Sunday, 7 December 2014 a writer on writing but not writing...

He introduced his anecdotes with the phrase “as a writer…”

It’s been claimed he once referred to himself   “as a Creative”

I can’t forgive him for that. No one can. 

He would always talk about being a writer: it had always been a lifestyle, he said.
It was always about writing and never what he’d written, not in a selfless, noble kind of way and not in a conscious decision to appreciate the act as an ends in itself but because, it seemed, he hadn’t written much.

When he wasn’t talking about writing he taught others how to talk about writing.

He is often touted as a writer-in-residence.

At what residency he writes when he is being a writer-in-residence usually remains undisclosed. He has just returned from being a writer-in-residence in Madagascar, the residency being the whole island I silently presume. I asked him what he wrote about and he told me it wasn’t like that. He said it was about the experience. Did he experience any writing I almost asked, but on consideration resisted – he would answer that writing fell outside of experience being, as it is, the communication of experience. Which, if true, would be sad for writers – by extension consigned to inexperienced reflection, occasionally gifted with a glimpse of experience, experienced as a precious exception, cherished like an acorn to carry back and nourish experiential hibernation...bedding down in the long writerly winter. 

He was a firm subscriber to emotion recollected in tranquility. He told me how to cultivate tranquility, it involved

Herbal tea

writing lists

and finding the time to do nothing.

Everything from the shoes you wear to the walks you take, he said.

He then added, as an afterthought, that you also need an ‘online presence’. His ‘online presence’ said a great deal about writing. Here it was, his writing about writing. The pictures from his trip to Madagascar: June 17th the people here are beautiful, the landscape, my god the landscape! I can’t do justice to the landscape. In the absence of that justice were more pictures.

His ‘online presence’ also presented a history of his accolades – he had won prizes!

Prizes are not important, he told me. He had won five and told me how unimportant they were with frequent insistence.  

What I didn’t understand, he said, was that writing was not the pages in a book or the style of someone’s prose, nor was it each sentence or each paragraph. It was about what could not be read and, more often than not, what could not be written. He told me to imagine a coastal breeze, the history of my family or the sensation of acupuncture. I told him I’d never had acupuncture. Precisely, he smiled. And then, closing his eyes and nodding sagely, he repeated, precisely.

At gatherings he would introduce himself as a writer and me as a poet. I asked him why I was a poet and not a writer. It was because I wrote poetry, he said, and then quoted a line from a Cocteau film.



Why does prose get the monopoly on writing, I asked. This is no game, he answered.

I went to see him give a talk about writing. People knew he could talk about writing and he knew he could talk about writing and as a result he was often talking about writing. He stood behind a lectern and lifted up a book, releasing it theatrically from his clasp to let it drop to the ground. This is not writing, he said.

He often defined writing through negation. One day, having checked off everything that was not writing, he would find writing. It would be the unexpected and entirely inevitable kernel of everything he was, this he was sure of. But maybe this was his greatest strength as a writer – his infinite ability to abstain from writing. To defer, elude and hide from writing was a kind of athletic asceticism, slalom of discipline in the face of temptation. The best of writers will understand that writing is not in writing. He had five prizes to support this claim but of course they weren’t important, what was important was that the potential to write was left intact. Writing was the disappointing obfuscation of all that writing – at its best – desires. 

Being mute or the blank page, this is where writing truly survives.

A writer, he often said, paraphrasing the quote pinned above his desk, was someone for whom writing is near impossible. He liked to quote. All my writing is quoting, he said, and all quoting is writing in the sense that all writing is re-writing. That said, he said, I still believe that real writing is not a writing-over, as such, but somehow itself over writing, beyond writing. Writing is ideally not writing. That said, he said, I’ve just been commissioned to write a piece about urban regeneration and the importance of local libraries.

Surely that would involve writing, I said.

Eventually, yes, he conceded. He presented this impending need to write online. He posted a new flurry of pictures: mainly photos of road signs, traffic lights, shadows on shop shutters and one particularly luscious sepia shot of the local library. 

I visited him yesterday and he told me, sighing over a mug of camomile tea, that he felt decidedly uncreative.

I’m worried for him, in a distant uncaring kind of way.

He has started drinking more coffee and telling me repeatedly how frightening it is that there is so much to read, so much to read!

There isn’t time for experience or the experience of nothing, he has to read!

Sometimes, he tells me, he doesn’t think he’s a writer anymore, sometimes, he confesses, he thinks he might be a poet.

Has he written any poetry, I ask.

No, he replies, but he might as well, considering he doesn’t write anymore.

But I thought you never wrote, I thought that was what your writing was about?

He didn’t like this comment, nothing about it seemed to help.

At some point, some point soon, he wants a break from all this not writing. How, I ask. Are you going to stop being a writer? Or do you mean that in having a break from not writing you will actually then be writing and so…yeh, I petered out.  These decisions are beyond choice, he confided, and besides, not writing had never stopped him before.

Surely deciding not to write would necessitate a kind of conscious break from writing, I continued emboldened, surely that would, in a more definite way, stop you writing?

Yes – perhaps, he agreed, but it doesn’t stop me from being a writer.

It’s his new angle. He’s writing again.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Camaradefest II (2014)

On October 25th the challenging, enviably energetic (both in his art and the athleticism of martial arts...a fairly rare combo) and generous poet, S J Fowler, hosted a day of poetic collaborations. I had been invited to take part after happily having some of my  poems accepted by 3am. I was introduced, via the cordial estrangement of email, to the London based poet, Vicky Sparrow. After a flurry of investigative back and forth questions about poets we enjoyed, what we read and general introductions we began a collaboration. Taking a short film by the gleefully grotesque Czech surrealist, Jan Svankmajer, as a vague starting point, we improvised an enjoyable cobbling of thoughts.

The day itself was hugely enjoyable with an impressive, challenging and inclusive range of poetry on display. It was fantastic to meet Steve Fowler, having first seen him perform - with unnerving and inspiring intensity - on the first night of his 'Electric Voice Phenomena Tour' impressive, Dadaistic cabaret of poetry and digital seance. I was excited to be able to witness so many contemporary poets, all, it seemed, with a general unifying eagerness to push and play with expectations, while still operating within an atmosphere of  supportive open minded-ness....the abrasion of any warring allegiances to this or that tradition, school or poetics... bristling in that age-old turf war of peacock pissing (to muddle metaphors) was refreshingly absent...replaced instead by a friendly and casual, drop-in vibe...punctuated throughout by afternoon drinking. 

Several of the performances were really arresting/comical/bizarre/memorable and enjoyable...two of which I'd like to share are, firstly, Prudence Chamberlain and Eley Williams and, secondly, Samantha Walton and Lila Matsumoto.

The first pair, Prudence and Eley, provided a witty and effortlessly natural showcase of friendship and observational rumination...satirizing, deprecating and tickling the corners of London living (hipster assassination included: "the bigger the denim jean roll-up the more likely he is a murderer"). Meanwhile the warmth of their familiarity and the relatable immediacy and intimacy in their meandering absurdities (encountered in worn routines, language and banality) smuggles in a stowaway sense of  entirely persuasive and unaffected emotion:

Samantha Walton and Lila Matsumoto's poem, (presumably) in part a response to the upsetting altlit controversies involving some deeply troubling allegations of sexual abuse within literary communities that subsequently prompted a necessarily impassioned debate within areas of British poetry, and, in part, an incisive stand against discrimination delivered with barbed humor, poetry and intellect that need not be correlated to any topical specificity as, all too timelessly prescient within literary and artistic representation:

"Have you ever looked around and thought, sociologically, this is a bit of a total sausage-fest?"

"Is your idea of critical discouse seven men in the fifties with Oxbridge degrees in seven different libraries in the South East..."

I wish I could have seen more - in truth, I wasn't even able to see the latter of the two I mentioned as I had to leave earlier...but still, on watching the videos - it really stood out.

To return to our collaboration...

It was terrific to meet Vicky, a poet currently researching her thesis on Anna Mendelssohn at Birkbeck University. Not only did Vicky's poetry seem sparked with concision and acute intelligence, it was also able to tap into the beguiling and seductively strange without losing its pointed lyricism - I was really lucky to be working with her. Added to which, that control and concision of her's seemed a natural foil to my garrulous impulse to vomit words aplenty. I think the poem we ended up with not only played with notions of a troubling back and forth in conversational understanding (triggered by Svankmajer) but also playfully teased out these contrasting characters in our writing. Hopefully, some of which might be apparent and if not, perhaps something else is...which is just as, if not more, acceptable.

Here is the poem, as it found itself on the day of the reading:


You and me    
open, I ask you as a stranger: the taste of this texture and the sound,
not part of the warehouse but still aware.
Saying ceramic plates fixed to change, moving tongue of written.
Threatened by its agency, voice material seizing unseen, passing
over you – Oh that Heavenly Air! but it doesn’t help.

I didn’t recognise the man by the end of the film
his life, his hands: it doesn’t really speak of  people.

Tarmac this part of me, apart from, particular particle stone ground in part an article see? Grimace clod man cover, manhole cover, shod bespoke and spoken for, the spokes turn and turning gore, grit like sleep in the corner of eyes collecting granular made thick or sliding mica to skin lens sticker and granite blurt thicker. Not chalk but chalk drawing on paving rot, now lip tonnes of snug something in marrow where the word in girders gumming itself is a grub in the cot like every other definition. Grim slabs [light light] of cliff-sliding into the sea assume the parts of sugar lump boulders in surf and contribute lights off {like} end days of so much tarmac, this part of me, apart from storm shingle of trying to climb over see?

A portion of everything in everything makes empty saturation
a liberating defeat or, and always ‘or’, the other way round.

I didn’t recognise myself by the end of the film
my life, my hands: the voice doesn’t really speak of me.

film after film of consumption
watermarks you
and you place hands like a fist
into the moving moment

looking through a negative of
the dearth of material
decay is the protagonist
without use

I am as my gums ache
and crunching of broken ceramic
while raising hands like utensils
in the foreground I wake

in the expulsion of a moment
the shell imprint its
and rusts into its contents

plates fixed to the moving jaw
will change the moving tongue
 the camber of the voice

even the written voice
is threatened by its agency

grain in the material causes seizing up with unuse

passing over you
Oh that Heavenly Air
the liberating defeat of empty saturation
but it doesn’t help


look after
                           each other

and decay encroaches on the image as it must Sleeping debris has a dream life.

you wet your hands in the chemicals and shut the door

you find there
what the voice doesn’t taste of

                                    fuck all this getting things done

the lens bends the light and the liquid still moves
between two grim slabs

tell me about use
about being used up

I didn’t recognise the man by the end of the film
with storm shingle and his life in his grainy hands
I think it doesn’t really speak the language of the people



a scatter of utensils to make me
you tend still to talk over me, I’m not blaming you, I mean – I am, but its ok, probably
but I look for the material properties
To avoid the talk you talk about the teeth or the tongue and how they touch
in different ways to make language, while the eyes
might see over or through to approximate me in your wanting you to be substantial
hairline fractures, in ceramic or bone
clutter eaten and hoarded between us, what was your name?
debris of use, snapped up bits piling up
quarried out from and flagged up as something we are but can’t trust
the material shifts its always
nice to meet you and always hooked into how ropes and disappointment
chips away at the rockface
to face to face to me just sitting in the rubble and spoken for
and the roof is lower than headheight
and the light is lower than no light – but I can hear the way your body looks, or
somewhere in the darkness breathing people lie
folding my voice on top of yours and lining her throat with his throat with my voice
familiarity forming the shape of consonants
easy for you to spray, with a mouth-full of compass points – how do I know you?
I know you only by name, an abstract structure
Like I might break apart and pile up or was never enough there to break apart if
only the scaffold had held
I might need a haircut – that’s not relevant, but I do, so…where does that leave us?
leaving us fractured and splitting down the ends
with bleeding gums and iron filings begging for chalk to score the black
with chalk paths to bisect the flat and the hills
in a kind of hopscotch or palm reading where neither one of us
know the lines, or how to trace them
as contours cup vampiric small talk we rent the air but grow distant
and the lungs fog with changing hands
they glove a mute piano on the rind and leave us gulping only signs
through leathery throats as the keys keep singing
but muffled through a wall and like that time you told me to lick my elbow
in the flat beneath we can hear them chipping away at each other
hearing them struggle to say nothing reminds us
of the shape of the tongue in the mouth that prevents
me from being anymore me than you in the straining here between us
the tongue that stalks the teeth around the mouth

Sunday, 28 September 2014



Looking back on it now, I am struck with the mildly disconcerting consideration that I was genuinely excited. I am not often ‘genuinely excited’ …not out of some mire of emotional lethargy (although, occasionally: guilty) but due to that common inability to match rational emotions to their situations…y’know, a supposedly big or exciting event is tap-dancing on the horizon and yet, somehow, you feel numb to its anticipation. Yes you might be able to rationalise or intellectualise the notion that ‘I will enjoy it’ – or – ‘of course, that will be fun’…but quite often, it’s hard to work up an earnest fervour of ‘looking forward to things’. I realise this might sound more tragic than I intended. I don’t mean it to be sad, I just think it’s a combination of getting a bit older and being partial to introspection. Anyway, there I was, Saturday morning…and I was, all things considered, pretty excited. I got up with enough time to make a ‘survival kit’ (pepparami, chocolate raisins, sandwiches, single can of red bull) and was, as I said, ‘genuinely excited’….why? Because I was about to experience a rare seven-hour screening of monumentally slow, black and white, deeply anguished Hungarian cinema: Sátántangó. That I should be so excited over this Everest of Cinephilia makes me feel as though I should reflect…on life priorities, this spiralling enthusiasm for dark rooms and solitude, on my sparked emotional connection with that which is divorced from actual experience…but then, meh – who doesn’t love a slice of miserabilist slow cinema!? Am I right? 

Doesn’t matter, don’t care, bought the ticket (that’s right, single ticket…hard to convince folk that a seven hour film about an impoverished community of farmers is a viable way to spend, nay, even enjoy, a Saturday). So, off I marched to Tyneside cinema, my intolerably ‘cool’ lunch for one, placed inside my equally ‘cool’ backpack, clutching that lone ticket to guaranteed existential torment. Having hopefully given a sufficient insight into my misaligned joys and questionable priorities in this, our strange and waking life, I shall cast off my wanky and preposterous tone…and try and talk a little bit about Béla Tarr’s 1994 epic film, Sátántangó.


            If it is famous (or infamous) for anything, it is the extreme length of the film (450 minutes, the cinema showed it with two intermissions) and its deployment of long shots, often lasting up to just over ten minutes. It is based on the novel of the same name, by László Krasznahorkai, and follows the overlapping stories of a community led out out of their isolated village with the promise of  new work and redemption with a communal farm. The film opens with an eight-minute shot, from complete stasis to tracking observation, which follows a herd of cows emerging from derelict and cavernous stables. Here we are introduced to some of the primary elements of the film’s crushingly bleak constitution: mud, silence, desolate landscapes, crumbling buildings, and the heavy presence, texture and inevitability of time. Uttering a phrase like ‘texture of time’ requires a certain amount of explanatory footwork to avoid (what would be) justified accusations of my own floundering, pseudo metaphysics. 

So…the long takes vary between: studied close ups of weathered faces…lingering on the contours of each tired brow, until we feel as though we can begin to read character through the worn material of its flesh – staring at the face as a landscape; long shots of disintegrating architecture, empty rooms, cracked walls – the spaces that people have just left and yet seem expressivist in their battered collapse; shots that emphasise a tedium of banality, nothing of remarkable interest is happening – maybe rain on a window (although this often becomes hypnotic), maybe an empty room, or maybe a man eating, pissing or staring…this is the dull, unavoidable everything that is the film’s aching ‘nothing’ (at one point a character remarks ‘nothing comes to nothing’)…the heaviness of time, real time as it unfolds as its own event; walking shots, following men walking down a deserted city street, swirling leaves and torn debris gusting past their trudging path…an expressionless face, staring ahead, bobbing up and down with the stepping of uneven land, walking, stumbling, falling, walking, dragging, striding, walking, walking on and on and on; then there are the slow, barely perceptible - in their inching advance -  zooms, that with glacial drift ,move in and out of whatever is, or is not, happening. 

            Unlike the slowness in Tarkovsky, where there is a sense of cumulative and transcendental meaning, these shots instead feel oppressively bare, human and alone. In Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or the majestic journey of Stalker , boredom leans into a more profound attention; landscapes, light and movement become powerfully, if inexplicably, mysterious and spiritual. With Sátántangó however, the effect is one of mounting isolation and an unremittingly grim sense of abandonment: we are here alone, struggling in the mud, walking forward, always trying to get up, to move, to keep walking on…somewhere… I put down my chocolate raisins – this was not a chocolate raisins film. The excitable anticipation had appropriately dissolved into a kind of mesmeric doom and tedium, I was feeling exhausted.

            SPOILERS :Due to its length and the intermissions taken, the film often felt like woven vignettes (that temporally followed the forward and back steps of the tango) and yet there were clearly scenes and particular strands that were more unforgettable and more arresting than the mire and space which surrounded them. Perhaps the most upsetting thread in the narrative was that of a young girl who tortures her own cat (“I am stronger than you, I can do what I want to you”) to death, and then is shown wandering listlessly through torrential rain, over hills and across endless mud, all the while holding the stiffened corpse of her cat…before finally SPOILER lying down beside a ruined chapel shrouded in fog, her dead cat beside her small form as she takes out the rat poison (with which the cat was killed) and takes it herself. Closing her eyes and holding the contorted and cold body of the cat she killed – this is her peace, her sleep and her end. By now, the Saturday excitement was somewhat waning and I was well and truly committed to the draining sadness of this trudging opus. Thing is, depending on how you decide to view it, Bela Tarr’s bleak fascination and interrogation with human struggle can be both gut-wrenchingly serious  - or – blackly, blackly comedic…in the vein of Beckett – but with more mud and realism…and silence. 

            As the girl tumbles on the ground, her cat choked by its scruff to be thrown this way and that – before being grotesquely hung up and abandoned in a tied rope bag, it becomes depressingly clear that this is a pivotal image. The girl, so hopelessly devoid of any real agency or control in shaping the hard life that awaits her, finds solace in the cruel exertion of a relative power…torturing the cat. The villagers can only reach moments of joy or transcendence through lots and lots of alcohol…a great sequence, in which a suitably depressing bar is filled with the (sparse) village in its tiny population, reaches heights of repetitive bliss and hilarity…the music, combined with their drunken dancing and the camera’s looped and slow movement, create an immersive and uniquely mantric kind of cinema.

            We begin with wandering cattle and end with a man boarding up his window, until, with laborious inevitability, the screen is hammered, nail-by-nail into black.  There is so much in this film and at seven hours you cannot but ‘live’ it; whether sinking into its gloomy treacle with an absurdist smile at the human condition, or weighed into its earth with an unflinching stare at the weight and wait of time…it is undeniably like nothing else ever made, seen or experienced. I wouldn’t recommend it with the same vigour that led Susan Sontag to see it 15 times, nor would I say I enjoyed it, but I would like to see it again…after seeing it, living through seven hours in the harsh rain and home grown Hungarian emptiness, there is an irresistible and reciprocal manner in which the places and the people live on, in an often physical and exasperating way, after the film has ended…it is not seeing a film, as we are used to, it is – as Béla Tarr wanted – an experience in which its meaning and experience is constantly and tiringly co-created. You cannot watch it without feeling involved as part of it, and for all the existential upset it harbours, that is a Saturday well spent. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014


Boyhood  (dir. Richard Linklater) - Since 2002 Richard Linklater has been filming, in annual segments, the actor Ellar Coltrane in a slowly evolving family drama that charts the boy’s growth from 12 to 18. This cumulative and patient approach to the filming process, drawn out over twelve years, never feels like a hollow premise or short-sighted gimmick but instead portrays all of its characters with a moving realism that gathers a genuinely unique alliance with time. No need for prosthetic estimations of bodily change, or strange recreations of ‘era’, Linklater’s film effortlessly slides through the early millennial years into the present with a powerful and earnest naturalism. A naturalism that is not so much the result of any aesthetic innovation but instead the astonishing result of filmmaking approached as a project of arching investment – each segment was filmed in that year and could observe that change in adolescence or childhood and thus, to an extent uniquely reaches an unaffected record of age and time. 


However, it is not without moments of convenient drama and coincidence that occasionally trip up the tone (at one point the mother informs a Spanish speaking plumber that he ought to go to school as he is smart, and then, later: lo and behold, there he is – all suited up and Americanised, thanking her for that moment of belief). This is only a very minor quibble, as the film is to be commended for almost entirely avoiding such moments of sentimentality. Where it would have been tempting maybe to provide a ‘through the ages’ montage of nostalgia, Linklater never succumbs to such over emoting techniques. The transitions in time are also beautifully handled, never once are they flagged up with heavy-handed segues, chapters or self-congratulating visual excess. Scenes flow without signposting the advent of different years, making for an occasionally beautiful and understated glide, one that amounts to subtly toying with the experience of memory. This is effectively supplemented by the film’s use of music; without a central score the soundtrack relies on using songs from each year. Rather than creating a driving glamour and momentum that Scorsese often utilizes through his choice of pop and rock, it instead unfurls like background reminders of change…never as richly indulgent as the bottled ‘yesteryear’ and sepia spray of nostalgia, but equally still allowing the audience to gently intimate their own pockets of nostalgic connection


As always with Linklater, the dialogue is handled with the flair and attention that has characterised many of his films. From the opening monologue of Slacker (1991), through to the animated existentialism of Waking Life (2001) and the romantic crossings of the Before trilogy, his films have always sensitively concerned themselves with interaction. Throughout Boyhood there are countless scenes that astutely improvise the conversational nuances of each age: as a young boy Mason jr. expounds, with the imaginative confidence of a young child, how wasps are born from droplets of water; as a boy on the threshold of adolescence he mumbles his way through the first conversational encounters with girls; as an older teen he is fired with the need for defiant cynicism and theories of conspiracy; at eighteen he begins to sense the faltering artifice of “being adult” and how everyone, it seems, is always bluffing their way through, without purpose or plan. What really makes the film special is how Linklater manages to condense such growth, change and rites of passage while simultaneously not confining the film to a coming of age trajectory. While the boy’s own story provides more than enough to sustain interest, we are also continually involved in everyone around him. The mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are both fascinating portraits that, alongside the growing up of Mason Jr. and his sister (played by Richard’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater), lend the film a further depth and reach. Life choices, aspirations, philosophies, hardship and happiness are all weathered and expressed with terrific performances and an always entertaining, nuanced and moving script.


In the earliest part of the film, in which we see the 12 year old Mason cycling through puddled roads and enjoying his ‘pre-awkward’ boyish energy and adventure, there are scenes that recall Malick’s Tree of Life. Although, where Malick searches to uncover our relationship with the landscape and family as inherently spiritual, felt and remembered through moments of transcendence, Linklater remains enthralled by the fumbling sparks that constitute our relationship with each other. It is a film that follows people in their attempts to understand what to do with life and each other, not as part of a cosmic or spiritual analogy, but as sensitively, frustratingly and hopefully articulated to those we end up sharing time with.9.5/10