Transmissions: Bristol (Part 1)  

 

Transmissions is a new series in which I offer notes on the creative work of small press publishers of poetry. I’ve decided to start in Bristol, with the editors of Hesterglock Press, Paul Hawkins and Sarer Scotthorne. In this post, I offer some thoughts on Hawkins’, Contumacy (Liverpool: Erbacce Press, 2014). A review of Sarer’s collection, The Blood House, follows next week.

 

Listen Up: Notes on Hawkins’ Contumacy
For a collection of poems whose title is Contumacy — meaning the stubborn refusal to obey authority — the poems are unabashed about issuing their own instructions. These instructions are not, however, as straightforward as they might seem:

DO NOT

envisage an isa
or
a fluffed-up pension
to
make
old
age
nicer

Though this short poem ends the collection, the patterns it makes are circular: the acronym ‘isa’, which concludes the first line is rhymed with the last line ‘nicer’. This patterning also occurs in the first line, where ‘isa’ is concealed in the middle of the first word ‘envisage’. The poem, which specifically instructs us not to ‘envisage’, to speculate, or perhaps even to read on (we are, after all, at the end of the collection) enacts this prohibition through a form that twice bends back upon itself.

The poem critiques the desire to translate the accumulation of money via financial schemes and products into the imagined security of a pleasant future, a desire it figures pornographically. The phrase ‘fluffed-up’, recalls the work of the fluffer (the person whose job it is to give male porn stars blowjobs in order to get them hard enough to perform). In the poem the ‘pension’ — which insufficiently serves as cover for the phrase ‘penis on’ — stimulates our desire while our bodies are used in the service of capital, metaphorically fucked into old age. There is no happy ending, no matter what we might want to envisage.

By instructing us ‘not’ to enter into such a dynamic of speculation the poem perhaps naively (or is it my reading that is naive?) sees the possibility of avoiding this fate as a question of activating an autonomous ‘will’. This word is conspicuously absent from the fourth line of the poem where one might expect to find it. However, the title of the collection and the workings of the poem’s form make me distrust the authority of the voice that offers such an appealing and superficially easy solution to the social and economic malaise that it maps. This feeling of insufficiency has much to do with how form is working across the collection as a whole.

Mark Burnhope’s puff on the book’s cover promises that Contumacy exhibits just ‘the right amount of formal diversity’. But it appears that rather than being deployed in the service of diversity, Hawkins uses form to search for a way out of the social deprivations that his poems so acutely, and often earnestly, observe. As no method of formal experimentation — collage, cut-up, détournement, the recording of overheard speech or the enactment of oulipian procedures — is fully up to that task, a variety of approaches are necessarily employed. In other words, the feeling of insufficiency that I register in ‘DO NOT’ is not a failure that belongs to this poem alone. Instead, rather than being a failure at all, the struggle and failure to find ways to live ethically both with and in the world is something that Hawkins’ poems intentionally and consciously explore.

Of all the formal techniques on display in Contumacy, particularly expressive of the relationship between struggle and failure is ‘Tip #235’ which, like ‘DO NOT’, explores the relationship between accumulation and instruction:

Tip #235

1. search the house or flat you live in and collect all
items of clothing including footwear

2. select one set of clothes for the climate you live in

3. dress yourself in these clothes

4. bag-up remaining clothes and leave in a dry
communal area in your local neighbourhood

5. continue with your life

The pun of the title, the rubbish dump and the recycling centre, situates the poem as a mediator between the individual and the community. The actions of shedding clothes, of seeing clothes as commodities, and of establishing an alternative method of exchange which is both considerate of other people and the environment — the clothes should be left in a ‘dry communal area’ — are juxtaposed by the temporary nature of the act, which the poem also admits to in its final instruction: ’continue with your life’.

The relation between a stubborn and permanent existence and a fleeting, temporary presence in a community is the central concern of the poem ‘Contumacy’ from which the collection takes its title. The notes to this poem explain it is an ‘Oulipo constrained interpretation of the old school squatters Legal Warning Section 6 from the Advisory Service for Squatters’. Using aleatoric procedures on this material produces lines that both demonstrate and explore the relationship between property, language and sound:

THAT we live in this householder, it is our homonym
and we intend to stay here

THAT at all timpani there is at least one persuasion in this homynym.

THAT any epic into this homynym with our…
prerequisite is a criss-cross offspring

This poem moves words on in an arbitrary and unrelenting procedure, and with every noun that is exchanged the sense of the text as a legal document legible in official settings is reduced. The ‘timpani’ and homonyms of this poem have their counterpoint in the change of law (in 2012) that made squatting in residential property a criminal matter. At the most basic level these law changes have made it easier for police to move squatters on, gentrifying and privatising communities with recourse to an arbitrary, legal and procedural violence. Hawkins’ poems are at their strongest when the experimental strategies of modernism, which are surfed throughout the collection, intersect with the documents and language of real political struggle.

In conclusion, I’d like to say a few things about the collection as a whole. Firstly, the recording of sound and rhythm is a recurrent concern: through an open window in the poem ‘Awake in Southall’, the city ‘comes alive’ in ‘a whale-cry’, while in ‘The Secret’, a character called Troy, whose hips ‘grind to the beat’, gets amusingly and desperately aroused as he really starts to dig the groove of a ‘Stepsom 913 – OA’ photocopier (‘the Big Boy of photocopying’). Secondly, there’s a food motif running throughout the collection. There are ‘screaming chickpeas’ in the poem ‘Fruit Bowl’, there is the ‘taste of anchovy’ in the cut-up poem ‘More Metro News’, there are ‘tamarind gas tiles’ in the poem ‘Under Colonel Rule’, while ‘Press Release’ begins with the lines,  ‘Cameron’s shopping trolley/ horse skin Cameron’. This interest in sound and in the consumption of food come together in the poem ‘Memory Grill’, which begins, ‘The noise I hear when bacon fries/ is the hard pop and scratch of vinyl’.

If sound is one of the ways in which the world seeps into these poems, then food is the commodity that most repeatedly enters the body, and the poems in Contumacy want to explore the body under capitalism. If these notes have said more about the world than the poems themselves, this speaks to what I like most about Hawkins’ work: the poems consistently point away from themselves and take you back to the world; they let you listen in, then they make you listen out, then they tell you listen up.

 

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On Performing Sean Bonney’s Poetry

When you meet a Tory on the street, cut his throat
It will bring out the best in you.
It is as simple as music or drunken speech.
There will be flashes of obsolete light.
You will notice the weather only when it starts to die.

Sean Bonney, Happiness, Poems After Rimbaud (London: Unkant Publishing), 2011, p. 37

I read these lines to an audience that had gathered at the Flapper in Birmingham to see the bands 40 Watt Sun, Rumour Cubes and Sun Wolf. I had been invited on tour with Rumour Cubes as my poetry features on some of their songs: 1871, Letters to Palestine (rewritten on the tour) Research and Destroy (poetry written just before the tour) and The Gove Curve.

It was our first gig and I was due on stage for the second song of the set. As I came onto the stage ready to introduce and perform The Gove Curve, Adam Stark (guitarist) said he needed more time to restring his guitar. Shortly after restringing he dropped his guitar, broke another string and needed more time. During all this there was silence.

I was closest to the mic so I decided to fill that silence with Bonney’s poem.  As I finished the first line I heard a sharp collective gasp. I continued to read. At its end there was no applause, no sound. Terry Murphy (viola) asked me nervously if I had memorised another verse. I hadn’t. After another 30 seconds Annie Rew Shaw (guest pianist for Rumour Cubes and solo artist) started playing a melody and we performed a version of Letters To Palestine.

I was  shaken by the whole experience. I remember asking Joe (bassist) for a hug. Having heard Sean read this poem many times, having performed the poem myself when introducing the post-punk band Left Leg, and after being really fired up for the whole performance I just wasn’t ready for their silence. At the end of other songs I performed with Rumour Cubes that night I felt that applause was muted, and that there was a palpable sense of hate, or at least disapproval, emanating from the crowd. These feelings were compounded by my concerns that I had ruined Rumour Cubes’ first gig of the tour. I’m writing about this now because I think this performance taught me a few things about Bonney’s poem.

Five lessons from Birmingham:

  1. No Tories in the street were harmed in the making of the poem. Any Tories in the audience were also left unharmed. Whatever judgement there is to be made about the rhetorics of violence used in the poem, the person performing it to a hostile crowd is the one left in a vulnerable position.
  2. The poem is as much about measurement as violence. The degree of hostility expressed by the audience towards the poem and its speaker is the distance between the audience and the possibility of their revolution.
  3. In the performance ‘the weather’ is the room and the people in it. As the final word of the poem dies away, you are left in a room with the people you’ve spoken to. You know something about them that you didn’t before. The violence in the poem is in them. Note the ambiguity of the word ‘it’ in the last line. It’s uncertain whether ‘it’ refers to the ‘weather’, the ‘light’ or the ‘Tory’.
  4. When I performed the poem I accidentally exchanged the first word of the poem ‘when’ for the word ‘if’, thereby softening the poem by making its violent imperatives conditional on crossing paths with a Tory. Beginning with the word ‘when’,  the poem is saying its violence is inevitable: its just a matter of time. What possible discerning feature would allow you to identify the Tory on the street so that you can cut their throat anyway? Reading Bonney’s poem then judging their reaction might be a good place to start.
  5. The word ‘throat’ is important to the meaning of the poem. Cutting the throat is an attack on language as much as it is an attack on the body. By identifying the throat as the site to be attacked  the interrelationship between the body, its politics and its language is also identified. When the audience gasped and fell into silence at the first line of the poem they physically acknowledged this to be true.

The poem singles out ‘a Tory’ for throat cutting, but this isolated violence  has to been seen in the context of the violence committed by the state. People taking their own life after being informed of cuts to their benefits (BBC), while the Government issues ‘more than 3,000 export licences for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which  are on its own official list for human rights abuses’ (The Independent), are just two examples. How can this be tolerated when a poem which simply invokes violence cannot? I’ve always taken the poem to be highly moral even in its deviation from conventional definitions of morality.

 

Letters To Palestine

 

Postscript Two

I’ve been meaning to write
To you again
Need to spell out a few things
I regret these letters
Their false starts
Cut out my tongue
It starts
I’m sorry I wrote you
This letter
I deplore its forged nostalgia
Its staged retreat
Its black logic
Its entire lack of yelping dogs
Last year when the roofs
Were knocked in Gaza
Inside the letter
Moved hands of mowed up grass
Tonight my prisoner kissed
The ground of their cell
Tonight in Aida Camp
That glowing stone
Its starlings and its shrikes
In the presence of friends
In their bodies
In their seams of loving scars
You have two minutes to leave your life
Get out of your house
So I give you tonight
And every single other night
To say, Free Palestine
Against the occupying army
Against their petty checkpoints
Their poems of racist laws
Say, Free Palestine
Against their wall
That field of profit
Their webs of ordered silk
Their humiliations, prisons
Their slow control of faucet’s
Poisoned water
As in 70% of your body
And then with what remains
Of your flesh say
Free Palestine
Against the tourist, the thief
In a hail of stones
In a certain hail of peace
In endurance
In boycott
In Oslo
Say, Free Palestine
And these are your only words
Free Palestine
At Arizona’s border
Inside David Cameron’s hemlock soul
In Balfour’s bleeding ear
In the ventricular halls of England’s colonial heart
Say Free Palestine
It ends in music
Yes, it ends in frozen coins of blissful glass
Say Free Palestine
It starts in your mouth
It ends in the streets
Say Free Free Palestine
Say its been good writing to you
Say it clear as hell
And then say it again
Free Free Palestine
Go on I know these words are in you.

 

I wrote this poem for a performance with Rumour Cubes at Bar Bloc Glasgow (11 March, 2015). It responds to the first version of ‘Letters To Palestine’, which was recorded with the band three years ago. In the new version ‘Letters To Palestine’ was followed by ‘Postscript Two’, which was performed over a pulse of clanging sound.

As well as performing the new version of the song in Glasgow, the song was also performed in Newcastle and London. No recording of the full version exists. ‘Letters To Palestine’ is part of the much longer Living In project.