The Migraine Hotel, Luke Kennard (84pp, £8.99, Salt)
How to Build a City, Tom Chivers (70pp, £12.99, Salt)
The Terrors, Tom Chivers (31pp,
£5, Nine Arches )
Anybody who resides in
even the most peripheral area of the British poetry 'scene' has no-doubt
recently come across the 'Save Salt' campaign. Across blogs, journals, live
readings and forwarded emails, we have all been urged by the saline stable to
'please... just buy one book' in a tone implying black and white images of poets
shivering under railway arches, perhaps being subjected to annual visits from
a Billy Connolly-headed 'Iambic Relief' campaign.
My usual reaction to the news of businesses falling prey to the
Recession-Monster has been a callous 'well... it was about time'. Woolworths
was already dying an inevitable death, Zavvi was always tarred with infant
mortality and the Lehmann Brothers... I'm sure they were nice people, I just
did not really care. When Salt announced that they had their backs against
the ropes however, that was a different story.
Salt is a company which has breathed much-needed life into the world of
poetry in recent years, and has taken a chance on a staggering breadth of
writers, producing beautiful hardback editions that put some of the industry's
more lazy graphic designers to shame. Therefore, when I heard that the
company was facing the red, I got my hands on a couple of their hot new
The first of these was Luke Kennard's The Migraine Hotel. Anyone familiar with Kennard's work will tell you
that the poet's most powerful asset is his wit. If one were to sum up the
poet's entire oeuvre in a single adjective, I would certainly choose 'wry'.
Consider this section from the prose-poem, 'The Dusty Era':
Two of his
would-be future biographers crashed into each other
autobahn and were killed instantly. One of them was me,
Such academic deadpan absurdity is what characterises Kennard's work and what
gives him such a feeling of zeitgeist in an artistic age which lauds Charlie
Kauffman, David Lynch, Damien Hirst, et al. Kennard gives you all of the
avant-garde sublime that characterizes noughties pop-culture, but does so
with the charming inflections of a comedian.
On flicking through Kennard's latest offering, one will also notice that he
has remained almost entirely within the prose-poem form, a style of writing
which he has certainly mastered. The prose-poem lends itself perfectly to
Kennard's comedic bizarre scenes. 'Trombone' opens:
tells me I'm onto something good. I've only been
trombone for two weeks, but already the flooded grey
woven with yellow ribbons and the family I don't
have started to smile at me with genuine warmth.
I can think of no other poet who does such a masterful job at making the
truly weird seem so comfortably innocuous. His off-centre universe of
non-sequiturs and the abstract made tangible is an exciting place to inhabit.
Imagine Raymond Queneau filtered through John Ash.
As with his previous two collections, we also see the return of Kennard's
recurring character, The Wolf. In his latest incarnation, The Wolf is a
psychoanalyst, picking Kennard's poetic 'I' apart with his usual obnoxious
streak. There is a ripe history of poets who are unable to shake off
un-outgrow-able characters, Hughes had his Crow, Berryman had his Henry and
Hugo Williams has... Hugo Williams.
What these characters have always provided for writers, is an opportunity to
interrogate the dark unmentionable things in our hearts in a safely objective
third person. By debasing a character into disrepute, a writer may then use
them to voice uncomfortable truths, just as with Chaucer's Miller or
Shakespeare's various fools. Consider this rare moment of candour from
but then you
are part of the academic machine: you write
reviews of your friends so they shortlist you for
vice versa. And nobody buys your books. Maybe
try using a rhyme scheme once in a while.
from 'Men Made of Words']
Rarely has a successful young poet cut so close to the bone of the industry.
Yet he gets away with this because none are brought under scrutiny and
ridiculed in his poems more than Kennard himself.
A more recent addition to
the Salt's excitingly talented brat-pack has been Tom Chivers, whose debut
collection, How to Build a City
has made its way to our shelves via the Crashaw Prize. The collection is a
brilliantly fresh response to London life at a time when the City is in an
unprecedented state of flux. Chivers' erratic flitting between forms reflects
all the disjointedness of London's myriad selves Ð think Tobias Hill's Nocturne
in Chrome and Sunset Yellow as
reinterpreted by the Sex Pistols.
As with Kennard's collection, one will certainly find plenty of dry humour
pervading How to Build a City.
Rather than the surreal humour of The Mighty Boosh however, Chivers' wit
often manifests itself in the style of a columnist. Consider the following
I speak for
Generation Y. We are post-viral.
In Brick Lane
youthful fashionistas espouse a kind of
Thames Barrier fails. // No really, imagine.
'How to Build a City']
These are all a good indication of what Chivers brings to the table in this
collection. Here is a poet who understands the way the media works, and knows
how to rework the most poetic or beguiling of concepts into the guise of
mellifluous journalistic prose, losing nothing in translation.
As is also illustrated in the extracts above, Chivers is a poet who is deeply
engaged with the ephemeral. YouTube, 'emo's', 'double espresso's', video
games and all the other trappings of noughties youth-culture find their way
into this collection. Whilst I usually find such self-consciously
contemporaneous poetry to be trite, Chivers gets away with it with admirable
actor is iconic.
only the character is an icon.
Building, we agreed, is iconic.
The Beetle is
The rubber ducky!
Prejudice is iconic.
Here is a poet who is able to deal with the ephemeral litter by which we
arrange the chronology of our lives. In 'Iconic', he captures the shallow
nature of pop-culture iconography with all the boyish enthusiasm and
intelligence of Frank O'Hara. The poems in this collection are perfect little
machines of their time, which will grow all the more beautiful when they
begin to rust.
In parallel to this Salt
release, Chivers also has an aesthetically beautiful pamphlet out on Nine
Arches Press, complete with some wonderful illustrations by Emma Robertson. I
was once somewhat of a snob with regards to illustrations of poetry
collections, but if Paul Muldoon can do it in Plan B, then I suppose it has become socially acceptable
and I should probably apologize for any snidey remarks made about Leonard
Cohen's sketches in his last collection.
In this pamphlet, Chivers continues his interrogation of le monde moderne as he imagines a sequence of emails sent to
prisoners incarcerated in London's Newgate Gaol between roughly 1700 and
1760. The opening poem, 'A Guide to Email Etiquette' is a real gem:
request delivery receipts.
spiel from 12 bit cant.
Do not make
libellous, sexist or racially discriminating comments.
gave their reasons.
email is like sending a postcard. Don't send it.
What follows is a masterful sequence of poems in the most ubiquitous formal
pattern of the modern age 'the e-mail'. The poems draw our attention to the
rhythms of modern correspondence whilst constructing a dialogue with the
Treat this as
fan mail, or whatever. We both know it's more
we would like. I know not how to leave / break off, I
only add to your mixed bag of fan, hate mail, spam and
January 2009 21:10]
Kennard and Chivers are two of the most exciting young writers of poetry in
Britain today, who have made that rare sought-after achievement of finding
poetic subject-matter without having to disingenuously squint into the past.
For having encouraged such interesting young talent, Salt deserves our
© Phil Brown 2009