Behind one violet there is another
See, what is sweet about that –
Every star emits
Yellow lilac light
Thick violet walls
Raspberry love –
Sweet sandhills draw upwards,
Tooth white stars
Brown silhouetted stole,
That I am not
Writing about you at all.
Violet: sweet as a ghost.
It feels like it was only yesterday, but the launch of the Herbarium poetry anthology was almost four years ago. Edited by James Wilkes, the anthology was launched at the Urban Physic Garden with readings from 36 poets in July 20ll. The anthology, viewable here, celebrates and explores the contemporary resonances of medicinal plants and herbs for the Urban Physic Garden.
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.
Come in from a warmth my small gazelle drill
Scaffolding green of caltrop pierce-hoof
For it is now midday and I’m in need of pigeons
Canted-builder, undead-mesh, brackened-eyes
Closets and kisses fold you up something proper
No today is not the day for something proper
Extinguish curls —
And when I was a poacher the room was pink
In summer O’ microwaves where the birds burst
And the shields turn in face to slit faces the pretty
Polices, and Luke
I garnered up the violence for you, I placed it in this bird
Will you hold it? Yet still, while you face it, will you come
In from my mouth, for it is now past midday, and I’m in need
Of poems —
Fuck off to find a fallow field mouse gangrene and empty
For he is out in the lower gut of my tiny Luke bird,
Shitting out green —
And I heard you ill the city – so are you my slow gazelle,
Or worse – are you my drill-field. And am I the closet terrorist
When even your kisses fear me —
Where even the birds sought my door to die?
Summer in Brighton
When you swell into the pier-slats a chlorine April otter,
Gulled between the baton, the granite & the sun floss-ochre,
Those were the days when I lost my tongue to Brighton —
For it is far past midnight and I’m in need of drowning,
Plaster drips its jowls onto the white-mesh
Or on into a room is cracked and greener
Than a rose, the sea, a smash-welt flattener, an otter slumps
Its heavy chin onto the porcelain rashes,
For when I was a painter the bricks blew up
The Winter, O’ money find a tongue among the thrashes,
And when you find it, just cut it, greener up into the passes,
Can you paint it?
When you hear it, please flush it, for I am all an otter
And make not a lot of money —
And I heard you move the people,
So are you my flock of hammers? Or am I all this traitor
When even those purses fleece me?
Please now will you just tell me, why these boots keep on filling
Up with all this blood?
A note on the poems: Back in April 2009 I took part in National Poetry Filth, an online project organised by poet Sophie Robinson to celebrate National Poetry Month. The challenge was to write a poem everyday for a month, posting the poem to a group blog. I didn’t manage a poem a day, but these were two of my better efforts.
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.
“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.
In 2006-7 I collaborated with Adam Stark (for the first time) to make the procedural poem (CODE_WORDS). The poem recoded a speech that was already highly coded: ‘On The Three-Part Comprehensive Settlement’. This was delivered by American Secretary of State Dr. Condaleeza Rice in Israel on the 31 July 2006 during the war between Hezbollah and Israel.
Some political commentators described Rice’s speech as a ‘coded message’ directed towards the Israeli administration, letting them know that they only had a limited amount of time until international pressure would make a cease-fire necessary.
In the poem/program (visualised above) pressing ‘Pause’ in the GUI activated a ‘replace’ function where the start word ‘birth’ was replaced with a pre-selected word from Rice’s speech. ‘Stop’ activated a ‘delete letter’ function, where letters from the previous word were deleted and then reordered to form a new word, and ‘Play’ operated a non-deterministic function where the computer chose, through psuedo-chaotic means, between two pre-programmed options where letters were added to the previous word, and then reordered to form a new word without any letters from the previous word being deleted. In other words, every word within the finite state machine had four other words leading from it.
(CODE_WORDS) can be downloaded here. It’s pretty lo-fi, and only runs on Windows, but it was 2006 and our first collaboration.
‘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.
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.
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.