Category Archives: Music

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.

Sea Fever & The iyatraQuartet

On Sunday 1st of March I performed Sea Fever with the iyatraQuartet, at New Unity, Newington Green, London.

The first performance was at the Open Arts Cafe (27 March, 2014).

I’ve since produced this online edition of the text.

The recording below is taken from the second section of the poem.

The iyatraQuartet is an ensemble comprised of clarinet, violin, cello and percussion. Members are George Sleightholme, Alice Barron, Rich Phillips and Will Roberts.

I first worked with Alice for the launch of my long-form poem Elegy. Alice performed Other Noises, a piece written for solo soprano by composer Edward Nesbit, but performed on violin by Alice.

Where The Wild Flowers Are

 

Viper’s Bugloss

White pigs and horses on wet grass lay dead
When sun-lips pink in vivid blue descends
On mathematicians and the red stained bee
A cancer bloods this poem: Washington.

Dusk bugs with flailing arms invade despair
Suck bitten tails that arch to meet a tongue
That senses nothing but the voice’s shell
Which logic forms as flowers in a pun.

The arid roadsides of Ramallah watched
As we removed the poets from the shops
To plant black ovoid seeds in eyeless pots
For every optic nerve dissects from sight.

Long scales defect to pitch-bend through the weed
While pigs and horses cell death on night grass.

 

A note on the poem: I wrote this poem in June 2012 for A Wild Flower Anthology. The anthology, edited and concieved by Clare Whistler, was published to celebrate the ‘Where The Wild Flowers Are‘ event, commissioned by the City of London Festival.

I was one of sixteen poets and composers invited to take part in the project. Each poet wrote a poem about a wild flower of their choice, while each composer wrote a solo miniature for a single instrument, which was then performed alongside a dramatic reading of the poem in one of three city churches: St Mary-at-Hill, St Olave Hart St and St Stephen Walbrook.

For Viper’s Bugloss composer Jason Anderson wrote a solo miniature (performed on clarinet by Emily Heathcote) which was accompanied by a dramatic reading of ‘Viper’s Bugloss’ by Alice Roots.

The Seven Arches

Over four weeks in July 2013 I collaborated with composer Richard Bullen on The Seven Arches; a site-specific choral work made for the Dartington International Summer School, which responded to architectural features in the Hall’s gardens.

During this time I also worked with composer Simon Eastwood on a piece for children’s choir titled the Song of the Spanish Trees, and with fellow poet Lydia White and composer Phillip Cashian on Tiltyard Fragments. These pieces were made as part of a wider collaboration, ‘Voices In The Garden’, a Royal Academy of Music and Dartington International Summer School project.

“Up against/ The wall/ Mother/ Holds her/ Hands straight up/ She rolled” (from The Seven Arches)

I’ve written about these other pieces towards the end of this post but I wanted to start with The Seven Arches as it is one of the pieces that has had the largest life beyond the initial project. The piece was published by Stainer & Bell in 2014 in their new ChoralNow range, performed by the Finchley Chamber Choir and documented on YouTube.

Continue reading The Seven Arches

1871

Go straight to the digital companion project to 1871: These Cuts Cut Too Many To Name (requires flash), or read on for the full story of the poem. 

“We’ve got a song for you”, they said, as I walked into the studio on Curtain Road, and after the obligatory buzz of pedals being powered and the occasional hit of a snare, they played it: the form was fast and fragmented with gaps left for poetry.

‘As the law peals from the far edge of a glove darkly at night how everything turns/ In and to the white snow/ Turns’

Here’s the back story: Rumour Cubes, a band I’ve been working with since 2010, had been booked to play a gig on 18 March 2011 at an Arts Uncut event at the Bull and Gate (Kentish town).

That date, eighteenth of March, sound familiar? It did to me. The gig coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune. The show, not the Commune, featured comedians like Josie Long and speakers like Steve Hart, Regional Secretary of Unite the Union. It wanted to open up the anti-cuts movement to a wider audience and Rumour Cubes were going to help.

Continue reading 1871

The Gove Curve

‘The time for sitting is over and the revolution begins. “Gather your weapons, grab what’s at hand, there’s an uprising and we’re all gathering”, the music seems to cry. Then, when everyone is gathered we hear the clear and articulate reading of a poem by Steve Willey. As the words end, the crowd stands there in sad and silent reflection. There will be no revolution today. It’s a non-Hollywood ending and I like it.’ (Echoes and Dust)

To make sound and live performance a central part of a poetics means to make poems where the external context of the performance becomes a creative element in the poem’s internal form.

rumour cubes art work
The Gove Curve (cover art version for The Narrow State, the album by Rumour Cubes)

In a live, improvised, or even practiced performance the form of the poem is located in the space where that performance happens. The poem is filled with history. Working with Adam Stark and Rumour Cubes has allowed me to enter new spaces, reach new audiences, and orientate myself and my work in different ways to the history that is unfolding around me.

The space in which The Gove Curve was written and performed was a space in which Conservative MP Michael Gove was proposing and initiating a series of education reforms. He was doing this in the context of economic cuts to Britain’s state and welfare institutions.

The Gove Curve was a protest against these reforms and the hostile ideologies that motivate them. To an extent, the logic of the poem rests upon one single pun: ‘school’ refers both to the interactive, social groupings adopted by fish and the educational institution used by humans. The Gove Curve describes and dissects them both.

Post Rock, Solstafir, Rumour Cubes
Performing ‘Gove Curve’ at The Craufurd Arms, Milton Keynes, 22 Jan 2015

The Gove Curve has been published by Critical Documents in the International Egg and Poultry Review (Cambridge: 2011), and by Max Czollek in the German language online magazine Kultmucke (2013). It has been performed with Rumour Cubes in venues across the UK.