Review and Unreview

Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh: manifestos and unmanifestos,
edited by Rupert Loydell (162pp, 11.99, Salt)

'I have always hated manifestos.' This is the opening sentence of Rupert Loydell's foreword to his daring new project. For those unfamiliar with this book, I shall summarise in brief; Rupert Loydell has commissioned 42 poets to contribute to a collaborative collection that initially had the working title Manifesto!. The guidelines he set forward are as follows:

     I am looking for poetry, poetics and poetical manifestos,
     in the form of poetry or [poetic?] texts rather than critical
     articles or essays, but also hope for work which will blur the
     boundaries. I am looking for a diversity of opinion, attitude,
     approaches and styles: the aim is to aid and start discussion,
     not to offer a single argument or position.

What is most fascinating and telling about Loydell's foreword, is that he lets us know that the title of the project changed between commission and publication, from 'Manifesto!'
to Manifestos and Unmanifestos, like an experiment rewriting its own hypothesis. I shall briefly offer my insight into why this change in title (and subsequent reframing of the entire project) occurred:

The OED defines 'manifesto' as 'a public declaration of policy and aims by a political party or any other group'. Applying this framework and reversing the polarity, one could perhaps define an 'unmanifesto' as 'a private confession of aimlessness and lack of policy by a single person.' As the commissions came rolling in, I imagine that Loydell realised that Troubles Swapped For Something Fresh
is a collection comprising both of these things.

We have a spectrum here between the reassuring, imperative candour of writers such as Lael Ewy in 'Towards a Manifesto for a New Poetry':

     refuse to be reduced to an 'ism'... be handwritten

and the vulnerable lack of conviction of Nick Piombino in 'Second Silent Manifesto':

      I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.
      I don't know I don't know. I don't know where to begin.

In this eclecticism lies the greatest success of Troubles
in achieving Loydell's mission statement of 'a diversity of opinion'. The poets' approaches range from wry to weird, from lucid to indecipherable, from pragmatic to impractical. In this sense I truly admire the freedom Loydell has offered his writers as an editor, as it has delivered an ingeniously oblique handbook for judging the worth of a poem.

When reading this collection I found myself naturally gravitating towards what should be classed as the 'manifestos' rather than the 'unmanifestos' although the editor himself makes no distinction between these two and the lines remain blurred throughout. I am reminded of Kipling's notion in 'Crabbed Age and Youth' that 'it is better to emit a scream in the shape of a theory than to be entirely insensible to the jars and incongruities of life' I would rather disagree with a proposition than have to sit and rethink what a proposition even is. In this regard, there were more than enough valiant propositions in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh
to keep me happy.

My favourite of these more manifesting manifestos is Guy Russell's 'Manifesto of the Self-Publicists', a work of Swiftian genius that re-shapes the manifesto as a business proposal:

     We envisage our target audience as 25-60, left-leaning,
     appreciative of irony, probably employed in the education
     sector and/or connected with the 'literary world' in some
     professional manner...

     Antecedent research detects resistance of target group to
     (inter alla
): deaths of pets; adolescent bedrooms; amusing
     sayings of grandchildren; shards; sunsets

Another highlight for me is Paul Sutton's 'Strategies'. In this 'prose-poem-manifesto' (to be referred to as prose-pesto
from here on in) Sutton writes scathingly of himself in the third person as he compiles a bleak, satirical strategy-guide to circumnavigate the poetic world:

     This idiot's career has been carefully fabricated, assisted
     by a blizzard of cronies. His most famous poem is a
     graceless and unacknowledging raid on Kipling's 'Without
     Benefit of Clergy'.

The entry that I find  myself returning to most frequently however, is Luke Kennard's 'A Manifesto Towards Repeating the Mistakes of the Past'. It is worth the price of Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh
for this wittily didactic swipe at poetasters on its own:

     1. Nobody is FORCING you to use epigraphs.

         1.1 'Nobody is forcing
you to use epigraphs'
              Luke Kennard, 'A Manifesto Towards
                 Repeating the Mistakes of the Past'

     2. For every event you read at, try to go to two
        events where you're not on the billing. If you find
        the ration weighted towards the former, ask yourself:
        Am I actually interested in poetry? Or do I just like
        people clapping after my name?

          2.1 Keep an Excel spreadsheet that gauges your
               sense of self-importance over a three year
               time period. You will know where to set the
               parameters. Should it exceed them turn to
               stand-up comedy for immediate defusing.

Whilst such stand-out moments are highly enjoyable, the collection is at its best when one poetics jars with another to produce that starting-point for discussion that Loydell set out to achieve. In 'Automatic Manifesto 5', one of eight separate contributions to this book by the psychotherapist-poet, Nick Piombino, the poet postulates that 'the cult of the new makes an idol out of strangeness'. Some forty pages later however, we have Loydell himself proclaiming 'a poem's not for people / who don't like subtitles or weirdness'.

What I enjoy so much about this jarring of viewpoints is that I agree
with both sides. I do believe that poets will often use eccentricity as a vacuous defence mechanism, yet at the same time believing that poetry should not be written for those who are afraid of the strange. It is in this forum for dialogue between the poetics that the book contains its true value.

I hope that this book will be cemented as a standard for Creative Writing courses and poetry workshops for some time to come. We have here the breadth, ambition and uniqueness of Jonathan Safran Foer's astounding literary project, A Convergence of Birds
(Penguin, 2001) and the sagely insider-perspective of Bloodaxe's modern-poetry Bible, Strong Words (2000). If, like myself, you spend a great deal of your time and income on reading and writing about poetry then you need to buy this book for a rare and undiluted glimpse at the algorithms of some brilliant minds.

    Phil Brown 2010