This recording by Ammar Haj Ahmad (a poet and actor from Syria) is part of a collaborative poem and workshop called ‘The Door’, a project by watadd.com. Photograph by Abdullah Sirhan.
English Translation: The door. What is a door? Is the door a poem? Yes, the door is a poem? Do you want to open it? Or should it remain closed? No, the door is already open? No, the door is. With great effort they turned the key in the lock with their mouths… What is a door? Does it open out onto a dream or close onto a cell? What does it wait for? Does it wait for you? Who knocks on its seam? What stories are locked inside its wood? The door, just a door. But what if the door was a poem? Yes, let’s say the door is a poem. Do you open it or do you leave?
This recording by Ammar Haj Ahmad (a poet and actor from Syria) is part of a collaborative poem and workshop called ‘The Door’, a project by www.watadd.com. Photograph by Abdullah Sirhan.
English Translation: Some doors are large, some are small. Some have powerful people waiting behind them, and some open out onto empty rooms. For this first exercise we want you to think of a door. This could be a door you’ve seen, or it could be one that exists only in your mind. You can close your eyes if it helps you. If you’re stuck, think about who or what is behind the door. Think about whether you are on the inside or the outside. Think about what colour the door is, and what it is made of, or what building it is part of. Now, when you’re ready, describe the door that you see.
You could not feel it as I roped your hands
to step right off the field. The fallow mud
the only witness to my boots that spilled
a yellow straw in night. A sallow blue.
Myself I must remake, while you remain,
and age, a frenzy still upon the stake.
I’ll take your home. I’ll peer and picture grass
eclipsing rags. This is your normal state,
remember this: my eagle comes to claim
your eyes. I’ll do the job of watching now,
you widows to the staw. I’ll beat that voice
I stole against the wall, it mingles with
the dead that call to slip their given names.
A soldier makes a list of those that pass.
When rhyme recalls us to each death we have
unseen then nothing sounds the same as life.
The eyes roll back, the mass that’s always there.
We dance the ordered steps, obscure the sense
of thought: white owls dress in this white moon.
So blind, their bodies slant the rain that shines
On thatch. Say kind, the ports are eyes, say death,
say no more sea. What fields can’t tell, our hands
are tied, they grow. This straw man born from rags
disrobes the birds, surveys the earth that rolls
away, no more. It glares. It wants to stitch
your mouth, it feels. Your fingers reach the lips,
they taste like grass, is death, this ridge of sound.
A narrow fellow in the grass returns
askew in Clare, its rails in veils of green,
its girders slid or kink in ground decay.
You must have met this bend of loss before
we risk this space a broken tooth can’t mend.
If friendship needs appearance I have failed
to see across its void. Their bones disclosed
her mouth divides and combs the wreck alone
for skin. I know, a row of zeros draws
us in to parse her now a laser scans
a tin. Our words are rations in this war,
that’s not in Clare, where Norman turrets warn
old skies in need of use. I fix her face
to mine, we tighten or efface: the snake.
Fast Arun, pheasants mark a fence, we start
located, high as windows, frail as grass,
they move, are gone, now only fence remains
to stalk you as a grave. A robin bleeds
in white autumnal clocks of herded flesh.
A lilac stain. Forensic maps that plot
and stretch: are these the airless hours? Lines
advanced to those exhaled from mountain paths,
what Jerash saw: the birds depart and miss
isles carve the years of Black September’s birth.
But still we read the grass and hedges snow
as flowers pulse through chest and bone and grow
round stones that score a soft exilic moan.
Their breaths that form and climb and count as clouds.
I’m helping to organise a poetry reading by the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck. The CPRC has a new Facebook page here.
‘One of the most influential poets of his generation, Grenier has, over the past forty years, pushed poetry into constantly new frontiers of practice and utterance. Over the past decade, Grenier has created handwritten poems that cross the upper limit of inscription to be both writing and drawing.’ from Grenier’s PennSound author page
Tuesday 20 October 2015
7-9 pm, Room B29, Birkbeck University of London, Malet Street
At Caswell Bay the waves miscarry sun
inverting light the sheaths return it drained
of what it gave the grass it takes to sea
to drown. The sky is bled of shade and will
get dark, but far off constant drones still gaze
with care. A piece of metal burns. On shore,
at faults of sand and grass where glowworms turn
to glass to swing their warning lights to voice
less colic black, a clay that clogs the night
in throats of gulls that lift their wings of tar
or throttle back from rhythmic blades alive
in murderous rent. Intent, they hunger, wet
abysmal depths they dive, for worms that graze
or pierce the soil slit earth. The grass gets mown
A first try at a new poem for a new sequence. Also, really excited that Extraordinary Rendition (American) Writers on Palestineis immanently due. The anthology brings together the work of sixty-five prominent writers to examine America’s culpability in the denial of human rights and dignity to Palestinians in Israel/Palestine and beyond. Some of my long form poem Living In is featured.
On 21 May, 2015, I delivered a paper ‘Poetry is not about death, dying only: The Event as a Mechanism of Survival in the Work of Bob Cobbing’, at Make Perhaps This Out Sense of Can You, an event programmed by William Cobbing and Rosie Cooper, presented by Camberwell, Chelsea & Wimbledon (CCW) Graduate School at the Chelsea College of Arts.
In the paper I showed how the archival remnants of the events Cobbing staged and participated in provide conduits back to the people, organisations, institutions and ideas, that originally connected Cobbing’s poetry to the world. I argued that Cobbing’s milieu, as well as the materials produced by that milieu, provide interpretive frames for Cobbing’s poems, and I re-affirmed the idea that staging new events and performances of Cobbing’s poetry is an exciting and productive way to remember and reimagine his legacy.
However, I also argued that there is inspiration to be taken from how Cobbing himself used events to release the creative function, and evasive possibilities, of the archive, especially with regards to how we, as scholars, respond to its relatively fixed aspects today.
To explore this idea I looked at the relationship between the Destruction in Art Symposium (DIAS) and ‘Destruction in Art’, one of the works Cobbing produced for the event.
To make this piece Cobbing took the stencil of the invitation to, and program of, DIAS and gradually destroyed these texts on a duplicator, printing at each stage. Over five hundred different printed variations were produced, of which, only six were selected for display in the Better Books.
Cobbing was on the DIAS organising committee, and in taking texts that promoted and helped produce the event, he visually permuted material that documented the labour the organising committee expended in making DIAS happen. As a durational artwork that enacts a shift from text to image (a shift from promotional material to poem) and as an archival document, the mechanism of the duplicator was central in making a work that visualises the blurred lines between the event, poem, organiser and poet. The erasure of legible text via destruction is the precondition for the poem’s appearance.
In the Q&A I was asked about the legacy of Cobbing’s work. With specific reference to the poets Cobbing interacted with via Writers Forum, I argued that one of the results of Cobbing’s dedication to the creative work of others (expressed via the formation of physical performance spaces, organisations, publications, creative collaborations, and spaces for mutual support and exchange) has been – at least in part – to make Cobbing’s work and influence less visible.
I likened Cobbing’s pedagogical practice with Writers Forum to the form of creative erasure active in Destruction In Art, where the transition from one form of expression to another, is bound up with an act of creative generosity that makes Cobbing’s influence increasingly difficult to trace, both in degree and kind.
In Adrian Clarke’s article Time In The School Of Cobbing he shares a conversation had in the 1980s with Bruce Andrews who ‘suggested radical poetic activity in England was developing through the Schools of Cobbing, Mottram and Prynne.’ Clarke argues that Cobbing’s school ‘may be comprised of those who analyse the disturbances his interventions have given rise to in a definable social field for further use.’ I have always found this a provocative definition of a school, and was something I intentionally explored in making the film The Sound of Writers Forum.
Cobbing sounded Bonney out, from the inside out.
In making the film I interviewed thirteen poets who had been influenced by Cobbing. One of these was Sean Bonney, who had this to say about his first encounter with Cobbing at Writers Forum:
At the time it was an assault on everything. I remember, I don’t know whether it was some kind of paranoia or something on my part, but I was sitting on the chair here, Bob was directly opposite me kind of over there, and every time I looked up […] his eyes were fixed on me. You know, he is a fairly small but stocky, by that point old man, looking at me with this face of glee whilst making this terrifying sound. I didn’t know what to think, I mean I thought it was great, but certainly I went away from that first workshop I went to… it made me rethink a lot of things. You know what I mean?
Bonney echoes several other poets I spoke to during my doctoral research into Cobbing’s work – including Maggie O’Sullivan, Peter Manson and Scott Thurston – who, despite the diversity of their own poetic practices (from each other and from Cobbing) and their deep understanding of Cobbing’s work, all recalled feeling a similarly powerful but equally vague transformation when encountering Cobbing in performance for the first time.
In my thesis I argued that one of the unique aspects of Cobbing’s performances came from making the external business of arts organisation a creative element in the internal form. In Bonney’s recollection the ‘external’ is only fleetingly registered: ‘and every time I looked up […] his eyes were fixed on me’. Here, Cobbing’s fixed gaze (felt as temporally extended by Bonney, but without any physical trace) induced, dramatized and integrated Bonney’s external act of observation and made it an active and internal part of the performance.
The integration of Bonney into Cobbing’s sound art is reflected in Bonney’s own subsequent self-reflection: ‘it made me rethink a lot of things’. Just as Cobbing sounded out Better Books (in the 1960s), the Poetry Society (in the 1970s), and a variety of pubs (in the 1980s with Bird Yak) for their potential as sites for poetry, he did the same to Bonney and a range of other poets he worked closely with.
I believe Bonney’s encounter with Cobbing is emblematic of Cobbing’s wider pedagogy, and that this provides one explanation for the wide variety of poetry that is written by poets that claim Cobbing and Writers Forum influenced their poetry: as every poet makes a different sound the poetry practiced by the ‘school of Cobbing’ is various in its forms and approaches, and quite often, Cobbing is nowhere to be seen.