Thursday, 31 July 2008

catwalk 74

I’m off again, up to West Yorkshire for a couple of weeks. I might possibly post from there. Then again I might not. Here’s an image to wonder at in the meantime. It’s blown up from a picture that appeared in the Guardian a few days ago and it shows Philippe Petit walking across a highwire between the Twin Towers. This was a perilous enough escapade but 1974 may have made it even more so: he was wearing flares.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Milan 4

avoid places the guide books describe as ‘bohemian’
only the northern edge of Brera begins to feel like real people live there

the sparrows are smaller than English sparrows
but the pigeons and blackbirds are the same size

in Veronese’s ‘Last Supper’
everyone appears drunk

Medardo Rosso sculpts
like wax melts

Balla’s ‘Dog on a leash’
just about describes the Quadrilatero d’Oro

the Stazione Centrale is under wraps

the futurists have abandoned the city

Sunday, 27 July 2008


Tate Britain’s exhibition The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting begs comparison with one put on some years back by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Admittedly Roger Benjamin, curator of the Sydney show, had a wider brief than his British counterpart, featuring work by French and German artists in addition to the British, and including as well photographic work. Both shows limit the ‘Orient’ to North Africa and the Middle East following the practice of Edward Said’s book Orientalism but I felt that the arrangement of the Tate exhibition was the less satisfactory of the two. Beginning with a room focussed on ‘the Orientalist portrait’ it left no space for any gaze other than that of the colonialist. The room devoted itself not just to portraiture but to portraits of the administrators, artists and adventurers themselves, decked out in ‘native’ dress. These mostly establishment figures became by default silent guides through the rest of the exhibition. I felt that the order of the whole show could well have been reversed and the portraits placed in a side room alongside the maps (positioned midway through the exhibit); better still, the original order could have been retained and the portraits scattered throughout, with some (like Lord Byron) appearing with the maps, others included in relevant spots (T E Lawrence could have been placed in the very last section: ‘the Orient in perspective’). This would have ensured that the audience took in from the beginning the strange double-nature of Orientalism: a desire to depict the visible with scrupulous accuracy coupled with a desire to penetrate real and supposedly invisible realms (the fascination with the harem, for instance, which could only be entered by outsiders if they were women, like Lady Montagu). The latter desire now reflects a morbid pathology of the colonial and subsequent periods: suspecting that the ‘other’ is more available and more ‘deviant’ sexually than we are. The former desire has proven more ambiguous. If the fantasies of sexual conquest and imperial power are ignored what often remains of these paintings is their hunger for verisimilitude and this in turn has proven useful to those whose great-great-grandparents were the ‘subjects’ of the work. One of the many pleasures of visiting the Sydney show was the sight of Australians of Middle-Eastern background fascinated by the detail of places and objects they may only have read about. And because that particular show was not set out as a European adventure it proved itself more inviting to a wider audience.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

wednesday afternoon and evening

Two events yesterday raised my hopes and my enthusiasm for poetry. The first of these was a belated visit to the V&A exhibition, ‘Certain Trees: The constructed book, poem and object 1964-2006’. While the brief for this show might seem impossibly broad the work on display seemed more like a kind of interlocking ‘family’ thing. Simon Cutts (whose ‘no ideas but in things’, 2002, appears above) was responsible for putting the show together. He has himself worked for years across several disciplines (the Jargon Society did his wonderful book Pianostool Footnotes in 1982). The show includes work by sixteen people, including Thomas A Clark and Laurie Clark, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Lax, Stuart Mills, Erica Van Horn, and Cutts himself, with a catalogue introduction by another of the participants, John Bevis, and an afterword by Harry Gilonis. As Bevis notes, the ‘cultural eclecticism’ on display here comes from a sense ‘that the thing one trusts to be true has to be met wherever it may be found’. What is apparent is that the book shouldn’t be viewed as a transparent bearer of the words within. It is a kind of matrix that determines through its colour, shape, texture, and the care (or lack of it) that went into its production (it seems significant in this light that major publishers often produce a poet’s selected or collected work on paper that goes brown in a matter of months).

The second event was the evening reading upstairs at The Lamb, Bloomsbury, in the Blue Bus series. This consisted of individual and collaborative work by Holly Pester, James Wilkes, and Abi Oborne. These younger poets performed inventive, engaging work that seemed a far cry from what you come to expect of so many writing school graduates. The three made use of acoustics, amplification, theatre and a sense of the audience that was unpretentious and involving. I had to leave before the very end that was to have involved Abi Oborne cooking an ox tongue (she is, by day or night, a professional chef). I hope it was no problem for Health and Safety.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


The sonnet sequence ‘East’ that appears in the Reality Street anthology is one of the earliest poems I’ve continued to reprint. It was written early in 1971 when I was still at university. The poem is dedicated to ‘John & Margot Scott’ and (coincidentally) John’s poems appear just before mine in the anthology. We had both been at Monash University along with Alan Wearne, and the three of us had written sonnets. Our common influence was Ted Berrigan’s book which, though first printed in the early sixties, had only appeared in a mass-market edition (Grove Press) around 1967. Our interests in poetry were otherwise divergent: John read Yves Bonnefoy and both he and Alan had read many of the more obscure English sonneteers of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. My own interests around then centred on Pound, the Black Mountain poets, and Basil Bunting. My two friends were precocious but I was a slow starter. When I wrote ‘East’ I sensed that they had been waiting for me to do something like it.

On the surface it isn’t very much like Berrigan at all, other than in its patchwork feel with the lines seemingly scissored in and the eruptions of advertisements and news headlines. The time given in the first section – ‘8 p. m.’ – may be a small gesture of my indebtedness. The sections are all ‘traditional’ sonnet length: fourteen lines (so the section that is numbered ‘2 & 3’ and set out as a newspaper cutting, breaking off in mid sentence is, if you count all the lines including the headers, fourteen times two).

There are clearly other writers behind the poem. The most obvious one is Charles Olson, whom Berrigan would probably have found ponderous, eminently worthy of a fake interview (like the one he did with John Cage). One of Olson’s shorter sequences is called ‘West’, and it is this poem (plus ‘Buffalo Ode’) that generated my own poem and gave me the title. The movement of the sections backwards and forwards though time comes partly from Olson’s way of doing history where the evidences are presented as they unfold to the historian, not reshaped into a conventional historical argument. The time shifts also come from William Faulkner and the way he chose to tell a story (The Sound and the Fury) in a non-chronological manner.

Obviously my own memory and events in the history of my father’s family are central to the poem too. But these are placed against items from newspapers of the day whether trivial (‘CLERIC SPEAKS OUT AGAINST MIXED BATHING’) or momentous (such as the lines about the My Lai massacre that was before the courts as the poem was being written). In doing this I signal that my own experience is no more important than whatever else is going on. Within the poem there are lines that place it as a literary artefact (referring also to my own situation as a putative literary scholar) such as ‘Compare/contrast selected passages/with special reference to poetic qualities’.

It’s not a poem I have chosen to perform much over the years, partly because it is visually oriented. It is possible to ‘do’ the newspaper cutting from 1912 as a kind of radio piece, and to change voice for other sections but, on the whole, the direction my writing took was not a dramatic one and I mistrusted the more florid styles of performance. I’m happy just to see the words and phrases in this piece sit next to each other rather than hear them.

Monday, 21 July 2008

a sonnet anthology

In today’s mail, a book I’m proud to be a small part of: The Reality Street Book of Sonnets. As Jeff Hilson notes in his introduction there has been a spate of sonnet anthologies in recent years, all of which have represented more or less a ‘call to order’ from conservative forces. The dismaying similarity of these collections seems to indicate that the market itself forgets from year to year while the editors keep on assuming that their kind of medicine is what’s required. These anthologies present the sonnet as a somewhat static thing from which any divergence can be no more than a curiosity. Hilson, in contrast, begins with the test of linguistic innovation (using the term ‘linguistically innovative’ as others might use ‘avant garde’, ‘experimental’, or ‘post-avant’). The anthology begins appropriately with Edwin Denby and ends with poets in their early twenties. It encompasses the visual sonnet among other practises that break down the various aspects seen by reactionaries as essential to the form. It is notable that innovative makers of the sonnet largely see this kind of poem in terms of the series or sequence rather than as a self-contained individual unit. In this regard the mid-to-late twentieth century work of Ted Berrigan and Bernadette Mayer (in particular) introduced younger writers (myself included) to possibilities we may not have discovered for ourselves. The Reality Street volume reflects this influence, but it also shows how much of an opening the new sonnet provides. Its sheer diversity is a long step from the dreary inevitability of the usual sonnet anthology.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Monday, 7 July 2008


I'm off to Milan. See you all in a couple of weeks time. Meanwhile, here's something to look at while I'm off screen.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

moral panic revisited

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is at it again. This time he is objecting to the photograph on the cover of this month’s Art Monthly Australia. The picture, taken five years ago by Melbourne photographer Polixeni Papapetrou, is of her daughter Olympia, aged six. Papapetrou’s partner, the critic Robert Nelson noted: "It's interesting that if the Prime Minister comments on, say the greenhouse effect, he gets expert advice first . . . I would like to know which art expert advised him on this." In The Age’s report he said the photo was one of Olympia’s favourites and that "even my nine-year-old son said: 'Don't people understand that photography is acting?"' The usual suspects condemned the magazine. Joe Tucci, the chief executive of the Australian Childhood Foundation told the paper "a young child cannot understand how, with today's technology, the picture can be distributed around the world . . . It could haunt her when she's thirty and wants to be a lawyer or teacher". Somewhere somebody seems to have lost all sense of perspective and the Prime Minister’s readiness to weigh in isn’t going to help matters. Probably quite a few of us have naked photos taken at ages zero to whenever. At age thirty we are more likely to be embarrassed by something we did when we were twenty than when we were six.

Friday, 4 July 2008

thursday night in London, sunday in Sydney

At last night’s Crossing the Line reading (sorry, again none of my own images) Sophie Robinson and Peter Philpott (above) read from new work. A sequence by Robinson, read in the first bracket, will appear shortly in Jeff Hilson's Reality Street anthology of contemporary sonnets. This is an eagerly awaited production, gathering poems from across the Anglophone world (some of my own pieces will appear in it). Peter Philpott’s two brackets consisted entirely of an intriguing work performed in a number of voices and guises. Its tonal complexity managed shifts from the (relatively) sober to the slapstick, even incorporating elements of vispo that I wish I’d been able to photograph. These were blu-tacked to windows and mirrors, the act itself part of the performance. And if I were able to astrally transport myself to Sydney on Sunday afternoon I'd certainly be going to a reading by three Salt authors: Pam Brown, Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Kate Lilley. From this distance all I can say is: 'break a leg'.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

the small press squeeze

On one of the British poetry lists Ken Edwards notes some of the problems faced by a small press and the advantages and disadvantages of print-on-demand technology. The advantages are well enough known by now. Once the initial costs (the technology) are covered, the press doesn’t have to worry about housing back stock or dealing with bookshops on the usual sale or return basis. The major disadvantage is that bookshops won’t (generally) stock POD titles and the mass media won’t review them. It’s all down to the web and word-of-mouth. Amazon will supply POD titles (though the firm has been making threatening noises lately about publishers having to use its in-house printers). Meanwhile even good independent distributors like SPD make it uneconomic for non-American small presses to use their services. I am an inveterate buyer of books who will chase something up on the web where necessary, though I also make considerable use of bookshops. In London, places like Foyles and the London Review of Books store have sizeable poetry sections, though the titles are often weighted towards the conservative end of the spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised to pick up a copy of Jackson MacLow’s New and Selected Works (at the LRB shop) recently. This was however, a U. Cal title. In these shops and most of the good ones I know small presses need not apply (the only place I can think of that still stocks books like this is Melbourne’s Collected Works). I know my Sydney friends at Gleebooks (another good place) won’t approve of my use of Amazon and such sources but it’s not as though I have any real choice.