Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: Provincial by John K. Samson

Not a poetry post, but you need this album in your life. A huge fan of The Weakerthans for a few years now, I was pretty excited when I heard that lead singer, John K.Samson, had assembled a full album of his own material. I won’t bore you with too much factual guff on Samson and his musical career other than to categorically state that he is, in my opinion, the world’s best living lyricist, possibly of all time. That, of course, is a monumentally grand claim, but I honestly believe he is a real poet, penning better lines than half of the so-called greats. Anyway, if you are inclined to search his stuff out, I would recommend starting with his band’s second album, Left and Leaving, before you listen to this – the more ‘full’ sound of his Weakerthans material is probably an easier route ‘in’ to his work.

The first thing that is patently obvious when listening to Provincial is how much Samson is effected by, and ambivalent to, his Canadian landscape, particularly Manitoba. The conceit threading together this album is journeys, and in Canada they don’t get much more epic. The first song, ‘Highway 1East’, serves as a kind of epigraph on top of an epigraph. The album notes feature a quote from the poet Karen Solie: ‘Everything happens here, then nothing / for a long long time’. Samson broods similarly: ‘some sarcastic satellite says that I’m not anywhere’. We know, if we’ve ever used a Sat-Nav system on a long journey, precisely what he means: our technological tools make a mockery of us when we rely too heavily on them.

If there are radio-friendly pop songs on this album, they don’t come catchier than ‘Cruise Night’. This is Samson at his best: a deceptively simple, hook-filled guitar melody, an almost blasé rock ’n’ roll drum beat, and the apparently prosaic lyrics that say so much of everyday situations. Who hasn’t simply done as Samson sings and driven in one direction then turned around, for the thrill of nothing more than feeling all those pistons and horsepower through the wheel?

The allusions to video games in Provincial are brilliantly captured and as with nearly everything Samson writes, serve as microcosms for worlds and characters that shine a light on our own. In ‘When I Write My Master’s Thesis’, Samson opens: ‘Oh the streets of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas fill with smoke. The doorbell rings, I put my controller down, then pick it up and shoot some things.’ Again, it’s a scene most of us are familiar with, but Samson imbues it with substance, altering its meaning. That opening – ‘oh, the streets...’ – a song writing cliché if ever there was one, is tipped on its head in the next bar; the bathos flawlessly balancing nerd and masters student.

In the middle of the album, Samson juxtaposes the tenderness of ‘Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San’ with the gutsy, jagged ‘Longitudinal Centre’. The songs work very well on their own, but it is their arrangement, in the above order respectively, that makes me really admire Samson’s craft. Take ‘Letter in Icelandic...’, with its simple chords, brushed snares and lilting violins and contrast it to ‘Longitudinal Centre’, the heaviest song Samson has recorded since his time in Propagandhi, and you get an ideal crux for an album; a hinge on which both sides expertly hang. Don’t let that last fragment fool you, though: the heaviness is an earned one, and it achieves those crushing drums and piercing riff because of lines that make you want to smile and cry at the same time. I feel compelled to quote an entire section in full, but the effect can’t be fully realised until you hear the lyrics with the music: ‘The sun pulls me out a bit and lets me go, and I’m a vacuum power cord in the back of that van full of kids cleaning carpets for the Lord, so I make a little list of sounds that have comforted us in the past: the roar of the rumble strips, and the Mennomite metre of the flood forecast, or how the wind strums on those signs that say the Atlantic and Pacific are the very same far away.’

I mean, come on, that’s genius, is it not? The album winds down, coming (almost) full circle, at least thematically, on the penultimate track, ‘Highway 1 West’. The refrain, ‘too far to walk to anywhere from here’ rounds off the feelings of isolation, of vastness, of being a speck of dust on the gargantuan map of Canada. But it’s the last song, ‘Taps Reversed’, featuring the excellent vocals of Samson’s wife, Christine Fellows, that really ends this album in the best way. Functioning as a sort of mock cutesy ballad for an old house, the dual vocals punctuate a dour, wannabe jumpy piano, stopping the song from sliding into forced pathos. If the stunning line – ‘the sidewalk cracks spell the way back home in one uninterrupted palindrome’ – don’t reflect Samson’s talent and honesty, then I don’t know what does. I sincerely urge you to seek this album out, then everything else by The Weakerthans. You will not regret it.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Definitions of Distance

I launched my first pamphlet of poems, Definitions of Distance, at the third annual James Kirkup memorial poetry competition event in South Shields last Thursday. The evening featured several of this year's runners-up and the winner, Maggie Whyte, reading their poems from the anthology. Last year's winner, Martin Bennett, who'd flown over from Rome to be at the celebration, also launched his pamphlet, Unlike the Jungle Pheasant.

Having finally gotten hold of the physical thing, it's all a bit of a strange experience. I had started to become a bit blind to a lot of the poems in the pamphlet; I think this was best evidenced last Thursday by me being totally confused as to which order I should read them in, being used to holding a ream of pre-sorted sheets when I read my poems.

I'm doing launch events in several cities over the coming months, with the big North East one being at The Bridge Hotel in Newcastle on Tuesday 19th June. Please do get along if you can, or to any of the other events. Details on the 'readings' page above.

I'm now in a strange no-man's land between the pamphlet having been available for a few days and no reviews yet being received. Hopefully this will change in the coming weeks. If you do happen to feel like buying a copy (£4 from www.redsquirrelpress.com - what a bargain!), then please do let me know what you think.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

I Don't Think We've Met?

The final night of Trashed Organ’s Festival of Belonging Fringe proved true that old dictum: save the best for last. There’s an unwritten rule, isn’t there, in reviewing events in which one was also actively involved in, whereby you can’t praise your own work? Sod the formalities: mine and Helena’s One Day All of This Will be Fields fitted perfectly with the other fabulous collaborations and I’m hugely proud of our work!

The night started with Degna Stone’s collaboration with Ged Robinson and Adam James Cooper. Ingeniously combining percussion, violin, clarinet and poetry, their performance proved that when done well, music can really bring an extra edge to poems. They set the benchmark high, flitting organically between a spooky sense of longing and an optimistic verve for the very sense of what it means to be alive in this strange, strange world. I’d love to hear this recorded on to a mini album of sorts; the combination of the surreal music and Degna’s striking poems would, I’m sure, be well received.

Viccy Adams and Scott Hartley served up a delicious blend of video, fiddle and fiction. Adams’s narrative was something I’m sure we can all relate to in some way or another – trying to find oneself in a new town – and Hartley’s delicate tones punctuated the story brilliantly. The whole package was wrapped up with an amazingly simple backing video, layering gorgeous images of the sea, drizzly streets and itching hands into a visual reflection of the narrative.

Alex Lockwood and Tim Jago Morris took a more interactive approach, allowing audience participation, via a series of  amusing, randomly-distributed words and phrases (see photo above) to shape the progress of the flash fictions that were read. This added an intriguing level to the already difficult task ahead of Tim, who was to paint an impression of the six micro tales as they unfolded. An original take on the construction of narrative and the process of painting – both art forms normally taking many months or years to master – this collaboration not only provided us with punchy stories and moments of accidental comic genius, it questioned the very essence of how art should be made.

I won’t give details of our piece, save to say that I thought Hannah Costanzo brought the whole thing to life and deserves just as much credit as Helena and myself. Her voice is genuinely spine-tingling; her otherworldly presence as the fate-shaper, representing the Greek ‘Moirai’, was absolutely stunning and complemented our video no end.

Credit must also be given to Samantha Bell and James Barton, who premiered the first of two suitcase monologues. Bell’s Geordie accent lent an earnestness to her character’s confusion and Barton’s blend of magician and fortune-teller was a miniature masterpiece in its own right.

I left early, missing the majority of Fiona’s Jazz Express, but they surely deserve a belated round of applause for punctuating this and many of these events with their smooth melodies. The last thing to do, of course, is to thank John and Melanie for organising the events. The last 4 days have been great, cheers!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Anywhere I Lay My Head

Photo Credit: Jonathan Parker, Spurious Nonsense Art Photography
The third day of Trashed Organ’s Festival of Belonging Fringe, then. I’m beginning to feel tired, though that has nothing to do with the performances; more the fact that I’ve been drinking every night. Damn you, Central and Bridge Hotel, for providing such tasty ale...

Anyway, that’s off point. Day 3 started with Tony Williams’s workshop themed around writing poems of distance and belonging. We discussed work by the likes of Louis MacNeice and Polly Clark, before writing our own poems on what it means to think about home. Those of you who are au fait with my own work will know this a subject I am fascinated by and often try to encapsulate in my own writing, so I obviously enjoyed it. Judging by what other people wrote, though, it seems the workshop really tapped into some important ideas and Tony and the rest of the group’s feedback was altogether informative and inspiring.

I missed the first 5 minutes of Sidartha Bose’s Kalagora, slipping in as surreptitiously as I could. I have no formal knowledge of theatre production, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but I know what works well and what doesn’t. Kalagora sits firmly in the former category. Using the conceit of one man’s odyssey from Mumbai to Manhattan to the East end of London, Bose’s visions of the underbelly of modern life are played out as a relentless dash from innocence to experience. It is perhaps too easy to compare elements of Kalagora to Dante’s Divine Comedy or William Blake’s infernal London, or even Joyce’s Ulysses, but those are the works that this brought to my mind. Kalagora would be a decent show if it just stuck to that, so what made this dazzling performance shine was Bose’s energy – from melancholy to rage; hope to despair – Bose and his riotous trip across the globe brought all the power of a full-cast, 3 hour play and bundled it into a one hour, one-man (and one director) package that resonated far beyond the confines of its explosive performance.

Immediately after Kalagora was ‘Anywhere I Lay My Head’. Tony Williams was on first, reading poems from his pamphlet All the Rooms of Uncle’s Head and his collection The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street. Williams speaks in a kind of understated Derbyshire accent that could easily belie the authority and intrigue of his poems. From the ‘Matlock Elegies’ to a hilarious riff on a man stuck forever trying to fix a photocopier, Williams’s poems perform a kind of zooming function; a re-calibrating of vision which tips the world upside down and says, well, what have we here? His tongue-in-cheek musing on the still common practice of half-day openings in much of Alnwick was my favourite, giving a skewed glimpse of a forgotten England. Susannah Pickering was next. Another poet I’d not heard (such is the beauty of this festival), Pickering contemplated maternity, ancestry and the idea of ‘un-belonging’ in beautifully spare lines. I look forward to her pamphlet, due from Red Squirrel next year.

The first musical act of the evening was Simon Wood, playing a strange looking but incredible sounding Swiss instrument I’ve since forgotten the name of. Imagine a barbecue with various indentations and you’re nearly there. I apologise to Simon if he’s reading this for not catching the name of his instruments, but they sounded absolutely amazing and provided what can only be described as a brain massage!

After the break, Danny Hardisty took to the stage, reading poems about the loudness of the countryside. As a fellow urbanite, I empathised with his surprise in finding the countryside a loud and often foreboding place, particularly at night. Hardisty’s work reminds me of Ted Hughes, but is somehow absolutely nothing like it at the same time. In poems that see people and landscapes totally afresh, Hardisty’s language elevates these everyday scenes and throws them into an ethereal world. I know that sounds like a typically wanky poetry review, but there is something otherworldly and un-pin-down-able about his images. I bloody love them.

Sheree Mack was the last of the poets. She explored with candour and good humour the diverse nature of her background. Born to a Trinidadian father and a Geordie mother, Mack’s poems, taken from her first collection, Family Album, drew on her rich history and the friction that exists in belonging to numerous identities or communities, often simultaneously. A confident performer, Mack’s poems performed the spectral act of bringing the dead back to life. Very, very interesting stuff!

The evening concluded with a short set from Rob Heron of the Tea Pad Orchestra, but, like my entry, I also had to cut short my exit, making a dash for the Metro after only 2 songs so I can’t really pass judgement, other than to say it sounded great coming from the upstairs window as I made my way out of the pub.

Tomorrow: ‘I Don’t Think We’ve Met?’

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Castles, Collieries and Coastline

‘It shall hang onto its pink lanes, its towers,/ Dog Leap stairs and Pudding Chares. [...] My city is hard stone, canny and clever./ Don’t give it a mirror. Let it be itself.’ – from Julia Darling’s ‘A Short Manifesto for my City’.

Castles, Collieries and Coastline kicked off night number 2 of Trashed Organ’s Festival of Belonging Fringe this evening. Earlier in the day, I attended Christy Ducker’s workshop, discovering, amongst others, the brilliant poem above. The workshop was tremendous fun and very productive: Christy’s fast-paced, no nonsense style worked well, and the group dynamic was ideal. I hope to work on several drafts from the session.

This evening, Christy was back, as was The Bridge Hotel. This place feels like a home from home for me now and it was good to see Trashed Organ back on home turf. The cosy atmosphere of the venue is only supplemented by the clank and whistle of trains making their way in and out of Central Station via the various bridges that surround the place. You would think this might detract from the performances, but oddly, it seems to enhance their significance and definitely compliments the themes of the festival.

Christy’s set comprised material from her pamphlet Armour, as well as new work rooted in the history of the Tyne and its environs; I was chuffed to hear her shedding light on some of South Shields’s lesser-known characters. Ducker’s poems are the real deal, and I say that without irony or sums of money exchanging hands: tight, musical and possessing a charm that perfectly straddles the borders between reality and myth, I’m left with no doubt that she is one to watch. Whoever was to follow Christy had to be good, and luckily Tom Kelly was the next to read. A North East favourite and all-round canny bloke, Tom’s natural gift for spinning a yarn went down a treat. I talked, yesterday, of performers who put an audience at ease; Tom does this, but he holds them over a cliff face before doing so. His poems, tonight all taken from The Time Office, speak of power struggles and our attempts to make sense of challenging circumstances. They were delivered with flair and sincerity. Pippa Little followed, reading poems of the border reivers and the effects on the women of North Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. Her sense of a largely unexplored folklore lent an urgency to her poems; women whose own histories were wiped out have found a voice through Little’s craft and I’m keen to read more, to learn of this part of the world and the secrets it hides.

After the interval, Stepaway Magazine presented five writers whose work explores the idea of the modern flâneur. Ira Lightman, Bob Beagrie, Ian Davidson, Lizzie Whyman and Keith Parker each presented work incorporating the idea of movement into writing. Lightman, whose wackiness sits just on the right side of genius, was the highlight of this set, mashing everything from a ukulele-backed reimagining of Newcastle’s town moor turning into a mountain to poems constructed from the serendipity and oddness of the auto correct functions on mobile phones. Bloody brilliant.

Finally, The Lake Poets. As someone who feels well out of their depth criticising music, I’m going to keep this short and simple: The Lake Poets are one of the finest musical acts in the North East. Martin’s voice is stunning, containing just the right amount of Mackem twang to complement the high notes. He was joined by a harmonica player, and together with backing vocals and Martin’s own guitar playing, the whole thing worked superbly. For me, though, Martin’s lyrics are what The Lake Poets are about and why the songs work so very well. Genuine, heartfelt and with a real sense of pride, his anecdotes and musings on coming from a small city by the sea, and trying to live within and without that, make for some of the most intriguing lines I’ve heard from a singer-songwriter in a while. This potted review really doesn’t do him justice, mind. Like I said yesterday, there’s always a highlight, and tonight, The Lake Poets were it.

Tomorrow: Anywhere I Lay My Head