In ‘Saws’, Trevor Joyce writes of ‘Drifting hungers and accessory rage’. Eléna Rivera writes in ‘See’, ‘The limit of reproduction and replica, / of “you” as reflection, of “you” as reaction’. Edmond Jabès has Yukel say in ‘The Time of the Lovers’, ‘A blank page swarms with steps on the point of finding their own tracks. An existence is a scrutiny of signs.’ Trying to answer Robert’s question inevitably raises others: is alternative doing the same thing? Has it changed? I have some sympathy with Chris Hamilton-Emery’s argument that innovative practices are now so commonplace they’re the new mainstream. But I’d want to add that I’m constantly astonished by how alternative elements don’t have to be very big in order to make a poetry that seems completely divergent from what comes from, say, Cape or Bloodaxe. But the poetry that’s excited and interested me the most in recent years seems to have enacted a testing of the whole idea of the alternative, a testing in the same way that Krzysztof Ziarek’s attempted a way past the so-called theory death of the avant-garde with his concept of the ‘forcework’. The alternative work of art is not an object but an event that unmakes and remakes the forces of power that circulate around it and through it. Ziarek’s wrong and right at the same time. He’s wrong because Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ is as much as a forcework as one of Bill Viola’s video installations. But he’s also right because it seems to me that the poetry I’ve found most valuable in the last 8 years is only fully activated off the page, in the air, in bookfair and conference moshpits, and in the upstairs rooms of performance. And that also connects with the fact that the most arresting voices occupying places and spaces have been women’s. Confronted with the work of younger poets—and you really are confronted—like Frances Kruk and Emily Critchley I want to yell something like ‘holy paratactic bad girl word salad Batman’ except it’s there in the work of older poets like Frances Presley and Geraldine Monk too. The voice is thrown out into environments—political, historical, sexual—to see what it catches and catches on. And you have to be there to hear it. I don’t see/hear this is the work of many male poets except Keston Sutherland and Sean Bonney. But then it’s hard to do the overview thing because, as earlier respondents have pointed out, you can’t put poets into boxes marked ‘London’ or ‘Cambridge’ anymore. (Could you ever do that with women poets?) And the actual socialities underwriting alternative poetry are much more interesting and surprising anyway. Overview brings me on to another thing I want to mention which is something that hasn’t happened in the last 8 years. We still don’t have the body of criticism to match the work we love. I’m talking big books not articles. Andrew Duncan and our host here have both made bold stabs but they both seemed to leave a lot out. Or perhaps Duncan was just too eccentric (outside) and Sheppard was just too concentric (inside). I’ve been sceptical about such a project elsewhere but I still think it’s worth an attempt. A final thing that comes to mind is Peter Riley’s appreciation of Andrew Crozier in PN Review 182. Riley mentions Crozier’s seminal essay ‘Thrills and frills: poetry as figures of empirical lyricism’ and its famous summary of Larkin: ‘we are asked to trust the poet, not the poem’. Re-reading that, I know what Crozier means and I’m thankful for alternative poetry because I’m not interested in poets’ lives exponentially smoothed into consumer goods. I want to know that the poets I read and hear can be as confused, angry, sceptical, hysterical or perverted as I can. I want the work to jolt me. But at the same time I want to say ‘yes’ because if we can’t trust our alternative poets to do right by us in language in these dismal times then who? And when? And that’s why we need the criticism I was talking about. We (those who write and read alternative poetry) need to tell our own story. ‘The comic book version destroyed all / possibility for heroic action’, writes Eléna Rivera in ‘Painting our evidence’. Put an ‘almost’ and a date in there somewhere—you choose where and when—and you’ll get closer to what I mean.
Eléna Rivera’s poems are in Mistakes, Accidents and a Want of Liberty (Barque Press, 2006). A useful introduction to Edmond Jabès is From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). Trevor Joyce’s poem is in What’s in Store – Poems 2000-2007 (New Writers’ Press/The Gig, 2007).