Friday, April 29th
This year’s Symposium began with a discussion between Allen Fisher (designated independent scholar) and Robert Hampson (Royal Holloway, University of London), entitled ‘Practice-based Research and the Idea’. Unfortunately, due to prior teaching commitments, I missed the beginning of the talk – which had been delivered by Hampson – however their joint point of focus was not only clear but also became of recurrent significance to the rest of the symposium. The talk focused on tensions between critical, creative and bureaucratic vocabularies, encountered in the process of transitioning from one to another in a bid for research or funding grants. To many in the audience, myself included, this was clearly an all too familiar site of frustration. The uncomfortable necessity of not telling the truth in the speculative performance of a research proposal not only raises the question of what that ‘truth’ (of an ‘idea’ or research project) might possibly be, but also how disingenuous that performative mode of ‘neutrality’ really is.
Fisher spoke about this in relation to frequently importing scientific vocabularies within his poetry, inviting ways in which one lexicon can be used to clarify or challenge the other. This mobility between science and the humanities, as encouraged in Fisher’s work, seems consistently undercut in funding-culture by more bureaucratic or business-like models, those prioritized as the dominant mode of ‘clear’ address.
All of the concepts raised in this preliminary talk were later returned to in the symposium: firstly, in the movement between critical and creative registers in academic discourse, and disrupting the legitimacy of that binary; and secondly, the blurring between such ideas in poetry as distinguished from in life, and how the two – artistic and experiential – relate.
The talk was followed, after a short break, by a series of poetry readings organised by Ed Luker (Northumbria University), continuing under the successful banner of his RIVET series. Alongside his PhD research on J.H. Prynne, Luker has been hosting a string of semi-regular poetry events that have consistently provided memorable and challenging readings (a standout being the troubling but mesmerising performance Rob Halpern gave in May, 2015). Through Luker’s events Newcastle has regained a bastion for innovative contemporary poetry; the city certainly has the history (with the mythic Mordern Tower readings, Bunting’s legacy, Bill Griffiths’ time at Northumbria University, and the archived presence of Barry MacSweeney at Newcastle University) but has been sorely missing a new platform – outside of the spoken word and more mainstream ‘scenes’ – to extend and celebrate that tradition (or ‘counter-tradition’). For this purpose, RIVET has been a welcome blast of air, intriguing gusts of which were demonstrated in Friday’s gathering.
First to read was Mark Wardlaw, whose one long poem spun through a warped and witty evocation of local landscapes with the humorous disclaimer: ‘this is not social realism, this is just a regional accent’. Considering the prominence of local settings in his poem but the eschewal of any quaint authenticating gestures as suggested by the avoided ‘social realism’, he reminded me of the lyrical flair of songwriter Richard Dawson (logical, as both attended the same school and are friends). Following Waldraw was Ann Matthews, her poetry both perambulating and fractured in its observation through, and into, memory and the personal while maintaining a keen interest in place. Or, as she put it, her poetry suggests a kind of ‘memoir with gaps’, a style/task that later resonated with Lisa Samuels. Following Matthews, was Emilia Webber, whose lines, ‘listen mate, we’re all into succulence’ and, ‘a burnt out epoch on some impeccable days of skin’, coiled oddly in the memory. Webber was followed by an intense and entertaining collaborative performance from Peter Manson and Mendoza. Facing each other as they each, in turn, retrieved a crumpled scrap of paper from some pocket or place on the body and then dropped it into the other’s outstretched palm to read. This back and forth pocketed paper chase was done with a deadpan sense of ritual. It was a tone of performance that complimented the poem’s splicing of insect viscera and mangled puns with a sense of macabre theatre. The poem was a ‘mutated’ version of their collaboration n i n e r r o r s, which had been read in a different form at a previous RIVET.
Peter Manson and Mendoza’s performance seemed to mark a natural middle-point in the evening, followed by Nisha Ramayya, Nick E. Melville and a longer reading by the American poet, Lisa Samuels. Nisha Ramayya’s poetry, taken from a sequence entitled ‘Correspondences’ seemed particularly attuned to building rhythms of almost mantric cadence and meaning – a style we were to later witness in tandem with critical structures in her paper. One phrase that stayed with me from her reading was the brilliant announcement that ‘the parakeet is a divinely ordained climax of history’. In stark contrast to Ramayya’s meditative reading, Nick E. Melville brought a dark wit to his two poems – both coursing with political anger. The first poem was an effective erasure work that turned institutional language, via a university’s document for departmental plans in the humanities, into a ragged and comical contortion (‘arch pubic gag man’). The second poem, ‘Do the Right Thing’, spiralled the connotations of ‘right’ across its political and ethical ramifications, until the Right but far from right Cameron was (rightly) put to rights.
The evening culminated in a reading from American poet, Lisa Samuels (based and teaching in New Zealand). Samuels read from her experimental work of remembering entitled Anti M (Tucson: Chax Press, 2013) and from her stunning poetic novel Tender Girl (Dusie, 2013). Anti M, in its ‘memoir with gaps’ methodology, chimed with Anne Matthews’ work. However, it is in Tender Girl (Dusie, 2015) that I must confess my full excitement. The novel’s premise (and it’s a great premise) imagines a form of afterlife for Lautréamont’s notorious proto-surrealist novel, Les Chants de Maldoror, in which she imagines Maldoror’s coupling with a shark had left behind a shark/girl hybrid: the eponymous ‘tender girl’. Samuels explores this inspired concept with a linguistic agility that recalls moments of Kathy Acker flashed through with some of the Steinian play of Bernadette Meyer. Yet perhaps the most original dimension to this project is its re-configuration of the erotics of Surrealism (one historically overburdened with misogyny) within a feminist narrative. A good point of comparison might be Angela Carter’s earlier novels. There is even arguably a cinematic quality to the novel’s premise: a mutant shark-girl is washed onto the unforgiving shores of of patriarchy, proceeds to find her way into the sexual and linguistic, in and out of time, and through into questions of art and the body. Carol Watts has called the novel ‘a classic of our time’ and such hyperbole feels, in this instance, entirely justified. In the reading Samuels used a pair of strange instruments (a ‘spring drum’ and a ‘wire lung’) to change the acoustics of her voice, or to muffle its reach with a metallic tapping accompaniment. Her interest in soundscapes and sonic-play is further explored in the double CD she produced, inspired by her book-length poem, Tomorrowland (Shearsman Books, 2009).
The first panel consisted of Ed Luker, Katherine Peddie and David Grundy, and was moderated by Jo Walton. Luker opened the symposium with an introductory overview of some of the concepts that were suggested by the notion of ‘secrecy’: as a practical necessity in aspects of activism; as a form of intimacy (mentioning the poetry of Francesca Lisette); as a negotiated distance from the ‘communicative language’ of institutional rhetoric (around here came the first of many mentions of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, 2013, by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten); and as a guarded security from external policing, as exemplified in Anna Mendelssohn’s poetry. It was a very strong, challenging and insightful introduction – and one which I wished had continued longer.
Following the introduction, Ed Luker’s (Northumbria University) paper, ‘Address, Universality and Refusal in the Contemporary Lyric’ sought to address the dichotomy set up between the social and the personal in conceptualising the lyric. Luker drew from Adorno’s perspective of the lyric as social mimesis and Blasing’s later exploration of lyric autonomy. Between these two theories, Luker proposed understanding a self or ‘I am’ outside of personhood; a lyric presence existing in relation to tone, irony and artifice as the reflexive trace of authorship, and as (or in) the being of the art object. The poems looked at were Connie Scozzaro’s ‘Contrapposto Action Queen’ and a section from Jackqueline Frost’s The Antidote. Unfortunately, a planned analysis from Rankine’s Citizen had to be skipped due to time running out. It was not immediately clear to me how these poems specifically demonstrated Luker’s re-examination of the lyric and at times the paper became hard to follow. I feel this was probably due to the introductory talk taking up more time than planned, however it did leave me wishing that the introduction was simply extended as its own paper. Though this would have perhaps been too broad to achieve, I feel Luker’s critical intelligence was – in the introduction – covering a lot of complex ground with both deft and direct insight which, for me, were less obvious in the paper.
The second paper, ‘Against Secrecy’, was presented by Katherine Peddie (University of Kent) and adopted a personal style of presentation that became increasingly appropriate to her exploration of Confessionalism. Ideas of sociality and models of community in American poetry were discussed, alongside the selective implications of a ‘coterie’, the aims of an ‘avant garde’ and the intimacy of disclosure in Robert Lowell’s Life Studies (1959). This was then developed in reference to Foucault’s critique of psychoanalysis and the ‘confession’ as ways through which the individual was conditioned into his or her reconciliation with society. As a counterpoint to this perspective, Peddie offered the feminist anthology No More Masks! (1973) which, though at times naively, positioned confession in the service of social change. This then led to considering the distinction between theoretical and lived experience, mentioning Eileen Myles article, ‘Times I’ve got Paid’ (April 21st 2016) which was recently shared online. Peddie’s paper ended with sharing Lora Mathis’ photo, ‘RADICAL SOFTNESS AS A WEAPON’. During her reading of an accompanying text, as Ian Davidson had seconds before tentatively warned us, the building’s fire alarm was due to arbitrarily announce itself, and somehow, as Peddie read over the alarm it gave the text an enhanced performative quality: as if struggling to resist external intervention.
However, despite the alarm’s excitement, I could not dispel my own reservations regarding the Mathis photo: a background of pink felt, the letter tiles spelling out ‘RADICAL SOFTNESS AS A WEAPON’ encircled by a pearl necklace, three ornate pieces of jewellery and then a final circle of three large knives. The condescendingly gendered markers of domesticated femininity (pink felt, jewellery and pearls? All of which seem ‘RADICALLY REGRESSIVE’) are aligned with ‘SOFTNESS’ that, to gain validity as a method of politicised resistance sacrifices its defining essence to be hypocritically weaponized? I do acknowledge that vulnerability and emotional honesty constituting a political act is certainly a viable, and possibly very important, concept, however, in the context of this photo and its ‘clickbait’ circulation on Facebook, I feel the message became a confused substitute for thinking through its connotations. I was interested in how this could be seen to be assimilated in part of an online, social media culture that prioritizes glib solidarity (‘shared’) with broad or bastardized markers of belief, in place of developing independent thought and questioning. These are trends that of course cannot be generalized, due to the role social media has had in various successful forms of activism… but the strength of its transparency goes both ways: what can be a tool to mobilise communication is also reversed in archived surveillance (one we now willingly sign up for) as a way to silence and render immobile.
The last paper in the first panel was presented by David Grundy (University of Cambridge) and entitled ‘Poetry and Secrecy in Luke Roberts’ To My Contemporaries’. Grundy made reference to Roberts’ False Flags (Mountain Press, 2011) and ‘AgitProp (An Ode)’ but squared his close reading primarily on the more recent (self published towards the end of 2015) To My Contemporaries. Grundy acknowledged and explored the Edwin Wolfe poem, from which To My Contemporaries takes its name, before exercising a clear and intensive close reading – born from evident and sensitive familiarity with the work. Grundy examined the use of rhyme as an ‘illusory totality’, the concern with modes of address and the poem’s use of allusion. The poem as a humorously imagined politicised pastoral was elaborated upon, drawing from the memorable lines: ‘It was summer, it was autumn, it was spring […] Implausible that the revolutionary bucolic / should fall to me, the bearer of gratuitous hayfever.’ The paper was a demonstration of a controlled and interesting close reading; it would have perhaps been interesting to see how this paper might be extended to further tackle more of the theoretical or political concepts raised. At the end of this panel, Luke Roberts (who was also in attendance and presenting later) observed how it seemed odd that Peddie had spoken so personally about writers she had never met, and yet both Luker and Grundy discussed poets with which they are close friends with in a comparatively detached and critical manner. This led to an interesting discussion in which Grundy fairly asserted that he felt any ‘insider’ knowledge he had over the poem’s references were unnecessary to highlight, as biography should not be a pre-requisite nor a priority for critical understanding. However, the question fed productively into the earlier themes of Allen Fisher and Robert Hampson’s talk. Throughout the symposium, contrast in presentation styles consistently brought into question the codes or frames of language that, in academic jurisdiction, move between critical/creative/personal/public and problematically assume objective control or false distinctions.
The second panel of the day was moderated by Samantha Walton and featured two papers, both focusing on the poetry of Anna Mendelssohn, from Vicky Sparrow and Jordan Savage. The first paper, ‘The Secret Lyric in Anna Mendelssohn’s Implacable Art’, from Savage (University of Essex) used Mendelssohn’s poetry as a point of departure, rather than its analytical subject, to explore the relationship between ‘lyric’ and ‘camp’ in poetry. Savage sought to destabalise Jameson’s notion of ‘camp’, with its insistence on a lack of affect in the wake of associative play and object relations, and to instead propose that both lyric and camp could coincide. As Sontag has suggested, Jameson’s theory overlooks the role of queer identity in ‘camp’, consequently glossing over its identity politics in favour of theorizing aesthetics as artifice. Savage linked the linguistic play and humour of Mendelssohn’s work with the existence of a camp poetics in aid of secrecy. Mendelssohn’s play of ‘surfaces’ in her poetry constructs a defensive wall, safe from state surveillance. Savage memorably described this process as the building of a ‘camp eggshell’ through which performance and exteriority were ways of protecting a form of lyric secrecy.
Vicky Sparrow (Birkbeck College, University of London) followed Jordan Savage with a paper entitled ‘“[A] poet must know | more than a surface suggests”: Anna Mendelssohn and poetic concealment’. Sparrow is currently researching a PhD on the work of Mendelssohn, and this proximity to the poet’s work was made abundantly clear in the rigor and detail of her measured analysis. The paper focused on a little known and rare pamphlet, An Account of a Mummy in The Royal Cabinet of Antiquities at Dresden (published in Cambridge under the pseudonym, Grace Lake, 1986), and her discussion of the work was supplemented with various archival photos. Sparrow noted the influence of Walter Benjamin’s belief in the ‘obscured’ as an artistic necessity, and its subsequent importance for Mendelssohn. The difficulty of studying a writer whose poetry consciously resists, even pushes back, against methods of interpretation was integral to Mendelssohn’s work as oppositional to the policed ‘gathering of evidence’. Her language provided a secretive turning away from institutional and judicial modes of communication, in a poetic concealment that committed itself to evading interrogative readings. Much was said, in addition to literary and biographical analysis, about the tactile specifics of the pamphlet, its skin-like colour and presentation. The reach, significance and relatively new scholarly interest in Mendelssohn’s work was further elaborated in the following questions: the haptic immediacy of old typed formatting and handwriting; Mendelssohn’s ability to both over and under-determine the nature of allusion in her poems; the significance of the secret in art as the secret in art; and the problematic temptation that seeks to read her poetry always and only in relation to her incarceration.
Next was Tom Betteridge (University of Glasgow) with a paper on Peter Manson who, like Luke Roberts during Grundy’s paper, was also present in attendance. Betteridge’s paper, ‘Surface and disclosure in the poetry of Peter Manson’, suggested the geometric model of an asymptote through which to imagine approaching the ‘surface’ of Manson’s linguistic meaning. The poems ‘Four Darks in Red’, from The Good of Liars (Barque Press, 2006) and ‘raven A’ (in Halfcircle, 4, 2012) were used to demonstrate his theory. However, I have to confess that the asymptotic analogy (the relation between a line and a curve) for reading left me wanting further clarification, one which would also further define the connotations of ‘surface’. Betteridge was emphasizing the metonymic over metaphoric in reading Manson which, though suggesting an associative horizontal (as opposed to metaphor’s symbolic vertical), does not necessarily equate with ‘surface’. To me, ‘surface’ tended to problematize the rich and varied links that were drawn through ‘Four Darks in Red’; from the Rothko of its title, entomology (the cinnabar moth), dentistry, chemistry and continual linguistic play. Manson’s lexical agility and slipping between various vocabularies, seems under-served by the terms ‘flat’ and ‘surface’. Though this clearly was not the purpose of the paper, I felt as though these terms could have been more carefully used. That said, Betteridge was able to trace some fantastic, and fittingly esoteric, connections between the possibilities of Manson’s etymological play. Following the paper, Manson added that if there was a surface invoked then it should perhaps be thought of as a curved surface (this was mentioned in reference to John Conway’s cellular computer game ‘Game of Life’). During the paper’s following discussion, in relation to Betteridge quoting from an interview, Manson noted: ‘90% of what I say in prose is shit – there’s maybe three of four sentences that are worth having, and the rest is desperation.’
The last paper on this panel was provided by Nisha Ramayya (Royal Holloway University), ‘Falling, Breaking, Blackness: Fred Moten and a Poetics of Love (v.2 Secreting Blackness)’. At this point, given the task to produce the conference report for this particular conference, I came up against an instructive experience. I was, in taking notes, looking for a continual ‘through-line’ in argument and a thesis that planted its narrative feet in the sturdy coherence of familiar academic discourse. That oh so sturdy construct fond of deconstructing all but its own avowed neutrality. In listening to Ramayya’s paper, as had been discussed by Robert Hampson and Allen Fisher, the expectations of critical language – naturalized as an objective authority – was re-inhabited and newly mixed with other shifts in tone and language. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s The Undercommons (2013) imagines the subversive intellectual and not the academic:
it cannot be denied that the university is a place of refuge, and it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment. In the face of these conditions one can only sneak into the university and steal what one can. To abuse its hospitality, to spite its mission, to join its refugee colony, its gypsy encampment, to be in but not of – this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.
It is the being in but not of the university and the positioning of criminality as an agency within, or in relation to, the institution that Ramayya’s paper spoke towards. Consequently, and necessarily, it muddled my assumed role of academically assimilating the paper’s meaning-as-message. This was not codified in the ‘robust’ posturing of institutional ‘clarity’, but instead confrontationally evoked as a personal response to Moten. It was a relationship that borrowed its rhythm from a source more musical, poetic and intuitive than ‘rigor’ would allow for. The paper was a reading that, through creative and critical but refusing the binary of either, has become increasingly powerful in the memory. Like Harney and Moten’s vision of an undercommons, never demarcated or disambiguated, Ramayya’s paper refused to coordinate itself within the stable coordinates of an academic paper. The ideas and writing of Moten was a persistent point of return during this conference, yet having not read him (though now starting) I cannot reliably elaborate further.
The last panel of the day featured Luke Roberts and Lisa Samuels, and was moderated by Ian Davidson. Roberts’ (University of Cambridge) paper, ‘On Weak Structures: A Fantasia’, explored the correspondence between Bill Griffiths and prison inmates, beginning with the unlikely archival discovery of a letter from Tony Blair to Griffiths. Roberts based the paper around Griffiths’ communications with prison inmate, Delvin McIntosh (1992–1993), whose journal and correspondence led to the publication of Star Fish Jail (1993). Roberts’ paper was, by his own admission, a last minute creation – though one generously provided after the symposium’s line-up had changed and Sean Bonney was sadly unable to attend. It was therefore all the more admirable to have such an insightful (though understandably not heavily analytical) introduction to Griffiths’ activist energy. Through campaigning for better prison conditions, involvement in local governement and an ongoing correspondence with several inmates, Griffiths’ restless political activity became bound to, and at times hard to define from, his poetic practice. Roberts’ paper picked up on the implications that imprisoned voices, silenced or kept secret and now inaccessible through data protection, are available in Griffiths poetry and were, throughout his life, attended to through acts of continual social and political solidarity. It was also fitting to speak of the diverse, energetic and, at times near mythic, poetry and character of Bill Griffiths at Northumbria, a university he worked at from 1996 up until his death in 2007. It was during his time at Northumbria that, working with Bill Lancaster at the Centre for Northern Studies, Griffiths published a series of significant books on North East dialect – culminating with the seminal A Dictionary of North East Dialect (Northumbria University Press, 2004).
The final paper of the symposium was given by Lisa Samuels (The University of Auckland). In ‘Bioautography and the Open Hole’, Samuels provided an analysis of Carole Schneemann’s VULVA’S MORPHIA (Granary, 1997) alongside her own definition of ‘bioautography’ as a re-imagining of ‘life-writing’. Schneemann’s VULVA’S MORPHIA is a combination of photographs and photo-collages, often of graphic bodily images (as the title implies) accompanied by minimal text; it is a significantly tactile (though priced at $1,500, ironically inaccessible) art object that foregrounds the interaction between body, texture, print and language. Through a complex and ranging discussion, Samuels used Schneemann’s photographs in reference to her influential performance art (‘Interior Scroll’, 1975) to think through how the body might lead and expose the limits of language. In its (w)holes, pressed into confrontational visibility, leading with the body as, and in, its extremity – ‘bio autography’ – presents a ‘life-writing’ that can evoke semiotic failure (the speechless, impossible and secret) without the limitation of being as allied to its abstractions. I will readily concede to not grasping all of the paper’s busy and allusive thinking, but it was a very stimulating provocation for further thought.
Following this paper, Ian Davidson (Northumbria University) helpfully re-visited a summary of what he felt to be some of the symposium’s key themes. They were as follows: considering surveillance in everyday life as negotiating both the public and private; the confessional as poetic mode, legal transaction, religious ritual, and its sense of conceptual rhyme in semantic closure; the relationship between language and surveillance, and language and prison; the figure of the prisoner, understanding the role of vulnerability and victimhood in structures of secrecy (understood as a power dynamic); considering the position of institutional or bureaucratic language and its hypocritical rhetoric of transparency and accountability; and finally, the reoccurring interest in, and importance of, Stefan Harney and Fred Moten’s notion of the undercommons – a place of subversion that allows for, without demarcating, a mobile space for its own revolutionary possibility. Yet again the annual Northumbrian Poetry Symposium has proved to be an invaluable opening for discussion; inviting poetry and academia to productively jostle, interrogate and blend. I would like to extend my gratitude to the organisers, Ed Luker and Jo Walton, and to Ian Davidson for constantly encouraging such events.
The author declares that they have no competing interests.