Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Guest Review: Phillips on a Chivers anthology



Tom Phillips reviews
Edited by Tom Chivers

City State’s editor Tom Chivers has been very careful with his choice of sub-title. It’s not, as he points out in his introduction, ‘The New London Poetry’, it’s the much more open-ended (and significantly less megalomaniacal) ‘New London Poetry’. As they say on certain advertisements: terms and conditions apply; other new London poetries may be available.

In short, Chivers actively discourages the idea that the twenty-seven contributors to his anthology represent a movement, a group or anything other than a rattle bag of writers who just happen to live in London. His only ambition, he says, is to offer a ‘snap-shot’, something ‘characteristic rather than representative; impressionistic rather than photographic’. True, there’s a slight whiff of pragmatic, pre-emptive apology to those who didn’t make the cut about this, but after the wearying tub-thumping adopted by anthologists who seem hell-bent on booming revolutionary new schools or bringing together the definitive line-up of poets representing this or that -ism, it’s refreshing to come across an editor who admits to subjectivity and simply says: well, yes, there seem to be a lot of decent poets writing and, for that matter, performing in London at the moment; here are some of the ones that I like.

From a reviewer’s point of view, of course, this editorial policy isn’t really playing the game. Chivers doesn’t lay down any big principles to take issue with; he’s not saying that London poetry is better than, say, Sheffield or Edinburgh poetry; and the diversity of the poets he’s chosen is such that, even though for the most part they come from the generation born between the late 1970s and mid 1980s, the conventional critical practice of tracing the through-lines of method, theme and style from one contributor to another would run counter to the spirit of the enterprise. If there are recurrent tropes in the work itself (elliptical narratives; an interest in psychogeography; a certain verbal playfulness; the entry of ‘digital age’ vocabulary), these are less striking than the differences between, say, the apocalyptic prose-poems of Alex Davies, Chivers’ own carefully constructed pieces and the bounce and heft of Inua Ellams – or, indeed, the differences within the selections by Marianne Munk or Jon Stone.

All of which, of course, is a rather windy preamble to saying that, yes, Chivers has succeeded in creating an engaging and impressionistic snapshot of a diverse London poetry – and in providing a reminder that an anthology doesn’t necessarily have to be polemical, definitive or even representative: the work in it simply has to be good. Or at least include more good poems than not so good.

Perhaps one measurable sign that an anthology like City State has a reliably high quality threshold is how many times it sends you flicking through to the biographical notes to discover where else you can read work by one or another of the contributors. I found myself doing this quite regularly, intrigued by tangential observations, hooked by a turn of phrase.

Take Swithun Cooper’s ‘I will use my years of northern weather’, for example. Here, in an ostensibly loose-limbed, conversational poem about reverse metropolitan parochialism, metaphors detonate with a neat precision as ‘ricketing hail starts to bludgeon the place’ and ‘seconds of sunlight explode on Oxford Street’. In Jacob Sam-La Rose’s somewhat portentously titled ‘The difficulty and the beauty’, meanwhile, there’s the wittily – almost metaphysically so – extended conceit likening creativity to the frustrations of coarse angling (‘There’s a part of you casting a line/that disappears beneath the water’s surly face,/and waiting.’), and, in Jon Stone’s quartet of comic book- and classics-referencing poems, a demotic verve run through with surrealism and satire, as in the penultimate stanza of ‘The Warlock Hits Town’:

He loses his wallet somewhere in Soho,
frisks stranger after stranger, slavishly,
makes scarves into swinging cobras
as he and his octopus agent stalk through clothes,
industrious as beaters,
sending train tickets, receipts shooting up
like ash.

Elsewhere, perhaps, poets like Amy Key and Laura Forman strike a slightly less frenetic tone. Formally experimental, Key flirts with an aphoristic imagism in ‘Super Extra Gravity’ and ‘Luminaire’, and then hits a rich seam in more direct pieces like ‘Memory Trick’ or ‘Dry Stone Walls’. Forman, on the other hand, seems to favour a similarly terse observation – as in ‘Summer. Ha!’ and ‘preset 3’ – before slipping into the apparently more performance-friendly but nonetheless layered ‘The Dogs of New York’ or the poetic prose ‘Rollerblading in theory and practice’:

and I can’t stop thinking what if I fall and kiss the pavement so hard that I’ll have to turn my unfaithful face back to him with a smile like a ruined pier, spitting blood and teeth into cupped hands?

There’s a similarly deft alternation between conversation and metaphor in Chris McCabe’s reflections on paternity, Anna Katchinska’s enigmatic narratives and Christopher Horton’s dramatic monologues. Several of Horton’s poems, in fact, revolve around imaginary rent-collection incidents in London towerblocks, but he’s arguably most successful when, in ‘Guam’, he diverts his imagination to more personal themes, writing of spelling out an ex-partner’s name in ‘dirty coffee spoons’, pacing from Catford to New Cross and ‘measuring the distances between each place/by thoughts of you, having fun with Brad in Guam.’

Having said, then, that pursuing the through-lines of this wide-ranging anthology runs counter to its spirit, I probably ought to come clean and admit that what’s kept me coming back to City State are traits which, if not common to every single contributor, do give the anthology a certain atmosphere: a freshness of language and imagery, an openness to experimenting with form, an interest in lives on the periphery and the attempt to understand the complexities of modern urban experience. Perhaps unexpectedly, this particular gathering of new London poets seems closer to Browning or Hardy than more determinedly metropolitan poets like Eliot (despite Horton’s reference to coffee spoons). The rhythms and inflections of everyday speech, rather than complexes of arcane allusions, underpin a poetry which, for the most part, has the intricacy to work on the page and the energy to – no doubt – work equally well aloud.

Tom Phillips is a poet, playwright and journalist based in Bristol. He has written about poetry for Eyewear and a number of other websites and publications.
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