The Paradox of Contemporary Poetry (Board-Game Edition)

There is a great paradox in contemporary poetry.

On the one hand, poetry seems to be dwindling–in bookstore shelves and traditional academic curricula–so much so that it has become fashionable for journalists to frequently declare it dead. On the other hand, I have but to scroll through my social media feeds to witness an eruption of poetry being written and published online.

Likewise, an offering like Al Filreis’ Modern Poetry online course has attracted more than 100,000 students eager to read and learn from great poets of the past. Furthermore, as a poet I know that even though the overall fan base for poetry may have dwindled since the advent of the Internet, that same technology allows me to connect with global audiences many times the size of what some of our most respected poets enjoyed as regional audiences one hundred years ago.

So it would seem that poetry is dying in the real world, only to be reborn into a kind of “Invisible Golden Age” online.

My own response to this paradox is equally dualistic. I acknowledge that poetry may never go mainstream in my lifetime, and aspire primarily for the respect of respectable peers. Yet at the same time, I work hard to bring poetry to new audiences, in person and online. In that vein, I have been gathering my thoughts about the fact that so many people are now reading and writing poems, yet poetry is still perceived as a floundering art. Really, how can this be?

The following diagram illustrates how I see people engaging with poetry today.

The Poetry Board Game
  • At the bottom left we have the non-participants, who read and write little. Often, somewhere in the course of their primary education, usually from a teacher they disliked or who disliked them, they got the message that poetry was difficult, irrelevant, or both.
  • At bottom right, we have the self-expressionists, who write much but read little. Many of us entered into this phase in adolescence, when what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” turned in to our first attempts at poetry.
  • At top left, we have fans of poetry. Here we must distinguish between those who, like the students in Al Filreis’ class, are reading historical poetry, and those who read living authors as well.
  • In the upper right, we have living poets. Reading and writing are the in- and out-breath of a life steeped in poetry, and the most prolific poets I know are also among the most voracious readers.

The boxes in blue represent the behaviours most likely to help usher us out of this “Invisible Golden Age” into, well, a visible one–that is, reading contemporary poetry as a fan and both reading and writing it as a poet.

It is pretty easy to see why the health and longevity of the art depends on these things happening. So how do we encourage such behaviour?

Think of the diagram as a board game. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is help usher people from the gray areas into the white, and from the white areas into the blue. Fostering some appreciation of historical poetry, as well as providing some early creative outlet for trying one’s hand at writing the stuff, is usually best begun in primary school. Initiatives like California Poets in the Schools do a fine job of this. They move people into the white.

From here, the sheer volume of poetry being written, and the speed at which it races around online and even in print, can be daunting for new readers. What poets who write much and read little really need are mentors–poets who can read what they are writing and say, “Here, try this established contemporary poet. You might learn something from them about the kind of poem you are trying to write.” MFA programmes are one place where this happens, but workshop groups and tame poet-friends can do this too.

Likewise, readers of historical poetry need encouragement, based on their current tastes, to branch into contemporary poets. Like John Donne? Try Christian Wiman. John Keats? Try Li-Young Lee. For me, this started at university, but it is really never too early or too late to try contemporary poetry.

We may not be able to hit a “home run” by ushering people straight from the grey zone of non-participation into becoming overnight poets in the blue. Yet by first opening the doors to reading and writing poetry of any kind, then by acknowledging that contemporary poetry is largely a matter of taste, and trying to accomodate the tastes of newcomers with useful recommendations, we may well do our part to break contemporary poetry free of its current double-bind.

There is all kinds of evidence for the benefits of engaging more deeply with poetry–psychologically and even physiologically. Like every other contemporary poet, I know this to be true from my own experience. If, like me, you have been looking for ways to help others to find their way to poetry, I encourage you to have a look at the board, roll the dice, and join me in playing the game.

Thoughts? Comments? Join the conversation at Huffington Post


When it Rains, it Pours

I am involved with three different poetry events in the coming week.

The PityFirst, the UK Poetry Society commissioned me to design video sequences for “The Pity”–a commemoration of the centennial of the First World War involving new poetic responses to conflict.

As poets Denise Riley, Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, and Warsan Shire read their poems in the Purcell Room on Thursday night, my video sequences will be playing on the big screen behind them.

It was a pleasure to collaborate this way, and I am looking forward to the result. More details are here.

Swindon Festival of PoetryNext, we are off to Wiltshire for the excellent Swindon Festival of Poetry on Friday. I am giving a lunchtime reading at Lower Shaw Farm which promises to be delicious. I am looking forward to seeing friends, and putting real faces to a few virtual acquaintances. That evening Don Share, editor of Poetry will read his poetry to musical accompaniment. The whole festival looks terrific. Hats off to Hilda Sheehan for bringing together such a wealth and diversity of poetry events.

The TroubadourFinally, it is back to one of my favourite London venues, The Troubadour, on Monday night for an evening of American poetry. I am looking forward to finally meeting Tim Nolan, as well as a fine lineup of expats, transplants, and imports who all share the same accent as me. Come join us if you can.

More details about each event are available on my website. Come early, say hello, and bring an umbrella.


Interview with Geosi Gyasi

Geosi Gyasi is an avid reader and blogger based in Ghana who has interviewed a wide range of authors over several years.

He discovered my work through a poem recently published in Rattle, and asked some interesting questions in our interview–about how formal study has influenced my poems, about how I see technology shaping poetry, and the best thing that has ever happened to me as a poet.

I also talk about why the human element is so important to me in world of word-play, and give a sneak peek at what readers might expect from my forthcoming collection The Knowledge.

You can read the full interview here at Geosi Reads.


One Stop (Film-Poem)

One Stop Laurels

Our recent film-poem collaboration “One Stop” was nominated for best music/sound at Liberated Words III in Bristol, where it premiered. The original soundtrack was composed and performed by Valerie Kampmeier. The film commemorates the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

<a href="http://vimeo.com/105005307"><img src="http://cdn5.peakepro.com/files/2012/02/one-stop-screenshot-1024x577.png" alt="One Stop" style="max-width: 500px;">Click here to view the video</a>

 

One Stop

Do you remember beach-combing
for three-oh-three shells,
our little Easter-egg hunt
for exploding chocolate?
I think of you whenever
I snap the pill box shut.
You called our ride in a Higgins
boat "one stop on a busy tube."
We breathed through our helmets,
begging the spume to ricochet,
then leapt the ditch toward freedom
and cleared the snarling wire.
So this is freedom. This side
contains the same amount
of nitrogen in the air.
We won the race with our fists,
hands down, sound bananas.
What was it all for, Charlie?
Nineteen more minutes of linked
hands and holy prayers
to that bombshell divinity?
How do we know this road
leads back to the invisible base?
Go first. I'm right behind you.

Process Notes

I sourced archival colour footage of WWII, and composited this into an animation that I created using Blender 3D. I recorded journeys on the tube with an X1 Zoom, and mixed this under Valerie's music and my voice reading the poem.


Reaching the Next Generation with Poetry

Edwin in the RainI never thought of myself as a children’s poet.

Yet it was thanks to Dr. Seuss that I began to delight in language itself, and I believe this early contact was crucial to my subsequent love affair with poetry. The tradition continues today, with excellent children’s poetry books coming out in print like In the Land of the Giants by George Szirtes (Salt, 2012). Yet I wonder if reaching children where we increasingly find them–affixed to the glow of a touch-screen device, with the whole of the Internet just a tap away–can be just as effective to instil a love of words and sounds.

As I explained at the award ceremony for our film-poem “Buttons”, this was part of the impetus for the film’s creation. Video has taken on a new life online. The next generation is growing up on YouTube in the same way that we grew up on radio and television.

Our film-poem was a labour of love–both in its conception as a collaboration between my pianist wife Valerie and me, and in its dedication to our young nephew in Australia. The response that night in the Purcell room, and the following day during an interview and screening of this and other children’s film-poems at the Southbank Centre, as well as the reverberations throughout social media as parent-friends pulled their children close to watch it together–has been heartening indeed.

Continuing in this spirit, I have decided to make a storybook version of the poem available to download for free on both iOS and Android devices. My hope is that parents will be able to read the poem and watch the film with their children in the same way that I turned the dog-eared pages of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish with my own mum so long ago.

You can download the book and watch the film right here.

Download for iOS/MacDownload for Android



“Buttons” (Award-Winning Film-Poem for Children)

Buttons LaurelsI am delighted to announce that “Buttons” won the judge’s prize in the 2014 Southbank Centre Poetry Film Competition “Shot Through the Heart” children’s category. It will premiere at the prize-giving ceremony on July 18th at the Purcell Room in London.

<a href="http://vimeo.com/89524515"><img src="http://cdn5.peakepro.com/files/2014/07/20140302175638-1024x576.jpg" alt="Buttons" style="max-width: 500px;"/><br>Click here to view the video</a>

Buttons

Buttons themselves are a kind of love token,
they fasten your coat to keep out the damp,
and love is each stitch sewn tight and unbroken
sticking them down like a well-licked stamp.

Buttons make eyes for your stuffed toys to see,
which bulge when you squeeze them right up
but love holds them on through the teddybear tea
or they’d fall with a splash–in your cup!

The things that we love we keep close as we can
sewn into our pockets and stitched on our sleeve
but one day, time’s tick-tock will unravel our plans
and a button will fall down, roll on, and just leave.

Buttons make eyes for your stuffed toys to see,
they fasten your coat to keep out the breeze,
the things that we love we keep close as can be,
but sometimes our love means we let them go free.

So, goodbye to the buttons, both pearly and black,
you fastened our trousers, you picked up the slack,
we will miss your bright shine, and miss your click-clack
we love you, goodbye now, and we hope you come back.

Process Notes

Raspberry Pi Camera with LEGO armature

When Valerie and I read the call-out for a film-poem competition with a children’s category happening here in London, we had to give it a try.

I wrote and recorded the poem, and then began playing with stop-motion animation. I used Christmas ornaments made of teasel, blue tack, coloured paper, a Raspberry Pi with LEGO-mounted camera arm (my own creation, at right), and of course lots of buttons. Valerie wrote and recorded the music at the end.

After more than forty hours of painstaking animation work, it was so gratifying to discover that the judges–a group of London school children–really liked the result.

We hope you do too.


Push-Bike by Elaine Gaston (Film-Poem)

<a href="http://vimeo.com/91520689"><img src="http://cdn5.peakepro.com/files/2014/06/screenshot-1024x576.png" alt="push-bike" style="max-width: 500px;"/><br>Click here to view the video</a>

Push-Bike
Click here to read the text of the poem on the Poetry Society website.

Process Notes

Valerie and I were honoured to be selected to make a film from one of the seven commended poems in the 2013 UK National Poetry Competition. We admired Elaine Gaston’s “Push Bike” as a poem, and sought to carefully expand on some of its themes with music and visual imagery. I used the camera module on a Raspberry Pi to capture time-lapse of clouds out our front window, and mixed this in with public domain footage from Preligner archives. Valerie composed piano music based on “Oh, Oh Antonio” by C.W. Murphy, which is mentioned in the poem. The film premiered at Filmpoem 2014, Antwerp.