Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Hollywood | Fiction | Changing Faces

So from Hollywood we got Bollywood, ‘Bombay Hollywood’; it makes it sound like an off-shoot, a kind of parasitic copy of the real thing. That probably wasn’t an issue when the name was invented, because the people in the industry will have wanted that connection, however inferior they seemed in comparison, because at least there was a comparison. To our film-soaked 20th-and-21st-century minds, a movie factory rhyming with ‘Hollywood’ has a great deal more associative heft than, I don’t know, Pinewood Studios.

And yet Bollywood has now become its own industry, world-famous, with a distinctive and easily recognisable style. It probably doesn’t need that association any longer. And so I find myself thinking of a future, years from now, when Hollywood has asphyxiated itself on CGI and origin stories and lies dead in the California dust (the letters are just beginning to drop from the billboard for ‘Avatar 24: The Na’avi Accept The Mass Immigration Of A New Species As Part of Nature’s One-ness And Well, Natural Progression, Seeing As They’re Animals And Not, You Know, Technologically Advanced, And They’re All Promptly Eaten By The Aliens Out Of ‘Alien’ And Those Other Alien Movies’.) Bollywood is still going strong, making movies or virtual experiences, or Two Minutes Hate broadcasts, and an enterprising group of film-makers decides to set up their own industry in the ruins of LA. Would they call their new site ‘Hollywood’, in honour of the ancient movies, or would they call it ‘Hollywood’ because they thought people might associate it with Bollywood?

The markers are forever changing. I do remember, about a decade ago, a contestant on Big Brother, or possibly the celebrity version, trying to score intellectual cool points by bitching that another contestant’s book ‘wasn’t Dostoyevsky’. Dostoyevsky, ironically, only got his first novel (a kind of parasitic copy) published because someone decided he was Gogol – or the next Gogol, anyway. Then he spent most of his career being told he wasn’t Tolstoy, and he wasn’t Turgenev. So he might have been confused to have been used in such a way, but of course, the specificity of the name doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it be recognisable enough to get a reaction.

It’s all a little like the notorious ‘_ Movie’ line of comedies that’s been around over the past few years, which never do any more than reference popular culture. Audiences get the references, and that satisfaction feels almost like there’s actually be a punchline – and this is an opinion that’s been pretty much confirmed for me by the recent appearance of another group of film-makers doing exactly the same thing, with a ‘parody’ of Judd Apatow’s comedies, The 41 Year-Old Virgin Who Knocked Up Sarah Marshall And Felt Superbad About It.

It doesn’t sound like it’s exactly Duck Soup, does it? (Hyuk, hyuk.)


In other, utterly unrelated news, I can’t believe I haven’t encountered this before. I’m kinda of the opinion that decency surrounded by other decency leads too often to smugness, and that may be why I’ve never quite ‘got’ American political comedian Jon Stewart’s show. There’s too many decent people applauding and whooping in favour of basic human decency and common sense. It’s the brutal in-crowd attitude of goodness.

But this five-part ‘interview’ from February, in which decency (in the form of Stewart) finds itself alone and up against the pig-headedness of a bully (in the form of the slightly monstrous Fox News political pundit, and Stewart’s rival, Bill O’Reilly), made me fall in love just a little. Forty-odd minutes of O’Reilly doing his usual thing when faced with a ‘hostile’ guest; shouting them down, making vaguely threatening remarks about where they’ve come from, emphasising his own good-ol’-boy simplicity while being condescending about his guest’s intelligence, making a lightning-fast unsubstantiated claim and then changing the subject...

And Stewart takes it, doesn’t get flustered, and he responds with humility, self-deprecation and honesty. And then he gives some back with interest, mostly at the expense of Fox News’ political motivations and the climate of fear they’ve propagated around the Presidentship. His final punch? O’Reilly is explaining that Jews don’t go to Hell, but that they might make an exception in Stewart’s case.

Stewart replies, smiling,

“You know what your problem is, right now? You like me. And you don’t know what to do with yourself right now, because you like me.”

And O’Reilly smiles back.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Hollywood | Poetry | Remakes

'It's the movies that have really been running things in America ever since they were invented. They show you what to do, how to do it, when to do it, how to feel about it, and how to look how you feel about it.'
- Andy Warhol

Hollywood loves a remake - what better way to ensure success than to try as hard as possible to recreate something that has, in the past, been successful? It takes a lot of the pressure off the creative process when you aren't bogged down by having to think up new ideas, research into fresh concepts, do any writing.

For this reason, I have rebooted a franchise of my own. Frank O'Hara has been given the Michael Bay treatment and put back to work with sassy new ephemera. For your delectation...

To read Frank O'Hara's original Click Here

To the Film Industry in Stasis

Not you, thick-stock magazines and swanky pamphlets
with your perpetual allusions and weighty wider reading,
nor you, avant garde Performance Art, shotgun
wedding of the two, feigning insight badly, nor you,
indie-rock bovine bullshitters, alternative as puberty (though
this is certainly my camp) but you, Motion Picture Industry,
it’s you I love!

In times of stasis, we must all decide again and again what turns us on.
And be up front about it: I see the way you fetishise a plastic bag, it taught me
how to revel in the noises off and celebrate an out-take (and is steadily
hooking me into bonus material), not with the smug atheists
who the films have taught to trust only the lies they can see,
not to the BBFC, who will allow a rape as long as there is no swearing,
but to you jaded Cinema, grimy-desaturated-gritty-realistic-o-scope,
incorrigible iMax and deafening Dolby 5.0, sub-woofing your deafening
message as you substitute all sense of depth for a third dimension. To
Jason Statham as the angry geezer with a grudge and a gun,
Denise Richards whose chocolate locks beguile (lucky Charlie) and her legs,
Megan Fox with oily hands tinkering with a Transformer’s chassis
scowling, Vanessa Hudgens sending photographs of her vagina
to an Aryan-eyed Zac Effron who denies having ever seen one,
Jude Law, Cassanova of the crèche grabs a nanny on the sly
the Batmans, each and every one of you (I cannot bring myself to prefer
Christian Bale to Michael Keaton, I cannot!), Cameron Diaz in a red coat
smiling and humming through interviews, Sam Rockwell of moon,
such cabin fever, and rocklike too, the agile Uma Thurman,
Gloria Stuart throwing her necklace off James Cameron’s boat
from her beautiful veiny hands, Gwyneth Paltrow rescuing Robert
Downey Jr. and Daniel Craig rescuing Eva Green from nothing,
David Carradine dies from an exploded heart as Samuel L. Jackson
combs bits of brain out of his afro whilst chastising John Travolta,
Noomi Rapace with her skin-tight toughness and childish smile,
George Clooney smirking and Robert pimping Freddy Rodriguez
smoking with an out-of-date bravado, Saoirse Ronan in peril,
and Brittany Murphy in memoriam, and Heath Ledger in memoriam
and laughing and method, and Corey Haim in memoriam and laughing
and abusive and broken by drugs, and Bryan O’Byrne in memoriam
sagely and understated and conciliatory in the background,
Lindsay Lohan as a snowglobe in an earthquake, yes to you

and to all you others, the ambitious, the talented, the both, the ones
clustered in Los Angeles cafes and dream of passing your screenplay
to a receptive Ridley.
May the days of your remakes continue forever, until the final droplets
of plot have been squeezed from every spin-off conceivable and movies
are remade before they have even finished production, until the sequels
seep from viability and the five remaining masters capable of original
thought have passed into the void like Harry Patch leaving us with the
finite films we deserve. Render, you glorious gigabytes of digital film,
as the world is rendered ready for your final release.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Monday, 28 June 2010

Hollywood | Introduction | Universal Pictures

Week 6 | Hollywood | Contents

Tuesday | Poetry | Remakes
Wednesday | Fiction | Changing Faces 
Thursday | Music | Musical Hollywooding

Kodak sells film, but they don't advertise film. They advertise memories.”
 Theodore Parker

We talk about film quite a lot here at Silkworms, which is a little odd as it is not mentioned on the tin, it just seems to worm its way in.

It makes sense for a couple of reasons – firstly and most superficially, it’s because we’re all film fans in Silktown, so naturally it part of the vocabulary of our thought – sometimes we think in film, see the cinematography of an idea – don’t we all. This leads on the more complex second reason regarding the universal nature of the medium. Film is visual, not of one language – so it is inherently ‘open’. It is also easy – just sit back and watch. It is no surprise then that it so popular – the undemanding on demand.

As Frank Capra notes “Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music”. But, film features music – the soundtrack. A novel doesn’t have a soundtrack, and an album doesn’t have an accompanying visual (of course there are exceptions on both those fronts). Film more than most artistic mediums engages the eyes and ears – it spreads it bets and can throw in a chip or two on any conversation of music, art or literature. I considered for a moment the mathematics of film, but the first thing that leap to mind was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ – so I left that tangent at that.

This week, welcome to Hollywood.

James Harringman

Tradition | Mini Essay | Deadfall Revisited, by Kyle Hemmings

You can’t buy money with happiness. Michael Caine in Deadfall

Just what constitutes a cult film is not exactly clear. What is generally agreed upon is that cult classics retain a very loyal subculture of fans Many are considered cult films because they deal with controversial topics or fall outside of standard narrative and/or cinematic conventions. Harold and Maude or The Big Lebowski are  examples. Another variety is the It’s-so-bad-that’s-it’s-good kind. Mommie Dearest and Plan 9 from Outer Space are examples of the latter.

My nomination for new cult classic—Deadfall (1968), directed by Bryan Forbes—falls somewhere between the previous two categories.

The movie is based on a novel by the once prolific  thriller writer, Desmond Corey. The plotline contains all the seeds for controversy. Jewel thief extraordinaire, Henry Clarke, (played by Michael Caine in his early Harry Palmer days), goes to incredible lengths to get close to his victims, even going so far as becoming an alcoholic and getting admitted into a Spanish sanatorium. There he is recruited by a visitor named Fé (played by the lovely Italian actress, Giovanna Ralli) to collude upon more heists with her and her much older husband (played by Eric Portman). Predictably enough, Henry falls in love with Fé and unwittingly becomes entrapped in a diabolical triad. He learns that Richard (Portman) is an ex-Nazi and homosexual. But the real shocker is what he learns about Fé. I won’t divulge the secret, but suffice it to say that Henry’s physical deadfall mirrors his descent into a world of moral decay among the affluent and beautiful.

The film seems to have more flaws than qualities to recommend it. First, the recommendations.  The music score by John Barry is hypnotic and brilliant. In fact, Barry himself makes an appearance in the film, conducting an orchestra while Henry and Richard perform the heist. And the same lady who sang Goldfinger, the Whitney Houston of her day, Shirley Bassey, sings the theme song: My Love Has Two Faces. The photography, shot in Spain, is gorgeous and compliments the romance between Henry and Fé as well as underscoring by irony-- the ensuing tragedy. Also,  Caine turns in another fine performance and Ralli is stunning to watch.

The flaws. Forbes uses too many close-ups that over dramatize. The pacing is off. The romance between Henry and Fé is rushed. The heist itself, while exciting, is too incredible to be believed. And the film sags somewhat after the first heist.

So why am I nominating this film to cult status?

I love this film not despite its flaws but because of them. I remember the late sixties and being naïve enough to believe that romance is not incompatible with sultry sex. I remember the idealism of a generation that  is captured in the film’s meandering conversations, those concerning love and philosophy. But most of all, I remember a time when I could be shocked, when my ideals crashed against the hard wall called reality.

By Kyle Hemmings

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Tradition | Mixtape | Mixtape V, Cover Versions

Apologies in advance, for our esteemed music editor, Sam Kinchin-Smith, was caught in a time paradox in his attempt to save James Harringman from this week’s foibles. As a result, Music As Reading, will be taking a brief sabbatical until next week with this week’s Mixtape falling under the category of ‘Music as Music’.

One of my favorite traditions amongst singers and songwriters is the idea of the ‘Cover Version’. Unlike writing, there are far more musicians who only know how to play other people’s work than there are who compose their own. It is the case for any musician, that the only way to master an instrument is to start learning other people’s songs. In many cases, the ‘Cover Version’ as a concept is an incredibly humble act, allowing the musician to give us a glimpse of the songs that helped them develop their sound.

I have always been a big fan of the transmutations that occur in a cover version when a song gets dragged from one genre to another. My favorite proponent of this is surely David Ford, whose penchant for turning everything he can touch into a piano ballad is a thing to behold – I am particularly fond of his version of The Smiths’ There is a Light. In a similar vein, Duke Special’s inspired reworking of The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Maps is also definitely worth checking out too.

It is truly alchemic the added weight taken on by the lyrics of songs when they are forced out of their natural habitat and re-assimilated to the idiosyncrasies of another musician.

What also fascinates me about cover versions is the sheer number of songs that I assumed had been ‘original’ that were actually covers of earlier, obscure tracks. I’m thinking here of Natalie Imbruglia’s Torn (originally by Ednaswap), Meat Loaf’s Martha (eff you, I was a late Tom Waits bloomer!) and José Gonzalez’s Heartbeats.

Just as writing a fixed-form poem, Cover Versions are a game – you have the rules laid out for you in the form of lyrics and chord-patterns – and it is the cover artist’s job to take these rules and bend them into the shape of something they might have written.

In all of the examples in this week’s mixtape, I have only chosen artists who have done something radically new with the original song, for I see absolutely no merit in musical mimicry – cover versions should be a creative reworking rather than the meticulous work of a mocking bird. Due to the constraints of Spotify, I have not been able to include some of my favorite covers, as these usually only appear as obscure B-Sides, so please take it as read that I really, really, really wanted to include Tegan & Sara’s cover of Dancing in the Dark.

Far better to do something new with something old than to use old tricks to create the illusion that you are doing something new.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Track 1: Lover I Don’t Have to Love
Artist: Bettie Serveert
Original: Bright Eyes

Track 2: District Sleeps Alone Tonight
Artist: Frank Turner
Original: The Postal Service

Track 3: Dammit
Artist: Thin Dark Line
Original: Blink 182

Track 4: Hallelujah
Artist: Jeff Buckley
Original: Leonard Cohen

Track 5: All Along the Watchtower
Artist: Jimi Hendrix
Original: Bob Dylan

Track 6: The Boys of Summer
Artist: The Ataris
Original: Don Henley

Track 7: On the Street Where You Live
Artist: Mr. Hudson and the Library

Track 8: Sorrow
Artist: David Bowie
Original: The Merseys

Track 9: A Little Respect
Artist: Wheatus
Original: Erasure

Track 10: Video Killed the Radio Star
Artist: The Presidents of the United States
Original: Buggles

Track 11: Naive
Artist: Lily Allen
Original: Kooks

Track 12: Devil Town
Artist: Bright Eyes
Original: Daniel Johnston

Track 13: Smells Like Teen Spirit
Artist: Tori Amos
Original: Nirvana

Track 14: I Fought the Law
Artist: The Clash
Original: Sonny Curtis and The Crickets

Track 15: Losing My Religion
Artist: Eddy Cabrera
Original: R.E.M.

Track 16: Teenage Kicks
Artist: Nouvelle Vague
Original: The Undertones

Track 17: Smooth Criminal
Artist: Alien Ant Farm
Original: Michael Jackson

Track 18: Debaser
Artist: Rogue Wave
Original: Pixies

Track 19: Boys Don’t Cry
Artist: Norman Palm
Original: The Cure

Track 20: Don’t Look Back in Anger
Artist: Devendra Banhart
Original: Oasis

Track 21: She Hates Me
Artist: Richard Cheese
Original: Puddle of Mudd

Track 22: Fuck Forever
Artist: Tiger Hifi
Original: Babyshambles

Track 23: Brown Eyed Girl
Artist: Reel Big Fish
Original: Van Morrison

Track 24: Heartbeats
Artist: José Gonzalez
Original: The Knife

Track 25: Bigmouth Strikes Again
Artist: Placebo
Original: The Smiths

Track 26: Sweet Dreams (are made of this)
Artist: Marilyn Manson
Original: Eurythmics

Track 27: Bitches Ain’t Shit
Artist: Ben Folds
Original: N.W.A.

Tradition | Chapbook | 'Advancer' by John Clegg


Vol XVII: 'Advancer' by John Clegg

Imbibing moss with a certain decadance and leather and ivory and antler - 'Advancer' by John Clegg. Without a doubt John is a real talent - one to keep an eye on in the future. Read this, then watch this space. Do nothing else. 

 [ed. Apologies for the slight delay in your weekly dose of chapbook - shit happens.]

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Tradition | Music | Goddam Motherfucking Hippies and the Bòrdan of Cnuimh-shìoda

Monday of this week having been the first sunny solstice in yonks, and having spent the weekend jawing organic falafel at Leamington Spa’s actually-quite-rowdy-this-year Peace Festival, I have been inspired (for truly, that is what happens to one at a Peace Festival) to write about something I know notalot about, about something that is less about tradition than it is about hyper-tradition, but about something that possesses its own consistently-active wee corners of both music and literature (particularly poetry – and often interacting with one another) and is therefore a more-than-valid discussion-focus, I think, for Music As Reading, whatever its more laughable qualities…

About goddam motherfucking hippies and, more specifically, what goddam motherfucking hippies listen to and read. And its supposed roots in, and interaction with, cultures ranging from the ancient to the archaic. And what those of us who have listened to New Age zen-drone or to a chap intoning a ‘contemporary epic’ about Camelot accompanying himself with bodhrán and come away thinking surely, SURELY that was a joke can learn from this most easy-to-parody manifestation of music and words.

(Incidentally, do ‘counter-culture’ men and women of other nationalities similarly evoke their locales’ respective ancient traditions in order to make sense of their fringe-position within modernity? Do affluent modern-day Egyptians adhere to the laws of Isis or Osiris at weekends? Has anybody come across a gathering of Bacchae in contemporary Greece? I suppose now is not really the time to start talking about organised religion…)

(Also, a disclaimer: people of any actual expertise, apologies in advance. I suspect that, due to this aforementioned ignorance, my understandings of such disparate adjectives as Celtic, Arthurian, Zen, Runic, World, Panpipe, Wicca, Earth, Druidic, Drum, Gaelic, Pagan, Pantheist, Chai etc. etc. etc. may bleed into one another below into a, yes, somewhat generalised conception of what goddam motherfucking hippies listen to and read. I am of course aware that, say, Gaelic culture is a subdivision of Celtic culture, and that both constitute richly significant facets to both historical and contemporary understandings of the geography of the British Isles, its traditions and so on – especially where both music and literature are concerned, indeed. I am allowing such a blurring to occur, however, because doing so reflects the nature of home counties, upper middle class, goddam motherfucking hippies – willing, in my experience, to toss together valid, interesting, important traditions, movements, ideologies and lifestyle-choices like so much transcendental salad – to the point that things’ proper meaning, significance gets swamped. Good things, like environmentalism, food activism, a genuine understanding of British tribal- and folk-history. Who needs all that when we’ve got our dreadlocks to worry about? and so on and so forth)

Without any more ado, then, five lessons Music As Reading can learn from goddam motherfucking hippy culture and its intersections with tradition. Which from henceforth shall be known as The Tablet of Silkworm. No, actually, The Bòrdan of Cnuimh-shìoda is a little more appropriate, it shall be known as that (I can’t be arsed to translate the grammar, as you may have guessed).

Lesson the First – Costume and Character.
With the help of a costume, the Wiltshire air and, probably, a decent helping of psychotropic drugs, men and women like King Arthur Uther Pendragon (pictured above) quit pretending and actually become, legally and everything, the figures with whom they are obsessed, from whom their truth and ancient mysteries come. They share a relationship with the characters and history which dominates the content of their work of an intimacy that more mainstream poets and songwriters could only dream of – dressing, drinking, talking, dancing the same, together. For them, merely doing a Nick Cave, say, and resurrecting a traditional form (the murder ballad), or a Robert Browning and recreating the voice of a famous dead person isn’t enough. They are method-writers and -musicians a la Andy Serkis’ approach to method-acting – and for that we must respect and learn from them. Possibly.

Lesson the Second – Shamelessness.
If a writer of music or words is ever going to take the writing- or performance-risks that produce great avant-garde work, they require a certain shamelessness. They could do a lot worse than to learn some tricks from these guys. Be a fifty year old man. Have a beard longer than your hair. Wear something like a dress and, ideally, accessorise with a ‘wand’. Talk, at length, about being present at the third marriage of the ‘Earth Mother’ while a dwarf plays a flute. A relationship with tradition of this nature has the potential to be far more radical than a studied relationship with contemporaneousness. 

Lesson the ThirdReading with Drum/Singsong Intonation
One of the most striking aspects of the my limited, oh so limited experiences of witnessing goddam motherfucking hippies read, and play music, is their frequent use of an unflagging accompanying metronomic drum-pulse – which gives their work, particularly the poetry, an extraordinary strength-of-rhythm, a sense of metre that only music can teach words and, in turn, tradition teach the free-verse decadences of modern-day reading and writing. Let us read with drums. Let us write with drums. Like the oarsmen of Ancient Greece. And these guys' intonation – it's makes massive-crowd-drawing reader Dylan Thomas's rumble sound like a mumble. See, the thing about spells is that they're amazingly fun to say. Possibly that's why spells were conceived in the first place, y'know. Language as spellcasting catharsis: it's something every musician and-or writer should try.

Lesson the Fourth – Nudity.
We’ve all seen The Wicker Man – nudity is both a quintessential facet to the ancient culture of our Great isle, and, so long as Britt Ekland is involved anyway, fucking sexy. Goodmusic once made an effort to tap this, back in the glory days of Iggy Pop getting his knob out and Peaches doing – well, doing horrible things to herself. And will, surely, again. But literature? I’m not just talking nudity in performance by the by, why not also nudity in writing classes, while writing alone, why not life-writing alongside life-drawing. Heaven's sake, it's what our forefathers did to find their voice.

Lesson the Fifth – Meditation.
For a couple weeks some time in the future, something that I will be calling The New Meditation will become a principal focus of Music As Reading – because though all-too-frequently the site of dreadful music and idiotic sentiments, I'm pretty sure meditation constitutes one of the most common manifestations of people in this country already using music to read. Using music as the tone with which to find new meaning in words. Using the words to explain the music. It's a potentially very exciting exchange, just currently full of gimps. So: to be continued...

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tradition | Fiction | In Defence of the Middlebrow

Pictured: humour.

I was surprised and saddened once again to read the work of John Fowles described as ‘middlebrow’ this week. Partly because I thought we’d done away with that appalling term, a product of a literary generation obsessed with their own cultural superiority, too snobbish to conceive that anything other than experimentation in style could be of benefit to mankind (that is, the ‘highbrow’), a term popularised by a rather terrible snob, Virginia Woolf. Partly because the writer of the article in question didn’t seem to have noticed that this same cultural superiority and snobbishness defined the entire plot of the novel in question, The Collector. Partly because I’ve heard the term used for Agatha Christie’s work as well, which means a true ‘highbrow’ is going to have to be dismissive of everything between Fowles and Hercule Poirot, which is a hell of a lot of interesting literature. Partly because, if post-modernism has achieved nothing else of value (debatable), surely it’s proffered the idea that ‘highbrow’, ‘lowbrow’ and ‘middlebrow’ ideas can also be mashed together in the same piece of art, making nonsense of them all. And partly because it’s confirmed my suspicion that ‘middlebrow’ has now joined ‘middle-class’ in the pantheon of ‘words which are no longer well-defined and rarely relevant, which we use whenever we want to insult someone.’

A quick definition, then; OED says of middlebrow, “Demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application.” Wikipedia, proving once and for all that it’s capable of more nuance than people give it credit for, defines the term as “a certain type of easily accessible art, often literature, as well as the population that uses art to acquire culture and class that is usually unattainable”. The point of both of these, then, is that ‘middlebrow’ literature simply isn’t hard enough; it gets its ideas across too easily, in a form which less cultured types can understand. Which is, obviously, disgraceful.

The problem all begins with a rambling, ranting letter Woolf wrote in 1932, in which she honours ‘lowbrows’ (as she terms them, people who live through their bodies alone);

“I love lowbrows; I study them; I always sit next the conductor in an omnibus and try to get him to tell me what it is like — being a conductor.” She also hints, in case that doesn’t have you frothing at the mouth enough, that ‘lowbrows’ are lacking in self-consciousness; only the ‘highbrow’ can understand the meaning of the lowbrow life.

Highbrows, meanwhile, are – tellingly – people of “thoroughbred intelligence”. And she goes on to give a list including three or four authors who might, by any vague understanding of the term, be considered ‘middlebrow’. Dickens? How much intellectual application does it take to read Jane Austen, exactly?

Then we get on to the middlebrows, a strangely undefined sort who mixes with both lowbrow and highbrow. Her main grudge against them seems to be, to misquote John to the Laodiceans, that they’re neither hot nor cold. They write ‘entertainments’ that have some thought behind him, or thoughtful books that are entertaining.

‘Typical bloody Modernist,’ I muttered. Then I began to wonder whether Woolf was being serious. I still think she was – mainly because her Bloomsbury pranks weren’t so much filled with self-deprecating irony as they were very slightly dim-witted and self-indulgent. The person who dresses up in blackface is a very different, horsier breed of supervillain from the one who skewers classism by pretending to be an upper-middle-class snob.

Much more inclined to piss about with humanity’s constant need for tribal self-definition was Russell Lynes, who wrote a piece in response to Woolf’s opinions in Harper’s Magazine; you can read a very funny interview with him here, in which he’s asked to define various clothes, board games, furniture, etc., as ‘highbrow’, ‘middlebrow’, or ‘lowbrow’.

Not pictured: clear, accessible story-telling

But to move on from the personal attacks to an actually positive affirmation (boo), I’m reminded of a comparison with the alchemists, who were so concerned with layering their philosophical ideas in hokum, to stop the common man from discovering them, and who are now generally remembered in the West, if at all, as charlatans. The subtlety and inaccessibility Woolf would want to call ‘highbrow’ is all very well, as long as you’re sure you’ll be understood – pace to Joyce and anybody else who savours confusing the reader. But the power of ‘enjoyable’ reading and simple ideas delivered well should, most certainly, not be sneered at; in the hands of one author, it may be equally as powerful as a more apparently complex piece.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Tradition | Poetry | Simon Says

‘The jacket does not at first refer to Seeing Stars as containing “poems”, but eventually relents, and uses the p-word. If you have a very loose definition of “poem”, you’ll concur. I make it seven poems and 32 fictions.’
-Bill Greenwell, The Independent

“Are they poems, or prose poems, or flash fiction? I’m not sure, but they’re very more-ish.”
-Paul Batchelor, The Guardian

‘Is it a dog? Is it a horse? Or is it a poem by Simon Armitage? To say these poems resist classification is an understatement”
-Kate Kellaway, The Observer

Good art leaves us with more questions than answers. When we read a book, see a film, hear a band or watch a play that we particularly enjoy, we instinctively go and find out what the critics thought. We do this for a variety of reasons; partly because we want to find out if we were ‘right’, if our opinions are congruent with the people who are paid to have opinions, partly to see if there is anything that we missed and partly because it is uniquely pleasing to have our reactions enriched by other perspectives.

I shall tie my colours to the mast here – I particularly enjoyed Simon Armitage’s latest collection, Seeing Stars. I enjoyed it so much that I took it on a night out last Saturday and was secretly very happy whenever the lady I was with needed to go off to the bathroom, not because of the quality of her company, but because it meant that I could read a bit more of Armitage’s witty, idiosyncratic new collection. I woke up the next morning feeling fairly rough around 6AM, incredibly glad that I was awake bright and early so that I could have an undisturbed run at finishing off the last 20 pages before the day had even properly begun.

That said, I was left with the exact same question that every reviewer to touch the book seemed to be asking – ‘is this poetry?’ Let’s take an exemplary opening section, from the poem Knowing What We Know Now:

‘The elf said to Kevin, ‘You’re probably wondering why
I’m sitting here at your breakfast table this morning,
helping myself to your condiments, Kevin, I’m here to
make you a very special offer – let’s call it a once-in-a-
lifetime opportunity. Today you’re forty-four years and
thirty-six days old, and that’s exactly how long you’ve got
left! …’

When I spoke to my friend about my ‘is this poetry?’ conundrum (the friend whose bathroom breaks afforded me time to read more Armitage) she said “well it certainly looks like poetry.” And she was right. Go stand a few steps away from your screen… that chunk of Knowing What We Know Now is an absolute dead ringer for a bit of poetry.

But then this is purely cosmetic – the only consideration for the line-breaks appears to be the aesthetic of making the lines look even, for there is no sign of a meter or stress-pattern or any of your lyrical hallmarks. We’re not dealing with blank verse, free verse, fixed form, OuLiPo, calligrams or any of the old faithfuls that would usually help me bullshit my way through a review.

The best-fitting hat for this particular collection would appear to be ‘prose poetry’ for the mellifluous, fictional absurdity of the various vignettes at play in the collection – but even this is somewhat out the window as Armitage has gone to great trouble to line-break his work into the shape of verse.

Line-breaks or otherwise, the collection is still ideologically rooted in the prose poem tradition. Consider this passage on the subject of prose poetry from Luke Kennard’s excellent phd thesis, The Expanse: Self-Consciousness and the Transatlantic Prose Poem (many thanks for the author’s kind permissions):

When I first started writing about the prose poem I was drawn specifically to what I perceived to be its many authors’ sense of humour. Everything I read, from Charles Baudelaire’s Petit Poèmes En Prose to John Ash’s The Goodbyes engaged me first by making me laugh. Seeing as this wasn’t humour of the “set-up and punchline” variety – and that laughter in itself isn’t a considered critical reaction – I realised early on that I was going to have to formulate this response. Gradually it emerged that what I was really reacting to was self-consciousness, which is not necessarily a quality we aspire to in writing or life. Nevertheless, humour in the prose poem seemed to arise from a writer making a deliberate mistake: a metaphor which oversteps its own correlation; a situation woefully (if wilfully) misread or inverted; a self-deprecating aside after a sophisticated and complex passage; even a tacit admission that the very act of writing poetry feels somehow pretentious.”

I cannot think of a better introduction to the rich tradition behind both Kennard’s work and this latest offering from Armitage. Consider this idea of the “tacit admission that the very act of writing poetry feels somehow pretentious” as you read this section from Armitage’s My Difference:

‘I’ve been writing a lot of poems recently about my
difference but my tutor isn’t impressed. He hasn’t said as
much, yet it’s clear that as far as he’s concerned my
difference doesn’t cut much ice. He wants me to dress my
difference with tinsel and bells and flashing lights, or sit it
on a float and drive it through town at the head of the May
Day Parade. ‘Tell me one interesting fact about your
difference,’ he says, so I tell him about the time I lost my
difference down the plughole in a Bournemouth guesthouse
and had to fish it back with a paperclip on a length of
dental floss.’

So, in response to the satellite question, currently orbiting this collection – yes, it is poetry. And not just because I found it in the poetry section of Foyles. And not just because Simon Armitage wrote it. In eschewing the aurality of lyric poetry, the patterns of fixed forms or the margin-hugging shape of prose poetry, Armitage has left himself free to soak up a less worn out combination of elements from various traditions such as surrealism and satire.

If you like your deadpan wackiness and have a hankering for something that will leave you humming and giggling in equal measure, or if you simply can’t be bothered waiting for the next Luke Kennard or Ross Sutherland collections to come out, then you need to buy this book. Was this a review? Discuss.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Monday, 21 June 2010

Tradition | Introduction | Kinds of Wood

Week 5 | Tradition | Contents

Tuesday | Poetry | Simon Says
Wednesday | Fiction | In Defence of the Middlebrow 
Thursday | Music | Goddam Motherfucking Hippies
Friday | Chapbook | Advancer, by John Clegg

"You run into people who want to write poetry who don't want
to read anything in the tradition. That's like wanting to be a builder
but not finding out what different kinds of wood you use."
- Gary Snyder

As writers we are urged to spend the majority of our time reading. If we are serious about all this then we force ourselves to read back endlessly into the past until we bounce back again in the opposite direction and trace our own paths to where we are now. Why then, do I detect such a sneer from anyone who describes a piece of art, a person or a sentiment as being 'traditional'? When did we start conflating tradition with convention?

This week we will be thinking of the artist as Janus - looking to the past and future and trying to harness their visions of both into a present state.

In researching this week's theme, our Editor in Chief, James Harringman travelled into the past, and as such is stuck in 1834 where, alas, there is no internet connection. We wish him a safe return and sincerely hope that he brings us back various trinkets from his great-great-grandfathers' mansion, the Rt. Hon. Lord Edward Keithly Homebridge Harringman III.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Destruction | Mini Essay | Call For Submissions

1589, from L. compendium "a shortening, saving," lit. "that which is weighed together," from L. compendere "to weigh together," from com- "together" + pendere "to weigh".

1590s, essay from M.Fr. essai "trial, attempt, essay," from L.L. exagium "a weighing, weight," from L. exigere "test," from ex- "out" + agere apparently meaning here "to weigh."

Mini Essays; crumbs of arcana – knowledge few possess – flashed as insight in 500 words or less.

Now we have a few Mini Essays in the can/barrel that you can treat like fish (Omar Khayyam) and shoot/read, we thought it was time to say - so....'It's your turn to have a go'. That's exactly what's happening now - a call for submissions. To submit simply send your 500 words or less, quote, title and name to

James Harringman

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Destruction | Mixtape | Mixtape IV, Thorn In His Side

Music As Reading: Mixtape IV, The Poet With A Thorn In His Side (he only ever wanted to be a music-maker)

Armitage: “I really like your stuff.”
Mark E. Smith: “Got a light, cock?”

The poet who, really, would have liked to be in a band more than he enjoys being a really-quite-successful poet – an evocative, pathos-drenched, rather depressing image. And one of crucial import to the Music As Reader. For out of it buzz a swarm of questions at the heart of what the Music As Reading project is, really, all about: what is the relationship between the poet and the music he or she listens to – and what can one discover about both forms from that relationship? Does the poet who loves to music-listen read or write with, alongside music because of the benefits to be had out of this relationship? And is poetry (slash, the poet) not just ultimately, compared to goodmusic (slash, the musician) intolerably sad, po-faced, poontang-repelling, and does it (slash he slash she) therefore require an injection of rockandgoddamroll if it (slash he slash she) is to regain the reputation, readership and romanticism that once defined it (slash he slash she) as a mode? Because let’s face it, most people start writing poetry because they want to be Lord fucken Byron, not Sir Andrew Motion – ladies and gentlemen, we’re being cool-shortchanged… Why?

Armitage is so specifically important, though, because he did the unthinkable and actually started a bloody band – way late (perhaps middle would be the more appropriate word, actually) in life. Then wrote a book about it, Gig (published by Penguin) which contains the above two-line anecdote – and a full history of not-being-in-a-band-but-being-a-really-quite-successful-poet Northern miserabalia. In it, and generally, he is admirably open and generous about who he digs, who he adores, the kinds of artists he would have loved to be a part of. Unfortunately, his actual band, the Scaremongers ( for videos etc.) sound like nothing so much as Registered Trademark The Worst Band Of All Time, the Beautiful South. Only a bit less shit. Surely, Simon, there might have been another way? Surely, Simon, is not Music As Reading it?

Part one, Bands Armitage would like/have liked to be a part of.

Searching for Mr Right – Young Marble Giants
She’s Lost Control – Joy Division
Independence Day – Comsat Angels
Spoilt Victorian Child – The Fall
Wildcat Fights – Eyeless in Gaza
The Boy With A Thorn In His Side – The Smiths
Nocturnal Me – Echo and the Bunnymen
Diamonds are Forever – Arctic Monkeys
Ever Fallen in Love (with someone you shouldn’t’ve)? – The Buzzcocks
Blue Boy – Orange Juice

Part two, Bands Armitage’s writing/songwriting reveal would have, in actuality, been a slightly better fit (note, half the size of part one).

Lucky You – Lightning Seeds
Irish Blood, English Heart – Morrissey
Our Mutual Friend – The Divine Comedy
Perfect 10 – The Beautiful South
Put A Donk On It (original mix) – Blackout Crew*

* I suspect this one needs a wee explanatory note. Blackout Crew are, basically, the Beatles of the Donk scene, a relatively new species of drainpipe-techno defined by a quintessential northern-only-ness to compare with, say, Armitage’s rendering of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Simon would surely approve – somebody should put them in touch with one another, get the poet to ‘drop’ on the next record (if there is a next record…) See the VBS donk-umentary ( for more information.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Destruction | Chapbook | Disaster Mode by Howie Good

Vol XVI: Disaster Mode

Howie Good

We published one of Howie's poems a time or so ago - and after which asked him to send us a whole chapbook. He did. It's all worked out very well - this is it. It concerns disaster and pinholes of light. Right on.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Destruction | Music | Jared Leto Gets Twatted

So mutters Ed Norton at the close of what is probably late-teen-emo-osophy-fest Fight Club’s most infamous and intellectualised scene, Angel Face Gets Twatted (as one on-the-money Youtube user has christened it). Now, I haven’t sat down and watched Fight Club for quite some time – for reasons that I daresay the above five-part composite noun make pretty clear (goodness’ sake, Fightstar released a track called ‘Palahniuk’s Laughter’: I’m not just being contrary). But I can still appreciate why the glamourised fucking up of a beautiful, semi-feminised male face is kind of interesting, even when it’s accompanied by piss-poor pop-profoundness (“I felt like putting a bullet between the eyes of every panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump-valves on oil tankers and smother all the French beaches I’d never see.”) This recent piece by the mostly-excellent Penny Red, concerning itself with how often it is violence against women that is used as a shorthand shortcut to stylised edginess and iconoclasm, goes some way to pointing towards why that is. This isn’t bad either.

Not that I can be bothered to hover around questions of postmodernism and masculinity for the next couple hundred words. Rather, I’m much more interested in the following, and probably-no-less-scholarly conundrum that surely dominated director David Fincher’s mindset for at least a couple days: what would be the best/most somehow-gorgeous (gore-geous? Hahahahahahahahaha)/most shiny-stylish/most Fightstar-rad way to go about destroying Jared Leto’s excellent face? It’s a question (or a mild-variation on the question) that resulted in what is, very possibly, American Psycho’s best scene. And it’s a question that inspires today’s exercise in Music As Reading: think of some poems built out of an elegant symmetry, a versatile but unambiguous handsomeness to compare with that exhaled by the American Beauty of Jared Leto’s features. Then think of some music to destroy them. And juxtapose the two, as painfully as possible. Music As The Death Of Reading – I daresay it’s an idea that’s been floated before, probably in the Mail On Sunday or summat…

Oh, and I’m not just talking about Huey Lewis and the News… In 87, Huey released this, Fore, their most accomplished album. I think their undisputed masterpiece is ‘Hip to be Square’, a song so catchy most people probably don’t listen to the lyrics. But they should, because it’s not just about the pleasures of conformity, and the importance of trends, it’s also a personal statement about the band itself. Hey Paul! TRY GETTING A RESERVATION AS DORSIA NOW YOU FUCKING STUPID BASTARD! YOU! FUCKING! BASTARD!

Byron + Mayhem

Byron and Leto, or more specifically Byron’s verse and Leto’s face – it’s not too big a leap to make. Only, Leto’s face is, I think, a little simplistic, a little pretty-pretty, not enough sardonically lined with experience to group with George Gordon’s monster poems – we need a little briskly-metred lyric, I think. With just a bit of an edge, befitting Leto’s vaguely greebo credentials…

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns to soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.


HEY PAUL! Destroy with the help of Mayhem (the Norwegian black metal band what ate a stew brewed from their singer’s brain – that’s the singer who used to bury his clothes for weeks before wearing them, incidentally) and their masterpiece, ‘Rape Humanity With Pride.’ This one speaks for itself.

Hopkins + Burzum

Like Jared Leto’s features, Hopkins’ sonnets, particularly this one, combine extraordinarily perfect shape-symmetry with ‘outrides’ (Hopkins’ coinage), extra bits, distributed carefully to form uncannily beautiful patternings – just look at Leto’s fringe, his slightly too-round nose.

The Windhover, to Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
      dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
      Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
      As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
      Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
      Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
      No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
      Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.


HEY PAUL! Gerard Manley Hopkins bloody loved God and churches and so on – Varg Vikernes, the man behind one-man-band Burzum, burnt down several historically important Norwegian churches before murdering the Mayhem guitarist what made the aforementioned brain stew, ‘Euronymous’. Destroy this most exquisite of poems (barring that horrible ‘Stirred for a bird’ line) then, with the help of the just-under-ten-minutes-long ‘Snu Mikrokosmos Tegn’, a track no doubt constructed to headphone-accompany acts of ecclesiastical arson.

Isaac Rosenberg + David Banner

Look at that horrible t-shirt Leto’s wearing. And that Rooney-like rosary. And yet, with that Leto-face, that gaze, both become oddly beautiful, hypnotic. Isaac Rosenberg, to my mind the greatest of all the WW1 poets, achieved the same effect with a conflict that killed over 16 million people.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away 
It is the same old druid Time as ever, 
Only a live thing leaps my hand, 
A queer sardonic rat, 
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear. 
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew 
Your cosmopolitan sympathies, 
Now you have touched this English hand 
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure 
To cross the sleeping green between. 
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass 
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes, 
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder, 
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, 
The torn fields of France. 
What do you see in our eyes 
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens? 
What quaver -what heart aghast? 
Poppies whose roots are in men's veins 
Drop, and are ever dropping; 
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust. 


HEY PAUL! In David Banner’s ‘Play’, Isaac, lies a contemporary realisation of the freedoms you and young men the world over died for. All together now, Finger fuck your pussy like you want some, girl / Work it like a nigga straight licking on your pearl / I wanna see you cum in the middle of the dance floor / A nigga can't fuck, what you think your finger made for / I'ma beat that pussy up / You get it wet enough, I might lick it up / Lickey, lickey, lickey, like a peppermint swirl Lick that clit / Cum girl / Uh, I wanna see your legs shake. This may very well be the single most depressing and destructive juxtaposition of all time.

And now it’s your turn. Juxtapose the most perfect, beautiful fragment of writing you can find with some nasty tunez and see what happens. A spot of filthy, filthy dubstep (possibly Bratkilla…) or some Lightning Bolt or Oxes may very well do the trick (Lightning Bolt and Oxes are both mega incidentally – just not, I suspect, for poetry). For one week only, let’s incinerate some fucken churches.

(To access a Spotify essay-soundtrack-playlist to accompany the above, click here)

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor