“An elegant if ominously black box containing 31 sheets of A4 card. The text proceeds in and out of colour through four planetary houses, two music scores and a startling variety of rearrangements, rotations, snakings, squarings-off and bleedings in which a shocked physicality intuits its limits in the experience of grief. An accompanying CD contains a performance of the first score, telling two- and multi-voiced readings from the text, and a recording of sound in outer space.” Adrian Clarke (London poet)
Elegy was four years in the making, and over the next few weeks I’ll be telling the story of how the poem came together (from its launch in East London to the first poem I wrote for Stimulus Respond magazine) posting pages and recordings from the project as I go.
You can buy Elegy from Veer Press but if online reading is more your thing here’s a free PDF. It’s a big file, so make a cup of tea and come back to it in a few minutes. Or, while you wait, scroll down to read about the Elegy launch, hear the afterword by London poet Sean Bonney, as well as recordings from the night.
Elegy launched in November 2013 at Benefits, a reading series (running throughout 2013 organised with the poet Tom Bamford) that blurred the line between work, life and art. The launch was no different. Alongside specially produced collaborative performances, readings and a set of crow hammers (more on that later), I invited Samaritans to talk about their work.
Poet, publisher and academic Will Rowe introduced the night and Bonney ended it. Between this, I performed two extended sets from Elegy. This included an improvised performance with Tom on harmonium, and the premiere of ‘Other Noises’, composed by Edward Nesbit and performed by violinist Alice Barron.
This is Sean closing the evening with a reading from the opening poem of Document (Barque Press, 2009). It’s a poem I remember him reading at one of the first ever Writers Forum workshops I attended. It made me take hair seriously, politically and aesthetically. Want to know more about Writers Forum and the work of Bob Cobbing? Watch this documentary I made. Read my Thesis here.
Neptune Tongue Odes
The final set of poems performed at the Elegy launch was ‘Neptune Tongue Odes’. This sequence consists of five poems. The second, written in 2010 for a reading in memory of the poet Barry MacSweeney at Morden Tower, was first published in Freaklung Odes (Nineerrors Press, June 2010). The first and third Neptune Tongue Odes were published in the small press journals Cleaves (Issue 2) and Klatch (Issue 3) respectively.
All five were published in the Better Than Language anthology (Ganzfeld Press, 2011).
A note on hair: When my housemate took her own life in 2008 two police officers came round to the house. They asked for her hair brush so they could test the DNA against the body that had been recovered. The hair in Neptune Tongue Odes is my own, intertwined with Tessa’s, my then girlfriend, a person i’m now married to. One of the questions asked by Neptune Tongue Odes is how to sound all that: hair as memory; as future love; as entanglement; as identity-check; as a bridge between my house and an American bridge from which her body fell.
On the utility of birdsong: In the performance of ‘Neptune Tongue Odes’ I made two crow-hammers (one of which is pictured above). The sounds you hear were made by hammering a table that had been miked and connected to a delay pedal. Crows feature heavily in ‘Venus and Other Noises’, an earlier section of the poem, which will be documented on this page soon.
Performed with Tom Bamford at the Elegy launch, the ‘Saturn Set’ was first published in 2012 in Halfcircle 4 (see page 135).
“Ringlets of high-pitch ice”
“The parakeet thickening of your removal bursts”
“Hardening amber squarks in gurgling stone”
“Clearly, there are a gazillion visual devices at play here: the three-pronged texts shooting out from a base text, which at seem to invite several spatial options as to the direction of reading; loose ‘bubbles’ of text which are removed but are menacingly apparent and influential throughout; text alignments reinforced as visual carvings; mixed fonts; text sizes; the angle and shape of the poem as a whole.” Poet John Sparrow on the Itch Away blog
In 2010 ‘Mercury: Joke’ was set to music by composer Edward Nesbit (pictured below). The piece premiered with the title Soundings at the Wigmore Hall as part of Voiceworks (a project by Birkbeck Contemporary Poetics Research Centre and the Composition Department at Guildhall School of Music & Drama).
A note on the music: Soundings concentrates on the poem’s visual turbulences and gives them new voice. The performers are initially divided into two groups, or ‘voices’, each of which performs music very distinct from the other. This division corresponds to the visual antagonism between the wedge shape at the bottom left of the poem and the three prongs of text moving into (or out of) it. After a time the viola at the far left of the stage plays a glissando, which is immediately taken up by the adjacent clarinet and proceeds to pass across the whole ensemble, functioning like a lens (similar to the visual function of the poem’s two circular textual formations) which momentarily distorts the music. As the piece goes on, this happens increasingly frequently and quickly, and gradually begins to redistribute the different musical materials between the performers, and the rigorous duality of the opening is transformed into one unified texture which nevertheless holds within it the contradictions with which the piece began.
Venus and Other Noises
The Elegy launch included the premiere of Other Noises, a piece written for solo Soprano by Edward Nesbit, performed on violin by Alice Barron. Other Noises was conceived as a distillation and musical counterpart of the four visual panels that make up the ‘Venus’ poems. The last of these panels, published in Past Simple magazine, Issue 6, can be seen here, along with a multi voiced reading from the text.
Further Links: Disposable Venus Bits