Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Irrationality of Rationality

There’s a brief flapping at the letterbox and half a second’s delay until the by-now-all-too-recognisable ‘thump’ of the half dozen poems, plus subscription form and printed rejection slip (sans comment) land on the door mat.

You don’t know for certain it’s a rejection, but the weight of the envelope, scrawled in your own handwriting of ten weeks ago, tells you that if they wanted the poems, they’d probably have kept them and sent only a sheet of acceptance back: some congratulatory note detailing, perhaps, how the editors were impressed by poem ‘x’ (and maybe, if you’re lucky, also poem ‘y’) and want it/them for the magazine, so please could you confirm that it/they haven’t appeared elsewhere? There’ll likely be a cursory note to say that magazine ‘z’ receives thousands of submissions for each issue, so it’s testament to the strength of your poems that they found their way in. 90-99% do not.

How do you know this? Because you’ve been involved in both sides of it so many times before. As editor of magazine ‘a’, you’ve rejected hundreds of poems by hundreds of poets—sometimes flippantly, with the click of a button on Submittable; sometimes after sustained deliberation with your fellow editors. You’ve also, half a dozen or so times in nearly a decade of trying, been privy to the other side of the coin: the acceptance slip coming through after months (occasionally weeks) of waiting has flipped the day on its knife-edge, and for the weeks and months that follow, you’ve been buoyed by the knowledge that an editor (or group of editors) you’ve never met have decided to take your poem or poems and align them in a manuscript alongside other poets, some of whom you know or have met or have read, others who are just names to you. You spend the time until the magazine containing your poem(s) drops on the door mat in a state of elevated spirits. Perhaps you Tweet or post a message on Facebook about it in advance. And while online acceptances, for e-journals and the like, can be just as salient in terms of their prestige (if not more so in terms of ‘reach’, theoretically at least), there’s something about this art form you’re involved with that tells you, irrationally, that the printed page is still superior; and that the journals you’ve been reading since you were an undergrad eight years ago are still the ones where your poems ought to be published.

Then there’s the third state, which you discuss anecdotally with colleagues, peers and friends involved in this world. This is the written-on rejection slip: the halfway house between the poem(s) being hypothetically good enough for the magazine, but for whatever reason or combination of reasons, not quite making the grade. Occasionally, this can be as simple as the poem being a couple of lines too long, thus pushing the setting of the rest of the mag entirely out of kilter. More often, it’s to do with a small fissure in the poem(s): some irredeemable flaw which, while not fatal, does nonetheless leave the poem(s) feeling ‘not quite there’. In a jostling match in which one poem is not quite there and another is, it makes absolute sense to side with the stronger candidate. Oftentimes, a theme begins to emerge, binding the poems already accepted for the issue, and whether or not yours is a firecracker, the issue, in its own stubborn way, does not demand your presence right now. The editor will occasionally imply all of this, in muted, conciliatory tones, in a few sentences of his or her own hand, with appended well-wishes and encouragement to try again soon. If human-printed ink accompanies laser-printed ink, so the theory goes, the editor can see and has acknowledged tacitly that you are a Good Poet. However, you had best be prepared for that default printed slip: try not to be consumed by the gravitational pull towards oblivion that you know it means to avoid, but nevertheless exerts.  After all, magazine editors need and want to publish the ‘best’ collections of poems they can. I know: I’ve edited magazine ‘a’ twice now. The reason the subscription form comes through with the rejection isn’t a cynical attack on the rejected (a less-than-subtle suggestion that if only you’d subscribe, we might take your work next time); no, it comes through because subscriptions, if they are voluminous enough, guarantee the magazine’s future survival, which, after all, shores up the continued promotion of the art form we’re all apparently-invested in.

What is the purpose of this little diatribe? I don’t entirely know. Sour grapes? Yes, partially, inevitably. We’re human: rejections hurt, even if we pretend they don’t; that it’s just par for the course. But I wonder. Is there something inherently flawed in the way our poems are expected to grace the eyes of a potential readership? Something askew in the commonly-accepted parlance which has it that magazine publication (years of), followed by pamphlet(s) publication, followed usually by another year or two of ‘higher-brow’ magazine publication, invariably leads to first full-length collection with a publisher (ideally one of the dozen in this country who can command if not international then at least fully-national reach) and the commensurate prizes (slew of, or at least shortlist for) and maybe later (long after both your death and further eight books, of course) full assimilation into Poetic Singularity: a five-page spread in the Guardian magazine; anthologisation en-masse; your name boring hundreds of thousands of GCSE students each spring or spoiling (when misquoted) many an otherwise-enjoyable after-dinner game of Articulate!

Even now, levels of facetiousness ramped at least halfway up, I am loathe to mention names. I am aware of my ‘reputation’, which whether I say so or not, I wish to protect, as well as the reputation of the publications and bodies alluded to. I am not aiming this at any one of them in particular. My gripe – I think – is with the very means by which poetry is published. The word ‘means’ there is crucial: implying a plurality of publication routes (the aforementioned ‘trajectory’ may be typical, but it is certainly not unique) and a plurality of reasons and justifications for wanting to publish in the first place. What do we ‘mean’ when we say our poetry is published?

I talk to a lot of poet-friends about their craft: forthcoming readings, publications, projects, commissions, residencies and so on. What we often fail to talk about is why we are doing it in the first place, and the implied sub-question: who is our work for? At a conference last week surrounded by twenty-five other Arts and Humanities disciplines, I was asked by two other researchers – one from an Archaeology background, another an Art Historian – why I started writing poetry. That, I said to both, is a very good question. On both occasions, I replied (honestly) that I was inspired at undergraduate level by a series of extraordinarily talented and passionate lecturers; knowledgeable academics-come-writers who both introduced me to the types of poetry that could say meaningful things about the modern world (reading the Bloodaxe anthology, Staying Alive, during a ski trip to the Italian Alps in 2008, I mused to one of my questioners, was a transformative experience) and began me on a journey, which I’m very much still on, into thinking about how and why I could and should attempt to transform my own experiences into a body of poems that other people might gain some insight or joy from.

Since then, I’ve committed myself to that journey. It has brought me mainly happiness, and some more understanding of my life and the place I’m from and where I’d like to be in the future. I hope, sincerely hope, that in one way or another – via the many readings I’ve given and the few hundred pamphlets I’ve sold, not to mention the handful of poems which have found their way into the pages (textual or virtual) of a few magazines and journals – that I’ve affected people: made them stop for a moment and see something of their own humanity reflected back at them.

In a first-year English Literature module, I remember the then-Head of the department I was studying in asking the assembled hall of two hundred students why they had signed up to their chosen course (no matter of its potential combination with Drama, Creative Writing, History or Whatever). The feeling I had at the time was much the same as it is now: to have some kind of effect on the life of at least one other person, via the rendering in original text, of complex emotions and feelings.

Another related anecdote: at the Queen’s conference last week, I saw a talk by Anthony Bradley, an associate professor of Religious Studies at the King’s College in New York (much of which, I freely admit, baffled and estranged me, based as it was on heavy theoretical terms and a non-linear argument) who posited the belief, which I fundamentally agree with, that our research, try as hard as we might to prevent it from becoming so, is absolutely subject to our interests, experiences and biases. This prompted an audible ‘Hmm’ from the lecture theatre, with a student at the end commenting to Bradley that, contrary to his experience of the American academic system (in which scholars are encouraged to ‘personalise’ their work), she had been advised to do the opposite, adding as much distance as possible between herself – a flawed human being – and her research, with its designs (no doubt inculcated by her School or Faculty and its historic modus operandi) on calculated, objective reasoning.

Something about that argument seems daft to me. Maybe I don’t get it. But somebody who I think does is Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology at QUB, and author of Hillsborough: The Truth. Listening to Phil’s two talks, in which he recounted in immense and unsettling detail the twenty-eight-year long struggle to appease the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who were tragically killed (and later vilified) at a football stadium, I couldn’t help but thinking that his whole lecture, not to mention the book and possibly even his career as an investigative researcher, was probably founded on his decision on the morning of the 15th April 1989 not to travel with his son to Sheffield to watch his hometown team.

What does all of this have to do with being rejected from a poetry magazine? Maybe not very much. A friend of mine recently told me that the reason they write poetry is for themselves. Some within the arts world would caution against this view, regarding it as sycophancy, or even nihilism. Poetry, the purist attests, transcends capital-driven ownership structures to reside in, with and for the world. That the self-congratulating professional poet, making strategic decisions to bolster his or her career, should hold this view is inimical to the supposed sanctity of capital-p Poetry: that un-tainted art form which is both primary and transcendent.

I believe that this opinion is still important and relevant, but I also believe (and perhaps, as a holder of two degrees and somebody with vested interests in finishing his PhD within a well-regarded English Department, I would say this) that we absolutely write from the ground up. Yes, creative writing workshops and exercises, as well as in-depth reading of literary heavyweights from the past as well as protégées from our own generation, is fundamentally important, but what I think is more important is nurturing the quiet, troublesome voice in each of our own heads which says ‘You need to find out who I am.’

That voice has nagged at me for at least a decade now, and at all times it has been in competition with the voices of both form and reception. Allow me to explain. In a poetic sense of judicious, editorial decisions being weighed up, my approach to ‘form’ often involves a conflict between deciding instinctively where to insert line and stanza breaks into a ‘poem’ (or, going further, as I sometimes do, whether a pre-modelled form, such as a villanelle, might be applied advantageously to the draft content) and where to permit it to bleed into the much more nebulous category of the ‘prose poem’. To complicate matters, I have nearly always regarded these blog posts as variants of the prose poem, even if they will likely never be re-published as part of a ‘book’. Further, form does not for me strictly mean deciding on whether or not a fourteen-line poem is, in fact, a sonnet; but has much more to do with myriad (often contradictory) niggles I face with regards to how to negotiate and amalgamate ‘content’, which of course includes things such as ‘tone’, ‘image’ and ‘[meta]narrative’.

Secondly, then, ‘reception’ might be thought of as the product of the process which is ‘form’. Example: I write a batch of poems, I send sub-batches to three or four magazines, wait a few months, and perhaps one or two ‘stick’ and are published, and perhaps two or three years later, I have a pamphlet of perhaps two dozen of those original poems (alongside a few of the newer ones I was too proud to omit from the manuscript) published. Widening this process out and tying it to the project-in-question – my PhD: a practice-led investigation into my fractious relationship with England’s northeast – the form[at] (not to mention demands and constraints) of practice-as-research becomes problematic. You have three or four years in which to ‘practice’ this ‘form’ (poetry, music, film &c.) but at the end of that period, you better damn well be able to provide us with a product which persuades us that you are the expert, or else this platinum-grade degree to which your work ostensibly gestures might as well go on the bonfire, pal.

All of which takes us a long way from the half dozen rejected poems hitting the door mat. Sort of. If the ‘product’ of a practice-led PhD is only half-received (and conceived) in its academic context (manifesting in the viva: that blood-curdling hour and a half in which an external and internal examination panel scrutinise your work, deciding for how much longer you must polish it before it is awarded the platinum-standard of degrees), the rest of it is usually thought to be ‘received’ (or not) incrementally – by a series of small publications, performances and talks of almost-endless variety – before finally finding cohesive, publishable ‘form’ (taking us hopefully full-circle) as a ‘thing’ which can be packaged, sold, broadcast or else disseminated to the body politic in some way known or hitherto unbeknown. The hope, and this is one which transcends the academy and numerous institutions with which we poets plot in order to be read or heard, is that a minimum of one other person is in some way changed by our efforts; and that, perhaps if we are fortunate enough indeed, might affect a somewhat more substantial coterie. The rest, as they say, is for the future-makers: the canonisers and editors; the clique-makers and trend (re)-setters.


Meanwhile, we who feel compelled to do this thing, and all of its associated quirks, tendencies and habits, must hope that the next time the envelope comes through the letterbox, the news is good, so that we don’t again have to reel of two and a half thousand words defending our own inscrutable imaginations and niche fixations; so that we might get on with the job at hand, and once again rise to the kettle with some firm resolve to try again harder, or at least mull it all over with a packet of biscuits, feeling the caffeine hit and the dread of the void subside into buttery, sugary goodness.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Marradharma

Outside the woodpigeons are beginning to coo on the still-warm asphalt of the garage roof. The Clematis is coming into flower, and the neighbour is tending to his hanging baskets. I can see fret beginning to cluster on the horizon, past the docks and high-rises in the city, but for now the sun punctures the firmament, the tap still gushes clean water and the grapes are ripe in the bowl. Soon the shutters will come down on the shop below, my fiancé will be back from work, I’ll post this online, we’ll make some sandwiches and drive down to the beach. Hand-in-hand, we’ll walk the sands of Seaburn or Marsden, collecting pebbles for decoration at our wedding next spring, and before too long mention Monday again: shaking our heads, we’ll hope the sea has some answers to offer us.

Monday rattled us. It was too close to home. Even though, and I count every single hallowed one of my blessings, I personally know nobody caught up in the events of half past ten at the Manchester Evening News arena, I felt – and feel – sickened, shocked and confused.

If my own words don’t feel apt or appropriate – and they don’t – then I’m at least comforted by those of another, the poet George Szirtes. Here he is (on Facebook) trying to find the lexicon for this devastation:

“And like any writer - since words are my business - I will be seeking the right words for what has just happened, because what use are words if they cannot address our situation? I don’t mean publishable words, merely the vocabulary inside me, inside the language.

Next, he articulates so plainly how we are surely all feeling, which I will deploy as surrogate for my brain’s inability to conceive any more nuanced or respectable words of my own:

“My own feelings count for little. They are everything you’d expect. An uncomprehending sorrow, a rush of fury. Why target little girls and their parents in particular? What ‘strategic aims’ are thought by anyone to be worth those lives? I know my fury is part of the strategy, as are the divisions such fury is intended to exacerbate. But I can’t help the fury. Then there will be the pictures of the missing and the victims. They are already starting to appear.

Like everyone, my timelines on Tuesday morning began immediately with the beginnings of pleas for help in finding lost loved ones: social media shares of pre-concert photos; local newspaper images of kids with Mams and Dads or boyfriends or girlfriends or pals from school and college, smiling forever into a smartphone camera, praying to come back to Manchester, Scotland, Gateshead.

Chloe Rutherford and Liam Curry, two teenage lovers from South Shields, were killed on Monday. I don’t want to disrespect their families and friends by ‘latching on’ to them in this way, but when the news filters down from the abstractions of Twitter, as it began doing so late on Monday evening, and begins cascading outwards from a close-but-still-distant city towards your own region, and finally down to the particular case of a couple from your hometown, their whole lives glinting ahead of them, things begin to feel more real. The fury rises more steadily. You feel your fists begin to curl. Your heart might be beating a bit faster, your tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth. You are in the red mist.

I see the video-reel of this past week rewinding. It’s Friday, 19th May, about 3pm, and I’ve just arrived in Manchester. Me and Kate have parked the car up near Oxford Road and are in a bar grabbing a coffee while we wait for our friend Matt getting in from Norwich. Later, the three of us will take a short stroll to Sound Control, an intimate venue beneath the railway arches, where we’ll watch the Canadian singer John K Samson, along with his wife Christine Fellows, play indie/folk-punk songs to a room of about 300 diehard fans. “Solidarity forever!” John will exclaim at the end of one song, before launching into another. We will, as the customary phrase goes, ‘rock out’ for another hour and a bit, grins plastered all over our faces, while one of our lifelong-favourite musicians plays a spread of hits from his twenty-plus year career. The room will grow increasingly stifling, voices beginning to break. John will tell us he’s got a few more, and that after that he’ll about-face to the side and have a chat, maybe a cup of tea. Everyone is loving it, and at the merch stand at the end, our hero waits diligently to sign posters and records, posing cheerily for countless photos. It is, in short, the epitome of why people converge on venues like this, be they small or large, headlined by international megastars or little-known DIY musicians: to feel connected to the rhythms and pulses of not just bass, drums and guitar, but to become part of the wave of the crowd; the hairs on its collective neck shivering as that one line is bellowed around the cavities of the room; to feel that, when the singer looks your way, the song is for you, and outside these walls, nothing else matters; and on the best evenings, you leave feeling that something urgent and vital has just taken place, and you might write a song of your own, or pick up that dusty guitar once again, and change someone’s life.

On Tuesday evening, watching rolling coverage of the Manchester bombing, we will both reflect on where we were stood in the venue – stage right, in a gap beneath the stairs, about as far away from the exit as possible – and note that, in a Bataclan-style situation, we would, the three of us, have been, to use another customary phrase, ‘totally fucked’.

And the tape spools forward: it’s Saturday and I’ve just arrived at London Euston. A post on Facebook, from one of my oldest friends, announces that, after a painfully-long labour, her son has just entered the world. We all smile from ear-to-ear at the photo and pints are raised in his honour: to the brother from another mother, exactly 29 years my junior—here’s to you, little fella! What an amazing, weird, wild world you’ve found; it’s fantastic having you along for the ride. And the night goes on long into the morning in Covent Garden, thousands of folk from Shields singing and dancing the night away in a bar called Mason’s, ran by an expat manageress from the provinces. And we gather outside, chanting our daft chants, making a human tunnel for the passing taxis and bikes, no doubt on their way home from the theatres, wondering what on Earth is going on in this historic square, bedecked in maroon and sky-blue shirts, pints of lager overflowing, spirits raised higher than Nelson’s Column.

Just over fourteen hours later, they’ll all gather at Wembley Stadium, and I’ll be there in their midst, to cheer on an historic 4-0 win against poor Cleethorpes Town – bless them – as the team celebrate a fourth trophy, the final, elegant piece of plumage in a truly exceptional cap of a season. There will be no animosity: no punch-ups, no goading the rival fans, no smashing up street lights or shop fronts. There will just be fifteen-thousand Sanddancers, partying into the night and the following week, thinking, ‘How did our little non-league football team manage this?!’

Let me tell you that there were some sore heeds on Monday morning. King’s Cross ran out of Anadin and Tesco’s at the Nook ordered in extra Alka Seltzer in anticipation.

And it all feels so irrelevant right now: this celebrating a sporting victory when something so wicked and desolate has just happened. When it has snatched our brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. When it has set fire to joy and put a dagger through the heart of shamanic celebration.

But the taxi drivers and homeless heroes and blood donors and overworked nurses doctors police officers St John’s ambulance drivers and the I-just-wanted-to-come-down-and-offer-a-cup-of-teas are saying nar mate, not now mate, we’re not having this like: we are Manchester, North West England, Northern England, we won’t tolerate this bullshit. So dance on, friends, and hold your lighters and fists to the air. Put your arms round the stranger at the gig as they put their arms round the frantic kids. Dig that pound from your beer fund and give it, two-handed, with a smile, to the woman with the scruffy dog on the corner. Keep the beat going and keep the people knowing that we can be so much more.

The sun is cracking the flags the way it only can in May in northern England. The beach last night was paradise on Earth: the tide out beyond Whitburn Steel, a few rowing boats hunkered on the surf and the whole of the foreshore rippled with families walking dogs relationships blossoming joggers jogging surfers paddling and life going on with ice creams Foster’s and the lapping seabirds making fine evening music in the sea holly the scene something Lowry would have traded every one of his paintings for to see again just for a moment.

William Martin was one of the finest poets this country ever produced and his body of work is a catalogue of largely-unrecognised genius. Born in 1925 in New Silksworth, a mining community to the south of Sunderland synonymous with the great Northern coalfields of the latter two hundred years of the last millennium, he understood what Theresa May and her cronies and antecedents forgot or never knew: that if you keep cutting the branches, eventually the whole tree will sicken. The design, purpose and feel of places like Silksworth, constructed out of necessity for an inward-bound migrant labour population leaving places like Ireland to start lives afresh in a largely-untapped northern frontier circa the 18th century, was replicated up and down this coast to cope with the demands of an exponentially carbon-dependent world—one that, as a species, we have not yet found the intellect and emotion to move beyond, even while it slowly presses the pillow further into our face. Silksworth, and places like it, have since been battered by sequentially terrible political decisions. Infrastructure, economies and tertiary civic services – not to mention the much less assailable assets of community value hinted at in Martin’s phrase and celebrated in his verse – have for so long been shorn, from both their roots in folk memory and their position in operational discourse, that a point has been reached where we no longer whimsically wonder ‘when might we be next?’ but actively project into rolling news of terrorist attacks the no-longer-irrational fear that it would only take a disillusioned ‘hoody’ from Horden or a stigmatised member of the Muslim community in Jarrow to travel down the coast in July to the Sunderland air show, stand on Roker beach amid nostalgic flag-wavers saluting Hurricanes and Lancasters, and tug a cord on a rucksack to blow himself and several hundred bairns onto the front pages of The S*n.

Martin is somebody who I ought not mention right now (just as I ought not mention football, politics, or victims of a terrorist attack when I did not know them), but feel unable not to discuss, for one very specific reason which I feel – and I only have words to feel my way from my head, on to this screen and back out of it into yours – is absolutely critical.

He coined the neologism ‘marradharma’. A portmanteau of ‘marra’, a North-East dialect term for comrade, friend or equal and ‘dharma’, broadly interpreted in Eastern spiritual traditions such as Buddhism as meaning ‘the way’. ‘Marradharma’ was for Bill the unwritten rule and guiding principles of the marras: his fellow miners, shipbuilders, farmers, family and friends from Sunderland and Durham who helped each other to help each other. For the people, by the people. In his own words:

“Poetry should be concerned with more than personal, domestic and confessional themes. Being [part of] creation, we are involved in the continuing search for a collective sanctus... if we reject elitism and ego-economic notions, we will find that ‘marradharma’ under our noses. Art is not a programme, neither is a poem a tract, but it is surely rooted in dharma.”

That same spirit has resurfaced, but it is in bother. The long-time friend and champion of Martin’s work, the poet Roger Garfitt, wrote, reminiscing on his time spent adjusting to life in the North-East, ruminations on Martin’s poetry and his position as a ‘remembrancer’:

“Bill suspected that the pithead lay under the artificial ski-slope of the new Sports Complex. When he talked, the landscaped areas around the ring road recovered their contours and I began to make sense of the names on the signposts, glimpsing the intricate pattern the pit villages had made in the days when each had its own band and marched behind its own banner at the Big Meeting [...] Below this history lay the other, the monastic settlements of the seventh century that had left St Peter’s church there on the riverbank, in the shadow of the Boilermakers’ Social Club, and its sister monastery at Jarrow under the bright blue necks of the shipyard cranes. The monasteries came first and the towns grew up around them, a process of development preserved in Sunderland’s very name: the sundered land, cut-off, outside the monastery wall, on the other side of the river. But to Bill there was no division: the primitive Christianity of the monasteries had surfaced again in the close community of the pit villages and their long political struggle [...] Such moments become images for the sense of community we need to develop, intimations that ‘Here and here is the Kingdom’.”

We are all of us now outside the monastery wall. Cut-off, sundered: the very word close to surrendered.

I don’t agree with Theresa May on much, but I do have a sense that, in a twisted way, her much-repeated phrase ‘citizen(s) of nowhere’ is about apt for the age we’re living through. My friend Chris Ogden, a staunch advocate of the type of progressive, left-wing thinking we could all do with a bit more of, lives but two miles from the Manchester arena. I contacted him immediately, knowing that if I had been shaken by the events of Monday evening, he must have been entirely pummelled. In correspondence that we have shared in the old-fashioned way, via our distorted but still-laudable Royal Mail, we have both echoed similar sentiments: that Ms May may have unintentionally tapped into the zeitgeist. Up or un-rooted from our communities and sense of kinship and municipal duty, forced to eat or heat, bow to the wage masters dangling another ten hours this week, is it any wonder that we want a piece of the wedge? Those on the other side are closer to you than you might know. They may have been forced into exile because of political persecution, ‘strategic’ drone strikes, rape, pillage, torture, climate change or genocide, and have braved perilous sea journeys in laughably small inflatables, but they are closer to you than you might know.

There is, as Miss Mayhem keeps telling us, a choice facing this country in two week’s time: me or Jeremy Corbyn. As the list of deceased tots up to the final twenty-two, and as minutes of silence add up to hours and days, we likely face the prospect of the fury turning to policy, and the policy turning on the old buggered knee of the warlords.

If William Martin was here, he’d be asking me, you, all of us, to employ something of the spirit of marradharma right now. So I ask you, please, take a few hours out of your social media feeds this evening, switch off the six o’clock news, and walk through your estate or in your local woods or along the coast and listen for how the leaves rustle, how the foam settles, and what people are saying. The dead are in our hearts and we must take the time to mourn them, but in the morning there will be work to do. They’ll be watching from somewhere above that shattered arena, hoping that, together, we follow the track of peace, comradeship and love.

Yours in the spirit of marradharma,

Jake x

Monday, 15 May 2017

Thoughts Towards a Chorography of my Thesis-in-Progress

Chorography
noun
historical

                The systematic description and mapping of particular regions.













Chorography
noun
historical

                The systematic description and mapping of particular regions.

This map, which I have spent around four hours this afternoon carefully plotting and scheming, is an ongoing visual representation — re-presentation — of work-in-progress for my PhD: a collection of original poetry, and accompanying critical exegesis, about my relationship to the identity and sense of belonging I feel in England’s North-East; specifically South Tyneside, where I was born and currently live.

I like to think of the map as a poem-in-its-own-right.

It can be looked at, thought about and discussed in myriad ways, but as it is uniquely mine (or, technically, Google’s), I thought I’d outline the main ways I am using it as a projection pad for, from and on to my PhD. I’ll be discussing some of these things before and around my reading of poems at an event this Thursday, 18th May, in Newcastle University’s English Department.

1.      Roads

The main driving routes on the map are identified thus: A184 (black); A19 (Navy Blue); and A1018 (British Racing Green). We live in the age of the motor car, at a time of peak carbon extraction and its bed partner: debt-fuelled, exothermic, endemic economic growth-at-all-costs. Political and economic motives and arguments aside, the car, and by extension the network of roads it precipitated, are intimately bound up in our – certainly my – understanding of this place (and, indeed, placelessness) and its intricate, palimpsestic histories and topographies. A clear example of this occurs along the A194 (marked sky blue on the map), or Leam Lane, which in part retains the Roman name ‘Wrekendyke’, or ‘Rekendike’ (a corruption/derivation which speaks of accretive changes in topology and nomenclature), marking it out as an important, strategic arterial road between two Roman settlements: Pons Aelius, Newcastle, and Arbeia, the fort at the Lawe Top, elevated at a militaristically advantageous position atop the riverside tip of South Shields.

Figure taken from Wearmouth and Jarrow: Northumbrian Monasteries in an Historic Landscape, eds Sam Turner, Sarah Semple and Alex Turner (p.156, if you're really that interested). Note the Wrekendyke (contemporary A194) running in a southwesterly direction from South Shields, south of Jarrow, onward to Wrekenton (Gateshead) to connect with the Great North Road (A1) between Durham and Newcastle, and ultimately London and Edinburgh. Consider where the frame stops and why...


2.      Walkways

The orange zig-zaggy line is the route of the Stringing Bedes walks, connecting the twinned monasteries (“One monastery in two places”, in Bede’s own words) associated with the Venerable man himself: St.Peter’s (Wearmouth) and St. Paul’s (Jarrow). Crucially, the route bisects the red heart symbol, identifying where my parents live in South Shields and where I spent most of my teenage years. Much of the north and western part of the route follows the course of the river Don, a much smaller tributary of the Tyne.

3.      Railways

The light green and yellow lines indicate the two Metro routes through South Tyneside and Sunderland. The northernmost line terminates at South Shields, but I have chosen to flag Tyne Dock station, as I use it more often. The southernmost line terminates on the south of the Wear at South Hylton, but I have flagged East Boldon station, as it is the station closest to where I currently live and the one I have utilised the most. There’s not much more I could say about railways, other than that they were invented in the North-East and they have been and continue to be a fundamental part of my life, whether in local, narrow-gauge format or as fully-blown connections to towns, cities and regions outside the nucleus of our fine-yet-flawed republic.

4.      Roundabouts

Possibly the most niche elements of the map, the six roundabouts shown are much more important than they first appear and absolutely haven’t been picked arbitrarily. Scanning west to east these are: the ‘Nickelodeon’ roundabout (I don’t know its official name, but it’s the awful, semi-subterranean roundabout beneath the Gateshead highway, not long after you come off the southbound Tyne bridge, forming the start of the Felling bypass. I named it so because there’s a building adjacent to it with ‘Nickelodeon’ written on its facade, and it sounds funny); Heworth roundabout (name-checked directly in one of my poems); White Mare Pool (apparently a stop-off point for the cavalcade of monks carrying Cuthbert’s coffin to Durham); Testo’s (again, name-checked in the aforementioned poem); Fullwell Quarry (adjacent to one of a trio of semi/defunct mills in the vicinity); and Lindisfarne (further north, where Jarrow spars off against Shields). As roundabouts by their very nature are circular and have at least two entry/exit points, and often – as their names attest – speak of nearby structures, historical events or bygone traditions, I find them to be useful points of rumination for a palimpsest poetics which gathers various sedimentary layers and attempts to recast them in medias res as complex, authentic poems-in-place.

The eagle-eyed viewer will note that there are at least a dozen other icons, which they may or may not be able to see properly on the copy attached here. In short: these are pubs, ice cream vendors, libraries, religious sites, animal encounters, ex-mines and sporting facilities which in some way have been or are important to my sense of this space as a holistic environment, where, to take lines from my own poem ‘Errata Slip for a Northern Town’, ‘You could spend your life here/you could be happy’.
                                                                                                     

Please come to the event if, like me, you are geeky enough to want to know more. At some point I will make this map more widely-available; and will almost certainly blog in more detail about its various sites, axes, directionality, crossovers and points of convergence at a later date as it is added to and further appended with poems as they develop over the remainder of my PhD.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Why Does Poetry Not Sell?*


Yesterday was the first Northern Poetry Symposium. An eclectic spread of panel discussions, film screenings, readings and breakout sessions were held in the rafters of the Sage, Gateshead – the iconic Tyneside concert hall and landmark which first spearheaded the gentrification of Gateshead Quays (or, as the marketers would have it ‘NewcastleGateshead’) during the heyday of the Blair government – with the intention of gathering the North’s poetic literati under one (big, shiny, curvaceous) roof.

Opening with the provocatively-titled panel, ‘Is Poetry Relevant?’ and continuing through themed sessions which included the fascinating ‘Print Revival’ and a heated discussion of ‘Poetry in the Media’, among others, the day sought – I think with mixed degrees of success – to bring together disparate elements of the UK’s poetry scene and ask how they could begin to work together to further the cause of this most loved, and hated, forms of arts.

Organised by the recently-revived Poetry Book Society, operating under the auspices of the Newcastle-based Inpress since the original outfit spearheaded by Stephen Spender and T.S. Eliot in 1950s London folded last year, the symposium was a clever rouse on the PBS’s part to wave the flags, sound the horns and declare triumphantly: “We are still here!” It was perhaps no surprise, then, that much of the rest of the event should be taken over by conversation aimed at selling not only more PBS memberships (shamefully, I haven’t been a member for around 3 years) but more volumes of poetry: be they traditionally slim, bulky anthologies, spineless, or altogether more three-dimensional or non-dimensional at all; merely nebulous concepts affixing themselves with capital-p ‘Poetry’ badges.

The poetry world is a broad church and I am a supporter of its variety and willingness to experiment with other art forms and challenge assumptions about what a poem should be. This doesn’t stop it also being a small world: where poets know each other and factions exist and overlap and grudges can be borne for years over incidents (or non-incidents) which to the outside world would look entirely trivial. But I’m already off topic. We were here to talk sales, or their lack, and if the conclusions of the Northern Poetry Symposium are anything to go by, none of us really know why more of our books aren’t being sold, other than the fact that, you know, 99% of the population still think poetry stopped in the nineteenth century.

I can only really speak for myself and my own experiences. In February this year, I placed ten copies of my 2015 pamphlet, The Coast Will Wait Behind You, in the gift shop of The Word in South Shields on a sale-or-return basis. The plan was that The Word would take a 30% commission on the overall sales, and the books would remain on display for a few months. I went down this afternoon to see how they were doing, not expecting them to have all gone immediately, but certainly not expecting all ten to still be there. The manager of the shop explained that local titles had been selling poorly in general recently, which is fair enough: this is a library, after all; why pay for a book if you can borrow it for free?

But, something doesn’t sit right for me, and I don’t think it’s as straightforward as the pamphlet being a spineless volume (therefore less ‘dominant’ on a book shelf) or The Word being predominantly a free space, or even the folk of my hometown’s lack of interest in local poetry. If conversations at the Northern Poetry Symposium are a barometer, small press books and authors (often alongside their supposed ‘big’ counterparts) need a ‘hook’ or a cleverly-worked biography off which to propel their titles and cause the average punter to go from casually flicking through a blurb to parting with the cash at the till.

The Coast Will Wait Behind You, like Definitions of Distance before it, is a limited-run edition of poetry. Both were lovingly put together by dedicated and passionate advocates of the arts, and in the case of Red Squirrel Press, by an editor, Sheila Wakefield, whose staunchly independent commitment to publishing collections of poetry and novels by largely northern English and Scottish writers is a feat which should earn her a medal, trophies and a cabinet big enough to keep them all in.

Similarly, TCWWBY was a labour of love. Designed by the ineffable Manny Ling, and with stunning front and rear cover photos from Damien Wootten and Tim Collier (alongside kind words from Jean Sprackland, Esen Kaya and Mike Collier), the 28-page volume, gorgeously set on cream paper, is the product not only of my imagination and two and a half years of writing and editing, but the cumulative efforts of people who take care and attention to ensuring that poems are presented seriously. In short, for £5, it is a steal.

Yet. And, of course, yet. I’ve heard myself saying something like the following: “A fiver! It’s only a few sheets of paper folded into some card!” Perhaps. Or perhaps you’re paying for the thought—the long, deep ruminations which lead to the slow craft of poetry; not to mention the subsequent months of editing and revising and the time spent (nearly always with at least one other collaborator) designing, printing and trying to then sell the bloody thing!

Look, we all want people to read our work. That’s one of the main reasons we do it, isn’t it? Buying it – Christ! – that’s a different thing. On reflection, I’m not surprised the pamphlet didn’t sell at The Word. I would have dearly loved all ten copies to’ve found their way into ten new homes, where they might have enriched the lives of those who read them, but they haven’t. They’re sat in a plastic bag on my desk, waiting for the ‘hook’, which will probably be at least two more readings, where something of the personal craft, time and attention-to-detail of the book’s composition might rub off, via my especially good recitation of a poem, onto an audience member, who might then part with one of their new plastic fivers in exchange for an A5 volume of poetry published two years ago. This means, and the Northern Poetry Symposium tangentially covered it, that the role of the poet is not only to write the best poems they can (the first and foremost thing, according to Sean O’Brien, a maxim I tend to agree with), but it is also to go out banging on doors, with luminous signs above their heads, totting up change from rounds at the bar, selling to strangers in circumstances which bear absolutely no resemblance to the book shop or Amazon marketplace.

That all sounds like a rant, but I actually love doing it. One of the best readings I’ve ever done was in the upstairs room of The Blue Boar in Ludlow. Poetry at the Sitting Room, organised by the lovely Jean Atkin, was certainly not a record for hand-to-hand sales, but it was a three-hour period in my life where, listening to and being listened, I was able to remember, really, why I do this: to connect with people and feel something of their humanity. I don’t yet know when my first full-length collection will be out, and while I hope it is published by an outfit with the same fervour as Red Squirrel or Arts Editions North (ideally with an enlarged marketing budget and a general target populace altogether more prone to walking into their local Waterstone’s and buying more than one poetry book a decade), I will still be there in the room above the pub, reading poems about being from a stupid little town in the North-East, hoping that someone wants to hear something about it.

N.B. As copies of The Coast Will Wait Behind You can now only be acquired by myself, do please let me know if you’d like one and I’ll post it out to you, signed and with a little note, in exchange for a carefully-concealed fiver. I like to think of this as my own little cottage industry.


*(In quantities which precipitate the consumer-capitalist economy)?

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

'What could be the meaning or use of such love?': Thoughts towards a verticality of South Tyneside; the pre-poem; and an old-new model of sustainability for Cleadon.


“I suspect that writing a poem can be as much about the storing up of the energy before the poem’s written down as about the casting of it on to paper. One can have a strong sense of a poem being there, even when there isn’t anything there. Spooky.

That’s Jake Polley, T.S. Eliot prize winner, on what he, or I, might term the ‘pre-poem’. In thinking about my collection to-date, I’ve begun noticing a few things – most of which, you’ll be relieved to hear – I won’t be harping on about now. Patterns, cadences, repetition. Images have started recurring, as have phrases and sometimes single words. Sites, too, have drawn me back. One such site is Cleadon Hills. Now, depending on who you ask, this is either: part of South Shields, part of Sunderland, or wholly, and entirely irrefutably, part of the independent Republic-to-be, Cleadon. One, none or some of these things are true. (That’s why they call it Creative Writing, y’knaa.)

Me reading 'Spelks' at Cleadon Mill (Pin), proving that the mill, and I, am real. No fake news here, folks.


I’ve written about this before. Ego alert! My poem ‘Spelks’, which I think from the privileged position of a few years of hindsight is still a good poem, ostensibly documents and bears witness to the heartbroken Elizabeth Gibbon, daughter of a late nineteenth-century mill-owner, Thomas Gibbon, who, refusing her courtship to a local sailor (or, in some stories, pirate) is said to have driven the young girl to an early suicide.

There is evidence that the mill and farm buildings were still productive until the mid-late 1800s, with further suggestion, thanks to our friend the Boldon Book – the Domesday Book of the North(East) – that there may well have been a functioning mill of some description on the present day site since 1183. Given the prospect – only around 2KM from the North Sea, at an elevation which must be several hundred feet above sea level – it is entirely understandable, from the point of view of even rudimentary physics (poets’ physics) why you would choose to site a windmill here. The catchment area, too, must have been advantageous, certainly until around the late nineteenth-century. As Cleadon Park, the ward of south Shields that my parents have resided in for over fifteen years having moved from Harton, is largely comprised of early twentieth-century housing stock, we can safely assume that for most of its life, the mill ground wheat down to flour for sale exclusively in Cleadon Village, or at most to parts of Boldon and the then much more Tyne-centred South Shields. (Whitburn and north Sunderland, as I will describe later, had/have their own mills, thus presumably further limiting the economic viability of Cleadon Mill). While the exact parameters of to whom and where the mill supplied its wheat is unknown, its physical proximity to the sea, its elevation and equidistance to the growing nucleuses of the rivers Tyne and Wear, must have guaranteed centuries-long, farm-to-fork flour production. ‘We Sack ’em, yay bak(e) ’em’ is a slogan the future Cleadon Milling Company are welcome to (for generous royalty payments, obvs.)

'Plug' and 'Pin' shown within red circle in South Tyneside.

Same view, zoomed in. 'Plug' (Water Tower) in red; 'Pin' (Mill) in yellow


So far, so floury. ‘What does this have to do with poetry?’ You may well be asking. In 2015, when I walked Bede’s Way, and into 2016 when I delivered talks and read poems based on it, my mind was continually drawn back to the site of the mill (and the yet-to-be-discussed water tower). Partially this is because, within the confines of the Stringing Bedes walks, Cleadon Hills marks the approximate halfway point. Culturally and linguistically, too, it marks for me and many others a point of convergence: Cleadon sitting within Tyne and Wear, this is what I often refer to as the ‘hinge’ of the county; the place where Geordie meets Mackem, where Wearside meets Tyneside, where ‘bewk’ becomes ‘buke’ (or sometimes, in plain English, ‘buck’, as they say in Cleading, their ‘ing’ suffixes always annunciated, unlike their heathen ‘in’-ers’ to the north and south.) TL;DR: Cleadon ‘posh’, South Shields ‘common’.

The highest point in South Tyneside, visible for miles, Cleadon Water Tower, designed by Thomas Hawksley and built sometime in the mid-eighteenth-century (I can’t find a precise date),  is actually a chimney for the steam-powered pumping engines which sat at the base, drawing water from deep within the magnesium limestone ridge that characterises the geology of this flank of the country. An act of parliament in 1852 created the Sunderland and South Shields water company, as a response to the proliferation of waterborne diseases such as cholera. By the 1970s, however, with the opening of the Derwent reservoir, the tower and pumping station became redundant. (Much of the information here I have effectively copied verbatim from South Tyneside Council’s ‘Cleadon Hills Conservation Area’ plan of March 2007, freely and easily available online: file:///C:/Users/Acer/Downloads/Cleadon_Hills_CA_Character_Appraisal_(March_2007).pdf) The tower still stands, dormant yet imposing, with the former pumping rooms and outhouses converted to apartments and houses. What I find particularly interesting about the site, which henceforth I will take to include both the Water Tower and Mill, is that they are remnants of a time in which two of humanity’s most basic needs, water and bread, were met locally. It is far beyond the scope of my research to carry out any further archaeological, historic, sociological or anthropological studies into the site, but its continued presence in the landscape – as more-or-less intact structures – continues to fascinate me and get my mind firing towards the pre-poem.

Cleadon Mill (Note the Water Tower in the background)

Cleadon Water Tower


Actually, other sites within only a five-mile radius begin to further stoke the mind’s boiler. Two additional mills – Whitburn and Fulwell, both no longer functional, though the former is at least superficially ‘all there’ and the latter is, apparently, set to be restored – and a lighthouse (Souter, the world’s first electric lighthouse) speak to me of two things this part of the world is most famously associated with: the sea (and by extension water and water courses: the Tyne and the Wear and assorted tributaries and commerce) and the hills (mainly in the form of the extractive industries, which of course were dominated by coal mining, reaching a peak in the early part of the twentieth-century). An additional vista below, now lost, shows the Westoe Crown colliery shaft. Closed in 1993 (I was five: I don’t really remember it), the impression one must have had looking south to north on the day it was demolished, with the ghostly backdrop of Tynemouth Priory a few miles behind, must have been, truly, one of an era coming to a close.

Souter Lighthouse, Whitburn

Fulwell Mill, Sunderland, as it looks today

Whitburn Mill



The sense of verticality in South Tyneside, then, is a vestigial one, but one kept half alive by former industrial and civic buildings and their after-image. It strikes me that whether it’s a water tower (chimney), mill or lighthouse, or indeed a shaft leading into the earth, the place that I’m from was, until recently, dependant on man’s ability and willingness to ascend or descend; to coerce from the crust of the earth up to the surface the raw materials of life: water, fuel and food.

All of this has a ring of genesis (Genesis?) about it, does it not? Possibly that is one pre-poem thought: an inkling that some kind of religious, or quasi-religious meta-narrative might be the one in which to (re)frame The Site As Origin. Another might be socio-political. As the tip of the iceberg known as food scarcity has been in the news recently, it seems pertinent to think about the site as a potential place of self-sufficient food production and even alternative currencies and employment models. What might the socio-economic benefits, not to mention the long-term cost-benefit coefficient, be to Cleadon, and South Tyneside, of a fully-reinstated water tower and mill? Lacking anything beyond a very rudimentary knowledge of ground water and bread making, I daren’t speculate too far, but it strikes me that the ‘Plug and Pin’ have at least the capacity to catalyse a new, localised micro-economy of water provision and bread making. The environmental benefits, surely, would be obvious? Which is all fine, in theory (if not at all in practice), but how about culturally?

Westoe Crown pit head, gan doon in 1993


Much of our literature draws on and reinterprets myth and legend. Eliot drew heavily on fertility rituals in The Wasteland, for instance. What would a literature of this specific place look like? For a start, it is worth noting the ease with which not only literature of this type, but discourse more generally, can become too parochial, sycophantic or niche to matter. For Wendell Berry, however, the Kentucky farmer-come-writer, being rooted in a specific locale lends his work credence. Writing from his homestead in Port Royal, he says, among other things:

“The test of imagination, ultimately, is not the territory of art of the territory of the mind, but the territory underfoot. That is not to say that there is no territory of art or of the mind, only that it is not a separate territory. It is not exempt either from the principles above it or from the country below it. It is a territory, then, that is subject to correction – by, among other things, paying attention. To remove it from the possibility of correction is finally to destroy art and thought, and the territory underfoot as well.”

Berry’s writing is concerned with place, citizenship and identity. But not in the abstract: always attuned to the actuality of tending his land, and watching the slow decline of rural America, his concerns are, for lack of a better phrase, real. Here he is, musing philosophically on his ‘calling’; his vocation as a farmer-writer:

“After more than thirty years I have at last arrived at the candor necessary to stand on this part of the earth that is so full of my own history and so damaged by it, and ask: What is this place? What is in it? What is its nature? How should men live in it? What must I do?”

An ‘American Sage’, according to James Rebanks (author of the excellent The Shepherd’s Life) Wendell Berry’s philosophy of knowing-yet-not-knowing appeals to my current ruminations about the site, my interpretation of it, and how I can live in it, if only partially or temporarily. Elsewhere in The World-Ending Fire, the new volume of essays from which I’ve taken these quotes, Berry differentiates between the aestheticsisation of a landscape for artistic ends and the kind of deep knowledge that comes from living in and in-tune with it. I realise that, aside from the technical and financial implications of retrofitting a mill and well to be contemporary producers of wheat flour and water is not only hugely problematic, it is also not the real point of my work. Clearly, as the Transition model has shown us, these kinds of schemes are much needed as we enter the world of declining fossil fuel reserves and a damaged climate, but they are not without drawbacks. My question or concern is focused on the cultural potential of the site: how might we look through the past layers of these hills as a place of localised production, to a place of leisure, to a future place yet-to-be-determined? How does the prose become poetry; the thought become meaning?


Really, I suppose like Berry I am asking: How might I know this place – Cleadon Hills, with its mill and water tower, its fulcrum-like vantage between the Wear and the Tyne – and write about it with reverence and respect? How might I at once frame and distort it – make it strange, beguiling, new – while simultaneously desiring of it the potential for a more equitable, just and connected mode of living? As Berry says, ‘Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or use of such love?’

One with a bounding dog, just to finish