ the human relationship drama as soap opera!

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Victory and Failure: Feminism and John Steinbeck

The recent victory in reversing a decision made by the Department of Education to remove feminism as a topic of study [and the wider impact and role of women] from the A level Politics syllabus is a tribute to the public campaign launched by student June Eric-Udorie. Her trenchant arguments were presented initially through a Change.org petition and grew by prompting/eliciting the support of Rupa Hug MP as well as Catherine Mayer and Sophie Walker of the Women’s Equality Party. You can read the parliamentary debate about this on the Hansard site here. If you missed it, there is also a nine minute audio clip from the Woman’s Hour programme here where the issue was discussed in December 2015, and you can hear from the second year A level student herself.

What this demonstrated among many positive attributes is genuine democracy working against dictate, the latter an increasing default position of this government. Those who have followed me on this blog will know of my arguments with the DfE regarding Michael Gove’s dictatorial decision to have American authors removed from the GCSE English Literature syllabus, a decision Nicky Morgan, as successor to Gove, took no interest in reconsidering whatsoever. My point now isn’t to rehash that argument: instead, I use Eric-Udoria’s victory to reiterate my disappointment in the teaching profession – English teachers in particular – for not presenting a similarly coherent and vehement argument against Gove’s decision at the time. One could argue that decision will now have a much wider impact on students than the Politics A level decision would have had if it remained. English teachers should have been the most articulate and persuasive body in presenting an unassailable case, but we failed to do so.

Therefore, this brief reference is to serve two purposes: first to congratulate the victorious June Eric-Udorie and those who signed her petition [I did] and those influential people who then supported beyond this; and second, to provide some context to my continued posting here of writing made previously on another blog, some which will focus on John Steinbeck, a major and engaging author that GCSE English Literature students can no longer study.

Kenneth Patchen – Eve of St Agony Or The Middleclass Was Sitting On Its Fat

Originally posted in November, 2011:

Proletariat Poet

patchen - Copy

I’m sure this is a repetitive point, but writing this blog is as much diary as it is music review and presenting poetry. It keeps me busy, reflects music being listened to, and then other thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it gets read by others.  One writes to be read, let’s be clear, but the self-reflection and actual preoccupation of the physical writing is the fundamental purpose, designed or not.

Just ahead of reviewing The Claudia Quintet + 1 featuring Kurt Elling and Theo Bleckmann – What Is the Beautiful? I have been reading the poetry of Kenneth Patchen which this album celebrates. I did not know his work, though I should, so I have been reading about him and his poetry before getting into this album that honours the 100th year of his life and work, Patchen having died in 1972. So as well as diary and self-reflection and so on, researching and writing for this blog is educational.

Patchen was active in linking poetry with jazz music and performance and that is clearly the  focus of The Claudia Quintet album. I’ve enjoyed reading a small selection of his poetry found online, especially his more political fare. In his early days he was apparently referred to as the Proletariat Poet, and although Patchen allegedly rejected this appellation, it is obvious why he was given the title, and the one poem I’m going to print here illustrates that. It also speaks as much for today as it did when written in 1939 [*],

Man-dirt and stomachs that the sea unloads; rockets
of quick lice crawling inland, planting their damn flags,
putting their malethings in any hole that will stand still,
yapping bloody murder while they slice off each other’s heads,
spewing themselves around, priesting, whoring, lording
it over little guys, messing their pants, writing gush-notes
to their grandmas, wanting somebody to do something pronto,
wanting the good thing right now and the bad stuff for the other boy.
Gullet, praise God for the gut with the patented zipper;
sing loud for the lads who sell ice boxes on the burning deck.
Dear reader, gentle reader, dainty little reader, this is
the way we go round the milktrucks and seamusic, Sike’s trap and Meg’s rib,
the wobbly sparrow with two strikes on the bible, behave
Alfred, your pokus is out; I used to collect old ladies,
pickling them in brine and painting mustaches on their bellies,
later I went in for stripteasing before Save Democracy Clubs;
when the joint was raided we were all caught with our pants down.
But I will say this: I like butter on both sides of my bread
and my sister can rape a Hun any time she’s a mind to,
or the Yellow Peril for that matter; Hector, your papa’s in the lobby.
The old days were different; the ball scores meant something then,
two pill in the side pocket and two bits says so; he got up slow see,
shook the water out of his hair, wam, tell me that ain’t a sweet left hand;
I told her what to do and we did it, Jesus I said, is your name McCoy?
Maybe it was the beer or because she was only sixteen but I got hoarse
just thinking about her; married a john who travels in cotton underwear.
Now you take today; I don’t want it. Wessex, who was that with I saw you lady?
Tony gave all his dough to the church; Lizzie believed in feeding her own face;
and that’s why you’ll never meet a worm who isn’t an antichrist, my friend,
I mean when you get down to a brass tack you’ll find some sucker sitting on it.
Whereas. Muckle’s whip and Jessie’s rod, boyo, it sure looks black
in the gut of this particular whale. Hilda, is that a .38 in your handbag?

Ghosts in packs like dogs grinning at ghosts
Pocketless thieves in a city that never sleeps
Chains clank, warders curse, this world is stark mad

Hey! Fatty, don’t look now but that’s a Revolution breathing down your neck.

[*] Read today’s High Pay Commission report, for example, and especially the Banks’ refutations of its findings which essentially amount to arguing that top salary increases are by the Banks’ calculations only massively disproportionate rather than mega-massively disproportionate! Their creed: greed is relative.

NB And in the years since this posting, little has changed in this regard, banking recently removed from investigation! But then, that is the lasting relevance of Patchen’s preoccupations, sadly.