Mapping the Urban Field

City State - New London Poetry
, ed. Tom Chivers (Penned in the Margins)

City State, like Voice Recognition (Bloodaxe), is one of a new generation of poetry anthologies aimed at mapping the field of younger writers now being published in Britain. Editor Tom Chivers has a very modest aim in his succinct introduction to this stimulating collection, simply to introduce his 'subjective snap-shot' of young, London-based poets (27 writers aged between 16 and 36) to a wider audience. There is no sense of a 'manifesto' and little suggestion of 'schools' of poetry yet influences abound and a key reference -mentioned in Chivers' introduction - is the work of the psycho-geographer/poet/novelist Iain Sinclair. Various publishers and performance venues are also mentioned in passing. As you might expect there is quite a range of approach indicated by these poems and a high degree of sophistication is a common feature. To my mind City State is a rather more interesting collection than Voice Recognition although there is a slight overlap in terms of writers as the work of Ahren Warner and Jay Bernard appears in both volumes.

Jay Bernard's work combines an often-visceral trajectory with the highly-focussed penetration of a conscious observer: 'Twice; I am behind a lens, behind an eye; again, behind a skull, behind a brain, behind a mind; my view is ragged.' Yet I suspect this is also a poetry that works well in performance. Caroline Bird's 'Last Tuesday' has energy, attitude and a wonderful sense of ongoing rhythm, succinct and celebratory in a vaguely dystopian way. Ben Borek's mainly-14-liners are linked by reference (Camberwell Green, Wall Street, Pan) and he delights in playful language which questions its function and turns cliché on its various heads; while Siddartha Bose's  'Shoreditch Serenade' is a mini-epic, a hymn to the city, a cinematic celebration which sings its complex of darkness and light in a manner which reminds me - in a less desperate sense - of Ken Smith's masterpiece
Fox Running:

He sins-
     Overhead, sky forms a light-wedge.
     Construction cranes in the distance
                        Gleam like flamingos. On Fashion Street, orange sun, sari-
                                                                          red clouds
                                    Roll towards me in four horsemen. I hear
                                              Thunder lift like elephants. A woman in
                                                              Slits towards me, her eyes cry as
                                                                         She keels herself, kneel in
                                                                         chin, summoning
                                                                         God in trousers.

I am sane in tortured times.
                                   I dream your salt.
                                                              You are gone.

There are other lyric voices here too, in abundance. Tom Chivers' entertaining 'The Islanders' plays with notions of cyber-reality, with language which splices techno-speak with mock-epic narratives which are mildly subversive of colonial exploitation, while also being witty encapsulations in their own right. His work is elegant and has an impressive range, something he shares with Swithun Cooper. The latter manages to combine a rich lyrical tone with an effective nostalgia, which also has a streetwise, sassy feel, which hints at satire and still appears light and authentic: quite an achievement. Alex Davies' work here is a sort of updated Swiftian disgust, filled with language which mixes the archaic with the bang-up-to-date; energetic, funny and 'critical' in the sense that Barry MacSweeney's poetry was, fuelled by mad erudition, anger and a celebration of excess. If Davies' work is slightly more restrained than MacSweeney's and closer to Iain Sinclair's cooler, more brittle critique, this is not to its disadvantage:

                                                   Peel the rancid Intel sticker from the
     horse's hoof with a sonic screwdriver. The stone on which the city
     fails lies beneath a bank, caged in smog. If Brutus knew the fate of
     the heart of the city, he would have ferried posterity elsewhere.
               (from 'In which the Mad Dean climbs the dome of St Paul's')

Inua Ellams is another poet who achieves something new by combining the traditional techniques of poetry with an interest in popular song, in his case, rap idioms. His poetry is more celebration than satire, mixing a rich lyricism with a streetwise energy and the result is sophisticated, effective and very impressive. I'm not a great fan of hip-hop myself but Ellams' work shows what can be achieved by cross-fertilisation. I think the historian Richard Starkey should read this material and if he's unable to find any merit in it that might speak volumes about a certain kind of blinkered, limited 'high education':

     The sky sways on the safe side of tipsy
     and it's all together an alien time of half
     life and hope, an after-fight of gentle fog
     and city smog, where debris of dew drips
     to this narrative of progress, this city tale;
     this story is my story, this vista my song.
          (from 'GuerillaGardenWritingPoem')

Laura Foreman's work is various in its subject matter but has as its 'common denominator' a sharp focus on the immediate and up-front, more microcosm than macrocosm, let's say. This works well in the short-line brevity of  'Summer. Ha!' where we get: 'Diagonals from the sky/faintly crosshatched/by wet winners of/gravity v surface tension/battles at roof corners.' I was charmed by her 'Rollerblading in theory and practice' and also by 'Dogs of New York' which may well be simply a poem about dogs. Christopher Horton's poems here are primarily concerned with housing issues and the relationship between living space, homelessness and health. There's no underlying sociological analysis here but 'Goldfinger Moves into Balfron Tower', prefaced by a factual quote, seems to suggest the beginnings of one though it's difficult to determine the tone. 'Tenancy: 2678AM' has a more obviously satirical theme, undermining the language of bureaucracy with chilling intent: 'Now tell me, when can I collect the keys?'

'Coco Lachaille' by Wayne Holloway-Smith has a retro-burlesque glamour while Kirsten Irving's 'In the fantasy of screwing your teacher' maintains an equally glossy surface and has a 'fairytale' ending: 'Either it doesn't end,'/or at the door, neither of you/asks what happens now.' Annie Katchinska's writing has a busy, energetic cosmopolitanism to it - her poems are romantic and descriptive, full of imagery, restless, affirmative and kinetic. She reminds me a bit of Rosemary Tonks but I'd have to read more before I could really establish the validity of such an analogy. Take this extract, for example, from 'Summer in the City': 'There must be others who notice/rain-beaten café tables and secluded spots in parks/where someone is missing,...'.

I quite liked Amy Key's poetry, particularly 'Dry Stone Walls', with its listing device and acerbic, curse-like conclusion: 'Go, I think. Snag yourself on it.' Chris McCabe is one of Britian's best younger poets and it's good to see his work represented here by five particularly strong pieces. His poetry is frequently 'unexpected' in that you can't determine what's going to follow on and I love that quality. His work often has a direct political element - relatively unusual in this collection - and combines an ongoing rush of energy with an often oblique disconnection which manages to combine charm with intelligence:

     She accepted the can. The pram rolled down the tube.
     She stood up in dark music & danced in red silks.
     She carefully fed the child & poured more shiraz.
     A vulva of red lipstick around the neck of the glass.
               (from 'Red')

Marianne Munk appears to mix found language with elements of rant and a more measured conversational tone. Her range of register is wide and she combines streetwise patter with a flow of apparent 'stream of consciousness' spiel, which hints at information overload and is often very funny. In a manner similar to Hannah Silva, Holly Pester chops up her material, playing with units of language for its 'sound' quality and along the way introducing elements of wordplay and, perhaps, creative mishearing, to further the entertainment/confusion. This is poetry I'd like to hear read out but it works well enough on the page: 'all wet on the bus/a low wedding the bus/he's not ded and she's allowed/on the bus/Where can we eat in the bus...' Heather Phillipson brings a new slant to the 'domestic poem' in her attractive 'vignettes' where a mood of boredom seems to fuel a need to translate the everyday 'trivia' into promising material. There is also some serious wordplay at work here:

     oboe, hobo, flambeau, mambo, combo, rainbow,
     poncho, rondo, rouleau, tableau, pueblo,
     memo, Sumo, lino, rhino...Should I stop?
          (from 'Winter Evening with Nuts')

There appears to be an anti-hierarchical 'levelling out' of language in Nick Potamitis' poetry. His no-caps justified prose blocks embrace a range of vocabularies and surreal juxtapositions in a cool and detached manner, writing the author out of the equation. 'anti-gravity belt projects, or each man for himself & god against them all' is framed by location - 'a derelict hotel' - and the repetition of this phrase creates a sort of motif, which probably leads you up a garden path. There are suggestions of narrative and even a pared down hint towards nostalgia - 'I went once with my dad to a barber's shop in haringay. we took turns getting our hair cut.' - yet his refusal to set a mood by disrupting the text with  'explanation', as in '(bricolage as morphological innovation)', for example, enhances the material nature of the writing without him appearing cocky or 'oh-so-clever'. This is work which is clearly influenced by conceptual art and is not so easy to do. I quite enjoyed reading it though an entire book in this style would probably require occasional 'dipping-in'.

Imogen Robertson's work feels cinematic, like the text for a screenplay, no surprise perhaps as she works as a tv and film director. There's a clipped precision to this writing, which at times feels hardboiled, at times lyrical, affirmative and full of zest. She plays with clichés in a manner, which at times feels mannered, yet also effective, amusing and undermining - I can't make up my mind. I think this is very skilful writing yet I'm not sure how much I feel convinced by it and I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that. Intriguing.

I felt less unsure about Jacob Sam La Rose's work - I really liked it, especially 'The Difficulty and the Beauty' with its extended fishing metaphor which worked so well when it really shouldn't have, but perhaps this just shows my bias. Ashna Sarkar's poetry has a youthful energy which has oodles of attitude and charm, yet is also politically thoughtful and reflective, a writer to watch out for in the future; while Jon Stone's mix of comic book storytelling and high art makes for some intriguing narrative collisions, amusing, jagged and crisply executed.

Barnaby Tidman's sonic explorations mix different vocabularies to create unexpected sounds and a background music of science fiction filtered through William Burroughs feeds these texts:

     Pheisar, climbing gas of lightbulbs
     muscling blank space, the fleshing beep of eternity
     denting his head with building merchants
     tones up the rotting steppes of London
     boiling with immigrated hordes
     battled around French phonics, Russian digits
     sleep machines, zone-dead happenings- ...
          ('Spread and Division (Basic Perinatal Matrices'))

At times his work feels clotted and impenetrable but there's an intense dystopian lyricism at the heart of this poetry, which keeps the pages turning.

Ahren Warner has a more humorous take on genre-splicing with his mix of classical allusion and popular culture, colloquial language and public address:
     Girl with ridiculous earrings   why do you bother
     to slap the boy   we all assume is your boyfriend
     and is lolling over     that bus seat         shouting

     it's a London thing.

In 'Carolina' he plays with a hard-boiled narrative pastiche style, which is undermined by an offbeat use of cliché and mismatched description:

     That night I swallowed liquor and a lighter

     and found her like moonlight falling on a bed.
     I could have swore her hair was made of rayon
     and when we kissed she tasted like a loaded gun.
          (from 'Carolina')

I liked the idea of James Wilkes' review poems more than the actual poems
and much preferred 'Bike Couriers' and 'Fireworks' where the titles generate some interesting information presented in an attractive manner:

     They sketch a ghostly commons from incandescent specks. It is our
     chemical weather, drifting this way and that, baroque mixture of
     earth and breath. Even for a private celebration, they are sent up
     over the wall.
           (from 'Fireworks')

I can imagine hearing some of Steve Willey's poems set to bizarre music and intoned by somebody with a voice to rival Beefheart's. A minimal use of conjunctions or connectives in sections of his writing, allied to traditional rhythmic and rhyme patterns, fuse with intriguing puns and nonsense to create satisfying sound poems which are a joy to read - I'd love to hear some of these read out loud:

     Unsought all import quarantine claw
     Queue you dogs of Venus bawd
     If not fjord love flock name
     Nested penurious teak streams
     Tracks stalk clustered bridges
           (from 'Venus & Other Noises')

You don't have to be weird to be weird as I believe Beefheart once said!

I can't really sum up this intriguing collection effectively without adding paragraphs of sociology and analysis and I don't feel up to that at the moment. Suffice to say there is enough interesting material in this varied and eclectic mix to satisfy the jaded palate. It's not a definitive anthology (which is?) and there is inevitably a lack of certain kinds of contemporary poetry which I admire and relish but let's not be prescriptive here. Tom Chivers has done a fine job in bringing this disparate poetry together and I hope his efforts provoke some discussion on the nature of contemporary writing. Let's have a heated debate.

                     Steve Spence 2011