Monday, 18 December 2017

PhD Stock-Take

Having lost a full week to The Dreaded Lurgy last week, I thought I’d begin the wind-down to Christmas period with a stock-take. As a PhD is a slippery bugger, it’s almost impossible to fully itemise and draw up an inventory, but here’s a decent attempt as I go into my final, full* calendar year of study.

·         Poems drafted: 60+
·         Of which I’m satisfied: 30+
·         Collection length to-date: 47 pages (Well within the realms of ‘satisfactory’, but still a way away from ‘great.’ Howay.)
·         Critical component word-count: 26,000
·         Of which I’m satisfied: Impossible to discern, but I’d say two thirds of it is decent.

While this absolutely should not be thought of as a formal two-thirds report to RCUK, AHRC or Newcastle University, as doctoral researchers we are encouraged to be reflexive learners. So, as somebody in the business of words, let’s break down the slightly arbitrary quantitative data above and get at the meat:

·         I’ve drafted a lot of shit material. Most of the stuff sitting in my drafts folder will not see the light of day in the PhD, unless...
·         It is cannibalised. For poets, this actually-opportunistic phrase is one often applied to the process of allowing a stronger poem to subsume still-strong elements of an altogether weaker effort. Normally this process is chronologically typical: i.e. a ‘poor’ poem written six months ago, which I know is beyond help, can later yield some of its healthy limbs to prop up a poem that isn’t quite there. Occasionally the process is reversed, with the older model being revved-up by glitzier components from the newer model. In either case, it’s messy and sometimes the hybrid poem itself has to be rejected.
·         That said, I have written out (not for the first time), all of the poems I currently think contain merit and/or are thematically on-point (i.e. they speak broadly to my research questions) into one document, and that document is forty-seven pages long. Superficially at least, I have a collection which provides a skeletal outline of a thesis.
·         Combined with 26,000 words of critical prose (again, on paper) 80-90% of my PhD is written. Would I be happy to submit that in an emergency? I absolutely would not.
·         This is mainly because the major discrepancy with the project right now is the disharmony between the poems and the criticism. While two thirds of my criticism is, dare I say it, good, the final third of it is nebulous at best. This means that a substantial part of 2018 is going to be spent making those final 10,000 words sing from the same sheet as the first 20,000; and to extend the metaphor, the real magic will occur when I marry up those 30,000 words of criticism with a fuller collection and get the harmonies pitch-perfect**.
·         And I have to factor in a 5,000-word ‘bridging chapter’, in which I summarily connect the thematic collection (answering the research questions via a series of taps on the shoulder) with the critical exegesis (extending the research questions via a sustained dialectical extension of knowledge).
·         That’s all before doing the viva-voce: an oral examination in which I defend the shit out of a bunch of poems that I’ve spent three and a half years gestating.
·         Itself all having to fit ’round my wedding, in June.

Reading back work written in the past twenty-seven months, a few things become apparent. They were all outlined to me at the beginning of the PhD, and are largely ‘common sense’ phenomena, but nonetheless they bear reflecting on:
·         The stuff you write at the beginning of a PhD – like the stuff you write in the middle of  a PhD – is not going to excite you as much as the stuff you’ve just written. That’s only a problem for you: as far as the examiners are concerned, this was all written in one, extended session, thus explaining its academic rigour, its watertight referencing, its innovative extension of knowledge in the field and its coherence as a sustained piece of scholarly work of the highest calibre.
·         The person you are in the closing stages of a PhD is not the person you were when you wrote your proposal, therefore your original proposal is about as useful to you as the mild humour in a surreal joke about household appliances being made of chocolate. But, again, this is only your problem, so either do some retrofitting or recalibrate your research question(s) to fit the person you’ve become while you’ve written all those odd words.
·         Creative Writers only (the following may well apply in a tangential way to Fine Artists, Musicians and practice-based researchers generally, but I suspect it doesn’t apply to any other PhDs, including English Literature ones): the PhD is not the book. Repeat: the PhD is not the book. It might be the skeleton – of the poetry collection, novel or script – but it is not the book that the publisher will take.

*The current aim is to submit the PhD around this time next year. If I can get it in in October 2018 (when my funding expires), then great, but like all good PhD students, I will probably require a little extra time.

**It will not be ‘pitch-perfect’. Somebody once told me that a PhD isn’t a Nobel Prize, so there’s no way I’m busting a ball on the impossible.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

We'll Keep the Red Flag Flyin' High

I’ve never been to Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent or Swansea, and my only experience of Paisley was watching a play one snow-filled evening in early 2013. I’m sure all four places are as deserving of the title of UK City of Culture 2021 as Sunderland is. I won’t begrudge a non-North-Eastern winner, but being a Sanddancer, and therefore a cousin of the Mackems (as well as, for my sins, a lifelong SAFC fan) I am throwing my hat into the ring in support of Sunderland’s bid.

The Sunderland I first got to know over a decade ago is a different place to the city we see at the end of 2017. Thirteen years ago, in 2004, when I started travelling into St. Aidan’s sixth-form on the 35 bus from South Shields, the city was…well, it was an unknown quantity. Making the mile-and-a-half trek between Park Lane interchange and sixth-form in Ashbrooke, twice daily for two years, I began to see the place as more than just home to a football stadium. When I attended Roker Park as a very young bairn, and later matches at the Stadium of Light, there was no need to travel into the city centre itself, especially given that we were always heading home in a northbound direction. In the confines of the SoL (and Roker Park before it) both occupying sites to the north of the Wear, it is easy to forget that Sunderland is an iceberg: two thirds of it lying below the water line. I feel that, in the run up to the DCMS decision on the 7th December, Sunderland probably still occupies such a position for many people—especially those ‘down south’, but even those in the wider region. How many people in Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, Durham or Middlesbrough  – even Gateshead or Jarrow – have really spent much time in Sunderland? The facetious answer, and I’ve heard it all too readily, is that Newcastle has it all; why would you bother going to Sunderland? I think it’s important that we cease thinking along these lines: partisan tensions between cities which, after all are only thirteen miles apart, are not only old-fashioned and redundant, they are preventing the region as a whole making progress. It’s time to go diving.

Let me be absolutely clear and upfront from the beginning: Sunderland city centre, as well as some of its outlying suburbs, are still materially deprived. The reasons as to why are manifold and do not form the core concern of this blog, but let it be hypothesised that several things have (or, crucially, have not) happened. Recently, seven years of brutal austerity measures have cascaded down from central government to the Labour-ran local authority, Sunderland City Council, which, like so many other local authorities, has had its hands tied. Forced to make savings in one area at the detriment of another, there is resentment and confusion (Witness Brexit, and Sunderland being unfairly lauded as its ‘poster boy’). The same formula is true in Newcastle, as it is in other towns and cities up and down the land, but the consequences are felt most keenly in the North, Midlands and South-West. In Sunderland, the closure of local libraries, museums and domestic violence services – to name just three – are the direct result of this callous government and its lack of concern for ordinary people.

Secondly, the vacuum left by the calculated withering of once-thriving industries such as shipbuilding and mining (did you know that the Wear, not the Tyne, once produced more ships than any other river in the world?) since the 1980s has largely not been filled. The opening of Doxford Park, a 1990-designated Enterprise Zone four miles south of the city, has no doubt stemmed the flow of further emigration from Sunderland, but its physical remove from SR1 has had the knock-on of making the city, at 12 o’clock on any given weekday, void of sandwich and coffee-buyers. I’m not suggesting that a city’s entire economy can or should be propelled by a one-hour sales window of hungry office workers, but there’s a certain illogical premise to situating several thousand of your gainfully-employed populace away from the nucleus of the place they live and work in. The re-development of the Vaux site, then (derelict for a staggering 17 years) into mixed-use office, leisure and retail, can only be a good thing for a city which all-too-often feels like the shutters have been pulled down before closing time.

Sun rise, Roker Beach: A new dawn?

Right, no more negatives! In February this year, my partner and I moved to a flat just north of Sunderland, in the suburban village of Cleadon. Quick bit of history: originally a part of the city until the Local Government Act of 1972 created the metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear, Cleadon was then subsumed into the newly-formed borough of South Tyneside. This is why it still has an SR6 postcode (like neighbouring Whitburn) and Sunderland on the address, despite its bins being emptied in Shields. Equidistant to both Wear and Tyne, however (with its wealth coming from industrial magnates building grand homes here from the 18th century), Cleadon has always felt to me like a hinge point: the liminal space between Geordie and Mackem. As somebody writing a PhD about North-Eastern identity, this makes it an opportunistic vantage point: both for ease of access to the wider county and an ideal spot from which to observe, and participate in, Sunderland’s bid.

When my partner took a job at the University of Sunderland, at the City Campus on the south of the river, I once again started making regular journeys from South Tyneside into Sunderland. A drive of no more than five miles, I feel this year that I have been re-examining my former self. In 2004-2006, sat on the bus going over the Wearmouth Bridge, I had had time to build up resentment for the city and for the wider area. As a hormonal and fickle teenager, more interested in music made in California than Castletown, I had neither knowledge nor inclination to think critically about the myriad, complex reasons why this place seemed so destitute, and so my irrational brain made up its mind: Sunderland was irredeemable and I had to leave. That did, of course, turn out to be a brilliant decision: applying to UCAS in spring 2006, the University of Chester beckoned, and six months later I was 180 miles away in a delightful, middle-class haven in North-West England. I don’t think I ever considered what Sunderland and the North-East would be like over a decade later, nor how I would become actively involved in its creative economy and an ambassador for its cause.

When making the fatal mistake of reading comments beneath Sunderland Echo (and Shields Gazette and Newcastle Chronicle) articles outlining the development of the bid, I have been stunned to see the reactions of some people from Sunderland and the wider region. Ranging from at best antipathy to at worst stereotypical jokes about there being “more culture in a yoghurt pot – har, har”, there is a bizarre (mis-)representation from certain quarters that people would rather nothing happened. To me, that kind of mindset is probably an indirect result of the already-mentioned austerity, but it is not helpful and residents of Sunderland and the wider North-East region ought to realise that this bid has the potential of being transformative for the area. Speaking as somebody with vested interests in Higher Education, yes, but also as somebody who simply wishes the region’s universities to succeed, the following should be obvious: if your student populace (drawn from national and international pools) have further opportunities for work, entertainment and living after their degrees, more of them will feel inclined to stay, rather than feeling compelled by the all-too-understandable lure of ‘brighter lights’ in London or Manchester (or Newcastle).

I can see the appeal. Looking at flats earlier this year, I had initially wanted to be based north of the Tyne. Not necessarily in Newcastle (though I study there, so it would have been easier), I had in mind the feeling that Tynemouth or Whitley Bay would be excellent places to live. I’m sure they are: I have friends in both, and I enjoy visiting them. But, with my partner’s job being in Sunderland, it made sense to live nearer the Wear. When we found the flat in Cleadon, knowing it was a short walk to East Boldon Metro station (itself only a twenty-minute ride into Newcastle), I realised we’d struck very lucky. In a fifteen-minute walk from our front door we can be up on Cleadon Hills, one of the North-East’s most glorious areas of natural beauty, with stunning views over Wearside, Tyneside and right out into Northumberland, County Durham and North Yorkshire. In thirty minutes, or five in the car, we can be at some of the best beaches in the country: from Marsden in South Shields to Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, there are miles of coastline here which, in my opinion, are much more varied than anything the north side can offer. The one downside to Cleadon is its lack of a decent pub. True, The Britannia does a cracking carvery, but The Cottage is not the bouncing boozer of five years back. But then, two miles away in East Boldon, there are an abundance of watering holes and eateries, especially for a small place. Highlights include the recently-transformed (from sad, sorry and smelly) Sleepers into Beggar’s Bridge, and the stunning wine bar come Charcuterie, Black’s Corner. At the risk of a) this sounding like a food and drink supplement and b) me sounding every inch a man on the precipice of thirty, let us re-focus.

Pop Choir at Fausto: Guaranteed to put a Geet Big Smile on your face

At the end of the summer, we began taking part in the pop choir at Fausto Coffee. Originally in a much smaller, end-terrace shop in Roker, Fausto moved around about the time we did, to a new, purpose-built unit on the seafront. Known for its eclectic range of sporting events and gigs (bike rides, sea-swims and morning fitness clubs sit happily alongside acoustic performances), Fausto is a community-driven café which, I’ve no doubt, would be the envy of everybody from Jesmond to Hackney Wick. Led by the Cornshed Sisters’ fabulous Jennie Brewis, pop choir’s short life has already garnered regional attention, with the group singing live on BBC Radio Newcastle (in support of the Sunderland 2021 bid), with a Christmas performance at Park Lane scheduled for the 16th December. While I haven’t been to every meeting (honestly, I’m feeling withdrawal symptoms having not been for a fortnight now), each Monday I do attend is a joyful opportunity to make new friends, drink good coffee and belt out the lyrics to George Michael and Tina Turner. My eighteen-year-old, NOFX-listening-self could scarcely imagine...

In the city’s other well-known coffee shop, on the other side of the water, Pop Recs has been going strong since 2013. Now onto its second location, the record store come coffee shop come performance space is a genuine grassroots marvel. Set up by the indie band, Frankie and the Heartstrings, and now operating from just around the corner to the bus interchange I used to miserably walk past, Pop Recs is the type of inspirational place that I wish my seventeen-year-old self had had access to. Of course, my seventeen-year-old self was swigging blue pints in Ku and gan mental to The Mercury League in the little room above Pure, so he didn’t miss out too much.

Walking through Keel Square a few weekends back (having attended an excellent, late afternoon performance by The Cornshed Sisters at Pop Recs), we went for a few drinks at some of the city’s newest establishments. The Old Fire Station, having recently undergone substantial structural and cosmetic surgery, is now a bar/restaurant and performance space that – when it’s fully kitted out with its auditorium – will be a fantastic asset for theatre-makers and audiences across the region. The place already feels like the cornerstone of a palpably-buzzing, upcoming cultural quarter, the middle of which is already home to what is known locally as the West End of the North-East: Sunderland Empire. With The Peacock and Dun Cow, two fine boozers brought back to their Victorian splendour, book-ending the area, it’s easy to imagine the light nights next summer being very well spent in this part of town. In fact, the Fire Station and Keel Square as a whole mark for me a bold statement of intent: with new street furniture, public art, fountains and clearly classy entertainment venues all in one space, the real question should be: ‘How much further can we go?’

As I said earlier, there are still some very worrying visible signs of deprivation in other areas of the city. But the feeling I have walking through Sunderland, and enjoying time on its stunning coastline, is that this is a city moving in absolutely the right direction. Whether or not that is enough for it to be crowned the UK’s next City of Culture on Thursday remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that there is huge momentum here and a growing pride across business-owners, artists, musicians and members of the public that Sunderland has the potential to be an absolutely terrific place to live, work and visit. Following Hull’s granting of UK City of Culture for 2017, interim reports already show impressive and wide-ranging benefits to the city, its wider economy and residents’ sense of pride. There is simply no way that, were Sunderland to be crowned the winner in 2021, our magnificent hotels, restaurants, shops, bars and assortment of other service industries wouldn’t gain. As a proud Sanddancer, I am certain this would also translate to increased revenue further up the coast, as well as incentivising tourists to spend time in our other fabulous towns and cities. Grumpy commenters: maybe you want to re-think your cynicism? If people in Newcastle – or Sunderland – don’t want to support that, then that’s up to them, but I’d urge them to brave the thirty-minute South Hylton Metro journey and see what’s on offer. And, if you live nearby and you haven’t paid the city a visit in a while, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Now, if only Chris Coleman can get the football team winning...

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Hospitalfield: A Creative Practice Symposium

Near the end of my weekend at Hospitalfield, the artist Michael Mulvihill said to me that, while he enjoyed hearing about everyone’s artistic practice and research, the opening up of the world of poetry had affected him the most.

For my part, I’d like to reverse-echo the sentiment: discovering the visual and musical arts has, for me, been a revelation. While the experience was at its most pronounced this weekend, with sixteen artists showcasing their works over a two and a half day intense period, I really mean to say that the past two years (and before that), via the opportunities that I have had to meet so many fascinating artists—some of whom I’ve collaborated with—has surely shaped my thinking and influenced my work in myriad positive ways.

Hospitalfield is the kind of place that is a joy to every one of the bodily and spiritual senses. From the culinary delights, to the coastal setting just outside Arbroath, to the pulchritudinous grounds, to the ornate and eclectic collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures, the house is a fertile breeding ground for new ways of working as much as it is a place of solitude and contemplation.

The project of wife and husband duo, Elizabeth Allan-Fraser and Patrick Allan-Fraser, Hospitalfield occupies the site of a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, since transformed into a beguiling site of artistic splendour. Somewhere between country pile and contemporary gallery, but not really so much of either, Hospitalfield is a genuine one-off. The opportunity to have spent this weekend there, then, was a special one. Organised by Joanne Clement, the Northern Bridge Creative Practice completion symposium brought PhD students from across the Arts together, swiping us from our routines, asking us to address ourselves and the challenges and opportunities our works face in both dividuated and interdisciplinary ways.

For my own part, I was able to frankly discuss with practitioners at one (or several) steps removed from Literature, the concerns I currently have with my work: namely, will poetry of the margins stay in the margins; and to what extent can I, and should I, take steps to steer it?

These open-ended conversations took place, largely and thankfully, in the most informal ways: over drunken dancing to the likes of competition and co¥ᄀpt [Craig Pollard and Sean Cotterill, respectively], musicians not so much at the cutting-edge, but questioning where the edges even are. With Simon Woolham (and the ‘with’ is both instrumental to Simon’s practice and the rationale behind the weekend as a whole; a Harawayan ‘making-with’) it involved following the tracks of his practice: fusing seemingly-disparate artistic ‘hats’ into what I am calling in the most generous sense that of co-curator. His ‘Wythy’ [Wythenshawe] Walks blend citizen map-making with story-weaving in a way that questions where and how we tell tales. Which is a bit like the practice of Christy Ducker, whose first book-length collection, Skipper, draws largely on her Creative Writing PhD, in which she succeeds, splendidly, in de-ventriloquising the Victorian Northumbrian heroine, Grace Darling. Untrusting of ‘official’ accounts while equally suspicious of apocryphal claims, Christy’s poems perform biographic ‘rescues’, analogous with the daring life lived by Darling.

The weekend’s bounties extended further when we were introduced to the meta-narratives of Harriet Sutcliffe, who re-writes with precision and power the female experience back into the visual arts – Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery and Basic Design course – in a way that I’ve never seen. It also meant encountering the Geordie Iaian Sinclair: Michael Pattison’s dérives ’round the river Lea being some of the most pressing engagements with psychogeographic space I can remember. It meant seeing Rob Blazey playing an instrument that he’d not only learned, but conceptualised, designed and built. It meant hearing, in stunning polyphony, excerpts from Linda France’s wonderful new poems about Susan Davidson and the landscapes of Allen Banks and Staward Gorge. It meant wondering with Lisa Matthews where a poem starts and prose stops and how the writer, in electing to blur those boundaries, can create dazzling new commentaries on grief, marine life and un-packed-away holiday items. In Phill Begg’s case, it meant asking how the auditory can push the visual into new kinaesthetic realms in hypnotic and arresting ways. In Juliana Mensah’s, it meant writing luminous fiction in the spaces-between identities, creating wonder and puzzlement equally in the folds of race, gender and nationality. Similarly, for Andrea McCartney, it meant adopting a literal and figurative shadow script to trace the map-makers of conflict-ridden Ireland, quizzing narratives of power. In Sabina Sallis’s work, it meant wondering, on a large scale, how drawing interrogates myth and how that myth is bound up in the interdependent present and might be a solve towards our crises. In not-too-distant terrain, it allowed Michael Mulvihill to probe the hidden nuclear militarism via object-interfaces and popular culture references which situate the reader in a profoundly uneasy position, given the recent US-North Korea chest-bashing. And in Jo Clement’s work, it meant figuring out what we mean by ‘type’: in an alphabetical, anthropological and ekphrastic way, her poems delve deeply into the traces left by the Northumbrian engraver, Thomas Bewick, recasting them as important and beautiful way-markers for how we might live better lives now.

It was a real honour to spend the weekend with these people, who will all, I’ve no doubt, go on to great, great things. Hospitalfield, you’ve been a pleasure: I hope to be back soon.

Thanks to Sabina Sallis for this image.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Northern Rising: A North-East Poetry Social and a Milestone Issue for Butcher's Dog Before We Take a Break

I read at the first Northern Rising event at Ernest in the Ouseburn on Monday night. Billed as a ‘North-East Poetry Social’, and inspired by the bohemian happenings on Tyneside in the sixties (most notably the Morden Tower poetry readings, which famously re-kindled Basil Bunting’s poetic career and saw literary heavyweights from America pass through Newcastle), Northern Rising was a primer for how poetry nights, tied to a wider political consciousness, might function in the city in 2017.

Organiser Alex Niven spoke at the start, saying how he hoped that the events would ‘draw a circle around a moment’, allowing exciting conversations to begin, networks to be made and voices – be they dissenting, entertaining or belonging to categories altogether unclassifiable – to be heard. Putting poets of various backgrounds together in this way, and introducing them without the inflated biographical details which so often function only to affirm a slew of prizes or publications, Northern Rising is a democratic space for live literature and lively discourse. Questioning who poetry is for and how it might coalesce with the emergent socio-political paradigm, the night felt like an important one post-Grenfell, post-Brexit, and post- well, you get the picture. As Fruela Fernandez, the ‘featured’ poet, said: Poetry is both there and not there. In its shape-shifting guise, perhaps it speaks best to these turbulent times.

L-R: Me; Ryan De Leon; India Gerritsen; Patricia Robles; Fruela Fernandez; Grace Herring; Alex Niven

Look out for the next instalment on 13th November as this is set to be a regular fixture on the regional circuit: one which, I’m sure, will gather momentum very quickly.

The second event I want to talk about is last night’s launch of the tenth issue of Butcher’s Dog. I have been involved with the magazine since the start: in 2012, when, along with six other poets, it was agreed that a new magazine was needed to harness the energy of poetry being written in the North-East. Since then, Butcher’s Dog has enjoyed phenomenal success, collaborating with the Poetry School and enjoying the benefit of a run of exciting guest editors, each of whom have put an original stamp on the magazine as it's gone along. Unfortunately, not long after securing Arts Council funding, most of the editors moved to different parts of the country, which has meant, increasingly, each issue has been a challenge to put together, not least for Degna Stone, indomitable Top Dog and managing editor.

Butcher's Dog 10 cover by Mark Bletcher

With those logistical pressures in mind, and having reached a landmark issue, we have decided to put the Dog to bed for a year. Last night was both a celebration of the most recent issue, and a reflection on where we started out. It was really great to see new and old Dogs taking to the stage in Culture Lab, Newcastle, and to have the magazine so enthusiastically supported by the director of the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts, Sinéad Morrissey. The night was filled with poetic delights from contributors past and present: Roy Marshall had made a 400-mile round poetry road-trip from Leicester, bringing co-editor James Giddings and reader Suzzanah Evans with him; and Staurt Charlseworth had trained it up all the way from Norwich. Poets based in the region who’ve appeared in previous issues – Bernadette McAloon, W.N. Herbert, John Challis, Kris Johnson, Blaine Ward and Lisa Matthews – all read, and I was introduced to some phenomenal new voices: Lauren Garland, Rob Walton and Rowena Knight. For me, this is the ultimate joy of events like this: that they can stimulate community in a way that is genuinely uplifting and thought-provoking while resisting cliquiness.

Butcher’s Dog now enters a fallow year, but I reckon when it returns, it will be as – if not more – vital than five years ago when it was just a glint in a workshop group’s eye. For now, do get your hands on a copy of the latest issue, and, as Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s poem, ‘1 day old, 6.03 a.m.’, implores, ‘hold each other close’.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Singing The World: A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn

Singing The World

A Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn
The Stables Gallery
26-28 August and 2-3rd September 2017

'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village' (detail), poem laser-printed onto beech wood, with the assistance of Fab Lab at Hope Street Exchange, Sunderland.

I have a new poem, ‘Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village’, on display at Cheeseburn Grange Sculpture Gardens in Northumberland as part of Mike Collier’s exhibition, Singing The World.

The exhibition was inspired by listening to the dawn chorus at Cheeseburn—a choir of sixteen birds heard early one morning in May 2016. Together their songs, represented here variously as digitally-manipulated sonograms and musical transcriptions, form the basis of this show of screen prints, digital prints, relief sculpture and, in my case, poetry.

Lead artist Mike Collier’s work is shown alongside that of glass artist Ayako Tani; musician and composer Bennett Hogg; sound recordist Geoff Sample; and digital artist Andrew Richardson. The combination of sound and image, colour and light, form and freedom make Singing The World a really unique exploration into the dawn and evening choruses, which until I was asked to work on the project, I knew shockingly little about.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (2), produced in collaboration with Geoff Sample and EYELEVEL Creative, assisted by Tina Webb. The sixteen birds here are those Mike heard between 4.30 and 7.00am at Cheeseburn in May 2016. The circular images have been loosely adapted from Sample's sonograms and 'placed' on staves.

My poem captures the early-morning awareness of a burgeoning chorus of suburban village birdsong, transgressing the binary, reductive boundaries between nature and culture. It is the first time I’ve had work on display in Cheeseburn, and I encourage you to go and see the show, if not for mine and the other artists’ work then for the fabulous aspect of the gallery within Cheeseburn Grange. Set amid acres of beautiful landscaped parkland and gardens, the exhibition takes place in the Stables Gallery, but there is also a Hayloft space and chapel of St. Francis Xavier. Ten miles west of Newcastle, near Stamfordham, I can’t think of anywhere quite like this in the region – so close to the city yet most definitely in the country – where striking contemporary art is being shown in innovative ways.

Mike Collier, The Dawn Chorus at Cheeseburn (4). This is a seven-layered screen print of the sixteen birdsongs from the dawn chorus.

Mike Collier, The Evening Chorus at Cheeseburn

Singing The World is on display as part of Cheeseburn’s two open weekends: this bank holiday in August (26-28th) and also on the 2nd and 3rd September. Entry is free with a suggested donation, and I’m told that delicious refreshments are also available at the Stables café.

'Dawn Chorus, Cleadon Village', set on the wall of the Stables Gallery, Cheeseburn.

Ayako Tani, Pre-dawn Light. Borosilicate glass, heat-shrunk tubes, steel and a lighting unit. The opportunity to show work in the darkness of the Hayloft at Cheeseburn presented the artists with a unique opportunity to represent the transition from night to day, moving from darkness to light. Ayako's glass chandelier of birdsong signals the dawning of a new day.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Federal Republic of Greater Sheelz Visits the South Bank: Thoughts Towards a Sympoiesis of the Regional Writer

Geet Big Wheel. Photo courtesy of Joanne Clement

Joanne Clement and I were in London yesterday, giving a guest workshop-come-poetry reading for the Poetry School’sWriting Poetry MA, a course co-convened with Newcastle University. Converging on the South Bank, we talked to the students – drawn mainly from London but also from the Hyem Coonties – about ‘further pathways’: academic routes they may take post-MA; specifically Creative Writing PhDs and how they might go about persuading the Arts and Humanities Research Council to fund them to undertake one.

[The nutshell summary of how to get the AHRC to fund your creative-practice PhD is this: Come up with an innovative, original project, driven by a clear research question(s), outline a feasible timeline through which you will progress and ultimately submit, and apply to work under the guidance of a supervisory team and School and Institution which will wholeheartedly benefit your practice by offering you more than just criticism (i.e. access to specialist archives, a wider research culture and tertiary training and development opportunities). In short, you need a watertight project, articulated as an original contribution to knowledge, which you will conceivably be able to complete in a timely fashion. Ask me whether I’ve managed all of that in eighteen month’s time, however, and I’ll probably want to shoot you.]

I read half a dozen poems, two from the pamphlets, four from The Beast. What follows are some thoughts gleaned off the back of this particular trip, germinating in the fuzzy line between pedagogy and practice, but also veering into: the ambiance of being in London post the multiple terror attacks and Grenfell Tower tragedy; the feeling of disconnect travelling between Newcastle and London; and the carrying-with of a clearly demarcated regional poetics whose subtleties, subtexts and intentions do not always transfer to the metropolis.

After Jo and I had read, thoughts and comments – which I must say were largely positive – ranged from the evocation (in both of our work) of a rich landscape, with which some of the students were not familiar; the difference in rhyme and rhythm to the supposedly more ‘jagged’ aural textures of poetry readings in the capital; and the pros and cons of writing in such a way, so closely with and about a place, or ‘after’ regional artists (this refers, in Jo’s case, to Thomas Bewick, the 18th-centruy Northumbrian wood engraver whose tail pieces her thesis investigates, and in mine to poets such as Bunting and Martin, whose tracks, literally and figuratively, I follow). I was asked whether I don’t wonder (sub-text: worry?) if writing in such a strong ‘Geordie’ voice, about the North-East, might not pigeonhole me as a regional writer (sub-text: with little to nothing to say about elsewhere?). Interestingly, the prior afternoon, over a quick lunchtime catch-up with the great London-based poet and comrade, Rishi Dastidar, we mused on similar considerations. Would Faber, for instance, that bastion of the English canon, protector of all who tread after Eliot, Larkin And Other Men, be interested in representing the work of a poet who ascribes to Robert Colls’s view that ‘[New] New Northumbrians [...] were English people who found other ways of being English’?

I don’t wish to sound mean-spirited towards my questioner (in fact, if memory serves, I actually thanked them for both the toughness and relevance of their point, which does pervade my work and its theoretical underpinnings—there are, after all, no hard and fast rules or ‘answers’), but I wonder to what extent a London poet in London would be questioned about a ‘Cockney poetics’ (dear me)? Or whether, and this is the more salient point, why I’ve never really been asked such a question in the North-East (and why it’s imperative that, in a reflexive but not overly-postmodern, Aren’t-I-Clever way, my thesis does its best to get to the heart of the matter)? I was once asked something similar in North Wales (I paraphrase, but it boiled down to: ‘Do you consider yourself more Geordie than English?’ I did and do.) Why are poems about the North-East, or in some way gesturing to a Northeastern consciousness or with a Northeastern texture or field of semantics, when read or performed in the North-East, so seldom seen as potentially problematic markers of insularity? This begets a series of further questions, then. Chiefly: to what extent is the North-East, as both a geographic space and gallimaufry of cultural or totemic stories, happy in and of itself, but perhaps unhappy in its position to, and reception by, elsewheres, principally those hegemonic cultural-capital spaces such as London, to whom its civic institutions and their purse strings are beholden? To what degree do we put up barriers, seal ourselves in? To what extent are our poems – my poems, this is me, Jake Campbell speaking, whether or not I assume the voice of a collective – translucent? Willing to be seen as figures behind the glass, but void of telling detail, do they risk ‘trapping’ themselves on Möbius strips; destined to gyrate around fixed points until they, like the proverbially wound-up toy car, run out of propulsion? Or is there joy in ploughing that furrow?

I would like to hope that what my poems actually do is align themselves Internationally-Regionally. Paraphrasing John Kinsella, that poet of Western Australia whose tendrils of thought and embodied experience extends to England and Ireland, I aim for something of an international regionalism in my work: ‘facilitating international lines of communication while respecting regional integrity.’ If Bunting saw himself, complicatedly, as a ‘Northumbrian Nationalist’ (or was later held up as a paragon of such), and contemporary poets are venerated as ‘Northumbrian internationalists’ (see the blurb to Paul Summers’s collected poems, union, as proof of this) then why not continue that genealogy, as an imaginative framework, and couple it with efforts to re-politicise and re-vitalise the devolution debate?

In an essay in the recently-published Reanimating Regions, Philip Johnstone makes a case for regional devolution, on the back of both the Scottish Referendum and Brexit, as one of the only ways to solve what he calls ‘The crisis at the Centre of the UK’. Johnstone posits that, (rightly) furious at decades of under-investment (Common parlance: “What have they ever done for us, like?!”) in the provinces, people mistakenly vented in last year’s referendum both their legitimate and irrational concerns about their communities’ despoilment by putting a cross on a ballot paper that corresponded with their acquiescence for  the United Kingdom to divorce from the European Union. What Johnstone suggests they should have done (be doing) – and Christ knows countless other commentators have said as much – is instead of questioning the EU (many of whose laws actually directly advantage those ignored communities, in places like South Wales and County Durham) question(ed) the failed Westminster model whose political actors and neoliberal consensus has so wrought inequitable development to London and the South-East at the expense of nearly everywhere else (See HS2: little more than a quick-trip to the finance magnet, not a comprehensively thought-out, long-term strategy for actually, not illusorily, improving the lives of people in the midlands and Yorkshire.) ‘The marginalisation and inequality felt by many’, writes Johnstone, ‘have more to do with the problematic nature of the British state over the past thirty years than with the E.U.’ A more crude way of formulating this, and again it has been done everywhere from broadsheet columns to stand-up comic ‘gags’ – is to suggest that, far from rejecting The Establishment, the Brexiteer was actually ushering it in wholesale.

Where the regional poet, alive to the frailties of his place and the contradictions of his people, fits into all of this remains to be seen. It is a project in-progress. Bunting called his poem, Briggflatts, a ‘dialect written in the spelling of the capital’, and so it seems to me that any considerations of devolution agendas and how they dovetail into imaginative poetic communities must embrace both the lexicons we are working with and are constrained by (language as english, region as top of england [the lower-case ‘e’s there are a deliberate provocation and enquiry into what might start happening if we remove the primacy of ‘England’ or ‘Britain’]) and the places they might get us to, however dreamy or insubstantial they presently seem. Poems, I think, are one of the best ways of opening up the dreamscape: going beyond theorising what a region might be, and actually contemplating its possibilities, its chance for self-determination, and its sympoiesis – making-with – in relation to neighbouring regions and nations (scotland may yet become Scotland) whose own territories do not have to be beholden to capitalism at any cost.

Donna Haraway is the scholar from whom I’ve borrowed ‘sympoiesis’. Writing in Staying with the Trouble, she says:

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.’

We are on an interesting precipice. Confronted with the very real, very exciting, possibility of a Labour government, led by a committed democratic socialist, we must begin to think of what any future government deals with places like North-East England, caught between a still-resurgent Scottish nationalism and a bullish middle England, might look like. But that’s somewhat putting the cart before the horse, and I think this is where poetry again becomes vital. In allowing us to confront the inherent complexities of writing about regions – even, no, especially very ‘well conceived’ [read: stereotyped] ones like the North-East – poems do what politics alone cannot: they open up spaces for creative imaginings and retellings. That was why, walking across Westminster Bridge yesterday, having seen for the first time the steel barriers erected to the side of the pavement, before spending 30 minutes stuffed into the District line to King’s Cross, where armed guards stand sentry (as they frequently do at Newcastle Central), I couldn’t help but be moved by the intricacy and connectedness of it all, these Times We Live In. When the Prime Minister has become a parody of a poor leader, yet retains her seat; when hundreds of cranes populate the skyline of the Thames, constructing new mega office complexes and luxury flats while people in the West End of Newcastle rob their own food banks, you have to ask, 'How can I help?' Perhaps poet-critics/educators like me, shipped in temporarily for a day to talk to people, some of whom are twice his age and have had previously successful careers of their own, can only ask further questions about how and why to write it all down so that it might, in the writing, make some sense, and touch someone. The butterfly is beginning to flap its wings, sheet lighting erupts over the Thames and the Tyne. What it will hide, and what it will reveal, well... that’s up to the poets before it’s up to the policymakers.

Jo doing the ready thing; me doing the army thing. Photo courtesy of John Canfield, Poetry School

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Irrationality of Rationality

There’s a brief flapping at the letterbox and half a second’s delay until the by-now-all-too-recognisable ‘thump’ of the half dozen poems, plus subscription form and printed rejection slip (sans comment) land on the door mat.

You don’t know for certain it’s a rejection, but the weight of the envelope, scrawled in your own handwriting of ten weeks ago, tells you that if they wanted the poems, they’d probably have kept them and sent only a sheet of acceptance back: some congratulatory note detailing, perhaps, how the editors were impressed by poem ‘x’ (and maybe, if you’re lucky, also poem ‘y’) and want it/them for the magazine, so please could you confirm that it/they haven’t appeared elsewhere? There’ll likely be a cursory note to say that magazine ‘z’ receives thousands of submissions for each issue, so it’s testament to the strength of your poems that they found their way in. 90-99% do not.

How do you know this? Because you’ve been involved in both sides of it so many times before. As editor of magazine ‘a’, you’ve rejected hundreds of poems by hundreds of poets—sometimes flippantly, with the click of a button on Submittable; sometimes after sustained deliberation with your fellow editors. You’ve also, half a dozen or so times in nearly a decade of trying, been privy to the other side of the coin: the acceptance slip coming through after months (occasionally weeks) of waiting has flipped the day on its knife-edge, and for the weeks and months that follow, you’ve been buoyed by the knowledge that an editor (or group of editors) you’ve never met have decided to take your poem or poems and align them in a manuscript alongside other poets, some of whom you know or have met or have read, others who are just names to you. You spend the time until the magazine containing your poem(s) drops on the door mat in a state of elevated spirits. Perhaps you Tweet or post a message on Facebook about it in advance. And while online acceptances, for e-journals and the like, can be just as salient in terms of their prestige (if not more so in terms of ‘reach’, theoretically at least), there’s something about this art form you’re involved with that tells you, irrationally, that the printed page is still superior; and that the journals you’ve been reading since you were an undergrad eight years ago are still the ones where your poems ought to be published.

Then there’s the third state, which you discuss anecdotally with colleagues, peers and friends involved in this world. This is the written-on rejection slip: the halfway house between the poem(s) being hypothetically good enough for the magazine, but for whatever reason or combination of reasons, not quite making the grade. Occasionally, this can be as simple as the poem being a couple of lines too long, thus pushing the setting of the rest of the mag entirely out of kilter. More often, it’s to do with a small fissure in the poem(s): some irredeemable flaw which, while not fatal, does nonetheless leave the poem(s) feeling ‘not quite there’. In a jostling match in which one poem is not quite there and another is, it makes absolute sense to side with the stronger candidate. Oftentimes, a theme begins to emerge, binding the poems already accepted for the issue, and whether or not yours is a firecracker, the issue, in its own stubborn way, does not demand your presence right now. The editor will occasionally imply all of this, in muted, conciliatory tones, in a few sentences of his or her own hand, with appended well-wishes and encouragement to try again soon. If human-printed ink accompanies laser-printed ink, so the theory goes, the editor can see and has acknowledged tacitly that you are a Good Poet. However, you had best be prepared for that default printed slip: try not to be consumed by the gravitational pull towards oblivion that you know it means to avoid, but nevertheless exerts.  After all, magazine editors need and want to publish the ‘best’ collections of poems they can. I know: I’ve edited magazine ‘a’ twice now. The reason the subscription form comes through with the rejection isn’t a cynical attack on the rejected (a less-than-subtle suggestion that if only you’d subscribe, we might take your work next time); no, it comes through because subscriptions, if they are voluminous enough, guarantee the magazine’s future survival, which, after all, shores up the continued promotion of the art form we’re all apparently-invested in.

What is the purpose of this little diatribe? I don’t entirely know. Sour grapes? Yes, partially, inevitably. We’re human: rejections hurt, even if we pretend they don’t; that it’s just par for the course. But I wonder. Is there something inherently flawed in the way our poems are expected to grace the eyes of a potential readership? Something askew in the commonly-accepted parlance which has it that magazine publication (years of), followed by pamphlet(s) publication, followed usually by another year or two of ‘higher-brow’ magazine publication, invariably leads to first full-length collection with a publisher (ideally one of the dozen in this country who can command if not international then at least fully-national reach) and the commensurate prizes (slew of, or at least shortlist for) and maybe later (long after both your death and further eight books, of course) full assimilation into Poetic Singularity: a five-page spread in the Guardian magazine; anthologisation en-masse; your name boring hundreds of thousands of GCSE students each spring or spoiling (when misquoted) many an otherwise-enjoyable after-dinner game of Articulate!

Even now, levels of facetiousness ramped at least halfway up, I am loathe to mention names. I am aware of my ‘reputation’, which whether I say so or not, I wish to protect, as well as the reputation of the publications and bodies alluded to. I am not aiming this at any one of them in particular. My gripe – I think – is with the very means by which poetry is published. The word ‘means’ there is crucial: implying a plurality of publication routes (the aforementioned ‘trajectory’ may be typical, but it is certainly not unique) and a plurality of reasons and justifications for wanting to publish in the first place. What do we ‘mean’ when we say our poetry is published?

I talk to a lot of poet-friends about their craft: forthcoming readings, publications, projects, commissions, residencies and so on. What we often fail to talk about is why we are doing it in the first place, and the implied sub-question: who is our work for? At a conference last week surrounded by twenty-five other Arts and Humanities disciplines, I was asked by two other researchers – one from an Archaeology background, another an Art Historian – why I started writing poetry. That, I said to both, is a very good question. On both occasions, I replied (honestly) that I was inspired at undergraduate level by a series of extraordinarily talented and passionate lecturers; knowledgeable academics-come-writers who both introduced me to the types of poetry that could say meaningful things about the modern world (reading the Bloodaxe anthology, Staying Alive, during a ski trip to the Italian Alps in 2008, I mused to one of my questioners, was a transformative experience) and began me on a journey, which I’m very much still on, into thinking about how and why I could and should attempt to transform my own experiences into a body of poems that other people might gain some insight or joy from.

Since then, I’ve committed myself to that journey. It has brought me mainly happiness, and some more understanding of my life and the place I’m from and where I’d like to be in the future. I hope, sincerely hope, that in one way or another – via the many readings I’ve given and the few hundred pamphlets I’ve sold, not to mention the handful of poems which have found their way into the pages (textual or virtual) of a few magazines and journals – that I’ve affected people: made them stop for a moment and see something of their own humanity reflected back at them.

In a first-year English Literature module, I remember the then-Head of the department I was studying in asking the assembled hall of two hundred students why they had signed up to their chosen course (no matter of its potential combination with Drama, Creative Writing, History or Whatever). The feeling I had at the time was much the same as it is now: to have some kind of effect on the life of at least one other person, via the rendering in original text, of complex emotions and feelings.

Another related anecdote: at the Queen’s conference last week, I saw a talk by Anthony Bradley, an associate professor of Religious Studies at the King’s College in New York (much of which, I freely admit, baffled and estranged me, based as it was on heavy theoretical terms and a non-linear argument) who posited the belief, which I fundamentally agree with, that our research, try as hard as we might to prevent it from becoming so, is absolutely subject to our interests, experiences and biases. This prompted an audible ‘Hmm’ from the lecture theatre, with a student at the end commenting to Bradley that, contrary to his experience of the American academic system (in which scholars are encouraged to ‘personalise’ their work), she had been advised to do the opposite, adding as much distance as possible between herself – a flawed human being – and her research, with its designs (no doubt inculcated by her School or Faculty and its historic modus operandi) on calculated, objective reasoning.

Something about that argument seems daft to me. Maybe I don’t get it. But somebody who I think does is Phil Scraton, Professor of Criminology at QUB, and author of Hillsborough: The Truth. Listening to Phil’s two talks, in which he recounted in immense and unsettling detail the twenty-eight-year long struggle to appease the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who were tragically killed (and later vilified) at a football stadium, I couldn’t help but thinking that his whole lecture, not to mention the book and possibly even his career as an investigative researcher, was probably founded on his decision on the morning of the 15th April 1989 not to travel with his son to Sheffield to watch his hometown team.

What does all of this have to do with being rejected from a poetry magazine? Maybe not very much. A friend of mine recently told me that the reason they write poetry is for themselves. Some within the arts world would caution against this view, regarding it as sycophancy, or even nihilism. Poetry, the purist attests, transcends capital-driven ownership structures to reside in, with and for the world. That the self-congratulating professional poet, making strategic decisions to bolster his or her career, should hold this view is inimical to the supposed sanctity of capital-p Poetry: that un-tainted art form which is both primary and transcendent.

I believe that this opinion is still important and relevant, but I also believe (and perhaps, as a holder of two degrees and somebody with vested interests in finishing his PhD within a well-regarded English Department, I would say this) that we absolutely write from the ground up. Yes, creative writing workshops and exercises, as well as in-depth reading of literary heavyweights from the past as well as protégées from our own generation, is fundamentally important, but what I think is more important is nurturing the quiet, troublesome voice in each of our own heads which says ‘You need to find out who I am.’

That voice has nagged at me for at least a decade now, and at all times it has been in competition with the voices of both form and reception. Allow me to explain. In a poetic sense of judicious, editorial decisions being weighed up, my approach to ‘form’ often involves a conflict between deciding instinctively where to insert line and stanza breaks into a ‘poem’ (or, going further, as I sometimes do, whether a pre-modelled form, such as a villanelle, might be applied advantageously to the draft content) and where to permit it to bleed into the much more nebulous category of the ‘prose poem’. To complicate matters, I have nearly always regarded these blog posts as variants of the prose poem, even if they will likely never be re-published as part of a ‘book’. Further, form does not for me strictly mean deciding on whether or not a fourteen-line poem is, in fact, a sonnet; but has much more to do with myriad (often contradictory) niggles I face with regards to how to negotiate and amalgamate ‘content’, which of course includes things such as ‘tone’, ‘image’ and ‘[meta]narrative’.

Secondly, then, ‘reception’ might be thought of as the product of the process which is ‘form’. Example: I write a batch of poems, I send sub-batches to three or four magazines, wait a few months, and perhaps one or two ‘stick’ and are published, and perhaps two or three years later, I have a pamphlet of perhaps two dozen of those original poems (alongside a few of the newer ones I was too proud to omit from the manuscript) published. Widening this process out and tying it to the project-in-question – my PhD: a practice-led investigation into my fractious relationship with England’s northeast – the form[at] (not to mention demands and constraints) of practice-as-research becomes problematic. You have three or four years in which to ‘practice’ this ‘form’ (poetry, music, film &c.) but at the end of that period, you better damn well be able to provide us with a product which persuades us that you are the expert, or else this platinum-grade degree to which your work ostensibly gestures might as well go on the bonfire, pal.

All of which takes us a long way from the half dozen rejected poems hitting the door mat. Sort of. If the ‘product’ of a practice-led PhD is only half-received (and conceived) in its academic context (manifesting in the viva: that blood-curdling hour and a half in which an external and internal examination panel scrutinise your work, deciding for how much longer you must polish it before it is awarded the platinum-standard of degrees), the rest of it is usually thought to be ‘received’ (or not) incrementally – by a series of small publications, performances and talks of almost-endless variety – before finally finding cohesive, publishable ‘form’ (taking us hopefully full-circle) as a ‘thing’ which can be packaged, sold, broadcast or else disseminated to the body politic in some way known or hitherto unbeknown. The hope, and this is one which transcends the academy and numerous institutions with which we poets plot in order to be read or heard, is that a minimum of one other person is in some way changed by our efforts; and that, perhaps if we are fortunate enough indeed, might affect a somewhat more substantial coterie. The rest, as they say, is for the future-makers: the canonisers and editors; the clique-makers and trend (re)-setters.

Meanwhile, we who feel compelled to do this thing, and all of its associated quirks, tendencies and habits, must hope that the next time the envelope comes through the letterbox, the news is good, so that we don’t again have to reel of two and a half thousand words defending our own inscrutable imaginations and niche fixations; so that we might get on with the job at hand, and once again rise to the kettle with some firm resolve to try again harder, or at least mull it all over with a packet of biscuits, feeling the caffeine hit and the dread of the void subside into buttery, sugary goodness.