The Circus of Poetry: from Clowning to the Taming of the Lion

Three years ago I edited and published a collection of essays exploring new approaches to poetry.

Stress Fractures is currently on sale for just five of your English pounds, so as a further temptation I am making my introduction to the book freely available right here. I envisaged the collection as a means of provoking dialogue, so do let me know your thoughts!

As a kid growing up in South London, one of the highlights of my year was the visit of the Chinese State Circus to Brockwell Park. Into the hilly expanse of green space wedged between the urban neighbourhoods of Brixton, Herne Hill and Norwood would come these lithe, muscled, impossibly exotic entertainers: acrobats, tumblers, strong-men and fire-eaters. The Big Top was a strange, other world, governed by Sun Wukong: the Monkey King. Entry was a contract – for the duration of the show, you agreed to be bound to the rules and internal logic of the tent.

In the final essay in this book, Katy Evans-Bush compares the poetic line to a high-wire act (‘the line must be taut, and strong enough to hold’); but poetry is also clowning and the taming of the lion. It is circus without the ringmaster.
In Stress Fractures I hope to stimulate new conversations about poetry, with all the infelicities of its language (to borrow Ross Sutherland’s phrase). The essays are not unified around a particular set of themes, but approach a wide range of subjects. A radically reinterpreted Emily Dickinson mingles with British hip-hop artist Roots Manuva; a teacher’s perspective on poetry in education appears alongside investigations into computer-generated writing. Poetry is conceived as a broad church (or tent) which entertains the constant play of contradictory forces or fractures (tradition/innovation, private/public, freedom/control); and as an artform stretching, connecting, collaborating and making sense of its new positions in a rapidly-changing cultural landscape.

Hip hop artist Roots Manuva

Much has been written about the decline in space available in mainstream culture for literary criticism in this country; the increasing commercialisation of publishing; and the dispersal of critical culture to the unrestricted – and virtually unrefereeable – territory of the internet. Some of this is nostalgic grumbling for a golden age that probably never existed in the first place. Much of it certainly overlooks the opportunities to exploit new technologies (the internet, yes, but also digital printing) to generate new dialogue. We are, I believe, witnessing the growth of a tendency towards cultural democratisation, in which the static roles of writer, reader, critic, academic and consumer, as well as the hierarchical structures of publication, distribution and reception that hold those roles in place, are becoming unstable.

In his essay, Theodoros Chiotis responds to this new environment by making the case for a ‘multidimensional, interdisciplinary’ digital poetics which disrupts the authority of the writer, and stimulates new modes of cognition in the reader. To similar ends, Ross Sutherland shares his own experiments with SYSTRAN translation software to create a collaborative robot poetry. Both envisage a new, dispersed kind of authorship, though one with precursors in, respectively, Modernism and Science Fiction.

Ross Sutherland’s essay subsequently became a performance documentary Every Rendition on a Broken Machine

I am glad to include Tim Clare’s playful deconstruction of Slam Poetry. It seems to me that performance poetry in general has existed for too long without a strong critical culture, and that a certain stream of anti-intellectualism within that broad artform has limited its capacity for innovation. Hannah Silva’s work straddles performance poetry, theatre and live arts, and certainly doesn’t lack innovation. Her fascinating essay ‘Composing Speech’ unlocks some of the secrets of her practice as a writer/performer, such as talking backwards and the peculiarly named art of ‘double tonguing’. Silva’s essay contributes to wider conversations about the relationship between poetry and performance, live art and text-based visual art. In ‘Radio and…’ James Wilkes records an imaginary conversation with Holly Pester; as regular collaborators, their work explores the poetry of radio transmissions and spoken broadcasts: ‘the ruined voice’.

A widely acknowledged association between poetry and hip-hop is developed by David Barnes in his essay on British rapper Roots Manuva, whose lyrics he evaluates in relation to the Romantic poets and Wesleyan theology. Luke Kennard’s contribution approaches the fictional space or ‘engine room’ of the poem via early 20th century comic strips and the music of Nick Cave, David Berman and Smog. And in ‘Emily Dickinson, Vampire Slayer’, Sophie Mayer investigates the many cultural afterlives of the seminal American writer in visual arts, photography, music, and on YouTube.

Emily Dickinson

That poetry is seen here to intersect with pop culture constitutes neither some desperate plea for ‘relevance’ nor a nose-dive towards the lowest common denominator; rather, it demonstrates an open, interdisciplinary critical mode which supports a view of poetry in flux with its cultural surroundings. I am keen to reject the notion that poetry and all poets exist in a special bubble, aloof and disconnected.

Emily Critchley focuses her attention on the American writer Lyn Hejinian, a major figure within Language poetry whose activities since the 1970s have been anything but disconnected. She is, for instance, an energetic supporter of cross-genre collaborations between poets and other artists. Critchley’s essay carefully unpicks the creative, critical and philosophical dynamics at play within Hejinian’s work. Some of the essays in Stress Fractures point towards a new direction in contemporary poetry, a vision that breaks out of the factionalism of the past forty years. Simon Turner identifies a resurgence of interest in Oulipo writing techniques amongst a number of younger British poets, arguing that this could provide a means of combining radical experimentation with the concern for form and craft that characterises mainstream poetry. American writer and critic Adam Fieled, meanwhile, provides an illuminating and necessarily subjective examination of ‘post-avant’ poetry – a problematic term, but one which has generated new energies on both sides of the Atlantic.

Lyn Hejinian

As a literary critic, David Caddy is interested in the social histories of artistic communities: the relationships, shared spaces and chance meetings that underpin creative expression. His essay here is concerned with both the history and future of the prose poem in English poetry, characterising it as a ‘hybrid form’ with the ability to ‘absorb a wide range of discourse’. Caddy’s subject is the poem without its most identifiable feature – the line break. Katy Evans-Bush follows with ‘The Line’, an extensive analysis of the poetic line which draws on examples from Sharon Olds, Basil Bunting, Marianne Moore and others, and which is filtered through a reading of high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s On the High Wire.

There is much hand-wringing within the arts over the ‘relevance’ of poetry to children. Indeed, as I write, the Arts Council of England has just made available a major new funding stream to enable poetry organisations to engage with young people. Alex Runchman gives a refreshingly frank assessment of poetry in education from his experiences as a secondary school teacher. He describes a largely conservative educational culture in which poetry is often badly taught and routinely reduced to exam fodder, and argues for a more liberated approach in which poetry can be both studied and enjoyed. Specifically, he calls for more poetry to be written for teenagers.

I originally conceived of this book as a kind of almanac – a form suggesting the collection of sundry data, facts, chronologies, and so on. I hope to have maintained something of the miscellany in Stress Fractures. This is not an academic publication, though a number of the contributors hold postgraduate degrees, and there are plenty of footnotes to point the diligent reader towards further study. Most of the contributors are themselves poets, and some of the essays will appeal to writers, but this is not a book solely for practitioners. Like the Big Top, anyone is welcome.

Marc Chagall, The Circus Horse

The artist Marc Chagall said: ‘For me a circus is a magic show that appears and disappears like a world. A circus is disturbing. It is profound.’ I hope the essays that follow offer you glimpses into a world that can be both disturbing and profound, but also fun, mischievous and exhilarating.
Tom Chivers
London, September 2010

Buy Stress Fractures online for £5 (until 16/08/13)


The Failure of Digital – Mix Conference in Untweeted Tweets

I’ve just returned from two days at Mix – a conference exploring transmedia writing and digital creativity organised by Bath Spa University. Predictably the conference venue, the beautiful Jacobean mansion Corsham Court, had no public Wifi and even 3G coverage was incredibly patchy (although the cakes were plentiful). Not one to be deterred from emitting hot air via the Twittersphere, I reached for my trusty A4 notebook and started Tweeting, by hand.

Old trusty

I propose, then, the following – an accummulative, one-sided, unnetworked, uni-authored, anti-interactive, solipsistic, hyperunlinked, retrograde, pre-digital, nostalgic, parodic, carboniferous, vernacular, non-academic, sardonic, anti-spontaneous commentary on two days listening, talking and thinking about future literatures.

Day One

Mark Amerika kicks off with Beckett on failure, storytelling, remixology, Debord & the digital derive #MixDigital

I find Amerika’s claiming of transmedia by what he calls, paradoxically, ‘the historical avant-garde’, problematic #MixDigital

Amerika setting up opposition b/wn avant-garde/arthouse vs commercial/Hollywood entertainment industry #MixDigital

Surely most digital developments are implicated in commercial interests & powered by creative entrepreneurs #MixDigital

Amerika’s Immobilite looks interesting – voice distortions & haunting drones #MixDigital

Amerika now talking about his Museum of Glitch Aesthetics #MixDigital #MOGA

The Artist 2.0 – nice pun from Amerika #MixDigital #MOGA

Awesome glitch video of some fucked up landscapes (I dream like this) #MixDigital #MOGA

Pixelated waterfalls. Cut-up cliffs. #MixDigital #MOGA @nathmercy @rossgsutherland @borispasterlike wd love

Audience member questioning Amerika on convergence #MixDigital

Amerika promoting resistance to convergence & ‘false consciousness of commercial production’ hmmm this is so passé #MixDigital

Amerika on defamiliarising voice & sound #MixDigital

I asked Amerika how we comes to terms with using commercial tools eg Google Maps, Nokia #MixDigital

His answer was intoxicating if evasive. For him transmedia about creative sabotage of commercial software #MixDigital

2nd keynote coming up. Maria Mencia. Strange hieroglyph grid projecting behind her. Introducer promising translations from/into birdsong #MixDigital

Sense/nonsense, legible/illegible. The language edge of media. Texture, sound, phonetic landscapes #MixDigital

Mencia showing us Steve McCaffrey poem from 1974. Her deconstruction of it reminds me why I dislike most concrete poetry #MixDigital

Breaking grammatical/ syntactical rules is so radical, man. Smash the system! #MixDigital

Sorry, but I’m really not getting much out of Mencia’s keynote or the tedious conceptual language art she’s showing #MixDigital

‘Textual surfaces as transparent & opaque’ – reading as visual/image-based process #MixDigital

Mencia using ‘Java-made-simple’ programming to make artwork #MixDigital #CodeisPoetry

‘Avant-garde’ academics are often so bad at talking about work. I want a way in, not more theory #MixDigital

Howard Carter on discovering Tutunkhamun’s tomb: “Wow, check out those hieroglyphs, they really speak to notions of the materiality of textual surfaces” #MixDigital

At the back of my #MixDigital delegate pack is a wodge of A4 lined paper. OLD SCHOOL.

Mencia’s last poem is an interactive code-based rendition of a C16th Spanish poem w/ use of webcam. Quite interesting #MixDigital

A thought: code requires perfect syntax, poetry celebrates imperfection & breakdown of linguistic rules #MixDigital

.@hollypest on Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English & @christianbok’s Xenotext now! #MixDigital

.@hollypest ‘languaging’ / foreignness / fluency #MixDigital

Funny how everyone’s terminology differs: transmedia, multimedia, intermedial, interdisciplinary etc #MixDigital

.@hollypest introducing Bergvall’s Chaucerian mash-ups – intriguing the medievalist in me #MixDigital

.@hollypest struggling to pronounce the bacterium onto which @christianbok is inscribing a poem LOL #MixDigital

Bergvall & Bok setting up laboratories, collaborating, ‘meddling’ with process @hollypest #MixDigital

In media res translates as *into* the middle of things, ie. dynamic middle … interesting @hollypest #MixDigital

Bergvall – wire sculpture as language, ‘a tissue of lines’ @hollypest #MixDigital

Bergvall on lines echoed in Capability Brown’s landscaping of Corsham Court, w/ sightlines across meadows to distant A Road @hollypest #MixDigital

‘The site of language spawning & deforming’ @hollypest #MixDigital

‘soupy mix of corrupted Chaucerian language’ @hollypest on Bergvall #MixDigital

History is a complex layering of time like a baker’s dough (Stephen Connor via @hollypest) #MixDigital

‘Bergvall is feeding from Chaucer and feeding the text that is spawned by it’ @hollypest #MixDigital

Now @hollypest turns to @christianbok – removing the human from the poetic process #MixDigital

.@christianbok’s poem is a split masculine/feminine text about creation/destructing, according to @hollypest #MixDigital

.@christianbok’s Xenotext proj is being developed in a lab, but out of hours – interesting ‘oscillation’ there @hollypest #MixDigital

And now, a move to the barn for the wondrously named Dick Swart on digital narration #MixDigital

Swart on new reading strategies, eg. WWILFING & narrativity in gaming #MixDigital

Funny how reading online is becoming more fractured, more incoherent, whilst gaming is becoming more narrative-based. What are we losing #MixDigital

Swart imagining literature that is responsive to the reader, eg. Minimise/expand bits of the text to suit your taste #MixDigital

It’s a fascinating idea but works against the wonder of surprise & serendipity #MixDigital

Some of Swart’s ideas about personalisation & adaptive literature worry me cos they reduce role of imagination #MixDigital

The Ambient Novel. The Puffpastry Novel. The Spaghetti Novel. (Dick Swart) #MixDigital

Swart’s transmedial novel ‘Tiret’ has a spooky animated cover. Cool! #MixDigital

‘Tiret’ also has minimisable text, animations, translation, commenting via social nets. Incredible #MixDigital

It has embedded audio and illustration too #MixDigital

Massively Multiplayer Online Networking Story Books, cf. Balzac’s Comedia Humaine (Dick Swart is ace) #MixDigital

Swart: Star Trek was the first multi-writer network story environment #MixDigital

Swart on the Spaghetti Novel with multiple routes thru narrative. @npenlington is taking notes #MixDigital

‘Let’s make some money and write the MMONSB’ Dick Swart #MixDigital

After good sandwiches and light ale at Methuen Arms I’m back at #MixDigital for roundtable discussion. Feeling sleepy.

Prof Martin Riesner on augmented & hybrid realities #MixDigital

Riesner – city moving away from a series of fixed nodes into a fluid, amorphous, staccastic space #MixDigital

Mapping is an important trope in augmented reality #MixDigital

Aboriginal songlines – summoning the ancestors thru walking a landscape. Embodiment in the landscape #MixDigital

Mobile tech bringing back embodiment in landscape #MixDigital

Magic moments where hybrid reality converges #MixDigital

Locative media, lost histories of the word #MixDigital

Claire Reddington brings energetic patter to #MixDigital & played a clip from Minority Report

V interesting discussion ranging from optics, locative media, experimental theatre & Victorian magic tricks #MixDigital

Day Two

Mornin’ #MixDigital. @katepullinger kicks things off w/ clear & engaging talk on disinformation & publishing

Oops – meant to say DISINTERMEDIATION #MixDigital #FreudianSlip

If yr work doesn’t circulate freely it has no currency – Pullinger #MixDigital

Digital Rights Management stops circulation dead – Pullinger #MixDigital

Inanimate Alice uses multimedia to tells stories – didn’t realise it wd become pedagogical phenomenon – Pullinger #MixDigital

Inanimate Alice distributed free but has generated income in other ways. Where are the new business models? – Pullinger #MixDigital

A Million Penguins – can a community write a novel? Wiki-fiction – Pullinger #MixDigital

80k views, 1500 contributors, lots of vandalism, eg. Fuck Penguin – Pullinger #MixDigital

Answer to her question: no! But a fascinating process which has generated further research projects – Pullinger #MixDigital

.@jsamlarose has just made a face #MixDigital

Can books be spreadable media? – Pullinger #MixDigital

Ref Cory Doctorow giving away ebooks free to fuel print sales (IMO outliers do not create workable business models) #MixDigital

Hey let’s talk about to enable change in publishing but save the really good bits #MixDigital

Writer as artisan, w/out need for publishing industry – attractive idea but remember artisans formed guilds #MixDigital

Guilds to develop communities, skills, audiences & protect interests #MixDigital

Giving stuff away for free has always been for privileged/lucky/famous few – it’s not a sufficient business model in C21st IMO #MixDigital

What do we give away – what do we decide to retain for sale #MixDigital

I am so digital I’ve just drawn a cartoon of a C14th bible leaf #MixDigital

Video poetry next with Tom Konyves #MixDigital

We are watching black & white silent film of Robert Browning poem from 1909 – the first ever video poem #MixDigital

Jean Epstein predicting videopoetry in 1923 #MixDigital

I don’t get what #videopoetry actually is – if it contains no text/speech/language can it be a poem? #MixDigital

Konyves just showed a witty 1982 videopoem w/ one word per shot. Great rhythm like a good spoken poem or a joke #MixDigital

Konyves showing some v interestin videopoems – wd like to get a complete list so I can watch them again online #MixDigital

‘The poetry in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text w/ image & sound’ Konyves Manifesto #MixDigital

Tom Phillips Humument getting a check now re appropriation of existing material. Wicked #MixDigital

Watched the brilliant & famous Bob Dylan music video of Subterranean Homesick Blues as a ‘videopoem’ #MixDigital

I think all of Konyves examples of videopoetry have been by men #MixDigital

Next up: Phd student Andy Atherton on archaeology of digital writing. We are sitting in a converted stable block #MixDigital

From TS Eliot to Kenneth Goldsmith thru the prism of hypertext – Atherton #MixDigital

Print vs digital as Wiley Coyote spluttering in the wake of Roadrunner – Atherton #MixDigital

The reader of The Waste Land becomes a user (Eliot’s endnotes as hypertext) – Atherton #MixDigital

‘Multi-user dungeons’ – Atherton #MixDigital

I find Atherton’s notion of a ‘successful reader’ problematic #MixDigital

Bohdan Piasecki talking on mixed media, translation & performance poetry #MixDigital

One of unique qualities of performance poetry is the strong link b/wn the poem & its author #MixDigital

German poet Bas Bottcher has created custom-made software to generate translations for his performances #MixDigital

Oh god Bohdan’s 1st questioner is incredibly patronising – accuses him of sexism & racism by only showing egs of white male poets #MixDigital

Switching back to Stable for Richard Stamp’s Philosopher of a Gadgeteer #MixDigital

John Whitney, Hitchcock, Buckminster-Fuller, Foucault’s Pendulum & military surplus, so far from Stamp #MixDigital

.@npenlington @hollypest & I skived off #MixDigital to go book-hunting in Corsham

Extraordinary peacocks! #MixDigital

Final presentation of day is Lance Dann on radio, broadcasting & sound #MixDigital

Dann’s work explores edges of radio with ARG, socialnetworking & viral #MixDigital

Augmented narratives. Layered experience #MixDigital

New media needs old media to validate it – Dann #MixDigital

Interaction (eg. Commenting & phone ins) – 1 in 1,000 rule #MixDigital

Poem by Iain Sinclair

Considering his prolific output in the realms of fiction, non-fiction, urban satire and – as he puts it – ‘documentary fiction’, it’s sometimes easy to forget how significant and exciting a writer of poetry Iain Sinclair is. I’ve had the Penguin Modern Poets book (Vol.10, 1996) in which he appears, alongside Douglas Oliver and Denise Riley, on loan from the Poetry Library. Here’s a poem from that, hoping that neither Iain nor Penguin will mind the reproduction. Iain’s latest Selected Poems, The Firewall, is available from Etruscan Books; his Hackney tome was published by Penguin last year. Both are excellent in very different ways.


sub (not used): Mountain

prize cicatrix suspended in oil
charts flapping proud from damp walls
which are themselves charts
of islands where swamps are undeclared
the superseded house
brutish topiary of the illegitimate bride
weather systems registering a pigeon shed
my lord at his grouse table
filing his second rank of teeth
will you risk the caretaker’s gamey tape
the black worm that lives reluctant in altar bread
an hermaphroditic pope whose lard fingers
slip their rings

strapped into rented ligatures
he stomps the town
dragging Kent & all her oasts behind him


The cities we walk through


My copy of the Autumn issue of Poetry London popped through the post today (Post, you say? Oh yeah – ) and lo and behold it contains a review – the first in print – of my book How To Build A City. I’m pretty ecstatic. That horribly talented Luke Kennard was tasked with perusing my poems, and found them… to his taste.

Here are some choice cuts:

Worse luck, How To Build A City is so good it scares me. It’s a debut collection which is angry, vital and constantly surprising with a pleasing earthiness to the language.

Chivers’s writing feels refreshing and necessary, a genuine, lyrical appraisal of contemporary life, something about the mediated layers of reality we experience every day.

The lazy reviewer in me just wants to write something like from spam email to urban foxes, Chivers has his finger on the zeitgeist. Which is exactly the opposite of what the work’s trying to do, which it seems to me, is to stop us blithely using terms like zeitgeist at all.

I really admire Luke’s work, so it’s great to get this kind of praise. I still have some signed copies of the book, so message me if you’d like one – and I’ll include a new original poem to boot. Alternatively, nab a copy from my publisher (which is also Luke’s… conspiracy theories start and end here).

Launch of How To Build A City

My first collection, How To Build A City (Salt Publishing), is being launched on Saturday 13th June at The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Joining me to launch their own new books are Luke Kennard and Abi Curtis. Ross Sutherland will also be appearing, in the combination-lock role of poet/compere. It’s shaping up to be a good night.

Saturday 13th June, 8pm (readings 8.30-9.30)

The Slaughtered Lamb (downstairs)
34-35 Great Sutton Street
London EC1V 0DK (Map)
Nearest tube: Farringdon/Barbican

Free entry. Books will be available to buy on the night.

There’s a Facebook event page here