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.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Thursday, May 07, 2009

I’m back and with only 914 emails in my in-box at work. I have blisters on my feet from walking everywhere in London for five or six hours on Monday, and then two hours more Tuesday between yet another BBC interview (this time for “The Strand,” on the BBC World Service) and lunch with friends. I had a great time & want to thank everyone, especially Tony Trehy & Carol Watts for making this fun as well as easy.

My single favorite comment of the entire trip came from a woman the night I read (for all of two minutes) as part of Geof Huth’s performance for the opening of the Signs of the Times exhibit at the Bury Art Gallery. “Are you Ron Silliman of the famous blog?” she asked. I allowed that I was. “I’ve read you for years,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were real.”

Monday, May 04, 2009

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Carol Ann Duffy at the Rylands Library in Manchester Friday morning

On Friday at 10:30, I strode past the Rylands Library in Manchester, knowing full well that in just 90 minutes the announcement would be made there of Britain’s new poet laureate. But I knew that if I paused to take in that announcement I would never make to Liverpool & back in time to attend the opening of The Agency of Words exhibit in Bury, the on-the-wall component to this year’s Text Festival.

(As it was I didn’t have the time to make it to the Tate Liverpool or down to the docks, for which Liverpool is justly famous, though I did take in the Walker Art Gallery and got to see just how the Beatles have become for Liverpool what San Francisco’s more-or-less nonexistent commercial sea trade is to that city’s Fishermen’s Wharf. If anything, the Cavern District, so called, is even tackier, with one bar named Revolution, multiple other pubs making similar (if less creative) claims for association, a converted bank building turned into the Hard Day’s Night Hotel – complete with statues of the Fab Four a couple of storeys up as if they were Italian saints. Across from the original doors to the Cavern Club a busker was dutifully performing “Norwegian Wood.” And the recreated club itself (it was torn down until the city fathers realized what a mistake that was) is indeed a dank place with a tiny stage, albeit when I was there one college-age kid after another was taking turns sitting at the drum set to have their picture taken. Both Rory Gallagher and Mick Taylor are booked to play there on different nights this month & one hopes that they’re doing so for pleasure. I’m told there is a Beatles Museum, but I would have chosen the Tate if I’d time for a second one of those.)

I was pleased with myself at the moment I strode past the Rylands, having just seen a copy of The Alphabet in the Waterstones on Deaconsgate, and having picked up a copy of Tony Lopez’ Covers there. The poetry section there still suffers from the “furthest from the front door” syndrome so typical of bookstores in the states, but just in terms of pure shelf footage, it was maybe double what one expects to find at a Borders or Barnes & Noble, and with a fair amount of diversity. There were several titles from Salt readily visible, as well as the usual, including a volume (but only one) by Carol Ann Duffy, who soon would be fulfilling the bookies’ predictions when she was named Poet Laureate, the first woman appointed to the position in its 341-year history.

Back at the hotel, as poets, artists & turntablists gathered for the ride out to Bury, one British poet put it to me this way:

She really is the best choice, the only sensible one. She will be an advocate for poetry, and that’s all you can ask from a position like that. She’s smart and accessible, so that helps. Even Andrew Motion, who is not nearly the poet she is, was an advocate, so in that sense he was a good laureate. He was willing to argue for difficulty. I cannot imagine that any poet whose work we liked better would have any interest in taking on the tasks that position requires.

In Bury, about 100 people turned up for the official opening of the Text Festival, which was fun and totally successful as an event. Geof Huth has already done an excellent job documenting it on his blog, so I will add only that Geof gave a terrific reading in bare feet, proving yet again that visual poets are indeed poets in every sense of the word – he even concluded with a song based on one of his texts that reminded me, more than anything, of Jerry Rothenberg’s interpretations of the Navajo Horse Songs of Frank Mitchell (scroll down here). Geof has also blogged the exhibition itself here, and curator-impresario-wizard Tony Trehy has been doing so throughout. Matt Dalby’s blog is also quite good. I have to note that I really enjoyed the evening of poetry films presented by Tom Konyves on Thursday, and was blown away by Nico VassilakisFoC on the big screen, in a somewhat longer version than the YouTube clip.

By the time you read this there will have been two additional events, an afternoon of readings of works commissioned on the subject of Bury itself, and my own reading last night. I recommend that you check out Geof, Tony & Matt’s blogs for reports of those.

Some Carol Ann Duffy links worth noting:

The Guardian article

Another Guardian article

Guardian editorial

The Independent

The Irish Times

The Times

A collection of women poets edited by Duffy

The Scotsman