Saturday, 20 February 2010

Poetry: Kenny Knight and James Turner at Exeter Phoenix February 27th 2010

It started with a book and ended on a t-shirt...

To their followers, they are the Mystic Seers of the Third Eye, but they prefer to describe themselves as Two Devon Poets - Kenny Knight and James Turner will be appearing together and in persons at the Drama Studio of the Exeter Phoenix on February 27th at 7.30pm, entry £5 (£3) on the door.

James Turner is author of
Forgeries (Original Plus, 2003), co-author of Secret Rooms (Pebble in a Pool, 2009), and lives in Exeter.

Kenny Knight, author of
The Honicknowle Book of the Dead (Shearsman, 2009), is featured in 'n the Presence of Sharks (Phlebas, 2006), and lives in Plymouth.

Kenny was guest on The Blah Blah Blah Show in February.

Six poems from
The Honicknowle Book of the Dead can be read on Great Works
A review can be read on Salt and a recommendation found on this blog

Anyone turning up on the night in a 'Kenny Knight Rocks My World' t-shirt gains admittance at concessionary rate  

James Turner's prize-winning poem can be found on the BBC Devon site

You can sample Forgeries on Google Books

There are currently no James Turner t-shirts available but we're working on it.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Poetry Course / Writing Holiday / Writers' Retreat with Phil Bowen in Andalucia, Spain

Those of you who know me well will be aware I disappear to Andalucia, Spain from time-to-time to rest, recuperate and write. I stay at Vacas Gordas (or Fat Cows) Guest House. It's where most of my prose and much of my poetry has been written over the last five years.

My testimonial is quoted on their new website:

"A few years ago, I searched the Internet for a hideaway where I could escape the demands of my working life and devote myself to my chosen practice - writing poetry and fiction. By chance, I blundered across, booked a trip, and have been coming back ever since, sometimes for a few days, often a few weeks. There are no distractions but the landscape, which is arresting, and the weather, which rarely lets you down. The accommodation is simple but soulful and the hospitality friendly but respectful of purpose. The food and drink the best that the region has to offer, lovingly prepared and presented. For days on end I do nothing but walk, think, read and write. I have a book coming out in 2010 with two more in the pipeline, and most of the creative work was done here in Andalucia, where the mountains meet the sea. Whatever your reason for retreat, alone or in a group, you will find refuge and reinvigoration at Cortijo Vacas Gordas".  Damian Furniss, February 2010

It's good to hear that Phil Bowen, a past guest on The Blah Blah Blah Show, is running a creative writing course there this autumn, focusing on poetry.

23 - 30 October 2010
Yoga hallA Fresh Look and A Fresh Listen

A sharply focused 4/5 day poetry-driven creative writing course designed to enliven, enlarge and enlighten. Through challenging yet approachable and time-honoured exercises, the course is guaranteed to free up hitherto dormant source material and be both stimulating and highly enjoyable. Free time for relaxation and visits. Course led by Phil Bowen - poet, performer, biographer and playwright.

Cost is about £100 per day all-inclusive of accommodation, food and drink and tuition.

Enquiries welcome, some places still available.

the venue is also perfect for retreats alone, in a couple, or a small group. Rates for B&B and fully catered accommodation are quoted on the website.

Flybe has regular flights from Exeter to Malaga. 

Monday, 15 February 2010

Cabaret: Review and Preview - 'The Antidote' and 'The Anecdote' at The Bike Shed Theatre, Exeter

The Antidote and The Anecdote

On Sunday 14th and Sunday 21st February, Particular Theatre Companyare producing an evening of comedy, music, plays, sketches and poetry at The Bike Shed Theatre. Starting from 18.00-22.00 and featuring a variety of talent from around Devon and beyond, these evenings will prove the perfect way to wash away the February blues. And, even better, they are completely free.

Those of you who read my preview or review of 'The Distance' - or have attended a performance yourself as it goes into the second of its three week run - may have already picked up on The Particular Theatre Company's Sunday cabaret evenings when the actors involved in the production get an evening off and other local talent come out to play.

The auditorium is transformed with tabled and candlelit seating and the curtains that separate theatre from bar are pulled back to make for a relaxed setting - it's fine to arrive late, leave early, or come in and out as there are plenty of breaks between turns. The company's connections with The Hour Glass Inn ensure the quality of the booze is high and if the temperature is cold the atmosphere is warm and friendly.

Think Weimar Cabaret meets Footlights Revue and that should give you an idea of what to expect. The first night didn't just have Valentine's Day to compete with but also the Wondermentalist Cabaret's Liv Torc and Beryl the Feral doing their 'For Our Sins' show at the Phoenix in Exeter so there were always seats to be had, but with enough in the crowd to generate some kind of buzz.

The quality of the acts was variable - from cruise ship to the Lapin Agile - but none overstayed their welcome. Without a notebook to record the names I can't provide an act-by-act commentary but among the bill were: Sam and Dave, presenting comedy sketches on stage and screen; Craig Norman doing performance poetry; David Lockwood and chum reciting pop lyrics as audition pieces; a monologue delivered partly in the voice and persona of Mike Tyson; and The Duelling Kazoos busking comic skiffle.

The latter deserve special mention as they're donating their time and talent to Phonic FM's second birthday bash and fundraiser on Saturday 20th February from 20.00 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter with live music also from Dumber Than the Average Bear, Glow Globes and Class Actions plus a full roster of Phonic FM DJs. At a fiver a ticket with every penny of the proceeds going to keeping the station on air, it's the least you can do to attend.

Incidentally, I understand Ben Bradshaw, our local MP and current Secretary of Culture is paying a visit to the Bike Shed tonight. And if he's reading, it's projects like this that give the best return on investment for arts funding. For every one Jonathan Ross you can keep a score or more pop-up theatres going...

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Cinema: Review - 'A Single Man'

Regular readers of my cinema reviews will know I like to judge a film by its audience. I realise that a first weekend crowd says more about the marketing of a film than the film itself, but it gives me something to do while the adverts are on and the house lights are up. I'm deeply suspicious of any movie that attracts people in groups of more than two. The movie theatre is not a social setting, but one for quiet contemplation. 'A Single Man' suffered no groups. Even better, although the cinema was unusually full for an early afternoon showing, the singletons and couples in attendance spaced themselves out by a geometric formula that meant three never had to sit together.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of grey haired couples in attendance. This is a movie with a resolutely queer aesthetic and the fact that it appeals to the middle-aged and middle-class demographic of middle England shows how far society has come in the last ten or fifteen years in its tolerance of, and interest in,  difference, sexual or otherwise. Those alone were of both genders and various persuasions, judging by visual cues alone. Tom Ford also drew his own crowd. I am largely ignorant of fashion designers and who they appeal to but from the elderly ladies tottering around in furs and elegant young men in polo necks and cashmere overcoats, I'd say his customers are well-heeled if somewhat ditzy (female) or metropolitan homosexuals of the Cameroonian persuasion (male).

Anyway, my companions in darkness kept me entertained until the trailers were run and beyond. When the film started, I thought maybe they'd made an error in the projection room and reeled an episode of 'Mad Men' by mistake. Not that I'd have minded - I'm a 'Mad Men' fan and would love to see it on the big screen, it is probably the best designed and costumed TV show ever. I've since found out that programme and film share a design team as well as location in time (early sixties) and space (America), the difference being 'Mad Men' is east coast, 'A Single Man' west. 'Mad Men' has actually made me rethink my attitude to the sixties which I now consider to have been spoilt by The Beatles, not made by them. Were it nor for those Liverpudlian half-wits, the music of the decade would have been jazz, the look skinny suits and skinny ties for the men, cocktail dresses for the girls, and everyone would have lived in modernist houses of wood and glass, their drugs of choice being scotch and cigarettes and their favoured cars built like airplanes and usually found parked outside country clubs. 

'A Single Man' is an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Isherwood in which an English college professor relocated to California is living his last day on earth. In mourning for his younger lover, prohibited from even attending his funeral by a family in denial, George Falconer (played by Colin Firth) has decided on a meticulously planned exit strategy. Whether you empathise with his predicament will most likely define your response to the film. He is a man nostalgic about the past, honourable in the present but with no interest in the future. If he was a creative, that is no longer apparent. Even his teaching has lost its sense of purpose, most of the students aping beatnik disinterest. His only friend is a louche female lush also in exile from London society, played with indeterminate accent but charming zest by Julianne Moore

He retains a fatal attraction to the adolescent male, and if this trait of the middle-aged loner disturbs, you'd best stay away. A brief encounter with a Hispanic hustler is never consummated , but the scenario is clearly familiar to him. The one student who is drawn into his orbit and ultimately - however briefly - saves his life is played by Nicholas Hoult, best known in this country for his role as Tony Stonem in the first two series of Skins, the one actor from that car-chase-come-car-crash of youth TV you can tip for an acting career. (I commend Kaya Scodelario - who plays his sister Effy, and is the key character in the fourth more-miss-than-hit season - to a future as a model, but that's another story.) If this were a contemporary campus drama and the scenario was straight rather than gay, I suspect we'd have been served up with a feast of tabloid shock and broadsheet moral analysis, but boy love is okay so long as its contained in costume drama, which the movie undoubtedly is, albeit of an era some of its viewers have lived through. Christopher Isherwood was renowned for his taste in pretty youths - first in the decadent Weimar Republic, then liberal California - and it is to Colin Firth's credit that his portrayal incorporates the peccadillo into a rounded study of a complex character.

Tom Ford is new to film direction and this credible and creditable debut hangs on Firth's performance who you stay with ultimately because of his English decency, exemplified by the thoughtfulness expressed in his preparations for end-of-life and the genuine care and interest he shows in the futures of others even as he gives up on his own. It won't appeal to a family audience - family life is portrayed as banal, children curious monsters, heterosexual attraction almost incomprehensible and generally for show - but it has already broken out of the niche of gay cinema and found a wider public, and makes thoughts of suicide seem almost life-affirming, coming-to-terms-with-life being a prelude to coming-to-terms-with-death.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Coming soon: 'Chocolate Che' by Damian Furniss (2)

Coming soon: 'Chocolate Che' by Damian Furniss

Theatre: Review - 'The Distance', Particular Theatre Company, Bike Shed Theatre

In our February show on Sunday we previewed the Particular Theatre Company's production of 'The Distance', a dystopian drama of the near-future written by Craig Norman and directed by David Lockwood. Yesterday I went to the first night of a three week run (8th to 27th February) in the newly opened The Bike Shed Theatre situated in the heart of Exeter between Fore Street and Mary Arches Street.

Particular's autumn production of 'Forsaken' was put on in the cellar of the Hour Glass Inn and featured in my piece on pub theatre. The new, semi-permanent venue is better described as pop-up theatre - a former basement restaurant taken initially on a four-month lease makes an ideal seventy seat theatre space complete with a well-stocked bar - you can take a glass to your seat and replenish it during the interval - that looks like it's been imaginatively furnished from a funky junk shop because it has.

Otto Retro are one of several local companies who deserve credit for part-funding the project in cash or kind. Other Fore Street shops Electric Gypsy and Bunyip contributed costumes. The Bike Shed have lent their name to the theatre and their money to get it up and running while The Fat Pig on John Street not only put on special meal-and-a-drink deal for theatre goers but also support the venture.

Exeter Arts Council have likewise contributed - and if Particular Theatre Company are to survive on more than good will, no doubt they'll need more public money in future from a diminishing pot - but I think it important to mention sponsors when times are hard to encourage well matched local partnerships such as this.

Also to mutual credit and advantage is the  involvement of the Cygnet Training Theatre - for those who don't know The New Theatre at Friar's Gate in Exeter, keep an eye on its programme - Exeter College and Exeter University. Students will be involved in the front-of-house team and some of the 10 o'clock shows (one act plays free to all-comers), while the cast of the main production is both trained and experienced, an excellent way to introduce young drama and arts management students to professional theatre.

On to the review... On Sunday's The Blah Blah Blah Show Rachel McCarthy and I discussed the cinema of the post-apocalypse when reviewing 'The Road', wondering if end-of-the-world art reemerges at times of tension - the early sixties after the Cuban missile crisis, the early eighties at the height of the cold war and the turn of the current decade as the left worry about climate change while the right focus on the threat of terrorists and rogue nations.

'The Distance' might be described as theatre of the pre-apocalypse, and that to me is more interesting. How we'd react in a world that is broken - really broken, as it is in 'The Road' - would be a matter of brute survival. But how we respond as a society is breaking asks more immediate and interesting questions, the situation being much easier to project ourselves into, the scenario of the play one that might not be so far away - once the dominoes of civilisation start falling, perhaps we are so interdependent, they'll all come tumbling down.

So the world of 'The Distance' is wholly recognisable to us, and the four characters that occupy it are ones we can empathise with - a husband and wife, a mother and son, a daughter and her father - and so their reactions to breakdown, personal and societal, are ones we can understand. Madness begins to seem like a sane reaction. And if escapism is not the answer, at least it avoids the question, as does intoxication - and I'll drink to that.

Or do we hang onto the trappings of civilisation, fiddle while Rome burn? Would you bring a child into this world? And if you did, would you want it to live, when it could never be safe from harm? These are the sorts of questions Craig Norman wrestles with in his script, and if the play doesn't provide any easy answers, the same uncertainties will be nagging away at you 24 hours later - and that is the mark of a worthwhile piece of art, it shadows your lungs.

We react to tragedy in different ways: some couples it brings closer together, others it drives apart. We look to others for protection, only to discover they can't even defend themselves. That is where the young couple, whose relationship is the hinge the play swings on, are at when the play begins on a stage that takes up almost half of the auditorium, lives lived in three dimensions from the outset, not squashed into a corner as in some boutique theatres. That gives the set and sound designers a space to work with and they do a good job, painting in a palette of whites and greys, conjuring up a soundscape of millenarian tension.

The first act is a single scene; the second alternates between double headers either side of the stage, bisected by two metal pillars the direction makes use of rather than denying; the third, almost a coda, is an intimate conversation on the lip of the stage that hints at reconciliation, but whether with the future or in the past we are left unsure. We are always inside private domains, but there are enough references for us to know what ever is going on outside, we don't want to be there; that if it comes bursting through the door, it won't be a welcome guest. David Lockwood has to negotiate us through an emotional landscape in which the characters are never quite connecting, despite all the connections between them, and must fill that surprisingly large stage with a small cast, succeeding on both counts.

Charlie Coldfield as Darby impressed with a deceptive lightness of being that didn't mask the desperation behind his eyes. Alison Collinge as Alex has the most demanding role, taking her character to the edge of madness without ever quite tumbling over into the abyss, and brings us back to her with a vulnerability that was perhaps always tat he root of their attraction. The words 'husband' and 'wife' are used over again, reminding you that some relationships sustain almost as a matter of fact against the furies. 'Mother' and 'father' are, even more so, archetypes that cannot be denied. Jane Bennett as Nora brings her experience to bear on a role that has to combine maternal grit with a sense of imminent surrender. David Watkinson as Peter is hollow-eyed and half-absent, having left his better self behind on the front of some unspecified conflict, his daughter relating to him almost wholly as her protector of the past, a role he didn't always fulfill. 

A first night is never perfect and rarely fully realised. This is a demanding play that requires is cast to portray - and audience believe in - some extreme situations and then deal with the emotional fallout. The way in which they do so is very English - and that switchback between confrontation and restraint is the heartbeat of the piece that relies on both full-on and nuanced dramatisation. I'm tempted to return for the last night of the run to see how the performance and its staging have progressed, and it is a play that will benefit from a second sitting.

Particular Theatre is taking risks with this project. They aren't presenting populist theatre. There are no names involved sufficient to draw an audience. This is a play for a bleak February evening, leaving us with a slight chill, a longing for something warm. The Company will rely initially on goodwill and then word of mouth and intrigue in the kind of evening Exeter usually lacks, a dare for the city to respond with its feet and put some bums on seats.

They have already committed to two further productions which I for one look forward to. 'Still' by Steve Lambert from 12th April to 1st May will be previewed in excerpt at the 10 o'clock show on 26th February while a scene from 'Beanfield' by Shaun McCarthy, forthcoming in June, will feature on 27th February.

In between, another eight short dramas will be premiered, all written by south-west writers and free of charge to the audience of the main show and passersby. Last night and tonight featured 'Good Morning', a ten minute two-handed skit on suicide, by Isley Lynn. Check the website for the roster over the remainder of the three week run.

If the venue intrigues you, two evenings of music, poetry, stand-up, drama and sketches - 'Antidote / Anecdote' - are scheduled for Sundays 14th and 21st of February from 6pm to 10pm. We are promised tables with candles and both frivolous and thought provoking entertainment.

Why not spend your weekend getting behind the Bike Shed and combine a variety Sunday with a Saturday night of serious drama?

Poetry: Review - 'Fruitcake', 'Bunny' and 'Violet' by Selima Hill

On reading 'Fruitcake', the latest collection - or compendium of collections - by Selima Hill, I decided that she doesn't approach poetry like other poets approach poetry, she approaches the production of poems like artists approach the production of paintings. That is the only way in which I can come to terms with her escalating prolificity at a point in her career when most of her fellows rest on their laurels, find themselves an academic sinecure, write travel articles or sketches of their memoirs for Sunday supplements - do all the things that writers who can no longer be bothered much with writing do.

In 2008, Selima published 'Gloria', a 336 page selected poems more substantial than most collected volumes. Simultaneously, she unveiled 'The Hat', an unusually slim collection concerning female identity I've not even caught up with yet. Last year, she won the Flarestack Poetry Pamphlet Competition with 'Advice on Wearing Animal Prints' which was published as a result. Far be it for me to question the integrity of the judges - I've not even read the thing, so am open to accusations of talking out of my leopard skin pillbox hat - but if this Selima Hill is anything like any other Selima Hill I've read, I'd know I was reading Selima Hill within the lines of the first poem. All poetry competition judges being as paranoid as I am, I'd then begin to suspect that I was reading the work of an accomplished Selima Hill imitator, adopting her voice and her themes but to lesser effect than the Lilith of Lyme. I'd then lure the administrator of the contest into my dilemma - if this is the real deal, Selima testing her mojo is still working by entering anonymously, she wins first prize; if someone taking on her tropes in the manner of a skilled forger of Picasso or Dali, I'd win the booby prize - and make the award conditionally.

Fortunately, unlike me, all poetry judges and publishers have integrity, so you shouldn't read into my stewing on this any of the ingredients of truth. But what is more remarkable is that again last year - the year after she published both 'Gloria' and 'Hat', the year in which she published 'Advice on Wearing Animal Prints' - Selima also baked 'Fruitcake', four sequences of 'poems about motherhood' (in the same sense that 'MacBeth' and 'Alice in Wonderland' are about motherhood) each of which could be a collection in its own right - another 238 pages of Hillage.

Back to my thoughts on Selima as painter (Tracey Emin, to be precise, of whom I'm a genuine admirer; her memoir 'Strangeland' I unreservedly recommend) the poems in 'Fruitcake' (and she must've written at least one a day) take on each image and explore it over the length of several pieces. This may not be such a daft theory - Selima was born to a couple of Hampstead artists and while I don't know their work or method, she'd have grown up among visual artists and learnt how to be an artist from them. I rather admire this approach, but sometimes you feel like you're leafing through an exceptionally gifted artist's sketchbook looking for the major work, or an idea that might become it. And you begin to focus more on method than content, when content is king in my pre-modernist mind.

For all that, it is great fun, and if you are a fan - as you surely are, even if you don't know it yet - then you'll have fun with this book, even if you end up wondering if she isn't publishing too much (not writing too much, you can never write too much). And if you're lazy like me and want a one poem primer so you can pretend you've read the book I suggest 'Icy Metal' on p.157 which leads me to believe that Selima might have been watching 'Ice Road Truckers' while licking at her ice cream.

I realise that was a long way round not reviewing a book so in compensation I'm republishing my previous reviews of two of Selima's books originally published in Poetry Quarterly Review...

Selima Hill BUNNY BLOODAXE BOOKS / 2001 / 80pp / £7.95 / ISBN 1 85224 507 7 PORTRAIT OF MY LOVER AS A HORSE BLOODAXE BOOKS / 2002 / 80pp / £7.95 / ISBN 1 85224 600 6

Selima Hill has crashed recent poetry shebangs like a bag lady at the ball, carting trolley loads of awards back to Dorset where, I imagine, she feeds her menagerie of cats and ducks pilfered caviar from engraved silver salvers whilst dancing in the laundry in evening dress, wringing her fingers through the poetry mangle.

BUNNY’s eroticism is its danger; the lodger at its heart lets his desire do the stalking. The need for love and acceptance is baited then beaten into a realm of the unsaid where metaphor defines the boundaries that have been violated. Meanwhile, suburban aunts are distracted by their little dogs and home is a place in some far away mind.

Selima is a mistress of the image and finds a killer to love in every poem. Where others would make a meal of each memory, she prefers to slither the fat away to create little carpaccios, potent with the heat of unforgetting, as in SHEETS:

The sheets and towels of rented rooms

a million ways
of failing to say home.

The forward propulsion of this ark of a book is a series of little earthquakes, each containing the possibility of a tsunami somewhere across the ocean of time. It is a talent to re-inhabit the past rather than merely project the present onto its backdrop. What is achieved is more than just recounting experience; it is reliving it in the language of revelation that defines adolescence, as in SKY:

For sky that slips between her thighs like oysters,
for sheets like seas,
for laps like seals,
thank You.
Thank You for inventing space, O Lord.

Selima deploys this device of a master of the inner world to address throughout her more recent volume where he takes the form of the sacred in each lover and child and gives the pieces a particular intimacy, often challenged by the wonderfully eccentric yet sometimes strangely impersonal imagery, making him ‘…a sort of resident flower arrangement.’

Next to BUNNY, …HORSE sometimes reads like the result of a workshop exercise attended by a bedlam of doppelgangers. The hundred portraits of her lover are arranged alphabetically to defy any linear thread. As with BUNNY, images repeat themselves and verbal riffs recur, but without the narrative thrust they do not reveal themselves differently according to their context. The cumulative impression is more mosaic then conclusion. Plotted as a graph, we sense the fall from grace, a dip into darkness that encourages the discovery of the next source of light.

The covers of both books betray their common character; the rabbit or horse of the titles stare out with one eye reflecting the spotlight while the other is absent, gazing distractedly into inner space, tracing words in the stars. Selima Hill is of this world and another, and that is what makes a poet.

Cinema: Review - 'A Prophet'

'A Prophet'

Being an aficionado of both the jail house flick and the mobster movie, 'A Prophet' was always likely to appeal to me and my kind. Hotly tipped for best foreign language film (it is in colloquial French, Corsican and Arabic; not many will be able to understand it all without substitles) at this year's Oscars, it really ought to feature in the best movie shortlist - in my world, it would win it. That doesn't mean it's an easy watch, but although the first two-thirds of the movie is wholly contained within a piss-stained prison in which any authority beyond that of the inmates' own order is near-invisible and only in the final third do we make occasional forays into the outside world, and then only in the cause of crime, there is much to learn about life here.

Its plot line and setting may seem to have most in common with some of the classics of seventies Hollywood - 'The Godfather' series, 'Papillon', 'Serpico', 'Midnight Express' - but its more obvious and telling antecedents are European and contemporary, in particular 'Gomorra', a Neapolitan mob movie that was near the top of my 2008 list. Whereas American crime movies can never resist glamour, 'Gomorra' majored on grime. It emphasised the extent to which organised crime touches on ordinary lives, especially of the poor and dispossessed who have no more choice than to cooperate with its power structures than they do with those of the state. So close to the truth was it, its writer Roberto Saviano has been living under threat of death ever since.

Like 'Gomorra', 'A Prophet' is probably best viewed as a coming-of-age movie, Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena being banged up for six years at the age of nineteen for unspecified crimes against a police officer he may or may not have been guilty of, terrified and alone. Fitting in with neither the Corsican mob who rule by influence, threat and occasional force nor the North Africans with whom he shares a heritage but not a faith, Malik makes his way by  doing a deal with the devil early on, but never taking his side. In the end, he works his outsider status to his advantage, building his own power base through opportunism rather than loyalty. Likewise, his introverted and enigmatic nature makes him the ideal observer - initially as a spy for others, ultimately on missions of his own.

If the prospect of spending over two hours seeing a closed and macho world from the point-of-view of an initially naive but ultimately smart and ruthless criminal - murderer, assassin, drug dealer - who learns how to survive and ultimately prosper in jail has no appeal, you might want to stop reading now. But deep down this is a film about growing up, getting an education and forging an identity when the odds are stacked against you, a classic formula for fiction and film. And there is never a moment when you doubt the reality of the milieu, however alien it may be to you. Prison becomes a place of freedom, without ties or responsibilities, in which it is possible to reinvent yourself. Society inside the jail is corrupt, but by its conclusion you're in no doubt that it is a microcosm of the outside world that runs to similar rules, the ultimate authority being force, not the law that in some cases gives it legitimacy.

Innocent and yet able to exploit the weaknesses of the guilty, a born survivor who starts out as underdog but becomes topdog on his own terms, using his fear and always choosing well between fight and flight, our antihero is as lonely as Hamlet and has visions of his own, newcomer Tahar Rahim's performance is compelling. Niels Arestrup is superb in the Lear-like supporting role as the king of the mob whose power is incrementally stripped off him. As heavy on the conventions of its genre as 'A Prophet' may appear to be from this summary of theme and plot, it ultimately transcends the cliches of the prison drama without denying their banal veracity. It is compulsive - and should be compulsory - viewing.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Poetry: Review - 'The Hoplite Journals' by Martin Anderson

At the risk of alienating the more casual visitor, I'm continuing with my occasional republication of reviews, essays and features written for literary magazines. In this case - with Tremblestone in abeyance - 'Hotel of Shadows' hasn't and may never be printed on the page, but it seems a shame for it never to be read when reviews are at a premium for any writer...

Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter, EX4 4LD

Martin Anderson realises a form in which action and dialogue are of the inner world, that is the outer world turned outside-in; compiles a phrase book to translate sensation into perception, and then reflects upon it; the mind a hall of mirrors in which the ego exists, though as we chase it, the less like fire and more like smoke it seems. That panoply of diverse vistas, voices. Where are you, unable to sit still, taking off to now?

These meditations occur at the boundary between occidental and oriental modes of self-enquiry, thought experiments that occur in the cities of Asia where east meets west, shape shifting and casting shadow plays in the magic lantern of the self. They owe something to the art of loci, a memory technique that Matteo Ricci took to China as the memory palace, a visual repository of ideas and images situated in architectural space. Draw this line around your life, here, where it does not exist; locate yourself at this particular point in space and time, and then eradicate it.

Malraux and Picasso further developed the concept as their musée imaginaire, a gallery without walls where they hung not so much objects of art as ideas of art, unconstrained by physical possession. Anderson’s own method is less static, a journey through landscape of place and mind in the tradition of Basho’s poetic diaries, in and of the world and yet beyond it. They are not explicitly Buddhist but a seeker in that tradition would recognise their quality of insight. They are not linear either, but do move.

Those are the frames, what of the pictures? The Hoplite Journals are the records of campaigns into where language can take us, intense inner battles against complacency with words, the author challenging himself to experience as if for the first time, and capture what cannot be captured as precisely as motes allow. A long poem, then, divided into cantos, each section of which is a chain of thought to be escaped from, the reader as Houdini.

Absorbing such work demands an approach that puts mind on the line. The common sense is of being elsewhere, never quite at home, and on edge like this horizon, upon which we listen for our own lives, ungarlanded and uncelebrated, as they arrive and leave without us. We are invited to make connections we don’t ordinarily make, like seeing familiar landscapes from above, or living a day of our life in another body.

Why do we become alien, choose exile? There is self-pleasure in the isolation of being abroad, but to achieve it is never easy. We are always reaching for the just out of reach, the tension Anderson inhabits but is restless in, wanting the moon, not just the finger. Keep on keeping on. For all children are brought up in a land that is foreign, and are, therefore, natural and curious travellers. Perspectives and tenses switch, the cubist language of Blood on the Tracks. And even when the train stopped, no one got on or got off.

One travels alone or does not travel at all…Over the empty tract of this page voices are calling. Liquid prose, not so much finding its place as defining it, a meniscus on the contours of what is. Alone, each of us, amidst the floating debris of all lived moments known and unknown to us. Here is the country that does not exist. There is the woman who died at the passing of her own illusions. Words wrought by tough love, in paragraphs the size and shape of instants. Inflate the balloon, then burst it. Now try and blow it up again. We yearn to capture the fleeting drift of ephemera that define us, situating our being.

The danger is that language detached from its ordinary purpose stiffens, becomes sallow, a book on the slab. But this is not the work of a coroner. It engages with life, does not detach us from it. The objective is to break the boredom of sameness that contains us, escape the grey of a northern continent, not seeing through the fog of unlived days. We remember only that which can be forgotten. Pursuing the many, finding the few, sifting the fewer for the one until we have become what we contemplate.

Again, the risk of existing in life as a cultured consumer, lost in our base sophistication, not shaping but only receiving. Such are the temptations of the megalopolis and the contrary urge to escape it, until we entered a landscape where the city was forgotten. Spiritual tourism is not the answer. Anderson’s rituals are private, not off-the-shelf observations; he peers beneath surfaces, knowing identity is a reflection on the water we can reach into and thus disrupt, reform. Place, time and object, yearn for that ideal solitude that will reunite them. This is the ungiven - that which cannot be taken away.

If a poet is true to himself, the idea of the poem is invariably greater than the poem itself. Anderson plays on this tragedy. Memory becomes tincture, a homeopathic presence, intangible but pervasive. There is existential comedy aplenty here. Messages dictated, sent by telegram, translated by the shaman of an obscure tribe who traces these mysterious markings with his fingers, symbols etched on a sacred log, and intones them as Artaud. A time before instant communication, in which we achieve so little by saying so much.

Anderson takes the responsibility of creation seriously, decrying the replication of the familiar, those who seek patronage and prizes for mimicking the scriveners who have gone before them, with ever diminishing returns; ants dragging looted booty towards the queen of recognition, apple seeds from ruined orchards. The endless clack of typewriters – infinity’s monkeys. We’ve read enough. We’ve read too much, already.

Instead, he invites us to draw up the bamboo ladder – climb above, look down, look up, transcend. Exercise the method of doubt. Discard the known to know. Disrupt the routine by the extraordinary and you have poetry. Is that what we came here for? Impermanence is a given. Beginnings end. The leaves fall. Our lives return to what they were before we claimed them. I commend this book; its pages are fragile and will fall apart, though you will go first, into the unknown and unknowable, its greatest concern.

Damian Furniss.

Playlist: February 2010

1. 'Sweet Gene Vincent' by Ian Dury and the Blockheads

My co-host Rachel McCarthy dared call the music and lyrics of the great Ian Dury 'trite' in our pre-show discussion. In revenge, I'm reproducing the lyric to the song we kicked off with so you can sing along...

blue gene baby

skinny white sailor, the chances were slender
the beauties were brief
shall I mourn you decline with some thunderbird wine
and a black hankercheif?
I miss your sad Virginia whisper
I miss the voice that called my heart

sweet gene vincent
young and old and gone
sweet gene vincent

who, who, who slapped john?

white face, black shirt
white socks, black shoes
black hair, white strat
bled white, died black

sweet gene vincent
let the blue roll tonight
at the sock hop ball in the union hall
where the bop is their delight

here come duck-tailed Danny dragging Uncanny Annie
she's the one with the flying feet
you can break the peace daddy sickle grease
the beat is reet complete
and you jump back honey in the dungerees
tight sweater and a pony tail
will you guess her age when she comes back stage?
the hoodlems bite thier nails

black gloves, white frost
black crepe, white lead
white sheet, black knight
jet black, dead white

sweet gene vincent
there's one in every town
and the devil drives 'til the hearse arrives
and you lay that pistol down

sweet gene vincent
there's nowhere left to hide
with lazy skin and ash-tray eyes
a perforated pride

so farewell mademoiselle, knicker-bocker hotel
farewell to money owed
but when your leg still hurts and you need more shirts
you got to get back on the road 

2. 'Jokerman' by Bob Dylan

If I get Bob in early, I don't forget... Long enough to go get our guest Kenny Knight, get him down to the studio and let him get his feet under the desk. 'Jokerman' features a crack studio band that included a rhythm section of Sly and Robbie and both Mick Taylor and Mark Knopfler on lead guitars. The song is also one of Dylan's most enigmatic lyrics.

3. 'Growin' Up' by Bruce Springsteen

We went with Springsteen's acoustic demo rather than the E-Street Band version on 'Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ' and this video captures Bruce solo at Max's Kansas City, NY in 1972.

4. 'Seven Mile Island' by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

And there was me expecting Telstar and The Shadows... Kenny had the good grace to choose contemporary music that fitted The Blah Blah Blah Show's music policy nicely. The "400 Unit" was the former colloquial name of the psychiatric ward of Florence, Alabama's Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, which is now named the Behavioral Health Center, or One North, and is located on the hospital's first floor. Maybe you know it?

5. 'Bayou Tortous' by James McMurty

More Americana from our guest... Anyone would think Kenny came from Austin, Texas not Honicknowle, Plymouth the selection he went for. McMurty's not much of a looker so you get to see a young woman doing the hula-hoop to his music instead.

6. 'Sounds Better in the Song' by Drive By Truckers

Jason Isbell's former band, this is alt-country a Texan would be proud to doff his ten gallon stetson to.  Other members include Patterson Hood, Mick Cooley, Shonna Tucker and Jay Gonzalez - they have better names in American rock bands, don't you think?

7. 'Further on up the Road' by Bruce Springsteen

The best song off The Rising - Springsteen's post 9/11 album - this is the kind of music Bruce was born to make - anthemic rock'n'roll with heart, brains and soul. Johnny Cash recorded it on American V. 'Nuff said.

8. 'Lady Day and John Coltrane' by Gil Scot Heron

New York funky-soul-jazz-blues-beat-poetry to celebrate the great Gil Scot Heron's first album in fifteen years -  'I'm New Here'. Phonic DJs doesn't get pre-release copies or payola of any kind so you got to hear this classic instead. Great vibes, great vibes playing.

9. 'Karmacoma' by Massive Attack

If all rap was done in West Country accents, hip-hop would never leave my turntable... Another artist with a new album out the day after the show; another masterclass in marrying lyric and beat; the video version is taken from a Jools Holland Show and trades the deep bass of the recording for Talvin Singh's tabla playing.

10. 'Black Rider' by Tom Waits

With words by William S. Burroughs - you can hear him barking as the track fades -  this 1993 album's songs were written for a 1990 theatrical production of the same name, finally premiered in Britain at the Edinburgh Festival in 1998. 

11. 'Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll' by Ian Dury and the Blockheads

To celebrate our review of the movie of the same name and The Blockheads March 6th appearance at our Phoenix base in Exeter we play two tracks by a single artists twice in one show just because we can... Weren't Norman Watt-Ray and Charley Charles an awesome rhythm section? Ian Dury is the only actor to have made films with both Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Like Bob, he also recorded and toured with Robbie Shakespeare and Sly Dunbar. Sweet!

12. 'Helpless' by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Recorded at the same session as the album 'More Pricks than Kicks', this Neil Young song was released on 'The Bridge', a 1989 various artists tribute to its writer to raise money for The Bridge School for autistic children which also benefits from an annual fundraiser organised by the man and his wife. I still treasure this album on cassette but you can find it on CD and it's well worth tracking down:

1. Barstool Blues - Soul Asylum
2. Don't Let It Bring You Down - Victoria Williams
3. After the Gold Rush - Flaming Lips
4. Captain Kennedy - Nikki Sudden
5. Cinnamon Girl - Loop
6. Helpless - Nick Cave
7. Mr. Soul - Bongwater
8. Winterlong - Pixies
9. Computer Age - Sonic Youth
10. Only Love Can Break Your Heart - Psychic TV
11. Lotta Love - Dinosaur Jr.
12. Needle and the Damage Done/Tonight's the Night - Henry Kaiser
13. Out of the Blue - B.A.L.L.
14. Words - Henry Kaiser

Friday, 5 February 2010

Poetry: February Guest - Kenny Knight

Our guest on The Blah Blah Blah Show on Sunday 7th February 12:00 - 14:00 is Kenny Knight.

Tune in to Phonic FM - 106.8 FM in the Exeter Area to hear Kenny discuss his book 'The Honicknowle Book of the Dead' which was one of our recommendations of 2009.

His appearance on the show previews a performance at The Exeter Phoenix on Saturday 27th February at 19.30 with Exeter's own James Turner.

A sample of Kenny's poetry can be read at Great Works.

A review of 'The Honicknowle Book of the Dead' is published on the Salt website.