Sunday, 31 January 2010

Theatre: 'The Distance' by the Particular Theatre Company

In our ongoing series on arts in the recession, we discussed the phenomenon of pub theatre and its potential to deliver productions of merit, to an audience beyond regular theatre goers, on a budget relying on little or no subsidy. I reviewed 'Forsaken' by the Particular Theatre Company who'd recently staged a three week run of a new piece of writing - together with before and after shorts of comedy and poetry - in the basement of The Hour Glass Inn in Exeter, ending with the wish that they'd extend the experiment to future shows.

My wish was their command and they are back with 'The Distance', a new play by Dorset writer Craig Norman, described as a poetic drama in which a married couple struggle to maintain fractured relationships with each other and their parents, in a world where land is precious and you don't know who you can trust. Featuring an accomplished professional cast and crew in an intimate space, the show should share many of the elements that made its predecessor a commercial and artistic success, but this time they've created their own seventy seat space - the Bike Shed Theatre just off Fore Street in Exeter, right in the centre of town. They are licensed for drink and have done a food deal with the nearby Flying Pig, maintaining the elements that make pub theatre a social night out.

Just as importantly, they've kept to their philosophy of exposing their audience to new work by encouraging us to stay on for 10 o'clock slots, one act plays by local writers that change every day or two. It's a win-win of a concept. The theatre ups its revenue by selling a few drinks while the punters wait for the stage to be reset. The audience gets an add-on to the experience if they want it. Playwrights and actors get a chance to try out new work in front of a paying crowd while the producers can gauge their reactions to new talent.

'The Distance' runs from 8th to 27th February and starts at 19.30. Tickets are available online at 10 pounds and if you're reading this on the day of posting and are quick off the mark you can still get them at the early bird price of a fiver. I'll be there for the preview and hope to add a short review below while there's still time for you to get seats for a night later in the run.

On Sundays 14th and 21st of February at 17.00 they are also hosting free evenings of comedy, music and poetry - Antidote/Anecdote - which sound a good way to end a winter weekend.

Cinema: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

Ian Dury was the bastard offspring of a three-way between Richard III, Max Wall and Edward Lear. His act was pure music hall with a musical backing that owed more to funk than punk and yet he was the clown prince of the punk movement, had the look and attitude before either were safety-pinned onto the various pub rock combos that followed in the wake of the Sex Pistols. They revered him and his original band, Kilburn and the High Roads, set the scene, along with the likes of Dr Feelgood, and were also a major influence on the London ska revival led by Madness.

At the risk of packing the Undead Poets' Society with lyricists and performers, however talented, Dury deserves induction because, he like John Cooper Clarke, was a funny man but had something of the night about him. More importantly, he had a dextrous and daring aptitude for rhyme and was demented in his disruption of syntax to get syllables to dance to his rhythm four-to-the-floor funk rather than garage band punk, giving his words far more space to work in than most lyricists of the movement.

In the guise of Andy Serkis, previously best known for his turns as Gollum and King Kong, the just-interred look is more apparent in the actor's whey-faced weaselyness than in the bucket-headed Dury but the impersonation goes much deeper than clock and clobber. Serkis inhabits his character physically such that the transformation in his voice seems to come from something more life-rupturing than mere manipulation of the vocal chords. Sure ,you get the charming loser and battling boozer who becomes a combination of Lear and his fool on stage, but if Dury had a tribute act - and some might say that the modern-day Blockheads with a revolving cast of celebrities in the lead role is just that - you'd expect and get nothing less. The key to the success of the film is unlocking the heart of the man on stage to see the shadow-plays staged there and how they informed the art and craft we are already familiar with through his archive of vinyl and celluloid.

Many biopics have no arc and no dynamic and rock biopics are generally those that struggle hardest to least effect. In part, that's because we are still too close to the practitioners of the now fading era of rock'n'roll to get perspective, to see the story in the pile of clippings and clips too easily amassed as research. Sight does not necessarily give insight. Dury was a student of Peter Blake at the RCA and taught at art colleges himself after graduation but didn't pursue that route, saying "I got good enough at art to realise I wasn't going to be very good." Not all film directors are able to undertake such self-criticism and the now usual route to the clapperboard of an apprenticeship commercials and pop videos is rarely the best preparation for the two hour treatment.

But also, as with our discussion of poets in the movies, a creative life is not necessarily the best source material for creativity, and in bad hands can just be an excuse for the sort of cut-and-paste treatment that all-too-often masquerades as rock biography or the thinly disguised adaptation of source materials that lazy dramatists claim as plays - they may have a willing audience and guarantee sales but don't merit serious attention beyond the fan base who'll fork out the ticket price for anything with the right name on the package. If I had the time and inclination, I'd digress into a few paragraphs denigrating the missed opportunities of past efforts and speculate on what future projects might best fit the movie format, but you can spare me that effort by doing the job yourself with a few mates down the pub.

In Dury's case, the writer Paul Viragh had more than most to work with. Central to the script is the son-of-the-father who becomes the father-to-the-son with all the complications of the paternal dynamic that tend to come with absence. Baxter Dury is now a musician himself, but in the film is portrayed as a boy old before his time who never grows up -  literally, as Bil Milner is asked to act out almost a decade of his young life without aging more than a few weeks. But the bass drum beat of this kit is the mother rather than father figure. Dury's own features little in the movie but was the one constant of his childhood, the upper-middle class daughter of a doctor and Celtic bohemian Betty who raised him as much in Cornwall and Essex and whose role in his life is replicated by both his wife and girlfriend who are expected to shift gears from carer through creative foil to lover on Ian's whim.

Not that any disabled kid in fifties Britain grew up spoilt. Dury's education in the Chailey Heritage Craft School and Hospital really was one of hard knocks and always getting back up for more. Returning to the institution in the eighties to mark the Year of the Disabled, Dury wanted to give the pupils some of his spirit of rebellion but by then they had less to rebel against and his cripple pride anthem 'Spasticus Autisticus' seemed to many derogatory rather than celebratory, too twisted to ever become the 'I am Spartacus' of the raspberry ripple kind. Dury took his dark and bitter anger into Grammar school where, smaller but older than his classmates, he took out his rage on any that got in his way, a habit he perpetuated as band leader where even working partnerships with talents such as Chaz Jankel were riven with more tensions than creativity itself demanded.

The movie ends a decade before Lord Upminster's early death, sparing us the worst of his alcoholism, the degradations of liver cancer, the decline in his artistic abilities and output, and the pirate and villain film roles he took on to keep the money coming in - Dury is the only actor I can name who made films with both Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and he turned down the 'opportunity' to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the libretto to 'Cats', missing out on Richard Stilgoe's millions - all hinted at, but not overdone in the closing scenes of the movie. Its faults are mainly stylistic. There is more pop art frippery than is strictly necessary to deliver the story and the framing device of Dury's narration from a stage beyond the grave only fills the gaps the script should have covered integrally. But it seems unlikely that rock music will deliver us another Dury and 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll' does a good job of telling us why.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Poetry, Theatre, Music - 'Village' with Josephine Larsen, Alice Oswald, Martin Holland and Peter Oswald

For those of you who aren't regular readers - or listeners - we had Alice and Peter Oswald on The Blah Blah Blah Show in January to promote this pamphlet and its Exeter launch organised by my co-presenter Rachel McCarthy, accompanied by a well designed poster and programme that may prove to be as collectible as the signed chapbook many in the audience left clutching.

Alice Oswald's poetry will need no introduction to those who keep in touch with the contemporary scene. She had two collections - one a commission, the other a collaboration - published by Faber in 2009, adding to her previous three collections and the two anthologies which she has edited.

Her poem for several voices 'Mrs Eaves phones her sister' closes the pamphlet and closed last night's performance, but on this occasion she was one of a company of four, each making significant contributions to a performance that combined theatre, music and verse - sometimes in combination. That piece brought the four of them together and in its weaving of character and tongue, we were left with the strangeness of an English village in winter, its people as unpredictable as the weather.

Her husband Peter Oswald is best known as a dramatist - his plays have been performed at the Globe, the National Theatre and on Broadway - but the pamphlet 'Village' features seven of his poems, three read to us on during the evening. His work reminds me most of Weldon Kees - a compliment in my book. Given most of his drama is written in verse, it is no surprise he has a facility for rhyme and metre, but so subtle you hardly register it on first reading. His style is conversational - natural words in a natural order - but  the tone is often dark - as dark as nature itself. 'Early morning hald asleep' reminded me of Kees' 'For My Daughter'. 'Cat' has an unassuming title but begins 'I'm walking through the rooms of my dead body...' a line as bleak as any Weldon came up with, and also has something of Kafka about it - the old officials on the landing, the almost empty statue room - that defies the merely domestic. 'Moonflight' is a sparser piece, aligning the trajectory of earth's satellite with man's journeys to it so effectively, I've found myself returning to it several times in the night/day/night since I first heard it.

Jospehine Larsen has a compelling presence and the ability to make each of the three short plays she starred in - alone in 'Pram', with Peter, their author, in 'Greenviolet' and 'Miss Bratty', stand alone in the memory of what was a compendium performance of fifteen parts.  The latter provided light relief that shaded and shadowed what came before and after it and was both the lynch pin of the evening and the piece that seemed to owe least to those around it. Peter Oswald the ventriloquist, Josephine Larsen his dummy - the double act combined to speak to us of relationships, their breakdown, and being alone whilst being together in a way that was more Beckett than end-of-pier show but had more laughs than most variety acts.

I hadn't heard Martin Holland play before but will seek him out again. More than an accompanist, he was both the first and last on stage, whether in combination - his call-and-response with Alice on 'Interview with the Wind' could give jazz-poetry a good name - or solo, if that is the word for a musician with the talent, timing and facility to layer guitar and trumpet into compelling duets with himself, as in the opening 'Bossa Grrove Improvised' or the experimental 'Minor Loops'.

The drama studio at the Phoenix Arts Centre is an intimate space of forty seats - sold out in advance - that would benefit from more sympathetic lighting. What the evening gave practitioners - and aficionados - of all the genres featured was an example of how they can be combined to the enrichment of each other. Although featuring two poets, promoted as an evening of poetry, and launching a pamphlet of verse, it was perhaps that of the three art forms that was least dominant on the night, made-up for by subsequent reading on the page. Poetry is a quieter art form and while I'm the first to criticise extended commentary on poems in performance and admire brevity of both contextual and biographical introduction, something was needed to give them the prominence the writing deserved when up against the more immediate dramatic and musical forms. 

That said, 'The Attention Seekers' have devised a format with legs - eight of them - that deserves wider exposure and a larger audience. With little refinement, they have a show that could tour arts centres and, with the right promotion, attract a paying crowd without diluting artistic intent. Considerable effort clearly went into preparing this performance and I hope it is one of many, a memory to repeat and not just cherish. For those organising literature festivals, it would make a fine revue to breakup the procession of talking heads with an hour or so that manages to be both entertaining and accomplished, its heterogeneity a welcome antidote to more homogeneous formats, but its content consistently of the highest quality.

I am also pleased to note that Alice and Peter intend 'Village' to be the first of several pamphlets in the Chiquita Books of Dartington imprint that will range across written art forms. The chapbook format lends itself to experiment, but in this instance it is far from disposable. Let's hope they maintain the quality, while delivering on their promise of diversity.

Cinema: Up in the Air

What if you desire to live in transit, tied to nothing, nowhere and nobody? In this Jason Reitman ('Juno', 'Thank You for Giving Up Smoking') adaptation of Walter Kirn's novel of the same name, George Clooney plays a corporate downsizer who lives his life in airport lounges, hotel rooms and identikit meeting rooms, laying off workers whose bosses are too timid to do the deed themselves. He also has a sideline in selling his philosophy of life - keep your backpack below cabin size, travel light through life - to those same bosses who like to attend motivational sessions to escape the monotonous grind of their managerial responsibilities. Unlike them, he practices what he preaches.

For girls who love Clooney, you need not fear he's had to sacrifice some of his trademark charm to play Ryan Bingham, this lone wolf of the skies. He might be a shark, not a swan, but it's Clooney's cross-gender sex appeal that enables us to empathise with a man who most of us wouldn't ordinarily spend two hours in the company of voluntarily. I can think of no other actor alive who could've carried this film, and it is a film worth carrying, having elements of romantic comedy - more thorns than rose - but tackling the economic downturn in a way that both both provokes and entertains.

The other key roles in the movie are female, and all well played: whether his occasional lover (like him, 'but with a vagina', one with surprising offspring) Alex (Vera Farmiga); his ingenue sidekick Natalie (Anna Kendrick) who threatens his ambition of being the seventh and youngest man to clock up ten million air miles by revolutionising the recession's most successful industry with dismissal by webcam (she gets dumped by txt and changes her life as a consequence, but not before disrupting Bingham's ever changing, never changing routine); or his two sisters Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey), the latter on the verge of marriage, so long as Bingham steps in and does the elder brotherly thing, one of life's many roles he's not accustomed to fulfilling, turning his gift of the gab against his own philosophy.

But many of the film's funniest and most moving moments come not from the central and professional cast but through scenes involving, and interviews with, those who've recently lost their jobs in real life. These talking heads were plucked from the dole queues to share their experiences, each unique but somehow universal. It is them that elevate standard rom-com fare into a state-of-the nation movie. Filmed mainly in St Louis but set in the airport cities of several states across the union, aerial shots give you a sense of this county that is a continent, while what's going on on the ground is indicative of the times we're still living through and hints at the individual actions that ,when accumulated, were the cause of our current economic malaise.

You can see where this is going - the man who's spent all his life avoiding connections, let alone commitments, begins to have them forced upon him, then discovers that maybe that's what he's wanted  all -along -  but only maybe. He is after all touchingly loyal - he's worked many years for a single corporation, flies with one airline, sticks with a favourite hotel chain, only drives the cars of one hire car firm and has the gold, platinum and graphite cards to prove it. He packs the same way for every trip, has a home more functional and less personal than the rooms-for-hire he spends the majority of his nights in, and believes dressing casually is removing one's tie - everything you hate about business travel, that's why he loves it so.

When he confronts the departure board at the end of the film and watches his life flip over before him, all and yet nothing has changed. If our best moments are spent in the company of those we love and are loved by, we are left with uncertainty - maybe it's too late to put that lesson into action for a man like Bingham, so set in his ways that for him perhaps life really is a solo journey, made without the security  of a co-pilot and ending at the destination we're all flying towards so rapidly.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Poetry: Tim Allen at Uncut Poets, Exeter Phoenix - Thursday January 28th 2010

Tim Allen is guest poet at Exeter's Uncut Poets at the Phoenix Arts Centre this month on Thursday January 28th at 7.30pm in the Black Box - £5 (£3 concessions and readers).

Uncut Poets is presented by Tony Frazer, editor of Shearsman Books, and James Bell, published by tall-lighthouse. In an evening of two halves, sets from the guest are preceded by five open mike slots - to book call James on 07879 888319.

Tim Allen is a poetry activist and provocateur. Founder of the much-missed poetry magazine Terrible Work, Spineless Press and Plymouth's The Language Club he has been a catalyst in the south-west's poetry scene for many years and many local writers owe a great deal to his challenge and support, his friendship and enmity. He is a critic in the truest sense - he has opinions, expresses them and justifies them by example and by argument. He may not have written more reviews than anyone alive, but he has written more than any man I know, and when you read what he has to say, you know his motive has integrity, is not a means to some other end.

He takes sides, and that is because poetry matters to him. I disagree with him as much as I agree with him - more often, probably - but that is why he is worth reading, should be listened to. His analysis of the contemporary poetry scene is informed and thought through. He is acute on the dynamics of poetry publishing, and engages with movements in literature as others might with political ideologies. Indeed, to him, writing is an expression of personal politics; aesthetics has an ethical dimension.

This comes through in his own writing, and he cherishes negative reaction as much as he enjoys positive response. His performances don't compromise or shape themselves to the tastes of his audience and this is exciting - you confront and are confronted by another mind at work, electricity surging through its own circuits, as likely to trip you out as light up a bulb inside. He is also smaller than me, which is reassuring - if he outwits me, I know I can always lamp him one.

To learn more about Tim and his work try the following links:

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Guests January 2010: Alice Oswald and Peter Oswald

When we pitched The Blah Blah Blah Show to Phonic FM, they were looking for more spoken word content, we were looking to establish an arts magazine radio show that respected its guests and their work but would fit into what is primarily an albeit eclectic music station.

We have recorded and hope to make available all of our interviews with guests who are selected for having a south-west connection and being genuine practitioners of the art forms we focus on - literature, cinema, visual arts and theatre.

In the mean time, I'll catch-up by making a posting on each of our guests so far, not attempting to summarise their careers - or our interviews - myself but by providing links to other material on the internet we accessed in preparing for our conversation, enabling curious listeners and readers to explore further.

Peter Oswald and Alice Oswald are based in - and committed to - Devon but have an international reputation. Whilst they are widely acknowledged in their own fields - theatre and poetry respectively - they are increasingly collaborating in their work - sometimes with each other - and exploring where these and other forms meet.

Their appearance on our show precedes an evening in the Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter on 23rd January when they will be reading from their new pamphlet 'Village' - featuring eight poems by Peter and one longer piece for several voices by Alice - performing with their ensemble 'The Attention Seekers' with trumpet played by Martin Holland and previewing three short plays with members of Hearts Tongue Theatre.

Details are now posted on Rachel McCarthy's website and have been sent out to the ExCite contacts list which you can join by emailing your details to stanza at rachelmccarthy dot com

Peter Oswald is due to perform 'Birdsongs' with Hugh Nankivell at Dartington on 14th January.

Alice Oswald is on the shortlist for the T.S.Eliot Award for her book 'Weeds and Wildflowers.' The winner is announced on January 18th.

She hosts regular poetry evenings at the Sharpham Centre.

'Village' by Peter Oswald and Alice Oswald is available from Word Power Books for £3.00  


Career resume
Faber Author's Page
Books on Amazon
Independent feature
Observer feature
Telegraph review
Poetry Society feature
Shearsman review
Observer review
Tower review


Career resume
Poetry blog
Books on Amazon
Play database
Guardian interview
The Golden Ass
The Storm review
Lucifer Saved
The Ramayana
Heart's Tongue past projects

Cinema: Avatar - 1D in 3D?


I don't usually do event cinema. It's not that I'm a misanthrope. I like people, I just don't like to be among them watching a movie. Maybe it's why I prefer obscure foreign language films in back street art houses at odd hours of the day. It's the nose bags of popcorn that do it, the troughs of ice cream - I just can't concentrate with all that scoffing going on in my peripheral vision.

Avatar is a foreign language film. Much of its dialogue is in Na'vi - the tongue of the ten foot blue aliens that are the heroes of a plot that turns the old cowboy flick on its head and gets you rooting for the Indians. It's easy on the ear and is already more developed than Klingon - your friends will be speaking it at dinner parties next week, thrashing around their long blue tails.

It is also so beautifully visually realised, some among the millions who've spent 160 minutes in its 3D world have been depressed ever since, yearning to get back. No wonder many return to reimmerse themselves in its phosphorescent deep forest setting. If you've seen 3D film before, you'll be expecting all the scenes that show off its technology - the chases and battle scenes - but this is the first time I've sat back and pleasured myself on pure visuals. In the quieter moments of the movie you suddenly realise that you feel the close confinement os space travel or a science lab, and that's before we've even entered into a foreign body on an alien world when the adventure really begins.

There are two kinds of Sci Fi fans: the freaks who read books in their own private worlds and the geeks who watch films and attend conventions in costume. As a kid I read plenty of space opera and fantasy novels, but was deprived of video or cinema, never even seeing a Star Wars film, which makes me a bedroom freak, with only a record player for company. There's not enough going on upstairs for you Philip K. Dick lovers. You might see Pandora in your dreams but your brain matterwon't be troubled too much. This is one for the Trekkies and Jedi but it's also girl-friendly enough for the geeks to take their mums to.

All surface, some feeling, what meaning? If you don't expect anything other than a join-the-dots plot then you won't be disappointed. The crippled marine who becomes the na'vi super-being is standard hero material, and after his wheelchair entry he's blessed with very long and flexible legs. There's a star-crossed lovers storyline that will be familiar enough to anyone who's watched James Cameron's Titanic, not that I have - that was released in 1997 and he's been working on this ever since, although two sequels are on the way to capitalise on the investment. This film - its spin-offs, products and sequels - will keep the industry buoyant for some years to come. And there's no point in seeing it on the small screen - its a must-see movie theatre 3D experience.

Although this could have only been made in Hollywood, it has a subtext that is riling the American and Christian right. With the USA still fighting two wars on foreign shores, it's not short of innuendo about neo-colonialism. Although the marines of the movie are mercenaries in corporate employment, their flag is no less the Stars-and-Stripes than that of the East Indies Company was the Union Jack. The human heroes, whether in their own bodies or in Na'vi incarnation, are US citizens too of course, but its those big blue tree hugging hippies that are the good guys - if they're American, they're native and pre-Colombian. And if Avatar the movie has wound up both Fox News and the Vatican, James Cameron must be doing something right. That commie bastard is probably a Canadian.

As for those bad boys in the green berets - robot suits and gunship space choppers - greed is their motive, cultural awareness not their strong suit and spiritual sensitivity entirely absent from their jar-like heads. Mean time, the alien folk are so tuned in to their environment and each other you could be in Totnes. The capitalism vs the jungle plot is reminiscent of The Emerald Forest but while in that eighties Brazilian braves versus bozos in bulldozers version the good guys could only lose, on Pandora they win and send the marines home without the hoard of precious energy-giving metal they'd come for. Damn, I've given the ending away - but then you'd guessed it already hadn't you? Let's hope in part two Uncle Sam returns to nuke the place. Or Pat Robertson curses them voodoo blue zombies with a Richter 7.3 earthquake. That'll shake them Satan suckers out of their sacred tree.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Cinema: The Road

Every generation gets the apocalypse it deserves; when it comes to its realisation in the arts, that is. Back in the eighties when I was tramping the streets beneath a banner made of broom handles and a sheet, it was nuclear war that had us on the edge of our seats. You'll be pleased to know the demonstrations were successful and nuclear war never happened.

Environmental apocalypse is the disaster movie du jour, although cinematic license is required; a slow-warming or cooling world not having the impact on screen atom bombs have. As a consequence, recent efforts have either had to accelerate the science or keep matters vague, 'The Road' pursuing the latter strategy in book - written by Cormac McCarthy - and on screen. You know that something bad has happened - everything and almost everyone is dead, trees are dead in the earth, conflagrations are spontaneous and the horizon wreathed with smoke - you're just not quite sure what exactly. Whatever it was, it's left a landscape so devastated it could only be filmed in Pittsburgh and New Orleans in a palette of ash greys, char blacks and dirt browns.

My generation was so hitched to the bride of the apocalypse, we played role-playing games in which we imagined ourselves as post-war survivors, our only objective to keep our alter egos alive as we raided ruined supermarkets for food, seeing off mutoid gangs of desperadoes, or attempted to set-up a  fortified homestead and grow us a living in the wasteland in which we found ourselves. The man and boy of the story pursue the roaming route to survival - homesteaders rear their meat human; a single dog has survived the great whatever; there is not a bird in the sky or rodent alive - and this gives the movie its momentum. The flashbacks distract rather than enlighten, man haunted by wife who stepped out into the cold, abandoning both to a life of death. What matters is the journey south -  the reverse direction of travel for  the desperate of the contemporary Americas -  although most viewers will harbour a hunch from the start that what they find there may not be worth the effort of dragging their skin, bones and shopping trolleys down the abandoned highways that stretch between one grim scenario and another all the way to the blankness of the ocean.

Let me be frank: I am as childless as the boy is friendless for most of the film. The prospect of roaming a barren post-apocalypse landscape alone is almost tolerable to those of us who romance the dark side: with a young son in tow - sometimes literally - the congealing of love and dread with tumours and gangrene would be too much to bear. But I have lived with children and witnessed the parental instinct at close quarters: wires previously barely powered becoming the mainline of life. And it is the relationship between man and boy that propels this film and holds the attention, no matter what trials are thrown its way by that vindictive God of the Old Testament who licked his chops on Job. 'I'll kill anyone who touches you - that's my job,' the patriarch says, and the son trembles like Isaac.

Yes, man lives but humanity has died. In such extremes, is anyone still a good guy? The only moral dividing line the movie could draw was in separating those who had eaten human flesh from those who were still resisting that temptation. Living our everyday lives, we prefer not to contemplate how interdependent our lives have become; how little it might take to knock the blocks from under civilisation. If in 'The Road' the why is never explained, it doesn't matter: the what has bled trust from the world, except from those with blood ties, father bound to son. The sudden death of the former takes even those who know what's coming by surprise; his replacement by a wandering nuclear family, fulfilling boy's need for child and canine friends, is a little too convenient to contain even emotional truth.

I read the book stranded overnight in an American airport with fourteen members of my family. In the USA, when something goes wrong, you're on your own. Witness New Orleans and then look away. Compare hurricane procedures there with those employed by the ideological enemy just across the water and you'll see the different value sets at play. Obama has his work cut out, turning a country round in which a substantial minority consider the ideals of universal healthcare unholy, immoral and anti-American while a good number of their poorer immediate neighbours suffer worse outcomes than many in the developing world south of the border.

This is an American movie. The cult of survivalism is more marked there than elsewhere, millenarian tensions persisting while beyond the turn of the last century, many a back-woodsman still drunk on the hot toddy of Revelations-based evangelism and shoot-thy-trespassing-neighbour commandment today. Even I found the book a little too bleak and starkly written to get under my imagination. The movie has its haunting moments, but I never entered its world as it required me to do. Perhaps it was the voiceover and soundtrack, maybe the digressions into flashback, but white noise got in the way of the silent contemplation that might have stranded me there. I am a purveyor of words and a lover of music but when it comes to cinema of the post-apocalypse, it turns out I'm a purist. When the End Times come, God will sort the men from the boys, without the prose of McCarthy providing running commentary or the piano and violin of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to serenade us to our fates on Judgement Day.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Poetry: Elisabeth Blestsoe

I'm delighted to hear that Shearsman Books will be publishing a comprehensive selection of the earlier works of Elisabeth Bletsoe later this month under the title 'Pharmacopoeia and Early Selected Works' bringing back into print all of 'Pharmacopoeia' (Odyssey/Terrible Work), selections from 'The Regardians' (Odyssey) and 'Portraits of the Artist's Sister' (Odyssey), and some miscellaneous poems.

You can find further details on the Shearsman site, together with more information on her 2008 collection 'Landscape from a Dream'.

We'll endeavour to get Elisabeth on The Blah Blah Blah Show at some future date, but in the mean time, an audo recording of her reading 'The Seperable Soul' is available on the 'Gists and Piths' blog.

To mark this reprinting of Elisabeth's earlier work, I'm reproducing my 1996 essay on her poetry, first published in the now sadly defunct 'Poetry Quarterly Review' to coincide with the publication of the first edition of 'Pharmacopoeia'.


The Poetry of Elisabeth Bletsoe

In his novel Love and Death on Long Island Gilbert Adair's central character writes a history of the representation of angels in the arts, its premise being that only by aspiration to and concourse with some form of the super-natural is the artist able to create out of the humility that is, or should be, his natural state and essence. So it is with THE REGARDIANS. Strong poetry doesn't just respectfully copy the way things are, it creates. It can make and unmake the very gods themselves, but only because it comes from the silence beyond the ego monkey's jabbering.

Last year the New York Times best-sellers list featured more angels than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Christian fundamentalists were as keen to tell us of their guardians as supposed abductees their alien consorts. In this country comparable 'literature' is more likely to be infected with new age whimsy. THE REGARDIANS is different. Bletsoe's angels are not ethereal beings, nor do they confine themselves to airy realms or deal in the empyreal. Far from ,cynical paganism', self-righteous evangelism and the Aquarian pick-and-mix; she is a Quaker and steeped in the traditions of English nonconformism. Hence the intention is as much political as spiritual. The millenarian hard rain nightmare of The Cloudseeder features Uriel the fire of God, connecting the Revelations-inspired visionaries of the late Middle Ages with latterday environmental apocalyptics, giving us a Dantean view of the cityscape of Cardiff. In The 'Oary Man Gabriel is seen in his role as heavenly ambassador, invoked by Gerard Winstanley in the founding of the Digger movement:

thrust into consciousness

by the radical English dreamers

who claimed your authority:

the Fiery Roll inscribed with blueprints

for a world

turned upside-down

It is a work of invocations, less prayers than active summonings of the human powers the angels represent into her consciousness and that of humanity at large. Thus, Archangelis and Lachrimatory draw on the mythologies of patriarchal religion (Bletsoe especially makes use of Jewish angelologies, later adopted by Christians and Muslims just as the Jews appropriated the gods of neighbouring nations and tribes into their heavenly hierarchies) only to undermine them: the dark energies of Michael and Cassiel summoned to recharge the female spirit more through opposition than identification, a vision of the weighers of souls, detached voyeurs in the guise of God's civil servants who know:

Heaven and Hell are the same place

all the suppressed beatings

of your enshrouded heart

cannot disguise

your secret joy

in failing

Similarly, Azrael triggers a cut-up of headlines from organs of the death culture: numbed to genuine experience of mortality we have no respect for life. The range of reference is sometimes astonishing but it is mutated into a strain of the language virus previously undetected: lain Sinclair meets the King James Bible. Infectious.

Bletsoe works in projects rather than poems. PORTRAITS OF THE ARTIST'S SISTER (published after, but written before, THE REGARDIANS) has a thematic unity, developing female 'mood-states' and 'life-situations' out of the paintings of Edvard Munch. It is a sequence meant to be read as a whole as his Frieze of Life paintings were meant to be viewed in one exhibition, each one note in the cumulative symphony. Munch is a poet's painter who thought in literary terms, sketching out his poem of love, life and death in words long before he recreated them in figurative art. Like Munch, Bletsoe writes out of her psyche rather than about it, employing a method that transcends autobiography while drawing on, at times, almost physiological memories- In the subconscious, Jung theorised, what is specifically personal is experienced in imagery we hold in common, in archetypes. With her knowledge of mythology and the contexts that generate their changing forms, mythmaking becomes reflective. The book takes the form of an archetypal journey, towards individuation and, in the macrocosm, sexual harmony, but in the language of human experience rather than psycho-babble. Moonlight is a fulcrum point in the book, fear turning to acceptance:

the wounded healer at the crossroads

opening the portals to a second life

loosely shrouded in delicious white

not a ghost, but a Sister

she sails her broken eggshells

over an ocean of night

It works almost like a series of mystery plays, the paintings tableaux: the stage-like simplicity of the settings and sometimes theatrical exaggeration of the postures of Munch's women become frames in the storyboard that Bletsoe fills out. If the work depended on an intimate knowledge of the paintings it would be problematic: like the printed text of an unseen movie (Brian Hinton) verbal commentaries on visual media rarely work. However, adopting the personae of Munch's subjects enables an investigation of not just the artist-model relationship, but also that of the observer and observed, on many levels. The poems have grown out of her relationship with the pictures. Whether we agree with her interpretation of Munch as being unusually attuned to the feminine (in the context of the nineteenth century, Presbyterian Scandinavia as depicted in, for example, the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg), her giving the voiceless a voice is what matters. Rather than trying to describe the spatial economy, contrastive colouring and sketchy rendering of the paintings she adopts their poetic equivalents: the prevailing tones of summer nocturnals conjured by her lunar idiom. As Munch was a great painter, so Bletsoe, also, is a great poet of the night. Dreams within dreams, where boundaries between mortality and the immortal, fact and imagination, are thin, as in the Madonna section of The Lady with the Brooch:

in her mouth's corner a spectre of death

in her two lips the joy of life

PORTRAITS... is an examination of repression, the power it generates and the possibility of channelling that power, using the vampire myth, for example, as an externalisation of the other within to enable surrender to it. It admits grief as a positive process, the deep awareness of mortality developing maturity, a prelude and inducement to transcendence. And within all of this inner alchemy, it is the women - a fearful girl at puberty, the tragi-comedy of a doomed affair in Ashes, watching the hands and skin of The Dead Mother - that put flesh on the spirit work and give it life.

PHARMACOPOEIA, shortly to be published, is a slim, interim pamphlet that elusively and allusively tells the story of a relationship in moments, each marked by a particular flower in a particular landscape. It veers from despair to fulfilment as if a love potion had been prepared along the course of the interlinked journeys. Bletsoe is a ruthless crafter of language which is here pared down so that the poems are almost tinctures. In emotional biography less is always more and what is omitted more telling than what is said. The language is restrained, almost academic at times, such that the occasional personal statement feels like the eyes of lovers meeting in the incendiary field that we lie down in & fall into the sky.

Elisabeth is a herbalist (Pharmacopoeia means a list of medical ingredients, including instructions on their preparation and use) and the text is challenging to the botanically illiterate, intercutting pieces from ancient herbals, folklore etc. However, even in this, both her slimmest and most difficult work, the characteristic features of her distinctive method are maintained.

She displays an almost Japanese discipline of concrete description and restraint, each piece a string of beautiful haiku-like beads. The way the text is laid out like a musical score hints at the breath patterns she achieves in performance, enabling the reader to recreate them in her own voice. (The use of space on the page is an additional visual aesthetic.) Form is defined not by rules but intention, discovered in the act of writing: ripples on the silence it emerges from. The poem as journey, inner and outer, such that the subject and reader are changed by its conclusion and given the impetus to reach it. Above all it is the sense of absolute commitment to her role as receiver/ transmitter that gives the intensity of Poetry as magic or medicine; not for mirroring but manifestation. (Sarah Hopkins).

We are also faced with a concentration that might put off the casual reader: the depth of reference, lexical range; a density of expression not found in the currently prevalent modes of social realism and autotherapy. But surely even the uncommitted will feel its tensions, be captured by its sound and rhythm and enter inner labyrinths where the heart does the thinking and the head begins to feel: nothing is stated, none of her immense and wide-ranging knowledge is made use of, unless it is also felt.

OOSER, still in progress, takes Bletsoe home to Dorset, and populates its landscape with the marginalised and dispossessed: the villagers of Tyneham, the Tolpuddle martyrs... Those poems already published in magazines¹ reinhabit some of the women of Thomas Hardy's novels and empower them with a sexuality he could only allude to given the strictures of the late Victorian novel. In opposition to Virginia Woolf's view that he makes them the weaker and the fleshlier... clinging to the stronger (man) and obscuring their vision she finds an openness to the feminine principle, not just in the eroticisation of the other but a genuine empathy with the sufferings of a sex caught in the double-bind of nineteenth century sexual hypocrisy. She takes the tragedies of their situations and makes them celebrations of a latent power:

neither life or death dilute me:

out of suffering may come the cure

The Ooser itself was a fertility idol co-opted into Christian festivals and bastardised as the devil. Evolving out of a British tradition of horned fertility gods going back 10,000 years it was transformed into a figure of terror, haunting sexual miscreants in skimmity rides and giving evil a face in mumming. Its last authentic Dorset representation was sold to America. A crude reproduction now amuses tourists in local Morris dances. It is about to refind its voice.

In her fine poem, Poetry, Marianne Moore longs for ‘literalists of the imagination’ who ....can present / for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'.

Enjoy the gardens. Beware the toads.

¹ Rainbarrows (ODYSSEY #18)

Cross-in-Hand (TERRIBLE WORK #5)


Playlist: January 2010

Those of you listening in to today's show might have guessed I was responsible for the playlist as well as operating the sound desk today. No, that's not me - or Rachel - in the picture, it's Lex from the Ben and Lex Show (alternative Thursdays 20.00-22.00); it's not even the current studio setup, but it gives you an idea of what's happening behind the scenes.

1. 'Working Man's Blues Number 2' by Bob Dylan off Modern Times

Fulfilling my pledge to you the listener to play a Bob Dylan track every show whether Rachel likes it or not I got him in early again this month. Why 'boots and shoes'? A bluesman had two pairs of footwear, one for stage and one for the street. See also 'suit and clothes'. Why 'Number 2'? Because Merle Haggard got their first, although there are few similarities in the songs beyond title and theme.

2. 'Hope There's Someone' by Antony and the Johnsons off 'I'm a Bird Now'

When I first heard that voice - singing in Lou Reed's band, alongside a practitioner of Tai Chi performing Tai Chi - I almost fell off my chair.

3. 'The Blower's Daughter' by Damien Rice off 'The Story of O'

Another spine tingler. With two great writers - Alice and Peter Oswald - being interviewed on the programme, we didn't want the music to get in the way, but we also wanted to give everyone some breathing space to consider what they'd just heard - the listener - or what was to be discussed next - in the studio. This was the theme song to the movie 'Closer', hence the video footage.

4. 'Sea Song' by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset off 'The Bairns'

Written by Robert Wyatt, but sung by The Unthanks (they changed their name on the release of their latest album), the youtube video I've linked to appears to have been shot by a dwarf in the front row looking up at a very high stage; it's nice to see a gig from that perspective, I normally suffer people poking me in the back asking me if I wouldn't mind unscrewing my head.

5. 'Heroes and Villains' by Brian Wilson off 'Smile'

Hearing Peter Oswald discuss the similarities between the human voice and the trumpet, I rummaged in my bag for a trumpet led track and came up short. There is trumpet in this track somewhere - Brian Wilson's recreation of the 'Smile' album forty years after its abandonment - but there's also the kitchen sink and sand box. If you've not seen the live show, I recommend the Royal Festival Hall video.

6. 'House of Cards' by Radiohead off 'In Rainbows'

I like to tell anyone who's prepared to listen that 'In Rainbows' is the best album released last decade, and that's from someone who rarely plays another Radiohead album, although their 1997 Glastonbury headlining appearance is also a special memory. You should seek out the CD of outtakes that was included only with the deluxe version of this record by whatever means necessary - it's an essential companion piece of similar quality to the album itself.

7. 'A Minor Place' by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy off 'I See a Darkness'

Also covered by The Unthanks - we don't just throw CDs into a bag and haul them out at random you know - the equally fine title track of this album was recorded by Johnny Cash and would be the perfect accompaniment to the credits of the forthcoming 'The Road' movie we previewed today. I trust in Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to come up with something similarly bleak and haunting.

8. 'White Socks/Flip Flops' by Super Furry Animals off 'Dark Days/Light Years'

The Phonic FM studio is so hot, we wear flip flops, Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts to present every show - but never white socks. Modern pop psychedelia at it's finest.

9. 'To Ohio' by 'The Low Anthem' off 'Oh my God, Charlie Darwin'

The best debut of 2009? I think so, not that they've got much competition on my shelves.

Was that all we played? Don't ask me, I'm only the janitor. There are probably CDs all over the studio floor again, waiting for those Blah Blah Blah buggers to come back to collect them.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (6 of 6) Kenny Knight 'The Honicknowle Book of the Dead'

'The Honicknowle Book of the Dead' by Kenny Knight

Some poets invent their own language, others their own reputation, but Kenny Knight has created his own world. It exists in parallel to ours and the only portal to it can be found in Buckingham Shed at an undisclosed location in Honicknowle, Plymouth, Devon, England. Kenny has been sending us poetic missives from that parallel world now for some time and finally they've been collected together by Shearsman Books.

I recently visited Bhutia Busty Gompa in Darjeeling in the Himalaya where the original of the Tibetan Book of the Dead is stored in strips of parchment bound by wood. I presented the abbot of the monastery with our own culture's Book of the Dead in more convenient paperback form. The monk looked Kenny's picture in the eye for a long time before whispering important words in my ear. I can tell you what he told me then - that Kenny Knight is a bodhisattva, the second Plymothian to be recognised as a reincarnated lama, following in the footsteps of the Lobsang Rampa, born Cyril Henry Hoskin, a West country plumber whose own third eye opened around the time Kenny was born. And that concurrence is probably not a coincidence.

Like Cyril, Kenny had no need to leave Plymouth to reach enlightenment, it came to him at a bus stop on Honicknowle Green. Since then, Kenny has been sharing his findings from that parallel reality with us by publishing them in occasional poetry magazines and reading to unsuspecting audiences in supermarket cafes and public libraries. And the people respond to what they hear, because they recognise themselves in his work, and realise that their lives are more mysterious and more compelling than they previously believed - that they can achieve enlightenment too - maybe in the local Pound Shop, possibly on a park bench, potentially in Buckingham Shed, if only they could find it and hear the music of its fabled Collective.

Kenny does deadpan delivery better than anybody. His voice is on the page; you can hear it, even if you haven't heard it. The tone is conversational - a conversation you want to have - but despite the jumps in time, space, dimension and focus - no intrusion is unwelcome and no line wasted. Everything is linked to everything else and because something in your life will have something in common with something in Kenny's life, every single one of us is linked to Kenny Knight. Whether we like it or not.

Time is fluid, but folds in on itself sometime in 1963. Honicknowle becomes a mandala for the wider universe, and each event that occurs there takes on special significance: pouring the tea is a tea ceremony, joining a queue is a religious observance, going to school is like walking from one body into another, teddy bears are great teachers, a trip round the block is equivalent to a voyage round the world and the afterlife turns out to be the before life - in a terraced house on the Honnicknowle Hills. An autobiography in verse is the last thing that should be written; if one is written, it is the last thing you should read; for this re-imagining of a life story, make an exception. Once the donkey's bitten you, he won't let go.

Kenny Knight will be appearing on The Blah Blah Blah Show on Phonic FM on February 7th 2010 at noon.

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (5 of 6) Luke Kennard 'The Migraine Hotel'

'The Migraine Hotel' by Luke Kennard

If I said this was my least favourite collection by Luke Kennard, I'd be paying it a compliment - it's still among my favourite poetry books of the last few years, and if we've become accustomed to his wit, his schtick, his tricks and the friendly licks he gives to friends, it doesn't mean we like them any the less.

For those who've not been keeping up with the Kennard career - having produced three books in five years, he has now graduated from inspired amateur to careerist upstart status, with awards and plaudits being thrown at his feet, which are a long way from his head, which is no doubt now very big.

It has to be big to contain all those characters he keeps on coming up with. 'The Solex Brothers' introduced us to the Solex brothers themselves, twin giants prone to public folly and private fine living. Then came the wolf, an ego of a hound who spends most of his waking hours urging his writer friend to write about him. He also dons more costumes than Mr Ben. (The wolf appears in even more hilarious, if ethnically confused guise, in the volume I am here recommending to you.)

By now, you may be thinking that's all very well, but what the hell has all this got to do with poetry. If you read 'The Solex Brothers' your question might have remained unanswered. Kennard describes his pieces as prose poems, but if they have antecedents in the world of prose poetry, I can't name them. They are closer to surreal sketches than Ponge and Baudelaire, but neither would exponents of 'flash fiction' recognise them as being such, although they possibly meet the definitions employed by editors in that field. A friend recently asked me why a particular piece of writing was a poem. I have resorted to saying because the poet calls it a poem as no other definition seems to contain all the forms contemporary poets employ. But for pieces like these, I've coined the term 'miniatures', as in pocket-sized nips of whisky or thumb-sized portraits., and suggest you do the same so that meme virus can spread.

Comic characters have appeared - and reappeared - in poetry before. Gordon Wardman's Hank character featured in every poem of two collections ('A Bit of Highcountry Hank', 'The Newfoundland Cantos') but was born out of his earlier novels, with 'scene' being as descriptive of the setting on the page as 'poem' and dialogue driving the language, the author's voice becoming another character in the drama. It is more difficult to imagine Kennard's cast of irregulars surviving a transition to longer prose form, but then much of Luke's earlier work was in the theatre with Pegabovine, and while I've not seen any of their productions, there is a footlights aspect to this trilogy that no doubt comes out on the stage when he is behind the script.

'The Harbour Beyond the Movie' sailed to media attention in 2007, being shortlisted for the Forward Prize when its author was barely out of nappies. Sometimes it's the taking part that counts, but this second volume came closer to more traditional definitions of poetry on occasions, some piece being arranged as verse, several staking claims to sonnet status. Try 'Chorus' if you're looking for somewhere to start, then if your head hasn't fallen off, try 'The Murderer' - he'll slit your throat laughing.

Which brings us to 'The Migraine Hotel' - sadly relegated to paperback status by Salt's financial difficulties - how we loved those hardcovers. It begins with 'My Friend' which may well be a transcription of Kennard's answering machine message - those of us who do our anti-social-networking on de-facebook have been taking notes. Many of the new pieces are longer and denser and need more work to get into than previously; having already been introduced to Wolf, his sequences are easiest to handle on first reading, now complete with poems within poems and footnotes. The sparser poems that follow offer the space Luke's writing needs to get into. The rondeaux 'Men Made of Words' proves to formalist doubters that if Kennard wanted to write like them he could; most of the time, he doesn't. Some of the longer prose pieces are slipperier than a skip full of eels but deserve close examination so take my advice, jump right in.

Oh, and Mr Kennard, if you're reading this - googling yourself again, been alerted by a blog cruising friend - and happen to be due in Exeter any forthcoming first Sunday, get in touch - we'd love to have you on the show. We could have a 'being tall' contest live on air - which I'd win but at least you'd get second place because Rachel would lose even standing on a chair - and you can reminisce about your performance apprenticeship in the Black Box.

Theatre: Arabian Nights

So, the wicked uncles took their darling nieces to the theatre on Boxing Night, girls in party frocks, chaps dressed up like the ugly sisters. Those rangy brothers looked quite a sight in their platform shoes and periwigs, slip-sliding down Waterside, the girls a sensible distance behind, as passersby cried out 'they're behind you!' and 'oh yes they did!'

The Royal Shakespeare Company have been putting on Christmas productions for several years now, aimed at attracting a seasonal family audience to something more than pantomime, not that there's anything wrong with panto. Get the right kids at the right age to the right production and they'll come away enchanted and return to the theatre for nights of magic for the rest of their lives.

'Arabian Nights' is both a brave choice - its stories deriving from another culture, and like most folk stories, having often adult themes - and a creative one - the stories within a story nature of the source material lends itself to adaptation. Some of these tales taken from '1001 nights really are as old as the hills, being compiled during the Islamic Golden Age but often dating back to more ancient times.

The frame story concerns a King who, being betrayed by his Queen, executes her and pledges to take a wife a night and execute her at dawn for the rest of his life. You're with the guy from the start, and feel somewhat disappointed when a talented storyteller enters his boudoir and persuades him to spare her so long as she entertains him with a bedtime story. And what stories they are, half-a-dozen or so selected from the thousand and more available in various editions, majoring in this production on those most known to us - Ali Baba, Sinbad etc - even though they were introduced into the Arabic work by European translators gathering together all the entertainments the east had to offer into one volume.

If the plot lines and themes are typical of turn of the first millennium Arabian life, men of the time were even more concerned with blood, sex, money and destiny than we are today. Every tale turns on a lie, and only the audience know the full facts of the affair, and the real predicament of each character, as they come on and go off stage. Being seated on the front row of a balcony, I could tell what worked and what didn't for my triplet of young critics by the angle at which they sat; most of the evening their foreheads touched the bars that saved them from a tragic tumble stagewards, only when hungry did they lean back and inquire of ice cream.

The format worked well for the kids. A two-and-a-half hour performance after two days of over-eating and over-excitement might have been too much for them had it not been cut up into bite-sized chunks. Talking of dismemberment, having read previews, I warned the little angels that bodies would be butchered on stage, which naturally piqued their curiosity, and they weren't disappointed. The Courtyard stage juts into the audience Elizabethan style and we were up in the gallery - a Saturday night performance attracting peak seat prices with no child discount and the wicked uncles being notoriously mean - so the effects were transparent although no less compelling.

Indeed, Dominioc Cooke as Director deployed every trick in the book to keep an audience that spanned the ages - and nationalities - entertained, giving the cherubs a real sense of the possibility of theatre and story-telling; they especially enjoyed the puppetry and dance. Sat, as we were, alongside the orchestra, I feared ears full of pipes and drums by curtain call but the music was subtle, inflected with Arabic influences and instrumentation, and sometimes accompanied by song by a flexible cast who each had their turn to shine, while playing within the new ensemble ethic of the RSC.

The King proved to be a two-faced villain by the end of the play, going back on his previous pledge to execute every woman who entered his bedchamber by marrying the yarn-spinning damsel who charmed him and us. I felt let down by the turncoat, but I'll forgive him, if only because without his softening of heart we'd never have been introduced to the singing tree and the impossible bird which had our sweetie munching sweeties skipping home, the wicked uncles skating along behind them.

Arabian Nights is playing at The Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until January 30th 2010 and is a Royal Shakespeare Company production.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (4 of 6) Phil Bowen 'Nowhere's Far'

'Nowhere's Far: New and Selected Poems 1990-2008' by Phil Bowen

A clown writes by candlelight, hands stained with greasepaint, made-up cheeks rubbed and streaked. The audience has gone home, the rest of the circus left town, leaving his battered old caravan marooned in a field that's empty as the blank page he's staring at, waiting for the words to come.

If Phil Bowen's stage act is in debt to Roger McGough and John Cooper Clarke, his page craft owes more to Larkin and Auden. We should never assume that the make-up is the man, the performance the writer, although changing audience experiences and expectations has put any serious poet in a dilemma As Don Paterson has said, it is dangerous to read before a paying audience too often. First, you read for them. Next, you act for them. Finally, you write for them. It's difficult to distinguish between boredom and contemplation, but laughter is an explicit reaction, and the temptation is that's what you seek. And if jokes work on the page at all, they only work once. Humour has it's place in poetry, but it has to be of a darker, deeper hue to sustain its impact over multiple readings.

Because Phil Bowen puts on a funny act, many first experience him as a funny man; they then find it difficult to shift their perception of him to incorporate his qualities as a writer, which don't exclude humour but go far beyond it. Nor is his persona that of the archetypal sad clown I opened this piece with, although some of his work has that aspect, not least the pieces from 'Professor's Boots' and 'Variety's Hammer' concerned with comedians on and off stage, which have pathos in spades, as well as some belly laughs. 'Chubby's Turn' has both, but 'When Elvis Met Hitler' is braver with ultimately greater impact, and I have read it - or heard it read - many times.

By 'Starfly' and the new poems that end this book, he'd gone well beyond that world, and also broken the back of the biographical pieces - in this case, a childhood in fifties and sixties Liverpool - that some writers never throw off the straitjacket of. Which isn't to say they should be skipped over, far from it. Some are public poems - vignettes of Liverpool life, character and narrative based, but capturing more than a time and a place, giving it a continuing purpose - while others are more private, the love poems or poems of mourning that you won't hear in a reading, but should do - the impression of the poet you'd be left with would be more complex, for sure.

The poems that leap off those closing pages are different in style and content, or rather a fulfillment of what the earlier work hinted at: they follow a mental process wherever the synapses take it, often into dark territory, always somewhere not entirely expected. He manages to combine an awareness of, and ability at, form with a deceptively conversational style that demonstrates an ear tuned into dialogue. The title poem refers back to The Scarecrow sequence that won his work national attention a decade before. 'An Awful Thought' gives presence to those lurking doubts and suspicions we all deal with. 'This is the Door' demonstrates why even the most tightly structured of his poems have sometimes been praised by critics more concerned with experiments in syntax, and a polyphony of language.

That's not to say that he's not continued to produce the party and performance pieces he's best known for, perhaps because it is those he often chooses to emphasise in his appearances, mixing them with stand-up routines and worked introductions that are as much a part of the stage act as the poems themselves. There are times when his love of comedy should be held in, his knowledge and instinct for poetry allowed its full expression, the vocal delivery informed more by dramatic - Bowen is also a playwright - and less by comic theatre.

Which isn't to suggest that Bowen doesn't understand restraint, it is tangible in the poems about his mother, for example. He also uses the constraint of form, rather than is used by it, and is a master of rhyme and metre when they serve the poem, only allowing the poem to serve them in the parodies and pastiches he sometimes resorts to. The best pieces - some of them unassuming next to their bed fellows, 'There Again' for example, or 'No Doubt' - have an assurance more akin to Louis MacNeice than the Mersey poets of the sixties he is sometimes likened to, perhaps because he wrote their biography. But then McGough, Patten and Henri too are sometimes shackled by their popular image and, indeed, by their popularity. As Bowen would say - and has said - at least they had a gallery to play to. Having worked hundreds of schools in dozens of counties over many years, maybe some of those now grown-up kids will see this book on the shelf and pick it up, remembering the funny man who inspired in them a love of poetry.

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (3 of 6) Fiona Benson 'Faber New Poets 1'

'Faber New Poets 1' by Fiona Benson

The Faber New Poets scheme has selected eight young poets - four this year, four next - to nurture through pamphlet publication and a reading tour, with a bursary and mentorship by a leading Faber poet. In Fiona's Case, this is Alice Oswald - a good choice, and not just because of their geographic proximity. Fiona has an unerring knack of finding some correspondence between the inner and outer worlds and dissecting it forensically, using language that is both precise and beautiful, as in 'Lares'.

Of the seventeen poems in this chapbook, none stray over a page and the majority fulfill their destiny in fourteen lines and under, but if this sample of her work is slim, it is far from sleight. None go beyond her own experience, but it is experience that has been hard won, and harder rendered in words; female but transcending the feminine and reaching out beyond a gender specific audience.

Some of you may have seen the episode of the Culture Show that contained a feature on the Faber four on tour. The editors of the programme were generous in giving the piece ten full minutes, but didn't always serve them well, unsure whether to give it a comic Monkees-like jauntiness, or take the poetry seriously. Fiona was best served by the latter approach, especially when they ended the footage with her reading a complete poem, the glorious Yorkshire scenery of Lumb Bank behind her.

In my recent visit to 'Shakespeare & Co' in Paris I sought out a copy, wanting it embossed with the famous 'kilometre zero' stamp. They had not only sold out of Fiona's pamphlet, they'd ordered six more that day, and were hoping to invite her there for a reading, so she is deservedly finding an audience, and no doubt the Faber imprint and well-handled publicity is helping that push; let's hope they go on to publish a full collection, and soon. I have nothing against the other three of the four - I've read and enjoyed some of their work - but was surprised to see Fiona being the only exclusion from the recent 'Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century' anthology published by Bloodaxe.

Surprised, and yet not so surprised. Much of the work in that book is replete with contemporary references that seem now now but will seem then later. Fiona Benson doesn't write like that. She has an understanding of, and reverence for, her predecessors. But she also has a compact with the future, and writes for those who will follow her, excluding the unnecessary or temporarily specific, until the words could be carved on stone. And some of them should be.

Poetry: Recommendations from 2009 (2 of 6) Glyn Maxwell 'Hide Now'

'Hide Now' by Glyn Maxwell

Glyn Maxwell is our least appreciated major poet: an odd thing to say about a writer who has picked up most of the major awards available to him, 'Hide Now' being shortlisted for both the Forward and T.S.Eliot Prizes, but true nevertheless. While Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy have become national institutions, never out of the press, and now have an audience that goes beyond that available to most poets, nailed onto the national curriculum and guaranteeing sell-out crowds wherever they appear, Maxwell remains an outsider even as he picks up critical plaudits and can perform to an audience you can not only count, you know most of the names of; his crowd at the Port Eliot Festival numbered a dozen while outside thousands wandered the estate in search of literary inspiration; it didn't seem to bother him, it was the best poetry reading I've seen all year.

Why this neglect? Like Duffy and Armitage, he works in other disciplines with equal distinction: he has always written for the theatre as much as for the page and has ventured into novels, both in verse and prose. 'Hide Now' is Maxwell's first collection since 'The Nerve' in 2002, a collection that was well received but left me underwhelmed. This latest book, on the other hand, impresses from the first., but more than that - and Maxwell hasn't always managed this in the past - it both involves and moves.

'The Old Lad' is an object lesson in how to write rhyming couplets that deceive the reader into thinking he's not reading them. 'A Play of the Word' has more syntactical daring in its four pages than most poets manage in their entire oeuvres. 'Hometown Mystery Cycle' takes an idea I had for at least a pamphlet length sequence and delivers on it in under a hundred lines, saving me the bother. I could go on, but some people like to read reviews so they can make out they've read the book without having to bother - I want you to bother.