Tuesday 23 February 2021

The echo chamber

During the last general election campaign, my attention was drawn to several articles that described the echo chamber effect of social media.  In other words, supporters of a party tended to follow people of their own political persuasion. Their timelines and newsfeeds were consequently stuffed full of views that reflected theirs, which led to a misguided belief that everyone was of a similar mindset. Of course, many disappointments on polling days were colossal.

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the parallels that exist between the above-mentioned scenario and poetry on social media. These parallels have several manifestations.

First off, there are poets who only surround themselves with others who write within their same aesthetic, thus encouraging them to look inwards, feeling they’re the only true believers. This is very much along the lines of political beliefs, as per my previous anecdote.

Then there’s the bubble, the misguided belief that Twitter or Facebook make up the only poetry world that remains, when huge numbers of poets and readers actually don’t have social media accounts. Moreover, this sensation has grown during the pandemic. Physical contact has been stunted, so there are no opportunities to have conversations with people at readings who’ve never heard of supposed big fish from Twitter, for instance.

And to top it off, there’s a shrinking of the world on social media, as poets only look in on themselves, using their own jargon, their own frames of reference, their own allusions, their own entrenched positions and axes to grind, all going round in ever-decreasing circles. I often think that any non-poets who might venture onto many poetry threads would be scared off for life.

All of the above forms part of my concern that poets tend to cut themselves off from wider society. Social media, while providing excellent chances for people to feel less alone, is unfortunately adept at developing echo chambers. As poets, I feel we should use such platforms to reach out to readers, to share work, to show that we’re inclusive. That way, we might earn ourselves a few votes at the next literary genre elections and at least keep our deposit…!

Friday 19 February 2021

Grecian 2000 in The Spectator

My poem Grecian 2000 (sorry, Dad!) is in this week's issue of The Spectator. You can find it online via this link to The Spectator's website, though it should be in three five-line stanzas instead of a fifteen-line block. While you're there, I'd thoroughly recommend a read of Rebecca Farmer's excellent poem from the same issue...

Thursday 18 February 2021

Poetry Magazines and Submittable

I might be completely mistaken, but poetry magazines that use Submittable to deal with their submissions seem to feature a high proportion of poems that leap off the page from the moment you start reading them. Do you agree?

If so, is it because the journals who use Submittable might generally favour that aesthetic anyway, or does it have something to do with the huge volume of poems that they have to process due to the ease of submitting via such a platform? What do you think...?

Wednesday 10 February 2021

New memories, old memories

An awful lot of poets use their new experiences, their new memories, as a point of departure when sitting down to write. They bounce off recent events, places, feelings and sensations, transforming them into poems. Of course, the pandemic has stunted much of this process. Many people are feeling bereft of stimuli. What's more, I'd argue there's a finite number of lockdown-inspired pieces that you can write, although a scroll through social media might cast doubt on my assertion.

One different route is the re-exploration of older memories. I've no doubt our perspectives on them will have altered greatly over the past few months (I know mine have). That change is an opportunity in itself to delve into their (un)reliability and constantly shifting patterns...

Monday 8 February 2021

Challenging our preconceptions, Jonathan Davidson's A Commonplace

One important factor when approaching poetry collections is their attitude to the reader. Some seem intent on talking to themselves in an echo chamber, while others generate an implicit dialogue with anyone who opens them. However, a select few establish their own interior dialogue, before offering the reader a role as observer and even as an additional participant.

If Jonathan Davidson’s new book, A Commonplace (Smith-Doorstep, 2020) achieves the unusual feat of belonging to this final category, it’s primarily because his method when assembling the manuscript also deviated from the norm. Not an anthology, not a single-author collection, Davidson’s book is a unique combination of his own poetry with work by others, all interwoven through snippets of prose that comment on, complement and join up the poems themselves. In itself, his breaking with convention is already a statement of intent.

Throughout A Commonplace, the afore-mentioned dialogues are established via two main methods. The first is implicit, using juxtaposition, as in this example, in which Davidson offers us Kit Wright’s ‘Sonnet for Dick‘…

…So brave in his dying, my friend both kind and clever,
And a useful Number Six who could whack it about…

And he then follows Wright’s poem up with one of his own, titled ‘Tony‘…

I’m reconciling a bank account, thinking of you.
A thousand little contracts keep me in the black…

In this case, by placing the two poems alongside each other, Davidson is inviting us not only to compare and contrast both poems’ attitude towards death, but also to think about our own losses. If cricket and number-crunching are what remind these poets of a person who’s passed away, the inevitable, unspoken question is what unexpectedly comes to our minds when we remember our versions of Tony or Dick.

Davidson’s second method, meanwhile, is explicit, and can be found in his prose commentaries, as in this extract discussing the two poems that are quoted above:

…‘Sonnet for Dick‘…has the artifice I sometimes want from poetry, precisely engineered and polished. It goes in hard and then takes off into the distance…When I wrote the poem ‘Tony‘ about my late friend Tony Whitehead, I had Kit’s poem in mind…

Of course, the second method is usually invoked after the first. In other words, the reader is initially allowed to plough their own furrow without any preconceptions. Davidson often give his opinions only after the poems in question have been presented.

And those opinions are significant in terms of what we might take away from A Commonplace, because this book reaches beyond discussion of individual poems to a challenge about how we view the genre itself and how we interpret its relationship with our lives. The above extract provides one such example. When Davidson states that he sometimes wants poetry to be precisely engineered and polished, he’s also asking us whether we agree. And why.

As a consequence, A Commonplace is an excellent read that lingers in the memory. At times, while A Commonplace might even annoy or make us shake our heads, but this courageous provocation simultaneously becomes one of its fundamental qualities: the ability to make us question our established perspectives. And that’s never a bad thing…

Friday 5 February 2021

Bob Mee's poetry blog

Over here at Rogue Strands Towers, we're always looking out for a decent excuse to sideline all our commitments and dive into poetry blogs. Of course, this feeling only grows as the pandemic rumbles on, so I was delighted to discover Bob Mee's terrific poetry blog (see what I mean here) a few weeks ago.

I might be late to the party, as his blog's been going for a fair while now, but the excellent news is that I've thus had loads of top-notch reading matter to get through. Bob Mee's been involved in poetry for decades, and I've realised he even published one of my poems back in 2004 when he was running iota magazine (via Ragged Raven Press) with Janet Murch. His experience, knowledge and astute vision of the genre shine through in every post, whether reviewing, commenting on news, posting original work, etc, etc. All in all, his poetry blog's a gem and I thoroughly recommend it.