Saturday, May 09, 2009


The Text Festival in Bury is over for me. I’m sitting as I write in the quiet car of a Virgin train in the Piccadilly station in Manchester, preparing for the trip to London where on May 5, I will do a session – not quite a class as I understand it – at the University of London Birkbeck, a reading, and an interview with the BBC World Service. By the time I get this posted, those will already have happened.¹ Back in Bury, a suburban center north of Manchester, events at the festival will continue into June, when I believe P. Inman provides the grand finale.

My mind is running over the events of the past five days, heady with excitement at having heard & seen great work, connected with people I’ve known before only over email or from their books, matchboxes(!), blogs or YouTube clips. I feel as though I’ve gotten an intense introduction to the genre of videopoetry (and its near kin, poetry videos, which are not, in fact, the same thing) thanks to Tom Konyves, which I expect I’ll write more about in a future note, and the work of German turntablist/sound artist Claus van Bebber has given me a lot to think about with regards to the concepts of quotation and appropriation. Claus is the one person with whom I’ve tried to speak with in German in 20 years – my German, which is pathetic, being better than his English, which he claims to be nonexistent.

I know that I’ve heard two major poets at the height of their powers – Geof Huth & Tony Lopez. I knew about Huth before, tho we’d never met, but I have only myself to blame for not having already delved into everything Tony Lopez has ever written – he’s producing poetry as good as anyone in the language right now (his contribution of the Text Festival 2 anthology is clearly the masterwork of that collection and his reading on Saturday afternoon was breath taking). I also saw & heard other writers who have similarly seemingly limitless potential, such as Carol Watts, Phil Davenport & Liz Collini. And seen artists, such as Hester Reeves (HRH,the) & Catriona Glover whose work raises all the challenges one might anticipate for innovative practitioners operating at a distance from major international arts centers.

Curator Tony Trehy’s gamble in bringing together poets and other text-relevant artists from around the western world, not all of whom speak the same language let alone work in the same discipline, is a risk well worth taking. Situating poetry in the arts, rather than in the academy, is of course exactly the right idea, but it’s one that often is executed without any real insight as to how they fit together. Tony’s genius as a curator largely consists in getting that right.

Trehy also does a superb job fitting this event into the actual life of a suburban center to an industrial city a few hundred miles north of London. Geof on his blog has already written of the presence of Florence Lyons at most of the events of the festival. One of the first female combat veterans in British history, Florence determined – when returning to the UK from Egypt at the end of WW2 – never to leave England again, and she hasn’t. Working as the equivalent of a child protective services worker until she retired, she’s lived in Bury ever since. I ran into her first on the tram up from Manchester when I asked when would arrive at Bury. With the exception of the poetry video night and the invitation-only “thinking environment” on Sunday, Florence was at every session of the Festival – coming to my reading directly from church – and seemed to enjoy every bit of it. Florence isn’t particularly a literary person & she’s not the slightest avant in her approach to the world – the Festival is just more exciting than what’s on the telly. But it was her advice that got me to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool the other day and generally that was good advice.

The most unorthodox and ambitious aspect of Trehy’s program was the Sunday “thinking environment,” a process not unlike the sort of free-up-your-creativity workshops that one runs into in the workplace. I’ve never seen anyone try this with a group of 16 post-avant artists before & there was no small amount of skeptical humor floating about in advance of the event itself. But in general, it went reasonably well, as the group tackled what needed to be done to bring about more interdisciplinary multinational arts interactions in ways that might actually have impact on the artists and their forms. This was fueled, in part, by the anger that was expressed by some of the younger writers at their marginalization and, as one put it, “the despair and fury I feel that someone like Carol Ann Duffy,” a committed anti-modernist, “can be the laureate in the 21st century.” The result of this exercise – it took five hours, including lunch – amounted to nothing much more specific than Joe Hill’s old refrain, “Don’t mourn, organize.” But there were a lot of specifics given – I was asked to recount some of the basics of the language poets in the 1970s in some detail & likewise described how I make use of this space on the web. As Tony Lopez noted, the need for secondary work – discussions of books, readings, events, critical discourse among poets (unfiltered by the academy, even if it uses its institutions to disseminate discussion) is not a “nice to have.” It is utterly essential.

“You already know this,” Lopez said to me this morning over breakfast. “Or you wouldn’t be here. Literally.” Which is true enough. But I do think it comes as news to some of the younger poets & artists & at least one performance artist voiced skepticism that anything other than her work would see her through. As another one of the younger writers said, “The first rule about our gang is that nobody talks about our gang.” That, I pointed out, has been what Carol Ann Duffy’s gang has been doing for centuries. The ability to pose, however dishonestly, as the “unmarked case,” is precisely what enables the quietists of every nation to dismiss every mode of hyphenated poetics, whether video, visual, sound, language, conceptual, flarf, slow or otherwise. It was an interesting, if inconclusive, discussion. The real test, of course, is whether or not any of the younger folks there can make use of it. I thought about my own attendance as a teenager at the Berkeley Poetry Conference in 1965, and wondered if any of these younger artists here will look back on Bury as important to their own development 44 years from now. Here’s to them, and here’s hoping!


¹ What I had not anticipated was that I would not be able to get my laptop onto wifi at the Goodenough Club in London, and that their own available-to-guests PCs – quite ready for the computer museum – would have slots for 5.25” floppies, but nothing for a USB flash drive.


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