The imprisonment of Mohammad Al-Ajami – sentenced to life imprisonment for writing a poem that insults Qatar’s emir – brings up two things for me. First, it raises the ever-ugly head of media hypocrisy: Qatar based Al Jazeera, which I watch often, did not report on the case despite reporting on human rights violations elsewhere. Second, it raises the issues I felt when I was in Singapore – and continue to feel – about writing truthfully and critically. Realistically, nothing as bad as what has happened to Al-Ajami is going to happen to me, but then I suppose Al-Ajami did not believe such a thing would happen to him.
I love Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon. It was given to me by a friend in Singapore, shortly after we had a discussion about the problems of queerness and cinema: Hollywood dramas such as The Kids Are All Right sit strangely because there’s an instinctive aesthetic discomfort with seeing queer characters in a form / genre defined by heterosexual characters. Mysterious Object shows the possibilities of a nationalist cinema and in doing so hints at what is possible for queer cinema. This was on my mind this afternoon when I attended a BBC Writers Room session – a very thoughtful date my housemate took me on – and heard the northern director of the programme, Henry Swindell, speak.
“A successful collaboration is always the result of a successful relationship. The paintings are the physical proof of the harmony that existed beyond the canvas.” – Keith Haring on Warhol and Basquiat, Oct 4 1988, NYC.
A few days ago I presented an exhibition of Exquisite Corpses at a warehouse in Melbourne. While travelling in Indonesia, my compadre and I passed the time by playing this game. After a few rounds, we decided we’d make 54 and turn them in to a deck of cards as a souvenir. When we arrived in Melbourne, and it was suggested over the fire that we exhibit everything we’d drawn, we didn’t take it very seriously and, besides, we were sure we’d drawn less than forty. Over the next few days we suddenly remembered, with much amusement, that we were supposed to be completing more in time for “The Exhibition”. On the day, we dragged ourselves from very good company in Edinburgh gardens an hour before the show was to open, and blu-tacked the corpses to the wall. The gallery space, which was annexed to a very cool warehouse occupied by the sweetest of couples, G and E, was being cleared by the lease-holder who was hoovering with Freddy Mercury-like enthusiasm. Only two curatorial decisions were made – to put the pieces in rough chronological order and on the far wall without any chairs – and within the hour we were cracking open the beers.
Last week I asked everyone to bring a poem they thought needed a lot of work. They swapped among themselves, spent the week writing feedback, and then, yesterday, presented their thoughts and improvements to the rest of the group. Almost everything I do is coloured by a book I fell in love with over the summer, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Friere, specifically the sections about giving up power. A zine I was reading put it especially well: in a piece entitled “Queers Kissing and Accountability” Shannon Perez-Derby states:
“Often we get power without asking for it and giving away power can feel counter intuitive because it’s something we’re not taught to do, and have almost no models for.”
The week before last we made zines. I decided to run the workshop because I think zine making is liberating. I distributed my first set of poems via a zine called “Kids Who Die In Cupboards”. Not the most uplifting title I could have chosen, but it came out of a conversation I had with a friend, and the story stuck with me for so long, that I couldn’t think of anything else.
Anyway, the point was to make something I could be proud of, and distribute for free (or very, very little money). I was enamored by the whole zine culture in the first place because anyone could participate, you didn’t have to go through an editor, there was virtually no negative criticism of the kind you find in literary magazines, and people would support you as you grew. So that’s the kind of culture I’m trying to instigate here at NUS. Let’s hope it works. Funnily enough, as I can’t sleep, I’ve been reading Greenzine by Cristy C. Road. She’s giving me all kinds of ideas for my Graphic Poetry exhibition – I want everyone who visits to leave with a zine – in lieu of the standard catalogue – that achieves a fraction of her awesomeness.
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 a bit of a dinosaur. The fact that I am posting this video six months after it was shot proves this. My discomfort with social media means that for the last eight years I have avoided doing much online beyond reading email, blogging in spurts, wasting time on YouTube and scrolling through The Guardian. I have never understood how the internet aids what I do as a writer. It’s an obvious promotion tool, but, so far, it has had little impact on what I actually write. It has been noted that we writers of literary fiction and poetry act as though the internet did not exist, and I think it’s because the model/medium – pen and paper – is still the same, as is the aim – publication. I am aware that this is evidence of a chronic lack of imagination.
Flicking through various poetry books to find ideas for writing makes for eerily familiar reading. Books such as Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and the Teach Yourself: Poetry book all suggest writing more as a way of dealing with the fact that you haven’t written anything. Very like the commentators who suggest that we should spend more money because, in spending too much, the economy has collapsed, but depends on spending to be revived again. I was reading this article, and thought, what about another solution? Isn’t the drive to be creative too limited to the idea of production?
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)