Document and Discuss

Don't Start Me Talking. Interviews with Contemporary Poets, eds. Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan [374pp, £16.99, Salt]
Poetry Wars. British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earls Court, Peter Barry [254pp, £16.99, Salt]
Innovative Women Poets. an anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews, eds. Alisabeth A. Frost and Cynthia Hogue [424pp, $29.95, University of Iowa Press]

Whilst I welcome all serious attempts to document and discuss contemporary poetry (and there's no question of seriousness with any of these three titles), there's something rather strange about the ongoing us vs. them take on poetry which Duncan and Allen seem to want to perpetuate in Don't Start Me Talking. Whilst a commitment to 'reflexive poets whose thoughts on language and artistic procedures shed new light on modern culture and on the interpretation of poems' is admirable, it's disingenuously presented as an approachable and alternative version of poetics, and slightly undermined by both the length of time this volume has taken to produce and by the choice of interviewees. To put it bluntly, much of this material seems dated and untimely, many of those interviewed simply aren't on the poetry radar and can't honestly be seen as 'major players', 'neglected innovators' or anything else. Tim Allen [himself interviewed] and Nicholas Johnson are surely more important as publishers and editors than as poets? David Greenslade, Sean Bonney and Elizabeth Bletsoe are the kind of small press players that Duncan normally disparages and abuses in print. Who is Alexander Hutchinson, and how did Eric Mottram, deceased, sneak in here? Why is Andrew Crozier interviewed twice? And Out to Lunch is, well, out to lunch and needs to stick to writing about Frank Zappa and Marxist conspiracy theories.

Well, moans and groans done with, I must state that there remains a solid core of useful and interesting interviews in what should have been either a much slimmer and more focussed volume or a much bigger and more open one. Tony Lopez, Robert Sheppard, Kelvin Corcoran and Simon Smith are intelligent linguistically innovative poets who fluently contextualise, theorise about and coherently discuss their work. David Miller and John Hall are generous and perhaps more surprising and useful, particularly in their respective discussions of spirituality and lyrical intelligence. They are also the two poets here who provide any sort of indication of the breadth of current experimental poetry, and point towards other possibilities of reflexive poetry. But really I didn't need many of these interviews, and missed heavyweights such as Allen Fisher and other more mainstream writers. Duncan and Allen seemed scared of engaging with anyone signed to a major publisher or who might have a really different point of view; also of women writers Š why is only Elizabeth Bletsoe present? Without trying to be too PC the gender balance here is simply appalling.  Could do better. See me after school.

Eric Mottram was, of course, one of the key players in 'the Battle of Earls Court' as Barry calls all the inhouse bickering and legalistic arguing (not to mention arts council wangling) that went on within the Poetry Society's crumbling townhouse on the square some 30 years ago. At a recent poetry conference, whose subject was 'Poetry & Public Language', Robert Sheppard lectured in detail about one of the manifestos reproduced by Barry in his 'Documents' appendix. Whilst interesting as an example of poetics and manifesto, and as a sociological and literary document, I know I'm not alone in feeling that the manifesto and the series of events around it are only one small part of British poetry history and that they have been blown out of all proportion by many of those involved. Unfortunately, Barry here only fans the fire and perpetuates the self-mythologising.

Key questions Š raised in informal discussion at conference coffee and dinner tables Š remain unanswered, namely: Why did the so-called 'British Poetry Revival' poets feel the need to try and commandeer the Poetry Society anyway instead of getting on with their own work elsewhere? Why were the same poets oblivious to all the stuff like punk, performance and zine culture going on elsewhere in the capital and nationally around them? And why, for heaven's sake, can't they move on and forget about the whole damn thing? Those of us discussing the matter later, who were probably all in their teens during the 70s, remember that era as an exciting, vibrant time for poetry, in fact all the art forms, with lots happening everywhere. Far more interesting than the mouldy damp rooms at the Poetry Society were, for example, the mouldy damp rooms of the London Musician's Collective up in Camden, the bookshop at Riverside Studios, and postpunk gigs at every other London pub. Compendium Books was still open, too, for goodness sake. What went on in darkest Earls Court was pretty much irrelevant, just as Betterton Street is today. If you don't expect anything then you don't get disappointed. Or thrown of the commiteee. No-one is, for example, making a similar sort of ballyhoo about the far more recent, and to me far more interesting, ousting of Robert Potts from
Poetry Review, nor seems willing to confess that print-on-demand teachnologies, along with Shearsman and Salt books, mean that the members of the BPR are now widely and easily available. And don't forget other books from Carcanet, anthologies such as the Keith Tuma Oxford one, nor (and I hate to point this one out) the Bloodaxe Prynne.  Please, answer the question, don't make assumptions, and don't go off at a tangent. You are not as important as you think.

As a lesson in openness, editing and exemplary publishing, I recommend Innovative Women Poets, a glorious gathering of poetry by and interviews with fourteen experimental poets. No 'school', no manifesto, no self-righteousness, just great poetry and in-depth questions and answers. At first glance I thought that it was simply another publisher's riposte to Wesleyan's American Women Poerts in the 21st Century, but this new book does not have the subtext of 'where lyric meets language', nor the critical essays, it simply selects poems and discusses them and poetics with their authors. There are, of course some overlaps, but fewer than I expected.

Throughout, there is a willingness by these writers to engage with the reader, a generosity that is often lacking in the poe-faced [usually male] poetry of linguistic innovation in Britain at the moment. There is a sensuousness, a lyricalness and a directness, allied with wide-ranging processes and experiment. There is little sense of wishing to disengage or be 'other', no chips on shoulders, no us vs. them, no attitude, and no self-mythologising the past. These writers get on doing what writers do, that is write.

Rachel Blau duPlessis and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge are especially lucid and interesting. C.D. Wright, whose work I am only just engaging with for the first time, due to a received New & Selected Poems for review from Bloodaxe, is perhaps the most elusive or flighty in interview here, but frank and open with it. Harryette Mullen is scholarly and deep. Several other names are new to me, and the interviews provide an interesting avenue into their work. This is a book I shall be spending a lot more time with, and using at university, one I have already ordered for the library there. Frost and Hogue are to be congratulated on their dexterous and accomplished anthology. 
Excellent work. Have a gold star.

          © Rupert Loydell 2007