People are Strange

This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps
, Ian McMillan (Smith/Doorstop Books) 
Forms of Protest, Hannah Silva (Penned in the Margins)

I love poetry which has a strange quality and there's little doubt that much of Ian McMillan's writing is strange, even when it deals with perennial subjects, such as history, memory, landscape, language and overheard conversations. Overheard conversations are often strange, of course. Take this poem from This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps, which I assume, is pretty much based on a conversation/monologue which the author 'overheard':

Norman Stopped Me on the Street

Norman stopped me on the street
   And he said
   Hey, Ian lad

   A cud go t't theatre
   If ah wanted, ah reckon.

   Ah cud sit theer an clap
   At end an shart moor

   An then ad gu om and seh
   Wheer hev yore bin?

   T't shop? T't bus stop?
   T't wall? T't shed?
   Ah bin t't theatre.
   Av gorra programme.

   Ah cud du that Ian.
   Nowt stopping mi, is there?

Which has the ring of being 'true' as well as quite hilarious. His talent combines the obsessive observational quality of the hardened reporter with the panache and delivery of the stand-up comic or music-hall entertainer. He is an entertainer but one who is also prepared to provoke a bit, to prod around and to stimulate both thought and 'reaction'. As he says of his own poetic practice in the first stanza of the poem 'It's the 4th of July' - 'Always, for me, the struggle / between populism and / Linguistically interesting work' ... .

McMillan is one of those rare, rare writers who can write effectively for the page yet also, when reading or performing his material, brings a distinct and thoroughly entertaining aspect to his work. In '
Aubade/Nocturne' he undermines the 'high-art' associations of the title with a colloquial ramble around the absurd notion of '... putting some ideas / Into a bag to take to the Charity Shop,/'- a poem which has the feel of the sort of strangely disconnected conversation you might have with yourself when out walking. Ian does a lot of walking - it's good exercise - and there seems to be a connection between the rhythms of his footsteps and the continuous internal patter, which, when transformed into live performance, feels so very warm and so marvellously funny.

He's one of the funniest live readers I've ever heard, a fact which I was reminded of recently when I saw him at the Plymouth International Book festival. It's difficult to balance a concern with 'being popular' with producing work which is experimental or exploratory, yet he manages to bring this off with much of his material, often with hilarious results. He does a wonderful job, as presenter of Radio 3's
The Verb, of representing a wide range of contemporary poetry, avoiding schisms or clashes within the differing 'factions' by expressing a genuine interest in the work he is presenting and a curiosity about the writers and wherever it is their writing is 'coming from'. This is also a rare quality and we could do with more people like McMillan in the narrow world of poetry broadcasting -he's the John Peel of the poetry scene. This short collection from Smith/Doorstop is a real treat. Do yourself a favour and buy a copy and if he's in your area soon go and see him live.

Hannah Silva is another poet who is probably primarily known for her live work, both as dramatist/performer and as a sound poet of unusual accomplishment. She too combines an interest in avant-garde techniques with a more popular appeal, and in live performance - on the occasions I've seen/heard her read - mixes her material so an audience is both 'stretched' and entertained, not an easy balance to maintain. Her recent introduction (as poem) to The Broadsheet (an occasional poetry publication edited by Simon Williams and Susan Taylor) is entitled 'Foreword: Poets prefer marmalade' and provides a thought-provoking commentary on the current UK poetry scene and its multifarious factions and attitudes, which also manages to be highly amusing, if tongue-in-cheek at times.

Forms of Protest is her first collection and although I'd seen some of her work published in magazines such as Tears in the Fence I was slightly apprehensive when approaching this book as I wasn't entirely sure how well her work would 'translate' to the page, and whether in fact, her 'written material' would differ substantially from her 'performed' writing. This dialectic opens up a whole 'Pandora's box' of questions which I don't have the time or space to go into here but I needn't have worried so much. There is a mix of tradition and experiment in Forms of Protest though I have to say, speaking entirely for myself, that having heard Hannah perform her work on several occasions it's now very difficult to separate my recall of her 'spoken word' from the texts in this collection, especially when they are of an experimental nature.

Her experiments with sound and with 'chopping-up' language and snippets of sentences, have an up-front musical quality, hardly surprising when you know that she is also a highly accomplished musician who has chosen primarily to work with language. Sometimes she works with variations on a theme, as in 'Blank the in' and 'in the Blank' (p 44-5) where the phrasal differences in these fractured narratives are reminiscent of Bach's Goldberg Variations, if that isn't an altogether cosmic analogy:

   up woke laughter salted slaughter tasted water wasted daughter
   taste of I  happiness of moments brief in emotion thought I  sex
   changing imagined  text by will my sent  a great massacre has been
   there   completely a me made complete me made I thinking by just
   beginning the in

As with the work of Maggie O'Sullivan there are suggestions of narrative rippling through the vocalised soundings, often of a dark nature but just as often, amusing, punning and a combination of both dark and light. The section entitled 'Opposition', extracted from her one-woman 'play' of the same title has strong political overtones which mix a caustic, 'confused' and angry critique with a much more absurd and humorous angle which is also quite hilarious:

   You can call it liberalism
   You can call it empowerment
   You can call it freedom
   You can call it responsibility (titty)
   I call it: 'Er Ih Oh-ay-ih-ee'

   My Big Passion
   The Biggest Budget Deficit
   My Big Idea
   The Biggest Past Decade
   Big Britains
   Big Uglies
   Big enough and Bold enough
   At our best when at our Boldest
   We Do Big Things
   A Big Bang Approach
   Bish Bash Bosh

Which is 'indebted' to David Cameron's 'Big Society' speech!

'Hyas Araneus' (the name of a north sea crab) appears to be an exploration of the notion of 'territoriality' and how this might relate to human notions of 'space' and 'land' and belonging and (perhaps) nationalism and all its associated problems:

   All animals have a minimal space requirement
   without which survival is impossible

   At certain times in the life cycle,
   the individual becomes vulnerable to others.

   Crabs are solitary crustaceans.
   This is 1996. Look at the advantages

   held by those that have a territory, a space
   of their own. Look at the advantages.

Then again it might simply be information culled from a natural history programme
which provokes such thoughts due its change of context.

There is a variety of material here, from the lyrical and moving 'creation myth' of 'In the beginning' through the listing and punning 'throwaway' of 'Insults', to the provocative and chilling commentary on militarism of '@Prosthetics' to the intriguing (possibly a cut-up) 'dream narrative' of 'The Plymouth Sound', which manages to combine a lyrical tautness with a sense of unease and mystery which feels much more at home in the realm of  'European writing' than with current UK practice. Altogether, this is an impressive debut collection, which provides the reader with an array of materials to think about and take pleasure from.

     Steve Spence 2013