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St(e)aking Systems

John Maloney

London Poetry SystemsLondon Poetry Systems
Live at the Jam Factory
April 10, 2010

For those of us with an appreciation for (or perhaps a prejudice toward) the traditional categories of artistic expression, the combination of words like “poetry” and “literature” with others like “cross-media”, “digital”, and “audiovisual” can be a little rankling—up there, perhaps, with queasy phrases like “molecular cuisine” or “biodynamic farming”. What’s wrong with straightforward, old-fashioned poetry? Why does a decent piece of literature need digital media any more than a decent piece of steak needs a dollop of lobster and fennel foam? Aren’t we in both cases just overburdening something simple and timeless with ill-fitting trendiness, smothering substance with style?

Prejudices have their roots; and there have doubtless been experiments in interdisicplinary art that haven’t gotten much further than half-baked hodge-podgery. But the idea that poetry is, or ever was, simple or timeless, with the implication that we must therefore choose between preserving its patrician purity or muddying it with modern tools, is itself a trend in the way we think of and do poetry; one which ignores great tracts of poetry’s complex history, and is, arguably, inimical to its continued flourishing.

So might contend the members and friends of London Poetry Systems (LPS). Formed in 2008, LPS provides a forum for the performance and collaboration of young British artists, musicians, poets, and performers. LPS encourages cross-media poetry in several ways: through an online presence and DVD distribution, it employs new ways of viewing, disseminating, and publishing poetry; and through regular gigs, it promotes and exposes artists who incorporate new technologies into their performances, and provides a forum for artists of different bents to interact and collaborate.

Most recently, LPS hosted an evening of performances (watch the trailer here) on 10 April at Oxford’s own Jam Factory, as part of the Oxford Fringe Festival (“Oxfringe”). The show opened with two young poets whose very different stars are on the ascent in the UK: Laura Dockrill, whose dizzyingly frenetic narratives earned her a place in the Times‘s list of the top ten literary stars of 2008, and whose quirky tale Ugly Shy Girl was published by Harper Collins in 2009; and the drily absurd Luke Kennard, editor of the poetry journal Succour and lecturer in creative writing at the University of Birmingham.

While for some poets the act of performance is an uncomfortable necessity, Dockrill’s talent for the spoken word is undeniable and very impressive. Her performances—whose subjects range from childhood dreams to love, food, and cowboys—are doubtless well-practised, but seem nonetheless to erupt with a spontaneous, unpredictable intensity that mocks the phrase “poetry reading”. One has the impression of twisting the dial of a telepathic radio, picking up playful fragments of childishly unguarded thoughts. The poem does not sit as a piece of work behind the performance, but is wrapped up in it, in its intonations, its pace and its accompanying gestures.

Aside from its comedic quality, Kennard’s performance could not have been more different from Dockrill’s opening onslaught: understated, wry, delivered with an aristocratic awkwardness that amplifies the stilted, maladroit, and hilarious interactions of the characters who fill his narratives. He read from his third and latest work, Migraine Hotel, published by Salt in 2009, as well as airing some works in progress, including an unfinished cycle of poems that deal with the surreal goings-on at a halfway house occupied by a released prisoner and his case workers. Crime and rehabilitation is an obvious preoccupation for Kennard, perhaps because it is a thematic space where the darkly funny absurdities of institutional bureaucracy, criminal perversity, and moral attitudes come together. His opening piece, “The Murderer”, is a case in point:

I take the murderer for coffee.
‘Make sure you don’t murder your coffee!’
I joke. He likes my jokes.
Later I swing a plank into his face:
This is to stop him enjoying himself –
Which is integral to the rehabilitation process.
His mouth trickles blood like a tap quarter-turned.
He likes my analogies.

The midsection of the show was dominated by Henry Stead’s performance of his translation of “Catullus 63”, by the first-century BC Roman poet Catullus. “Catullus 63” tells the story of Attis, the lover of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who (in the manner of many of the cult of Cybele’s devotees in Catullus’s own time) castrated himself in a somewhat regrettable frenzy of piety, and lived out his life in tormented exile. Stead’s performance, which combined his own lively translation read over percussion with background visuals and soundscapes representing scenes from the poem, was remarkably engrossing, haunting, and beautiful.

Like Dockrill, though in a completely different way, Stead demonstrated the capacity for the performance to be part of the poem itself. What is perhaps most misleading about the critical view with which we began above is the presumption that by introducing digital media into a performance one is adding, perhaps unnecessarily, to a finished poem. In Stead’s piece, the audiovisual elements served to characterise Catullus’s work, and expressed Stead’s interpretation of and response to it, no less than the translated words themselves.

The evening finished with a performance from local Oxford band Huck and the Handsome Fee, which continued the theme of incorporating poetry and performance. Many of the numbers in Fee’s repertoire began as written works. Reworking these pieces into songs allows richer and more immediate access to their emotional depth and enlivens the interpersonal drama of their narratives. This is particularly true in virtue of the Fee’s co-vocalists, Humphrey Astley and Tamara Parsons-Baker. Between Astley’s tortured, thespianic vocalisations and Parsons-Baker’s impassioned and gracefully sombre style, these two expertly share the often weighty burden of their material’s characters and themes.

Other acts of the night included Brandy Alexander Project, an audiovisual outfit from London; monologues from local actor Steve Hay; and the gifted comic stylings of host George Chopping. Nights like these serve to demonstrate, above all, that poetry is not, like a four-hour Chinese opera, something for which we must always suspend our ordinary judgment, something which we must always try to enjoy on its own somewhat antiquated terms. Poetry, literature, and music are ours to appropriate and appreciate as comes naturally; and if part of who we are is city-dwelling, technology-using, information-overloaded cynics, then we needn’t insulate these things from how we express ourselves. It is not that poetry must change, but that it need not stay the same.

John Maloney is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.