Keeping Salt Solvent

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 titles.

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
     on the autobahn and were killed instantly. One of them was me,
     hence my omniscience.

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:

     Something tells me I'm onto something good. I've only been
     playing the trombone for two weeks, but already the flooded grey
     streets are woven with yellow ribbons and the family I don't
     recognise 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 Kennard's Wolf:

     but then you are part of the academic machine: you write
     favourable reviews of your friends so they shortlist you for
     things and vice versa. And nobody buys your books. Maybe
     you should try using a rhyme scheme once in a while.
          [footnote 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 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 fragments:

     I speak for Generation Y. We are post-viral.

     In Brick Lane youthful fashionistas espouse a kind of
     camped-up emo styling.

     Imagine the Thames Barrier fails. // No really, imagine
          [all from '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 flare:

     Shatner the actor is iconic.
     For Nimoy only the character is an icon.

     The CIS Building, we agreed, is iconic.

     Who is iconic?
     The Beetle is iconic.
     The vibrator! The rubber ducky!
     Pride and Prejudice
is iconic.
          [from '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:

     Do not request delivery receipts.
     Decode the spiel from 12 bit cant.
     Do not make libellous, sexist or racially discriminating comments.
     The Editors gave their reasons.

     Sending an 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 past:

     Treat this as fan mail, or whatever. We both know it's more
     complex than we would like. I know not how to leave / break off, I
     tell thee; only add to your mixed bag of fan, hate mail, spam and
     worthy parish circulars.
          [Sent: 6 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 support.

             Phil Brown 2009