Thursday, 24 August 2017

Singing The World: A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn

Singing The World

A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn
The Stables Gallery
26-28 August and 2-3rd September 2017


'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village' (detail), poem laser-printed onto beech wood, with the assistance of Fab Lab at Hope Street Exchange, Sunderland.

I have a new poem, ‘Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village’, on display at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Gardens in Northumberland as part of Mike Collier’s exhibition, Singing The World.

The exhibition was inspired by listening to the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn—a choir of sixteen birds heard early one morning in May 2016. Together their songs, represented here variously as digitally-manipulated sonograms and musical transcriptions, form the basis of this show of screen prints, digital prints, relief sculpture and, in my case, poetry.

Lead artist Mike Collier’s work is shown alongside that of glass artist Ayako Tani; musician and composer Bennett Hogg; sound recordist Geoff Sample; and digital artist Andrew Richardson. The combination of sound and image, colour and light, form and freedom make Singing The World a really unique exploration into the dawn and evening choruses, which until I was asked to work on the project, I knew shockingly little about.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (2), produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative, assisted by Tina Webb. The sixteen birds here are those Mike heard between 4.30 and 7.00am at Cheeseburn in May 2016. The circular images have been loosely adapted from Sample's sonograms and 'placed' on staves.


My poem captures the early-morning awareness of a burgeoning chorus of suburban village birdsong, transgressing the binary, reductive boundaries between nature and culture. It is the first time I’ve had work on display in Cheeseburn, and I encourage you to go and see the show, if not for mine and the other artists’ work then for the fabulous aspect of the gallery within Cheeseburn Grange. Set amid acres of beautiful landscaped parkland and gardens, the exhibition takes place in the Stables Gallery, but there is also a Hayloft space and chapel of St. Francis Xavier. Ten miles west of Newcastle, near Stamfordham, I can’t think of anywhere quite like this in the region – so close to the city yet most definitely in the country – where striking contemporary art is being shown in innovative ways.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (4). This is a seven-layered screen print of the sixteen birdsongs from the dawn chorus.

Mike Collier, The Evening Chorus at Cheeseburn



Singing The World is on display as part of Cheeseburn’s two open weekends: this bank holiday in August (26-28th) and also on the 2nd and 3rd September. Entry is free with a suggested donation, and I’m told that delicious refreshments are also available at the Stables café.

'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village', set on the wall of the Stables Gallery, Cheeseburn.


Ayako Tani, Pre-dawn Light. Borosilicate glass, heat-shrunk tubes, steel and a lighting unit. The opportunity to show work in the darkness of the Hayloft at Cheeseburn presented the artists with a unique opportunity to represent the transition from night to day, moving from darkness to light. Ayako's glass chandelier of birdsong signals the dawning of a new day.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Federal Republic of Greater Sheelz Visits the South Bank: Thoughts Towards a Sympoiesis of the Regional Writer

Geet Big Wheel. Photo courtesy of Joanne Clement


Joanne Clement and I were in London yesterday, giving a guest workshop-come-poetry reading for the Poetry School’sWriting Poetry MA, a course co-convened with Newcastle University. Converging on the South Bank, we talked to the students – drawn mainly from London but also from the Hyem Coonties – about ‘further pathways’: academic routes they may take post-MA; specifically Creative Writing PhDs and how they might go about persuading the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund them to undertake one.

[The nutshell summary of how to get the AHRC to fund your creative-practice PhD is this: Come up with an innovative, original project, driven by a clear research question(s), outline a feasible timeline through which you will progress and ultimately submit, and apply to work under the guidance of a supervisory team and School and Institution which will wholeheartedly benefit your practice by offering you more than just criticism (i.e. access to specialist archives, a wider research culture and tertiary training and development opportunities). In short, you need a watertight project, articulated as an original contribution to knowledge, which you will conceivably be able to complete in a timely fashion. Ask me whether I’ve managed all of that in eighteen month’s time, however, and I’ll probably want to shoot you.]

I read half a dozen poems, two from the pamphlets, four from The Beast. What follows are some thoughts gleaned off the back of this particular trip, germinating in the fuzzy line between pedagogy and practice, but also veering into: the ambiance of being in London post the multiple terror attacks and Grenfell Tower tragedy; the feeling of disconnect travelling between Newcastle and London; and the carrying-with of a clearly demarcated regional poetics whose subtleties, subtexts and intentions do not always transfer to the metropolis.

After Jo and I had read, thoughts and comments – which I must say were largely positive – ranged from the evocation (in both of our work) of a rich landscape, with which some of the students were not familiar; the difference in rhyme and rhythm to the supposedly more ‘jagged’ aural textures of poetry readings in the capital; and the pros and cons of writing in such a way, so closely with and about a place, or ‘after’ regional artists (this refers, in Jo’s case, to Thomas Bewick, the 18th-centruy Northumbrian wood engraver whose tail pieces her thesis investigates, and in mine to poets such as Bunting and Martin, whose tracks, literally and figuratively, I follow). I was asked whether I don’t wonder (sub-text: worry?) if writing in such a strong ‘Geordie’ voice, about the North-East, might not pigeonhole me as a regional writer (sub-text: with little to nothing to say about elsewhere?). Interestingly, the prior afternoon, over a quick lunchtime catch-up with the great London-based poet and comrade, Rishi Dastidar, we mused on similar considerations. Would Faber, for instance, that bastion of the English canon, protector of all who tread after Eliot, Larkin And Other Men, be interested in representing the work of a poet who ascribes to Robert Colls’s view that ‘[New] New Northumbrians [...] were English people who found other ways of being English’?

I don’t wish to sound mean-spirited towards my questioner (in fact, if memory serves, I actually thanked them for both the toughness and relevance of their point, which does pervade my work and its theoretical underpinnings—there are, after all, no hard and fast rules or ‘answers’), but I wonder to what extent a London poet in London would be questioned about a ‘Cockney poetics’ (dear me)? Or whether, and this is the more salient point, why I’ve never really been asked such a question in the North-East (and why it’s imperative that, in a reflexive but not overly-postmodern, Aren’t-I-Clever way, my thesis does its best to get to the heart of the matter)? I was once asked something similar in North Wales (I paraphrase, but it boiled down to: ‘Do you consider yourself more Geordie than English?’ I did and do.) Why are poems about the North-East, or in some way gesturing to a Northeastern consciousness or with a Northeastern texture or field of semantics, when read or performed in the North-East, so seldom seen as potentially problematic markers of insularity? This begets a series of further questions, then. Chiefly: to what extent is the North-East, as both a geographic space and gallimaufry of cultural or totemic stories, happy in and of itself, but perhaps unhappy in its position to, and reception by, elsewheres, principally those hegemonic cultural-capital spaces such as London, to whom its civic institutions and their purse strings are beholden? To what degree do we put up barriers, seal ourselves in? To what extent are our poems – my poems, this is me, Jake Campbell speaking, whether or not I assume the voice of a collective – translucent? Willing to be seen as figures behind the glass, but void of telling detail, do they risk ‘trapping’ themselves on Möbius strips; destined to gyrate around fixed points until they, like the proverbially wound-up toy car, run out of propulsion? Or is there joy in ploughing that furrow?

I would like to hope that what my poems actually do is align themselves Internationally-Regionally. Paraphrasing John Kinsella, that poet of Western Australia whose tendrils of thought and embodied experience extends to England and Ireland, I aim for something of an international regionalism in my work: ‘facilitating international lines of communication while respecting regional integrity.’ If Bunting saw himself, complicatedly, as a ‘Northumbrian Nationalist’ (or was later held up as a paragon of such), and contemporary poets are venerated as ‘Northumbrian internationalists’ (see the blurb to Paul Summers’s collected poems, union, as proof of this) then why not continue that genealogy, as an imaginative framework, and couple it with efforts to re-politicise and re-vitalise the devolution debate?

In an essay in the recently-published Reanimating Regions, Philip Johnstone makes a case for regional devolution, on the back of both the Scottish Referendum and Brexit, as one of the only ways to solve what he calls ‘The crisis at the Centre of the UK’. Johnstone posits that, (rightly) furious at decades of under-investment (Common parlance: “What have they ever done for us, like?!”) in the provinces, people mistakenly vented in last year’s referendum both their legitimate and irrational concerns about their communities’ despoilment by putting a cross on a ballot paper that corresponded with their acquiescence for  the United Kingdom to divorce from the European Union. What Johnstone suggests they should have done (be doing) – and Christ knows countless other commentators have said as much – is instead of questioning the EU (many of whose laws actually directly advantage those ignored communities, in places like South Wales and County Durham) question(ed) the failed Westminster model whose political actors and neoliberal consensus has so wrought inequitable development to London and the South-East at the expense of nearly everywhere else (See HS2: little more than a quick-trip to the finance magnet, not a comprehensively thought-out, long-term strategy for actually, not illusorily, improving the lives of people in the midlands and Yorkshire.) ‘The marginalisation and inequality felt by many’, writes Johnstone, ‘have more to do with the problematic nature of the British state over the past thirty years than with the E.U.’ A more crude way of formulating this, and again it has been done everywhere from broadsheet columns to stand-up comic ‘gags’ – is to suggest that, far from rejecting The Establishment, the Brexiteer was actually ushering it in wholesale.

Where the regional poet, alive to the frailties of his place and the contradictions of his people, fits into all of this remains to be seen. It is a project in-progress. Bunting called his poem, Briggflatts, a ‘dialect written in the spelling of the capital’, and so it seems to me that any considerations of devolution agendas and how they dovetail into imaginative poetic communities must embrace both the lexicons we are working with and are constrained by (language as english, region as top of england [the lower-case ‘e’s there are a deliberate provocation and enquiry into what might start happening if we remove the primacy of ‘England’ or ‘Britain’]) and the places they might get us to, however dreamy or insubstantial they presently seem. Poems, I think, are one of the best ways of opening up the dreamscape: going beyond theorising what a region might be, and actually contemplating its possibilities, its chance for self-determination, and its sympoiesis – making-with – in relation to neighbouring regions and nations (scotland may yet become Scotland) whose own territories do not have to be beholden to capitalism at any cost.

Donna Haraway is the scholar from whom I’ve borrowed ‘sympoiesis’. Writing in Staying with the Trouble, she says:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’


We are on an interesting precipice. Confronted with the very real, very exciting, possibility of a Labour government, led by a committed democratic socialist, we must begin to think of what any future government deals with places like North-East England, caught between a still-resurgent Scottish nationalism and a bullish middle England, might look like. But that’s somewhat putting the cart before the horse, and I think this is where poetry again becomes vital. In allowing us to confront the inherent complexities of writing about regions – even, no, especially very ‘well conceived’ [read: stereotyped] ones like the North-East – poems do what politics alone cannot: they open up spaces for creative imaginings and retellings. That was why, walking across Westminster Bridge yesterday, having seen for the first time the steel barriers erected to the side of the pavement, before spending 30 minutes stuffed into the District line to King’s Cross, where armed guards stand sentry (as they frequently do at Newcastle Central), I couldn’t help but be moved by the intricacy and connectedness of it all, these Times We Live In. When the Prime Minister has become a parody of a poor leader, yet retains her seat; when hundreds of cranes populate the skyline of the Thames, constructing new mega office complexes and luxury flats while people in the West End of Newcastle rob their own food banks, you have to ask, 'How can I help?' Perhaps poet-critics/educators like me, shipped in temporarily for a day to talk to people, some of whom are twice his age and have had previously successful careers of their own, can only ask further questions about how and why to write it all down so that it might, in the writing, make some sense, and touch someone. The butterfly is beginning to flap its wings, sheet lighting erupts over the Thames and the Tyne. What it will hide, and what it will reveal, well... that’s up to the poets before it’s up to the policymakers.

Jo doing the ready thing; me doing the army thing. Photo courtesy of John Canfield, Poetry School

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)?