Everywhere is Somewhere

Everywhere is Somewhere, Naseem Khan: Bluemoose, November 2017

 ‘So when does an art form become ‘English’? Or when does a person become “English”?’

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I was very glad to be asked to review this moving, timely and necessary book. Its clarity is impressive; its scope great and to tangle with such questions and statements as those above, is an essential challenge, now more than ever, I think: sometimes painful, but always necessary and, if we would only talk and properly look and listen, it could bring great joy.

I already knew of and admired its author, Naseem Khan, who died in June of this year, not long after she learned that the fine independent press Bluemoose wanted to publish her memoir. I had read her column in ‘The New Statesman’ and had seen her writing in ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Independent (she also wrote for ‘Good Housekeeping’ magazine and had been theatre editor of ‘Time Out’ and a journalist for ‘City Limits’). I knew her writing, books, Voices of the Crossing (2000, with Ferdinand Dennis), about the impact that writers from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia have had on Britain and British culture; Asians in Britain (2004), where her text accompanied beautiful photographs by Tim Smith and I am about to read, rather overdue, Being British: The Search for Values That Bind the Nation (2009, edited by Matthew D’Ancona and Gordon Brown), to which she contributed. And I knew about her work, with its passionate but gentle emphasis on diversity in the arts, that she had struggles with the idea of the establishment, had spent much of the 1960s travelling in India and Pakistan, connecting with the Khan roots from her father’s side, that she had been arrested in Pakistan as an Indian spy and that she had been part of the black power scene in Notting Hill, from where she edited the ‘Hustler’ magazine with Darcus Howe and others. Looking at these things, I thought, ‘What a woman.’ And I knew about her work in the latter part of her life when she moved from Hampstead to Hackney and threw herself into community work, aiming — and the exploration of this is one of the most moving parts of Everywhere is Somewhere for me — to bridge a gap between those newly arrived in the East End, the so-called ‘hipsters’, the Muslim families and the old East End families; she became a vital figure on the Boundary Estate. If you had looked at social media a few weeks ago, you might have seen coverage of a wonderful thing. A community event centred upon Arnold Circus, a 19th-century bandstand at the heart of the estate which had become a ruin and which, with her persistence and loving care, has gone on to be an East End landmark. After this, she worked on the Phytology medicinal field, which lies in a corner of the Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. That went on to win a Kew Gardens innovation award and a Wellcome Trust grant.

So that is a portion of what she accomplished. She was a true cultural pioneer. In 1976 she wrote a report called ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’. At that time, the lively and growing arts scene in Britain’s ethic communities was not well know or documented. She argued — and I passionately agree with this — that with a more inclusive approach, we would live in a culturally richer place. There’s a line in the book that particularly lingers for me. It is kind; incisive: it is stunning in its essential rightness:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

She was, in effect, advocating a community of the imagination. If you read this memoir — and I urge to you — may you feel the same way; test on your own physiognomy the telling pulse of hope and the excitement that goes with it. There were scenes in this book which made me cry because I was so grateful to hear her words: when Naseem Khan is at a meeting discussing plans for inclusion in the arts, she describes an intense happiness in the room: ‘I can feel electricity running along my veins — really feel it, crackling and fizzing. I can hear and feel the emotion in the room. It is a sense of common discovery….I am too proud that I have had a hand in this extraordinary occurrence. Invisible no longer, I think: silent no longer.’

But there is also a righteous anger, a determination. In another meeting, a name is posited for the pioneering report that was to come: ‘We nod: “The Arts Britain Ignores” — it has a ring. We have a name. It’s done…An organisation to push the recommendations further, to make sure that we all stay visible. Keep going.’

Yes. Keep going. That — and the belief in the binding powers of the imagination and of our upholding of diversity in out communities — is what this book is all about for me. ‘The Arts Britain Ignores’ had clearly pointed up the need for greater institutional support to ensure diversity in the arts. She pushed on and later that year — it is all in the book — Naseem founded the Minority Arts Advisory Service (MAAS) and went on to become a co-director of Akademi, the London-based academy for Indian dance, worked on a huge number of local authority cultural plans and also those for museums, including the V&A, and worked on influential studies on parks and urban open space, public libraries and looking at the social impact of the arts. How they foster links between groups; nurture our well-being and the ties that bind. She went on, though with some trepidation, as her memoir shows, to become Head of Diversity at the Arts Council. This is actually the point in time at which the memoir begins, with the author on her way to the job interview. ‘I drag my feet’ she tells us: ‘I am not part of this grand tradition. An interloper’ as she traverses Parliament Square, walking towards the Arts Council of England building.

‘Half my roots are deep in icy wolf-howling Schleswig; the other half in the baked heat of central India. And right now I am on my way to one of the major portals of the Great British tradition.’

She has been persuaded into it by her friend Usha, who tells her that the issue of cultural diversity within the organisation has stalled. ‘If you want to change things…there is only one effective way — and that is through institutions.’ There is a decision to be made here, which I found fascinating and which the author faces with courage: it’s profoundly moving.

‘Memories of my father’s humiliation as he searched for the respect he craved. Resolute black theatre companies exposing racism in rickety halls. All the tenacity needed to unearth quantities of artists, writers, dancers, singers, all from different parts of the world that went into The Arts Britain Ignores…And still so little happened, so little real progress towards the equal society we envisaged.’

She goes to work at The Arts Council of course. Oh, it is painful to read that last bit about her father’s humiliation for this book has made me grapple with issues in my own family history. I hope its author would be glad to hear that. I remember my own Bengali uncle, the man I called Uncle or Kaka, starting again like a junior as the family left the clinic they ran, losing everything, in the second Indo-Pakistan war. We talked often about that, Uncle and I. Who am I to write this review? I’m a white middle class woman, who comes from clawed-up Welsh working class roots. Ah, well that’s rather the point. I need to grapple. I knew about Naseem Khan because one of my greatest influences was this beloved uncle, Dr Jamall, who taught me Urdu and cooking and about the beauty of ghazals, Indian art and also how to eat mangos — I was delighted to see this in the book: you can eat them in the bath, the young Naseem’s father tells her as I was told, and did— and he also knew about Naseem Khan. Because she was important and visible. And all that shot a sharp pain through me, because it’s not long ago we lost him, Kaka.

I have lived in India and travelled widely within it and Pakistan; I’ve been to on-off weddings as young Naseem did; my godmother is a Pakistani Muslim; I lost my parents in my teens. Sometimes I’m not sure who I am. And yet I am exactly sure: I am a hybrid. A questioning, excited hybrid, who looks at all things and tangles with others’ notions —of what the ‘canon’ is in literature or art. I’ve married a man who’s from the state of Georgia and he’s part Cherokee. My Welsh and my Faulkner and my instinctive aping of his often archaic syntax and grammar and his mother’s utter mystification at my elliptical Welsh style where I’ll muddle up pronouns and miss off the subject of a sentence. Oh, I love it. Yes, obviously there can be cultural traditions we might regard and study as we look at the tradition and history of a country, but why can we not draw new things or unacknowledged older things into that; into what we perceive as canon; as mainstream? That is Naseem’s question in the book and it is mine, too. There is room for both. Are we frightened of something? There’s a challenge in this book that is — at least it seems this way to me — particularly pressing in these Brexit days, as we swim in choppy waters and when, reflexively, the lexis of many seems to focus on doom and gloom and on exclusion rather than inclusion. But plurality gives you wings; varied ideas enliven and illuminate. What, I believe, is needed is not a battening down, but an expansion. May this memoir encourage that.

It has certainly made me reflect. On my identity; my cultural precedents.

Everywhere is Somewhere

What does it mean to be British? Testy subject, isn’t it? Painful and destructive, too. As I reflected on the content of Everywhere is Somewhere, on Naseem’s devotion to ‘shared space’, her responses to ‘major social changes as I’ve lived through them’ and to her clear ringing assertion that ‘mixing is so simple’, I put the word out to my friends and family and invited frank response, some of which I knew would nauseate me (sorry, but I speak plainly), but I promised myself that I would not yell or castigate. Because there has to be conversation with those whose views you find abhorrent; has to be, in my view. Because everyone has a story, right? Here — and I must be mindful of the topic of culture because it was as a determined, intelligent and loving defender of the arts that Naseem Khan was known — the greatest confusion remained. British culture, to those who were fearful of its dilution, often meant something terribly vague; a sort of amorphous thing which included red telephone boxes and worries about the purity of the English language being sullied, or the English language not being central enough. That in itself should be a cause for concern because, if you have any secondary education in this country, then your English teacher (I am one) should be explaining to you that the English language is a living breathing thing; that it evolves, bends and twists, borrows words and phrases verbatim. That it did not bound forth with its unsullied grammar and vocabulary from a spring in Arcadia, but is composed of a series of layers, graftings from all the immigrants (sorry; I tend too readily to sarcasm) so we’ve got Norman French and Latin, Anglo Saxon, Greek roots, whole words from Bengali and Hindi — it is in fact a linguistic jamboree. And elsewhere on culture I got ‘Shakespeare being booted off for…oh I don’t know…this PC stuff.’ I did wonder: if we could not define British culture; if we took no particular part in it, then what right had we to question its dilution? Also, is there not room? Why cannot the you and me, just be us? There is nothing that can be said to me that could dissuade me from this: that one of the truest, deepest joys we can feel is to be part of a community, with its various voices, faiths and ideas; with its varying arts: a massive, beautiful plural. And as for identity, bring it on: vast, different, sometimes clashing and dissonant but, with understanding, persistence and humour, all British. As the author of this excellent memoir states:

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I loved this book. It is written with clarity and warmth and, on several occasions, moved me to tears. As I said at the beginning, it felt necessary. I made brief contact with Amelia, Naseem Khan’s daughter on twitter, on the day of the celebrations at Arnold Hill. She had made a speech there and written jubilantly about the day on social media. I wrote to her and told her how much I had loved reading the memoir. I realised afterwards that the Bluemoose team had come from Hebden Bridge to be there, too. You know how Naseem Khan described the electricity in a room full of shared ideas; how I felt a shiver down my spine when I read that? I felt it again looking at the snippets of news that day.

Back to those words of hers: the ones which ring in my ears.

‘So when does an art form become “English”? Or when does a person become “English”‘

‘It’s a tricky thing, identity.’

‘Being British surely has to take in all the variations that I am unearthing.’

I want to say, it is its own thing and the canon can accommodate, flex and mingle; that I agree; that I agree again.

To this observation, rousing, beautiful, ‘When the teacher sweeps the big rubber across the blackboard at school, everything vanishes. There is just the blackboard. Just like that, As if we — and now more than we — were never there. It is not, I think, acceptable any longer’ I want to say, show me how. I agree. How do we carry on this work?

This is a terrific book. A memoir; not a whole life, but stories drawn from a life. If I had a criticism of this book, it was that I wanted to know more — about her being arrested as an Indian spy while in Pakistan, for example. But then, as I said, this is a memoir, not an autobiography — and I am glad for what I have learned; such criticism is hardly justifiable. I enjoyed the modesty of its narrator and that she tells us gently about her domestic situation and the dynamic between her mother and father. I found Naseem’s accounts of her father particularly compelling; of his response to his patients, community, status and discomfort at the new wave of immigrants in their area. I saw this in my own Kaka, my beloved uncle. ‘Look’ he said once as we ate dosa in Newham, me in my early teens, ‘Look at those villagers. Those junglies.’ ‘Uncle, don’t!’ I said. ‘Why not? You think only you bloody whities are allowed to say this sort of thing? You think you have the hegemony on this?’ (I had to look up hegemony later!)

Identity and what we perceive it to be and how we think others impinge on it can cause pain. As you have seen, the book caused me to reflect on aspects of my own life and loss; on tender difficulty and surprise. I felt the text’s plangency on domestic discord, parents, parenting, bereavement, starting again but above all the writer’s passionate belief in the value of the arts; that they – dance, art, poetry and a lively, questing discourse on such things – are a conduit to an understanding of one another, however inchoate that might be to begin with. It’s a book that is plain speaking, but ultimately about hope. And always, this: I want to quote it again:

‘The imagination, I think. This is what can bind us. This is what can transform.’

One more thing; very personal and like a call to action in my ear, so timely it was uncanny. A quotation of George Eliot that Naseem had on her wall for many years, regarded as she begins a fresh start in East London: ‘”It is never too late to be the person you were meant to be.” And that’s what I want.’ Yes. I said to myself, brought up short. Yes. I want that too. And everywhere is somewhere. With its tribulations and its beauty: we need to look closely. So my last words on this book are simply, thank you.

Click here to visit Bluemoose Books for Naseem Khan’s Everywhere is Somewhere.

About the Publisher:

Bluemoose Books is an independent publisher based in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.

Review by Anna Vaught

Anna is a novelist, essayist, poet, editor, reviewer and also a secondary English teacher, tutor, mentor to young people, mental health campaigner and mum to a large litter. A great champion of the small presses, she reviews their books and writes for them: novel, Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press, 2016), novella, The Life of Almost (2018) and poems and essays with Patrician Press and Emma Press. Books three and four out on submission at the moment. Anna is working on her fifth novel.

Opening The Magic Door

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance: Test Centre, 2017

Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door is a collection of poetry spanning almost five decades and comprising eight original chapbooks of Torrance’s poems. Torrance began work on The Magic Door in June 1970, and continues to work on this lifelong poetry project into the twenty-first century. His most obvious influences for this work are the Beats and the open-field poetics of Charles Olson in the US, as well as the many contemporary British poets to whom these poems are dedicated: Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher, among others.

The collection begins, in typically Beat-fashion, with a road trip – from Bristol to ‘The New Territory’ of Wales, marking Torrance’s move from suburban England into rural Wales and his parallel decision to live the life of the semi-hermit-poet among the landscape, geology and mythology of the area surrounding the Brecon Beacons. These poems are lyrical, spontaneous grapplings with mystery and landscape that Phil Maillard suggests in the Introduction could genuinely be called ‘Psychogeology’. They are also musings on the nature of poetry itself. In a later poem, Torrance includes the quoted phrase ‘all poetry / begins in mysticism / & ends in linguistics’, which echoes somewhat the trajectory of this collection, although the explorations into language never really threaten to fully supplant the mysticism of the poet’s preoccupation with myth and landscape. Language and landscape coexist in Torrance’s poetry.

The nature of poetry, the nature of language, the nature of self, and the nature of ‘nature’ are the predominant themes in The Magic Door; the poetic forms shaping themselves around the collage of mystic and earthy lived experiences that shape the poems. The later poems take on a greater visual and sonic quality, fracturing and fragmenting on the page with mini sound-structures forming internally, such as, in Cylinder Fragments from the Twentieth Century:

Voyager

 

The visual fragmentation here is complemented by the sonic structures. The percussive rhythm of the two hyphenated collocations lend their beat to the alliterative ‘gas giant’ in the following line and to the final two syllables, ‘the deep’. This opens out into the sibilance of ‘Saturn / space whale sounding’, which in turn pulls the earlier ‘broadcasts’, ‘ice-cold’, ‘mustard-coloured’ and ‘gas’ into its sonic orbit. Torrance also invents some luscious neologisms that satisfy not only their context but are also satisfyingly pleasing to hear and to say: ‘solstistic’ ‘sludging’, ‘whifflings / & screekings & screelings’. The title of the first book, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time hints towards this delight in the sounds of words and their play, and is something I would have liked to have seen carried even further throughout the poems in this collection.   

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_front

Openness is key to this collection, both in terms of poetic form and in the spirit of incompletion and enquiry that drives it. In this sense, The Magic Door carries the sense of a door that stands open, welcoming in all those who enter. One form of this openness is the poet’s desire for true self-expression, the Kerouacian desire for a transparent language to communicate the self directly and openly from within: ‘opening up the hopefully uncensored self to the present / the fallible, living trace that is us in the world’. Or in ‘Gemini – for Iain Sinclair’:

Gemini

 

Yet the door can stand closed, too, veiling these mysteries from view. There is longing in Torrance’s recognition that language, poetry, is not transparent and open, however much he might desire it to be. He asks, ‘& how do words / manage to lie so, this time / & as always?’ Suggesting, perhaps, that ‘This accounts for / a feeling of alienation within us’. Yet this alienation is also paradoxically what gives the poetry its openness, its resistance to the closure of mono-semantic, transparent and incorruptible meaning.

It is this alienation, the not-knowing of language’s obscurity, that drives the poetic enquiry within The Magic Door, leaving it to stand forever ajar in the half-openness of an incomplete process; the question of the living poet answered-and-unanswered through the continual act of creating the poetic work. These moments of uncertainty about the nature of poetry itself resonate throughout the collection, beginning in the first book, in a poem written in April 1971, setting the agenda for all that is to follow. Recognising that ‘the failed purpose is made part of the poem’ from the outset, there is nothing for the poet to do but to go on making poetry.

Deep Breathing

 

Click here to find Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door at Test Centre.

About the Publisher:

Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @Spaewitch

 

Women Having to Huddle Under Kiosk Roofs

Dance by the Canal by Kerstin Hensel, translated by Jen Calleja: Peirene Press, 2017
Dance by the Canal, or Tanz am Kanal, as Peirene promises, can be read in a single two-hour sitting. The category of the ‘single-sitting’ novel is one Dance by the Canal fulfils in all aspects; engaging, complicated and addictive. This novel in translation is a haunting reminder of German history and of the all too familiar challenges unresolved in our current world. Kerstin Hensel, born in Karl-Marx Stadt in the German Democratic Republic, is a prize-winning poet. She also studied in Leipzig, the basis for the fictional industrial town of Leibnitz in East Germany, where the bulk of the story occurs. This is probably why the sense of place that surrounds the novel is so strong and not at all lost in the translation:

‘Katka knew a place under the Green Bridge for forbidden things and other thrills.
Goldenrod and something that looked like giant rhubarb grew on the embankment.’

dance_canal_2000px-568x900

The story begins in 1994 with the protagonist and narrator, Gabriela von Haßlau, feeling joy for the first time in years because she has decided to write a book, an autobiography on whatever blank scraps, she can find to write on. The reasons she has not felt joy for so long soon become abundantly clear, starting with the fact revealed on page one that she lives under a canal bridge, which is very definitively her bridge, with only the comfort of a thin, grey blanket (two in the winter months) from the homeless shelter to keep her warm. From then on, we are flung into two narratives, the one of her writing, living under her bridge, and the one of what she has already written, and how she ended up there. The switch in time flows beautifully, answering questions from the present through the past with just enough room for the reader to speculate.

Her memories begin with five-year old Gabriela being presented with a violin, ‘-Repeat after me! Vi-o- lin! Vi-o- lin!’ Her father, a successful vascular surgeon, tells her. Because language and words, words which belong to certain people, are so important to this story. A particular focus throughout being the ffffon in Gabriel von Haßlau that every character besides her mother and father take note of. They take note because von is a symbol of wealth; something which Gabriela, along with the rest of Eastern Germany in the 1960s, do not have. The von Haßlaus are living under communist rule and there is no place for their von any longer. Combined with the ‘I’ marked next to Gabriela’s name on the register for Intelligent it would appear she would be at an advantage, but her von and her ‘I’ are only the beginning of her downfall.
Being unfamiliar with the history of the GDR, there were observations, I am sure, that
were lost on me. The general consensus seems to be that us younger Brits do not
have enough knowledge of this particular period of German history to fully grasp the
extent of the truth underlying this story. It would possibly be helpful to read up on the subject before embarking on this book, for example knowing more about the huge
social, economic and political differences between East and West Germany, and
how they became unified, what the longer term consequences were for people living
in the East. However, not knowing the history does not impinge on the overall impact of the novel. Since the number of people sleeping rough in Britain has more than doubled in the last two years, and has risen by 134% since 2010, this is a novel not only about the past, but about the present, and how it doesn’t take much change for someone to lose everything. In the brief foreword that founder of Peirene, Meike Ziervogal, writes in every Peirene novel, she states “This book will make you think.” It certainly has.

Click here to order Dance by the Canal from Peirene Press.
About the publisher:
Peirene Press is a boutique small press publishing house, specializing in contemporary
European novellas and short novels in English translation. Peirene Press publishes its
translated European novellas in trios and Dance by the Canal is the final instalment of the “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series.
Review Laurie Robertson
Laurie Robertson is a recent Literature and Creative Writing graduate from the University of Westminster, currently working at Penguin, DK in non-fiction works, craving the kind of fiction that the Contemporary Small Press reviews!

Diisonance Launch

On Friday 8 September, a curious group of people met at The Gallery Café in Bethnall Greenfor the launch of Diisonance – a book of protest texts, art and collaborative experimental poetry. A solitary microphone stood among café tables in front of a curtain of lights. Paul Hawkins welcomed us, an intimate rabble, before swiftly tearing pages from his latest work Place Waste Dissent: ‘I’m not precious about my work,’ he said.
Place Waste Dissent – published by Influx Press in 2015 – utilises zine culture using ‘scuzzy xeroxed black and white images, cut and stark, pasted typewriter text, drawings and signs.’ The book commemorates a love and loss of Claremont Road, where government plans to construct the M11 Link road tagged every property for demolition and destroyed a flourishing community. Protestors formed a cooperative resistance, exercising their rights and causing dissonance between the community and the status quo. Place Waste Dissent ‘takes the aesthetics of poetry as seriously as the occupation and protests that inspired its writing’ by balancing narratives of occupying protestors
and original residents (notably Dolly Watson who had lived on Claremont Road since 1901) giving voice to those who otherwise were not given the opportunity to be heard.
In its turn, Hawkins explained, Diisonance responds directly to the social issues in Place Waste Dissent. Diisonance, he says, “is a culmination of how it’s affected us, our lives and the psychology we’ve been left with, as a detritus from the whole thing.” Voices come together to fight against social crises, such as housing that persists perilously today: with inevitable tragedies like Grenfell Tower, for example, and the looming demolition of Robin Hood Gardens.

Hawkins handed out the loose pages of his book, explaining that we were about to do something that has never happened before, and can never happen again. The room, rising to its feet, read aloud from the discarded pages of his book – glossy black and white fragments of experimental poetry, collage and text. The room filled with the sound of dissonant voices. It didn’t matter who spoke, sung, shouted or whispered: the text rose from the page into an electric air. Words dissolved in the noise of our many voices, our many fragments. Hawkins moved through the crowded space, the crowded noise, recording the moment that couldn’t happen again.

diisonance
To launch the book, a collaboration of writers read their work – Paul Hawkins, Tony White, Sarer Scotthorne, Gary Budden, Roy McFarlane – with an exhibition by visual artist Steve Ryan. Tony White read from his novel, Charlieunclenorfolktango, written twenty years ago and published by Codex, a defunct small press, in 1999. “This is probably not suitable for children,” White said, before galloping into a dialectic rant on the fifty ways a “mad fuckin’ killer” could break into your house and murder you: “so that’s why there’s got to be coppers” so you can “sleep easy.” Spitefully humorous,
the work accounts for ways the police protect and serve but enforce a system of inequality and injustice. Blue lights flickered across the walls of the café as a police car passed along Old Ford Road.
Hawkins gave a brief reading of his poetry. We learned of the police brutality that occurred during the events at Claremont Road, paying homage to lives and communities deemed worthless when the government approved demolitions for construction of the M11 Link Road, built to link the North Circular Road to the A14, northwest of Cambridge.
Sarer Scotthorne – poet, writer, staunch and radical feminist – read a collection of corresponding letters sent to Miggy Angel. She wrote to Miggy about the dissonance of sound and the human body. Letters, a nostalgic medium, collaborate separate minds that meet on the page. Scotthorne discusses divisions of the human body, reciting her letters as poetry: something private becomes public. The work picks and plucks at the idea of sound and dissonance between things through melodious poetic imagery: ‘the music, the world, all here at once.’ Scotthorne expresses her body oppressed, a body othered; the marginal being that harnesses her muteness to be heard: ‘can you read my silence?’ She incorporates binary code, “0 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 1,” shifting the atmosphere to a strange robotic default. Sound is intrinsically linked to the ‘mouth-sound,’ the ‘beetle-voice’ of female silencing. The female voice is other, alien and isolated but also continuously speaks up from the hushed prisms of the body – Scotthorne presents her silence, the silence of her sex, as a dissonance of self, a fracture of internal harmonies, that begins to use realms of silence in order to speak from the ‘silent maternal body.’ Try to imagine language in reverse: if we can speak in silence, phallogocentrism loses its dominance.
Gary Budden read from his new story collection The Wrecking Days which explores themes of nature and narcotics, writing from the margins of society ‘where reality thinned a little.’ His piece suggested that the artificial and the natural are not opposing at all, instead they are transcendent. Budden writes about youthful and reckless days spent on the London marshes. In such places of in-between, on the fringes of London, Budden writes about notions of being and belonging: the idea that ‘memory is a marsh’ as the world diffuses in mist and nostalgia. The marshes act as a psychogeographical jettison between two places, between city and country, between artifice and nature. Such spaces, as Budden presents in his collection, allowed them to explore their minds, without ‘shutting parts of yourself down.’ It was ‘a way of seeing the world for what it really is,’ to find their own version of what it means to be free: to be and belong on their own terms. But Budden acknowledged, through his tales of the wrecking days, that being able to see the world as it is can also pull you apart.
Roy McFarlane, a poet and playwright, rounded up the evening with two resonant readings from his recent works. The first reading, ‘Tebbit Test,’ reflected on the comment made by British Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, who suggested that immigrants who continued to support their native countries, rather than England, at the sport of cricket, are not significantly integrated into the United Kingdom. Such racial inequity led McFarlane to write about racism and politics in relation to sport. McFarlane reminds us of the cutting dissonance of racial injustice that is active everywhere. His second reading tempered with volumes of sound. The world to McFarlane, as it is now, feels ‘turned
up’ to the point of ‘cut, break, fracture, dissonance.’ As an alternative, McFarlane proposes, the volume of the times should be tuned down – ‘a discordant sound’ falling into a weightless void of silence. He conjured the image of water dripping into ‘a bottomless well of silence.’ McFarlane responds to our discordant times with a call for
silence; a call to listen for the ‘echo of love’ that falls, not like a drip but like a stone, into the water. These moments are lost in the cacophony of noise and noisy images. Yet, McFarlane suggests, these quiet moments have healing properties. They are ripples of time capable of changing social dimensions, from something static to something more fluid.

Overall, the Diisonance book launch explored spaces between binary constructs. Tony White mimicked the discourse between ‘us and them’ that resonated with Paul Hawkins aching reminiscence of creative communities in London, such as Claremont Road; sites where state ideology betrays human rights. Sarer Scotthorne dislocated ‘male and female’ and spoke about how silence is related to structures of gender. She picked at the social structures of male speech and female silence by tuning into feminine silence – and performing it. Gary Budden dislocated the ‘here and there’ of places of being and belonging, where the London marshes act as a safe space for experimentations
of selfhood. Finally, Roy McFarlane expressed the racial disconnect between ‘black and white’ as dissonance, as well as the implication of sound: a ‘lack of harmony between things.’

The Diisonance book launch was an evening of protest and resistance against oppressive forces that attempt to control our lives, that are an especially prominent part of life in the city. The writers acknowledge the present state of things – political, social, economic – expressed through their experiences in the past. Throughout their lives, they have seen things at their best, their worst and everything in between. Diisonance is a project among many that attempts to galvanise the hearts and minds of the people and restore the magnetic flow of life in London.

Click here to order Diisonance from Hesterglock Press.

Review by Kirsty Watling

Kirsty Watling is a writer, bookseller and recent Literature graduate specialising in twentieth century literature, visual culture and critical theory.

 

From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body

From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body, John Latham: Comma Press, 2017

I was intrigued by this poetry collection, published, as it is, by Comma Press – the small press that has become synonymous with short form fiction. As they remarked in their canny advertising campaign: they don’t publish poetry, so when they do it must be special. I wanted to know what made Comma Press love a poetry collection so much that they wanted to publish it as their own.

From Professor Murasaki

Reading John Latham’s From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body I do get a sense of the richness of its language, the depth and scope of its range of subjects and the subtly intricate connections between them. As with a short fiction collection, there’s a tender intensity to every poem that’s complete within itself while also being open to repetitions and connections that make it part of the whole work. There’s a gentle but dynamic movement between poems and within the collection that enables the lines to speak to one another across the pages.

One prevalent motif that traces its electric presence through the work is of course that of lightning. Beginning with the staccato eponymous notes taken from marginalia translations of the various effects of lightning on the human body we read of lightning striking a young girl in July 1978:

‘lightning

conflaged cracked dead-bush 6m from stone,

surge entering body by left toe and knee-skins

scorched but hardly. …

Her memories of suction into light fibrillating

like new leaves.’

A further incident in 1997 came without warning, ‘No hailstones, no St. Elmo’s Fire, so foreboding invalid’, a school teacher’s fingers ‘badly cindered, fused, / yet still holding black stone for further play’; while his son, though ‘hurtled into the water, naked’, was ‘unscathed except for fern-prints on left heel’. Throughout the collection, lightning, leaves, hailstones and St. Elmo’s Fire will recur to play again, assuming new positions and bearing new significances as they ripple through the weave of the text.

In ‘From A Glossary of the Forms and Qualities of Ice’ we discover

Lightning Trigger: In the cloud a hailstone bristles, distorts

electric force-lines, compresses them until stressed-out air

breaks down, a spark leaps out of ice, becomes a filament

glowing on its wayward path to earth. The sky cracks open.’

The connection between hail and lightning made firm here.  Like the cover image, the traces of lightning weave themselves across the skin of this collection, touching deep nerves in places.

Words and phrases dance, echo and leave traces between found-text fragments and lyric poems, weaving a collection that feels alive with rhythmic desire. This, to me, is how the best collections of short fiction pulse, too, and it could be one reason Latham’s poetry has captured the heart of Comma.

Click here to buy From Professor Murasaki’s Notebooks on the Effects of Lightning on the Human Body direct from Comma Press.

About the Publisher: 

Comma Press is a not-for-profit publishing initiative which aims to promote new writing. It places a particular emphasis on the short story. The Press declares on its website that it is committed to “a spirit of risk-taking and challenging publishing, free of the commercial pressures on mainstream houses”. Comma began life as an artist’s group in 2003 with a series of short story booklets in four cities across the North of England (distributed as free supplements with each of the cities’ listings magazines). This project then developed into a series of book-length anthologies. In 2007 Comma also launched a translation imprint (again specialising in short fiction) to bring new masters of the form to British readers. Comma also publishes poetry collections and the occasional novel.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

 

 

Bellowing at the Moon

Blue Self-Portrait, Noémi Lefebvre (Translated by Sophie Lewis): Les Fugitives

This short novel in translation from Les Fugitives Press is as unputdownable as it is unforgettable. Mid-flight between Berlin and Paris, our female narrator constructs a narrative of herself that weaves between memory, assumption, speculation, and (in rare and brief moments) the details of the flight she’s actually sitting on. Equally between locations as between languages, she must spend the flight time switching back to French from German, as her thoughts veer between the two modes and the two countries. In a space never fully occupied by itself, this novel explores the flights of imagination that keep a restless mind ever-elsewhere.

Blue Self-Portrait

‘If I’d allowed my inner goings-on to show you’d have taken me for a cow bellowing at the moon’

This metaphor is returned to throughout, suggesting the narrator’s inner stream of consciousness – in which we, the reader, are immersed unrestrainedly – is the equivalent to a howl of inarticulable, bestial noise. This is deftly juxtaposed, however, with the exquisite and virtuosic sweeping prose of the novel. Rhythmic, cyclical, polyphonic. Sentences can carry for the length of a paragraph (or more) which, in turn might run to several pages. Within a single sentence conflicting ideas, contradictory thoughts, randomly associated memories will be brought into a kind of rhythm with one another that is utterly compelling. Dwelling particularly on the subjects of painting and music (Schoenberg and his blue Self-Portrait), the novel effectively accomplishes its own inner musicality, while presenting the spectre of a self-portrait lived between memory, association and speculation.

The novel retains its high intensity throughout a narrative that could be read in a single, uninterrupted and fervent sitting. Within these pages are both the remembering and the forgetting of the horrors of the world, the personal and intensely lived experience of being, and an ardent resistance to all notions of collective happiness in its variety of forms.

Beautifully pitched and compellingly virtuosic, Blue Self-Portrait is translated from Lefebvre’s original French novella by Sophie Lewis and published by Les Fugitives Press which specialises in publishing only short novels by award-winning francophone women writers. Despite its brevity, Blue Self-Portrait has an epic feel to it, and the precision of Lefebvre’s language demands an exacting translation by Lewis. Les Fugitives is dedicated to bringing such novels as this to an English-reading public, and we are the richer for it.

Click here to buy Blue Self-Portrait directly from Les Fugitives.

About the Publisher: 

Les Fugitives is an award-winning independent press dedicated to short, new writing by francophone female authors previously unavailable in English.

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.

Work-in-Progress

The Practical Senior Teacher, Finella and Philip Davenport (Curated by Tony Trehy)  Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2016

‘bbbbut…’

Finella and Philip Davenport’s The Practical Senior Teacher is a book in the loosest possible sense of the word, and yet also in multiple senses of the word, too. First the loose associations: This is a collaged work spanning over thirty years begun by sister and brother Finella and Philip Davenport (collaborating as The Gingerbread Tree) in 1984 and continuing to evolve as a work in progress to this day. The pages collected, printed and bound as the 2016 KFS edition bearing the title represent a fraction of the 300-plus page work that exists and has been exhibited in loose-leaf form at the Text Festival in Bury and the Storey Gallery in Lancaster.

Beyond the codex are the physically collaged pages incorporating layer upon layer of magazine cut-ups, adverts, government health warnings, comics, paint, lipstick, scribbled notes and empty painkiller packets. The book is just one possible iteration of the project of The Practical Senior Teacher, and readers can accompany their reading with the YouTube playlist The Margaret Thatcher Museum for an additional, aural, layer to the collage. Further videos by The Gingerbread Tree feature collaged pages from the book thrown into alternative contexts.   This is a restless and relentless project, a perpetual work-in-progress that has been continually worked and re-worked since its inception. The ‘book’ is just a part of it.

Yet this project also fulfils the definition of book from multiple perspectives. The title, The Practical Senior Teacher references the original textbook that forms the substrate for the composition of the collaged pages. This book started life as a textbook for school teachers in the Thatcher era, and the subsequent collage-work provides its own document (Old English boc, book) of those times through its incorporated layers. This is both a personal and a cultural document of those years, creating a history from the detritus of a throw-away culture interwoven with the debris of personal crisis and development. Pages documenting Finella’s experience of the life-threatening post-natal condition HELLP are left unchanged by Philip, yet the condition is represented, like everything in the book, by its waste products.

the practical senior teacher

Throughout the book, various excerpts and iterations of Finella’s poem Bee Scandal are woven with the collaged pages, giving a kind of loose metaphorical narrative of a society disintegrating and self-destructive – the same society attested to by the decades-long collage project.

The days

we hid in a      basement

beneath the incessant buzz

didn’t know which side was winning

took turns to take

guard

(ear to the radio:

the well-bred

            the dead

 

will take

the Queen

The poem carries echoes of a bunkered and broken society as well as a colony of bees in a hive. As the poem becomes more fractured and fragmented the bees themselves begin to pile up ‘like abandoned rubbish … trash stings scattered needles’ – again interweaving the twin narratives of the bees and the society they echo. The bees piling up like abandoned rubbish, their stings scattered like the needles of a drug user. Society itself broken and addicted. Each reduced to its own destruction. Through collage, however, the abandoned rubbish becomes the material of recreation, the constant reconstruction as work-in-progress with whatever materials happen to be at hand.

Other fragments of text from the layers of collage appear and disappear through the worked pages – whose most recent form of reworking includes digitisation. This has allowed pages to be duplicated, mirrored and adapted digitally; distinguishing the collected pages from their material counterparts and enabling effects such as reversal and repetition that further distort the reading and disorient the reader.

When the work was displayed in Lancaster it was as part of Understanding the Ritual, an exhibition of art-shamanism, and it’s this that interests me the most about The Practical Senior Teacher: the ritual process at play in the project. The restlessness of the ritualistic acts that have compelled Finella and Philip Davenport to keep creating, destroying and recreating this work for over three decades, and the alchemical transformation of that act physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually. One of the most intriguing text-fragments for me is set onto a page painted almost entirely red and includes the following mythically-resonant phrases:

‘Heart of Dionysus

 

heart of hare

not eaten lest it make the eater timid

heart of lion or le[op]ard eat           heart of wolf

& of bear

eat to acquire courage

 

SCREWS YOU UP’

The final phrase is taken from the 80’s Government health warning ‘Heroin Screws You Up’, and there’s so much going on here. Is the eater of the wolf’s heart the mythical equivalent to a junkie? Does the juxtaposition suggest equivalence or contradiction, or something less exact? The association with heroin brings to mind a play on wasted / waste / wasteful that resonates with the theme of detritus throughout the book and finds another expression in the empty pill packet representing a moment of serious threat to Finella’s life.

Like the making of this ‘book’, the reading is a work-in-progress, an unsettled and unsettling process of excavating and creating connections within, between and beyond the pages. No two readings are ever the same and there’s no fixed ‘meaning’ to discover. Reading this book is a physical process that can, if the reader chooses, engage multiple senses and experiences. For me, its magic is in its perpetual openness to recreation, coming alive at its multiple points of connection, writing and creating not only the lives it contains but also the lives it touches.

Click here to buy The Practical Senior Teacher direct from Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

About the Publisher:

Knives Forks and Spoons Press is a prolific publisher of avant-garde poetry by internationally acclaimed poets and emerging young writers. ‘KFS is a forum for an extraordinary range of diversity and risk-taking artistic experiment.’

Review by Sally-Shakti Willow

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster.  She is Research Assistant for the Contemporary Small Press.