The Omnivore just posted a blog about the lack of female reviewers writing about big, important, scholarly books. The reasons for this are as mystifying as the reasons we have social imbalances in any area of the arts. I know that there is a tendency for directors / CEOs / editors (largely male) to work within their familiar (largely male) circles, and that this can lead to the exclusion of women (and by extension black, gay, trans, disabled, poor people – you name it.) For example, I very, very rarely see editors/representatives from top (or even middling) publishing houses at small, raucous events with hot new voices, but I see them in abundance at readings by Russell Group alumni, the already famous and the nearly-dead. If you are clever, you will attend these champagne and nic-nac events because said editors are usually very friendly. Nobody denies inequality, however when it comes to redressing the balance those with power prefer you to come to them. I wonder if the same thing applies when it comes to reviews?
“What Brecht asserts is that in idealist works the emotion acts by and for itself, producing what he calls “emotional orgies”, while a materialist poetics – whose objective is not only that of interpreting the world but also of transforming it and making this world finally habitable – has the obligation of showing how the world can be transformed.” – Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed.
Depending on how you look at it, it’s both unfortunate and fortunate that the debate about activism with Richard Stallman and Louis Ng is happening at this time; equally, that my doubts and thoughts about what activism means have coincided with a not-so-covert global campaign against Joseph Kony. Indeed, I was just as jostled by Millbank in 2010, the student protests and riots in 2011 and the Occupy movement. My doubts have also coincided with International Women’s Day, and an event run by Etiquette in celebration. A Malay aunty spoke about the magnetism of facebook – a massive vehicle for the campaign – which she has noticed in her grandchildren. Puzzled, she asked “what is this never-ending conversation? If someone would teach me maybe I would want to join Facebook too!”
So here’s my beef. I believe that the people who have come out with “critiques” about activists, and sudden popular activist movements, are not applying their critical thinking to some of their own positions. I think there’s a tendency, which is just as lazy, to say that the people who are getting involved are being coerced by a slick, well-produced video. Here’s a mandarin proverb which seems so obvious as to be axiomatic: “the participant’s view is distorted; the bystander’s view is correct”. But surely active, thoughtful participation is what we’re aiming for?
Above is the rather palatial outdoor amphitheatre outside the college, where I organised an open mic / reading for the students. I was terrified nobody would come, when, at 7.30, three of the writers who’d attended the workshop were huddled on the steps with no audience. Luckily, people gathered, and it turned out there was a bit of a theme of the evening, namely memorisation. I was thinking about this the other night. I have about twelve poems committed to memory, every single one of them written before about 1920, with the exception of Weldon Kees’s “For My Daughter”. Most are sonnets, two Shakespearean; more by Keats; and one by Shelley. You can see that I memorised a chunk of poems in time for my exams at uni.
Part of my proposal for this residency was that I’d memorise my poems, since I have not bothered to since I was about seventeen. I think I discovered that I didn’t have to write and learn a new poem for every single event I read at. It was a noble obligation, but it meant my readings were terrible because I was always writing the poems as the compere called me up. Now the opposite is true. Committing things to memory might take the edge off, especially as, the few times that I do recite from memory, there is an obvious improvement in the performance and you connect with the audience better. But even more than that, I love how it feels when I’m inside the poem. It’s cheesy, yes, but I feel as though I’ve blacked out for the three or four minutes I was up there. I remember every moment, but my mind isn’t the screeching bitch it usually is, and that’s very satisfying.
I’m working on a piece for a new anthology set to come out mid-2012. It’s called In Their Own Voicesand will be edited by Helen Ivory and George Szirtes. Fifty or so authors will each talk about their “poetics”. I’m having trouble working out what that means. I understand that “poetics” refers to discourse around the theory of poetry (thank you wikipedia), but every attempt I’ve made to apply the term to my work seems false. So I’ve been concentrating on the tension between my self-identification as a writer and my tendency to perform rather than publish. In doing so, I’ve been reading lots of fascinating essays and article, including a piece by Peter Middleton called “The Contemporary Poetry Reading.” It was written in 1998, so a lot has changed since then, but I love that he begins with a description of a reader on stage and then this:
“This ritual is an ordinary poetry reading of the kind that has become widespread in the past forty years, and is therefore so familiar to most readers of contemporary poetry that its strangeness requires an alienating description to be visible at all. Listeners and poets have had almost nothing to say about this phenomenon despite its importance for financing and fostering their careers, assisting the distribution of their poetry, and even shaping its very forms.” (p.262)
Last night was technically my second performance of the year (the first was in New York, at an event with the rather opulent title of “Rivers of Honey.”) Bani and Riduan were cool to work with and I think the final result made for an unusual night out in Singapore. Seeing Riduan’s collection of drums and his loop machine made me want to experiment more with music. Without using the R word, maybe that’s an idea for 2012.
Check out Riduan Zalani here. And Bani Haykal here.
In two days I will don my sub-fusc and jump through the biggest hoop of my academic career: I’ll spend a week writing exams in the morning, then revising in the afternoon, all the time wondering what impact it will have on my life and what will happen when it ends. I know what will happen, of course.
First, I will write up a very long Letter to Potential Applicants, a piece I’ve been thinking about for some time and which will (hopefully) be a useful addition to all the stuff written about Oxford. I am both fascinated and repulsed by my education, unlike Zadie Smith who managed to get over any issues of entitlement / inferiority very quickly. I suspect there are others who have not yet arrived who will be especially prone to this dilemma, so I’m writing for them. Second, I will devote all my time and energy to re-discovering why, exactly, I picked English.
I intended to write an entry about the fact that I haven’t updated since Nov 2009. Then I wondered if that mattered at all, since the central argument of the entry was how I didn’t think ‘resolving’ to do things was a good idea when the length of my to-do list is an Andrex Puppy’s wet dream. So I’ll scrap that, and make it quick: in the last seven days I have been oogling at the London Word Festival; checking out the Robin Hood Tax; salivating over Jinoos Taghizadeh’s Rock, Paper, Scissors (2009); using various Giacomo Brunelli wildlife photographs as my desktop background; organising LadyFest Oxford 2010; and, finally, wondering what current topics relevant to women and literature, I could use as the basis for a comic. I’d really like to return to the idea of women and YouTube – how creative ladies vlog about themselves and their work, and whether this could actually be an advantageous move given the impending doom that is the Kindle / ipad…
I have also learned a lot about the Howard League through the good work of WomCam… One of the speakers said she’d yet to see an accurate portrayal of prison (besides the structure of the buildings), but I wondered if she’d seen Stranger Inside (Dunye, 2001) or Scum (Clarke, 1979). The issue of voyeurism came up when she mentioned the fact that the National Association of Official Prison Visitors really does exist. It claims to be about ‘friendship’, which is an idea I can support… I left the meeting wondering whether the impulse to observe could become less voyeuristic if used to the end of creating art. How could a film like Scum have been made if someone didn’t think that what they’d seen inside was important enough to be shown to the rest of us? Of course, there is the added problem of a bunch of Oxford students – 99% of whom lead very nice lives – descending upon Pentonville and reaching out with our pudgy little hands. But then I am also bored with the implication that your actions are somehow tainted if you’ve had a nice life. It often amounts to saying you ought to shut up and do nothing because you’re middle classed.
I’ve also been quietly seething about the cuts to universities and rejoicing over Gill Scott Heron’s new album. Praise be to the man, who can make me feel excited about performing poetry again…
Some of the slides I used for my presentation at Imkaan.
Some might recognise this from another comic I did about moving in to an ex-nursing home.
Today I was clearing my desktop and remembered this:
It’s a shortened version of the final poem in my book and was made for a print publication ‘Shook’. In fact, I saw the guy who asked me to do it a few days ago and he said it was probably out already. Look out for a bright red cover, apparently.
Last night / This morning was the midnight run – but it is such a vast event that I might dedicate a full and proper post to it. I am looking forward to seeing what the selected artists produce: one person recorded it, another is doing poetry, someone else is doing a comic strip. I left the group twice and went on my own little run, all the time listening out to see where everyone else was. On several occasions – i.e The Golden Hinde, The Swiss Re building – there was total silence and I was worried I’d lost everyone for good. But each time we reconvened it was because I’d taken a street by chance and – bang – there they were. Not that anyone noticed – but I’d say there are at least two stories in there.