cross-stream: ways of writing
One of the major themes to emerge from Yes But Are We Enemies1 – last year’s Ireland-wide tour of poetry collaborations that I produced and co-curated with SJ Fowler as an extension of his remarkable UK-based Enemies Project, and which involved more than 40 poets – was a thirst from audiences for new ways […]
One of the major themes to emerge from Yes But Are We Enemies1 – last year’s Ireland-wide tour of poetry collaborations that I produced and co-curated with SJ Fowler as an extension of his remarkable UK-based Enemies Project, and which involved more than 40 poets – was a thirst from audiences for new ways of engaging with poetry. Writing that relies on tried and tested methods of composition and on the perpetuated myth of the sole inspired genius is insufficient and increasingly irrelevant in our era of multiple cross-culture, cross-border and cross-language connections. Though still in its infancy, the impact of the internet and other digital platforms – just like the invention of the printing press before them – not only as publication mediums but as new environments through which poetry is understood and made, cannot be ignored. Collaboration is just one way in which old rigidities are disturbed: through it we are encouraged to remove ourselves from subjectivity and reboot our writing modes by coming upon outside sensibilities, thereby becoming compelled to explore common, meaning new, creative ground.
My editorial and curatorial activities, in common with my writing practice, revolve around an investigation of the spaces in which contemporary uses of language become poetry – but also how various approaches towards writing can come together and suggest new directions. Although the poetry world is small, especially in Ireland, divisions between those working in different modes tend to result into even smaller factions. The lines become vividly drawn, and at times lead to bemusing spats and feuds. Labelling poetry in nationality or other identity terms functions as an extension of this tendency to separate.
The curatorial aspect of poetry as a serious practice that feeds into the writing of it and vice versa is a relatively new phenomenon: as with many compositional techniques and strategies like collaging or conceptualism, it follows in the steps of visual art practices but comes to be widely accepted as a valid form of engagement many years later. The extent of this delay is often incomprehensibly long: how adequately has poetry responded to the implications of the readymade as a valid art object, for instance – with readymades having appeared more or less one hundred years ago?
When I was asked by Fingal Libraries to put together a public project focusing on the appreciation of poetry and its possibilities, a series of events challenging the lack of cross-fertilisation between ‘schools’ or ‘scenes’ instantly appealed to me. For the resulting project, which took place in various library branches over four weeks in February and March 2015, and which we called cross-stream: ways of writing2, I asked eight poets generally writing out of disparate traditions to each present a short talk on the compositional process behind one of their poems. Giving pairs of poets with diverse, sometimes clashing, writing philosophies the platform to dissect their work was an exercise in demystifying the poetic process and elucidating individual approaches by exposing them to a contrast. But it was above all an invitation to audiences – fellow writers, students, general readers – to question assumptions about what poetry is and what it can do. The suggestion was that out of these interactions various routes towards a new and multiform understanding of poetry may begin to emerge.
We heard from Enda Coyle-Greene, through a discussion of her triptych ‘Antithesis’, how her technique relies on instinct, and that her work, though it can be of various lengths and forms, emerges in distinct units. Maurice Scully works on a larger scale, thinking in compositional terms of several books, and illustrated this through examples from his latest publication Several Dances (Shearsman, 2014). There’s a musical focus in both their practice: in Coyle-Greene’s case an aural quality indicates, after as many drafts as are required, the ‘rightness’ of a poem, while in Scully’s there’s an emphasis on musical architecture as a huge symphonic structure that plays with syllable and sound, as well as everyday life and chance (a fly that lands on the paper on which he writes earns a place in the work) as elements of composition. For Harry Clifton, the language found in traditional poetry appeared removed from the urban environment and the prose cadences of the 1960s he grew up with. So he developed an early mimic sensibility, using as touchstone the work of Thomas Kinsella, that matured into a practice where imagery from diverse geographical locations is employed as a prism through which to consider the universal. After delivering a short history of visual poetry, Susan Connolly explained how an encounter with the work of bpNichol became the catalyst for her practice becoming directed away from a traditional mode towards ‘patterning’. She ran through more than 30 drafts that were to become her piece ‘One Hundred and Six Days’ indicating how and why marks, letters and colours came and went in a quest to find a confluence of word and image that did justice to her subject. The power of Karl Parkinson’s poetry in performance leads audiences to assume, as admitted by attendees at his talk, that it’s an outpouring captured in a single writing session. ‘An Urban Elegy (For Edward Towell)’ indeed began in one ‘prosey’ splurge; in subsequent drafts it expanded in detail and with specific, concrete references. He then becomes interested in how the poem sounds, with excess words or entire sections being removed – sometimes these becoming the basis for different poems. Lines are carefully carved, measured by breath beats. This is an approach he shares with Pat Boran, who riffed on Parkinson’s presentation by talking other things about the permeability of borders between poems. Does turning the page mean we are in the realm of a new poem? Boran also put forward the argument that solving problems of form is what distracts the poet so that the expression of what’s crucial appears unbidden. Alan Jude Moore employed Moscow’s metropolitan map and transport system to provide the structure for his long sequence ‘Perexhod [per-eh-hod]’. The notion of ‘underground’ suggests the marginalisation of political opposition in Russia – while the poem, written in Dublin, offers a parallel commentary on events here. Lines and images are repeated through the many sections like refrains, while chance connections to the history of Moscow uncovered in the process of composition add further layers to the poem. Chance is also present in the birth of the sequence Máighréad Medbh chose to break down: an encounter – a haiku moment – during a morning walk, and what happened to be playing on her iPod at that instant (Wagner), led to a journey of investigation into the histories of Japan and Germany, with the poem growing into a meditation on guilt. There’s no narrative or an attempt to guide an interpretation. News reports and other borrowed texts are interspersed within the poem as an exercise in the creation of meaning.
In a recent essay3, the novelist Tom McCarthy writes: “the notion that we might need some person, some skilled craftsman, to compose any messages, let alone incisive or ‘epiphanic’ ones, seems hopelessly quaint.” Poetry has long suffered from a perception that material which doesn’t pass through a romantic notion of the self cannot or should not qualify. There’s widespread reluctance to accept poetry that emerges out of how we communicate today, and which offers a reflection of current conditions filtered through the very materiality of language. At the same time, writing that values the process of its composition at least as much as its product is routinely dismissed or at best misunderstood. Copying and re-framing already existing texts (a form of curatorial writing), producing texts algorithmically, or appropriating symbols and tools we use daily in the realm of written communication (text-speak, cut & paste, translation engines etc) – and through which actions a poet might investigate social, cultural and political concerns – is still met with resistance, sometimes anger. Then there’s sound poetry, constrained writing, erasures and many other forms and processes which are hardly new, but for some reason have not been taken up even remotely widely by poets – in Ireland especially. All of which brings us back to the question of poetry’s time lag.
By Christodoulos Makris, Fingal Libraries
- Tom McCarthy, ‘James Joyce would be working for Google’, The Guardian, 7 March 2015
First published by Poetry Ireland in Trumpet 4 (May 2015).
Christodoulos Makris’ most recent book is The Architecture of Chance (Wurm Press, 2015). He is the poetry editor of gorse journal. @c_makris