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

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