Friday, 27 April 2012

What I Did On My Holiday pt. 1

Some fear death, some that there are people needlessly suffering in the world and yet others' fears are essentially unnameable. My principle fear is that I mightn't receive enough recognition for the things that I do. My principal fear, on the other hand, is a cold dread of head masters. So here is a limited series of blog entries linking to some stuff I've been involved in over the last year or so which I can't help but think you might have missed. Starting with some criticism.

Here's me on W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety in Poetry London last Autumn.

This is me reviewing William Gibson's Zero History in The National.

And Teju Cole's Open City, also in The National.

And finally John Sayles' A Moment in the Sun and Chad Harbach's Art of Fielding

And at the top is me as a Card Fighter illustrated by the multi-talented, soon-to-be-immense poet, Jon Stone.

Wow - putting more than one image into a blog entry is no fun whatsoever! No wonder I don't do it more often.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Wait a Minute: That's Not the Wallet Inspector!

The night before last I fell for a phishing scam after a lifetime secretly thinking 'How could anyone, ever be stupid enough to fall for a phishing scam?' Well I fell for it: 1. Because I'd had a couple more glasses than I'd meant to of this really delicious Riesling; 2. The debit card attached to my iTunes account really is going to expire in three days time and by sheer smiling, damn-ed coincidence this was exactly what the scam-email told me; 3. The scam-email was, according to experts, "well designed"; 4. I opened the e-mail on my phone where the reduced email server didn't highlight it as suspicious and presented it in such a way as to be totally indistinguishable from an actual email from Apple (when I checked on the PC it was clearly, visibly a fake); 5. There's not really any other excuse - I know very well that no company ever, ever sends you an unsolicited email with a link that prompts you to enter your username and password, especially when that username and password are attached to your bank details, and it took me exactly 0.6 of a second to recall this, which happens to be exactly as long as it takes me to type my username and password. So I guess all I'm saying is if you're in the Balkans and you meet someone claiming to be me, tell him to give me my money back. And, if he's well turned out, ask him if he wouldn't mind selling a few poetry books. Yet to achieve much market penetration on that part of the globe.

Mean time, before flooding the market with new projects I thought I'd mention a couple of books I've enjoyed recently. It's kind of like doing the penance before committing the sin. The first two very recently. I've been hesitating to talk about other books (there are other books?) here because I don't want this to turn into a book reviewing blog. Mainly because I usually get paid for writing reviews and you can go whistle if you think I'm going to start undermining my own livelihood by giving it away. I need that money to pay for my evening class in How To Come Across Less Arrogant On-line. And also because I blurb a lot of books and once you've blurbed something ever speaking of it again is frowned upon. Like, you know, if someone you're in love with is going for a job interview and you're on the panel and you're like, I think we should give it to him/her because I'm in love with him/her, and your colleagues are all like, sharp-intake-of-breath. (I have, I'm proud to say, in seven years of blurbing, never used any bullshit formulations like "X is the only poet writing today you should bother with" or "Y is the defining poet of her generation" and if I ever do may I be hit by the taxi I'm hailing. I have, now that I think of it, used plenty of other bullshit formulations like "simultaneously BLANK and ANTI-BLANK", but what are you gonna do? Try to actually physically stop me from writing ever again by breaking my fingers? I'd like to see that! I don't think you'd even have the guts to be sarcastic to me face-to-face).

And also because, you know, where do you stop? Before you know it you're having to write about every book in the world or else risk looking disastrously narrow. I've seen it happen to better blogs than this. But yesterday I woke up thinking I'd really like to write some mini-reviews of things that I've enjoyed and maybe even make it into a regular feature of this blog. Once every fort-month, say.

When I was at primary school and had roughly six "friends" (as a child I was too solipsistic to even be that aware of other people's existence, let alone be friends with them) we were totally obsessed with ghosts. We used to sit on a particular bench in the playground and take turns trying to scare the hell out of each other. Every small town had at least eight video rental stores, VHS machines had just become affordable to the lower-middle classes, and if you were like me you spent a lot of your spare time in these stores, in my case renting The Naked Gun and Back to the Future movies over and over again for 50p a night. TNG films were 15-certificates, but my parents made a rare exception for them. You would also get to look at the covers of a hundred dodgy horror films (different in each shop, as if they had been made especially) and sometimes, at another kid's house, get to watch them and shore up some more material for the ghost story sessions. This possibly continued into secondary school, but by that point I had no friends whatsoever for about five years [violin] so I can't, with any accuracy, comment.

Bobby Parker's Comberton (knivesforksandspoons press, £7) is a bravura prose poem sequence exploring faith, sex, anti-faith, drugs and booze, love, mental disturbance, the supernatural and the face-down-on-the-pavement natural. I say "exploring", but that's one of those bullshit blurb formulations I reach for too often. What Parker does, with Dostoyevsky-level-darkness (and the same aching, face-in-hands laughter) is treat them as one and the same subject. Parker gets compared to Bukowski a lot and I think it's always well-meaning when people say that, but I think it's also because the interlocutor hasn't read an awful lot apart from Bukowski. If I had to pick something Comberton reminds me of on the surface it would be Joe Brainerd's I Remember... series, except with more of a narrative (and therefore more awesome). The recollections ("We went crazy for sticking crushed cans into the back wheels of our bicycles so they made a rasping sound close to a miniature motorbike as we rode them") have the same hallucinatory clarity.

But this is only half of it, and I don't have enough time to properly extend my thesis here (will do some day soon). In the flashbacks Parker's characters get beaten up by their siblings or parents, they punch each other in the stomach and drink beer, but the key thing is a total obsession (and a very familiar one) with transcendence. But transcendence via the nasty stuff, the Ouija boards and cruelty to animals, the ghost stories and strange rituals, the conviction that your room is haunted, the persistent nightmares that bleed into your daily life. Every page is beautifully crafted - every verset showcases how well this guy can write. The engagingly ugly stuff is undercut by the version-of-Parker-presented-to-us-in-the-poems's current life, with a wife and daughter. The attendant fierce protectivity, love and sadness depicted with unflinching intimacy. (E.g. the following middle-of-the-night breast-feeding scene: "'Don't tell me about your dreams,' my wife sighed sleepily, her head nodding forwards and backwards, in and out of the dark. 'Your dreams are messed up. They give me horrible nightmares.'")

I love Bobby Parker's writing. Ghost Towm Music was one of my favourite things of last year. He could easily have produced a second vol. in the projected trilogy which offered more of the same - an endlessly engaging mix-up of artifice, diary, fury, confessional, surrealism/cubism, art and photography. The post-it notes in Comberton are brilliantly funny, thought-provoking and sad ("WE WALKED AROUND AT NIGHT IN THE SUMMER LISTENING FOR COUPLES HAVING SEX WITH THEIR WINDOWS OPEN"), giving it something in common with the first. But it goes further. It's a collection of poems whose narrative outstrips most novels for depth, mystery and staying power.

Well, that wasn't really the half of what I wanted to say, nor one tenth as clear, but it'll do for now. And a giant tower of dissertations has just landed on my desk, so I'm going to have to write about the next two books later. Maybe about two weeks later, but here they are.

I read with Phil Brown last Saturday at Cheltenham. Il Avilit is his first full collection and it is beautiful. MORE TO FOLLOW.

Ameerah Arjanee was one of the winners of the 2010 Foyle Young Poets Prize when I judged it. She is an extraordinarily precocious talent and this is her first collection. I think at the moment it's only available in Mauritius. MORE TO FOLLOW.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Cassettes, Tori Amos and Cultural Consumption: Towards an Understanding of my Fetishisation of the Box-Set

I've been buying cassettes on eBay to play in my car. This is dumb when I could just buy one of those cassette-shaped adaptors to plug my iPod into my car stereo (Or a car with a CD player, you PLEB! - Wealthy Ed.), but:

1. Wires hanging around the gearstick! AAAAGH! [Crash! Tinkle!]

2. iPod sliding around on the dashboard or perched in the what-is-this-a-drinks-holder?-it's-not-even-round! where it falls out or in my lap so that it falls under my thigh and the wire connecting it to the car stereo unplugs and the OH MY GOD IS THAT LORRY OVERTAKING?!

3. Service and petrol stations seem to have stopped selling them [Possibly because see 1. and 2.]

4. There are albums I owned on cassette as a teenager which I never got around to buying on CD, and CDs are now obsolete and I've lost the cassettes, and sure, I could just dowload them onto my iThing (and being 31 I'm at exactly the generational cross-over point where that feels like buying nothing), but see points 1. and 2. again; what am I supposed to do? Listen through headphones in my car? What if there's an ambulance? What if someone else in the car wants to tell me something like 'JUUUUNNNNCTIOOOOOOOOOOONNNN! NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!' which is by no means rare.

5. In my experience the volume control between the music storage device and the car stereo is so wildly out of whack (because let's remember this is a headphone socket rather than a line-out, tech fans), that the music sounds kind of shitty anyway, all high end noise or hiss or bass throb, veering between inaudible and ear-splitting, and attempting to correct this is like working old shower controls, i.e. fiddling with the wibbly touch-screen volume control on the iThing and the rubbery nub on the car stereo and hitting the curb and careening into the central reservation.

6. If I have to put "Was trying to skip ahead to 'Starlings of the Slipstream'" on one more insurance form.


Anyway, this is a way too lengthy intro to a way too lengthy blog post. The cassettes I've just purchased for 49p and 68p, respectively, are REM's Green and Tori Amos's Boys for Pele. I love both of these records. Perhaps part of the reason I never bought them on CD is that they're permanently scored into my auditory centre and I can play them back in my head with halucinatory clarity. And the reason for that is because I listened to them on very heavy rotation, several times a night, on every childhood car journey or coach trip. I played them on my Panasonic double-tape deck at home and on my Sanyo persoal stereo on journeys. The headphones, you remember, on personal stereos were joined by a thin metal alice band, which had the dual benefit of keeping your flopppy fringe out of your bloodshot eyes. And the reason for that heavy rotation is that I was a kid, I was too lazy to get a proper Saturday job (the very thought of missing Muppet Babies and The Chart Show just to make a few measly quid was, and still is, anathema) and cassettes were expensive. Green and Boys for Pele were two of about 10 cassettes I collected over several years and I listened to those ten cassettes until I knew every backing vocal melody, every bridge section, impromptu clarinet solo and/or studio chatter backwards and forwards.

It probably makes sense, if I'm going to consider my present role as consumer, to go into the economics of it (but not in such a way that involves me doing one iota of research). In the 90s, cassette albums cost on average £13.99. i.e., although we're talking about almost two decades ago - not even factoring in inflation and the "hilarious" thing that's happened to house prices within that time - two decades! TWO! - music was way more expensive than it is now. (That's assuming you now elect to pay for music at all). I tended to spend my pocket money on a monthly computer magazine and sweets (I ate a lot of sweets, and computer magazines weren't cheap either), so my indolence combined with a chronic (lasting) inability to save money meant that getting a new cassette album was a Christmas and birthday type affair, and being a summer baby this meant every new cassette album had a six month induction period as my new record, played-to-heck-and-back-and-to-heck-again. Now what I want to suggest - regardless of whether you shared my musical taste - is that being drip-fed music by economic necessity was a good thing because it meant that I really, really appreciated the records I had. (N.B. It also gave me a life-long loyalty to those recording artists which includes slavishly buying all of their weak late stuff and listening to it about twice, however much my taste in music has broadened and deepened since). It meant I appreciated the songs in and of themselves with an attention to detail completely alien to me now, but also appreciated them as albums, as carefully sequenced collections of songs. Yeah, I know, shut up granddad - and hurry up or you'll be late for our trip to the electric lake to worship the giant robot.


Which brings me to my central thesis: I can't be bothered to actually look into it, but I'll wager that the main audience for DVD box-sets is late-twenty-to-thirtysomethings. And the reason for that is because we're completely astonished by them. When we grew up the only thing on TV was the X-Files, and if you were enough of a fan to want to own some of it, you had to spend £14.89 on a VHS tape of 2 EPISODES. And that was if you had an ID card to prove you were over 12, which I totally didn't. And it was also dependent on the video machine in your house not being on the fritz and chewing the tape up. To own a whole season of the X-Files would have cost £178.86. That you can now get whole seasons of much, much better shows for a tenner (which in early 90s money would have got you a jumbo size Yorkie bar) is something we'll never quite get over. I even buy box-sets of shows I know I'm going to hate.


Just holding the cassettes I bought on eBay is a total nostalgia fix in itself: the metallic grey wash that marks commercial releases from blank tapes, the way you have to wind the tape back in with a hexagonal pencil, the tiny floating sponge underneath the tape itself. Playing them in the car, though, was a revelation. Cassettes have a warm, bold sound which is perfect when competing with a car engine, a blow heater and the conversation of your passengers. Many's the time I've brought along a CD to play in someone-more-successful-than-me's car which I thought they might like, only to hear it reduced to thin, barely audible ear-gruel with all of the hooks and harmonies shaved off by background noise. And they're like, 'Nice record. Sounded kind of like nothing.' Cassettes are amazing and we should never have stopped making them. I'd be the first to admit that Boys for Pele isn't the best driving music. It's full of time-signature changes, volume fluctuations and shifts in style and delivery. Some of the songs are solo harpsichord, for the love of mike, but on cassette I catch every cherished, well-remembered note.

Including that jaw-droppingly wonderful moment in 'Mohammed My Friend' when she sings about getting a spot on a TV show and this saxophone breaks in for two bars, seamlessly weaving in and out of the gorgeous piano line and suddenly Wastelandish lyrics whilst simultaneously sounding like the tacky theme song of a daytime talkshow. There are about nineteen other utterly sublime bits like that, which are probably best recorded in another post.

Oh, I'm reading at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival this Saturday April 21st at 5pm and it has a kind of jukebox theme, which is kind of what made me write this in the first place. It is with the brilliant Phil Brown and Daniel Sluman, who will clearly blow me out of the water like so many rubber duckies. Details here: