‘The construction, or if we want to be more accurate, the excavation of the multitude of realities lurking underneath the practice of everyday life has come to be seen as a basic writing tool of writers and poets dealing with urban life. The mechanical nature of urban time and usability as urban life’s ultimate precondition change drastically the imagination of the urban dweller. The ability to read maps and construct alternate routes to navigate oneself within the city; the ability to collect and catalogue information regarding the cultural, fiscal and real estate value of the urban space – all of these are but a brief selection from the basic survival tool kit for the urban dweller. The urban dweller has access to a nexus of mulitple realities and it is this nexus that allows for an ambulatory, phantasmagorical reading of urban space.
Tom Chivers in his poetry does not simply map the experience of urban life. The poem ‘How to Build a City’ is not simply an alternate geography or a psychogeographical impression of London; it is an occluded autobio(geo)graphy of the city as impressed upon a native of the city. Antigone Vlavianou, when writing about another writer dealing with urban space, Yorgos Ioannou, notes that the ‘alternation of narrative masks culminates in a functional intertwining of all pronouns; said alternation is made manifest in a sprawling narrative identifying the body of the city with the narrator’s body. The narrator’s body bearing the marks of the city on it goes on an act of auto-bio-geography’.
Chivers as a poet writing about the city and the marks it leaves on the poet’s very body approaches city life in a markedly different manner; the body of the city and the narrator’s body do not come to be identified in Chivers’ poetry. In Chivers’ work, the narrative feeds in the way a parasite does on the fauna of fantasies that make up the body of the city. The narrator in these poems is a paradoxical, malleable entity: the narrator transforms ceaselessly in his wanderings with no hope of ever escaping the city. The narrator of ‘How To Build A City’ (and The Terrors, to a lesser extent) is folded inside the very body of the city; a body made up of badly lit alleyways, exposed brick walls, an ever changing skyline, electrical wiring and ruins. The terrae incognitae of the flaneurs become the hipsters’ terrae nullorum in Chivers’ poems: spaces without any permanent identity (and affiliation) despite the attempts to map them thoroughly. The minute details as inscribed in these poems construct the portrait of a city made up of disparate elements; this particular city portrait is structured more like the factory that is the unconscious rather than a ‘real’ city (whatever that might mean).
If one wanted to, one could make a pretty accurate map of (East) London based on Chivers’ poems but in reality this particular map would only make even more apparent the reality of an urban space consisting of sedimentary accumulations: sounds, images, ideas and temporalities. The city one would construct based on Chivers’ poetry would be the city in which decay and ultimately catastrophe reveal the vertiginous collapse of inner into outer, past into future, urban space into whatever might potentially exist outside its boundaries.’
First published in Greek in Poiitiki
In his review for Eyewear, Kayo has lots of very interesting and acute things to say about my poems, particularly the 7/7 sequence ‘Rush Hour’ and the title poem.
He concludes (I repeat this for my own vanity):
Chivers shows himself to be a poet of genuine range. […] How To Build A City shows him to be firmly at home among the many talented writers that make Salt Publishing’s list one of the best in British Poetry.
Cheque in the post, Kayo.
This might also be a good place to draw attention to the continuing plight of Salt Publishing. To help keep them afloat you can buy How To Build A City for £10.39 direct, or why not order it through your local bookshop. They probably need your custom too, given the perilous state of the book trade.
So, I didn’t quite make the Michael Marks Award. That honour rightly goes to Selima Hill for her outstanding Flarestack pamphlet.
Any (mild) disappointment was erased by the privilege of hearing an exhilirating, learned and empassioned speech by Ali Smith. She was one of three judges, alongside Jo Shapcott and Richard Price. A speech so good it was republished in yesterday’s Guardian. If you’ll forgive the egotism, here’s the bit that concerns my pamphlet:
Tom Chivers’s The Terrors (Nine Arches Press) is a prose-poetry fusion of 18th-century London and online modernity. Questioning notions of freedom and imprisonment, it fuses the inmates of Newgate prison with the inmates of contemporary online chatrooms. It makes for a new kind of street ballad.
I’m well proud of that last line especially. Thanks, Ali.
Had I won I would have thanked publicly the brilliant Jane Commane and Matt Nunn of Nine Arches Press. I may even have revealed how the publication came about. I sent one or two early poems from the sequence to my friend George. He then forwarded them, without my knowledge or blessing, to Jane. A few days later, she emailed me with the opening line (I may be paraphrasing), Thank you for your submission…
So basically without George it never would have happened. You should check out Nine Arches anyway. They do good work.
Oh, the photo at the top shows a contestant attempting escape from the Big Brother house. I’ve run out of images of Newgate Prison to illustrate The Terrors, but the pamphlet does begin with a quote about Big Brother and celebrity. You can order it here, or drop me a line and I’ll send you a signed copy.
Here’s the full shortlist:
- The Terrors Tom Chivers (Nine Arches Press)
- The Titanic Café closes its doors and hits the rocks, David Hart (Nine Arches Press)
- Advice on Wearing Animal Prints, Selima Hill (Flarestack Poets)
- Devorgilla’s Bridge, Hugh McMillan (Roncadora Press)
- The Reluctant Vegetarian, Richard Moorhead (Oystercatcher Press)
- ballast: a remix, Nii Ayikwei Parkes (tall-lighthouse)
I’m especially pleased for my publisher Nine Arches Press, who have two titles on the list. Good work Jane and Matt!
There’s a separate award for publishers of pamphlets – an enlightened idea.
- HappenStance Press
- Oystercatcher Press
- Templar Poetry
If you’d like to come and hear all the shortlisted poets reading their work, you can. The British Library is hosting the Award ceremony on Wednesday 16th June.
Tickets are a snip at £6/4 and can be booked online.
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