The cities we walk through

autumn_lo

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).

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Poets take up a new muse – modern technology

‘The poet’s muse is traditionally a goddess with long flowing hair, emblem in hand – but for a new generation of poets the muse is a digital native with WiFi access and an iPod. Tom Chivers is a 26-year-old poet living in East London who in recent years has found he wants to let technological advances in society influence his writing. His witty contributions to the poetic world are fresh, laugh-out-loud constructions about how technology affects our day-to-day lives.’

Article about poetry (mainly mine weirdly!) and digital technology by Hannah Waldram from The Telegraph. Check it out.

Litro Online

I’ve revamped Litro’s website. Check it out at www.litro.co.uk

This is a big move for Litro as all the short fiction and poetry from our print issues will now be accessible online. We are also creating a range of online-only content, including special features and a blog which myself and Julie Palmer-Hoffman will regularly update. Do let me know if you spot bugs, or if you have any general comments.

Fuselit

I don’t have the patience or digital dexterity to mend my watch let alone produce the beautiful, handmade little magazines that Jon and Kirsten at Fuselit stitch together on a regular basis.

Last night Fuselit put on a night called ‘Mixtape’ – seven writers, including Tim Wells, Simon Barraclough, Amy Key and Barnaby Tidman, read their favourite poems by other poets (and one of their own). I particularly enjoyed Barnaby’s reading of Prynne and Simon’s reading of Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Jon, co-hosting the night, gave a fun, participatory reading of a poem by Michael Ondaajte. Jody Porter played some choons. The Betsey Trotwood, as ever, a welcoming venue for poetry.

The latest issue of the magazine itself is called ‘Aquarium’ and is being launched properly in December, though I got an early copy (they’re all handmade so it takes some time to produce). The mag is in two parts and comes with some delightful magnets and a CD. It also has a three-verse poem by me in it. It’s part of a project called The Chimaerium, which is hard to explain, but it’s basically like a game of Exquisite Corpse, where stanzas by different poets can be swapped around to create thousands of possible poems. Some of the other poets are Roddy Lumsden, Luke Kennard, Bill Herbert and Heather Phillipson. It’s really fun and I spent a good hour fiddling around with it last night to produce weird combinations.

Maybe this is kinda defeating the point, but here’s my contribution in totality.

Inside, tattered youth call above the wind,
bounded by wood and men with horses’ heads.
Somewhere in here, something is buried.
The forest is alive with electricity, brambled
currents. We pass through a kind of door:
damp throne and a mess of leaves and soil.

In the fields of alternative medicine,
bio-energy and macrobiotics, I am preeminent!
I pick herbs in the green pastures of Kopaonik mountain!
My beard I tie to my shoelaces!
Birds build their nests in my hair!
I am available for private consultations!

Fuck you very much, ham sandwich, lamb shank.
There are two graves for the one who gives up his own.
Am I hallucinating? Whole-grain bread? Yoghurt?
The internal drone of a comet? A Chinese lantern
released, which we later discover is three men,
weightless, slung in a low Earth orbit at 65 degrees.

Go, litel book!

Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
Ther god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
So sende might to make in som comedie!
But litel book, no making thou nenvye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher-as thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovyde, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

And for ther is so greet diversitee
In English and in wryting of our tonge,
So preye I god that noon miswryte thee,
Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
And red wher-so thou be, or elles songe,
That thou be understonde I god beseche!
But yet to purpos of my rather speche.

At the end of his long poem Troilus & Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer commends his work to readers with these two verses and, particularly, the famous line ‘Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie’. This is a classic example of what I identify elsewhere as authorial anxiety in late medieval texts, both literary and non-literary. On the one hand, Chaucer hopes that his poem will be worthy of his Classical heroes (‘subgit be to alle poesye’); in other words, that Troilus will join a perceived ‘canon’ of literature. On the other hand, he expresses concern that his work might be misunderstood, misread or mistranslated by contemporary readers. Like many pre-print writers, whose works were distributed in manuscript form only and would have to be copied out by hand, Chaucer is anxious to maintain some form of authorial intention, to normalise potentially diverse and divergent readings of his work. To create a stable, guaranteed text.

[I might, with more time and space, argue that this particular authorial statement is in fact heavily laced with Chaucer’s distinctive brand of irony. In particular, the rollcall of Classical poets characterises the narrator as pompous rather than genuinely anxious; another one of Chaucer’s authorial personas perhaps. But whether this passage is satirical or not, it certainly reflects a universal concern, one which affects all writers and artists.]

I’m interested in the shift from manuscript to print and how that period might inform the current transition from print to digital. I always thought ‘Go, litel book’ was a great statement for the internet age. It expresses the anxious excitement of distributing material to a potential audience of millions in the click of a button. Posting a blog. Uploading a website. Sending a mass email. That sense of your work entering the digital ether, an anonymous space over which you have no control, and from which you cannot withdraw. You can pulp a paperback, but you can never guarantee that a blog post or email or webpage is not still cached somewhere deep inside a server thousands of miles away. Now, the logical extension of the open-field nature of online communication is the collaborative text, the Wiki novel. The simple one-to-many process of traditional publishing is being exploded by digital technology and, it seems, the natural compulsion of readers to ‘get stuck in’.

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A recent experience of online social networking made me think of this. I uploaded a new poem, ‘I, Citizen’, to Facebook – something I’d seen other writers in my ‘Friends’ Network’ do. I posted the poem as a note and ‘tagged’ a number of my friends as an encouragement for them to read it. I had no grand expectations of feedback beyond, perhaps, a handful of brief positive comments. But within a few hours I already had two or three extended comments suggesting minor edits, including one from a small press publisher. Soon after, another contributor – this time, more forceful – suggested I rewrite the poem’s conclusion, partly on the basis that I could not ‘get away with’ a particular turn of phrase whilst another poet (who also commented, later) ‘*could* get away with using it’. As another friend came to the defence of the last verse, I suddenly found my poem being deconstructed in some detail. It was, I noted, a ‘feedback frenzy’ (as I write, there are 27 comments in total, including my own).

Now, I should say now that I’m not precious about my writing. Well, no more precious than any writer, at least. I enjoy receiving feedback and try to use constructive criticism to inform the editing/rewriting process. On the whole, the comments on ‘I, Citizen’ identified areas of the poem I was already anxious about, or brought up new and interesting interpretations. But I was a bit surprised by how readily people would offer detailed criticisms of my work in an essentially public forum such as Facebook. You might say I was asking for it, but when I posted the poem I only expected a few short comments. And as an editor myself, I’m aware of the sensitivity with which you should approach critical feedback. I have never contributed in-depth analysis of poems posted on MySpace or Facebook, although I am often engaged in doing just that in more private channels.

Despite my initial gut reaction to criticism, I’m pleased that ‘I, Citizen’ attracted so much feedback. The criticism was useful and made in good faith, and frankly it’s great that people actually engaged with my work in some detail. The internet is not an endless ether; online audiences are no anonymous mass. In fact Web 2.0 offers opportunities for writers to establish quite intimate and worthwhile connections with readers. It also gives them the right to reply. There are risks and sometimes you will get burnt, but the benefits of engaging with a potential readership are worth it, I reckon. Publishing in the digital age is about opening a two-way conversation. I think Chaucer knew that all literature is about reciprocity, that one man’s story will be taken, tweaked, retuned and returned; that the stability of his ‘litel book’, his ‘litel tragedie’, could never be guaranteed, but would shift and slide with every reading. For there is ‘greet diversitee / … in wryting of our tonge’.

Latest reading and cultural activities

  

Sorry, it’s been a while. Been busy, innit, redesigning my other website and things like that. Lots of interesting reading material of late, mind.

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Finished Ian McEwen’s post-9/11 novel Saturday. Outstanding. I don’t think I’ve ever broken out into a sweat reading a novel before. Heart-pumping stuff.

Suicide Bridge by Iain Sinclair – wow, yes, this is the stuff. Inspirational.

Ditto, Roy Fisher’s Birmingham River, which I’ve wanted to read for a while. Now I’ve gotta get my hands on his City (available, I think, only in a Collected Poems. I hate Collected Poems).

Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns. I did read this at university, but had forgotten just how good it is. Check this.

Simon Barraclough’s Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt). Fabulous debut collection. Really, really enjoyable reading. I guess I’ll try and review it properly at some point.

The Riddle and the Knight by Giles Milton. Odd travelogue-cum-historical novel following the (presumed) journey of medieval explorer Sir John Mandeville. Lightish. Enjoyable.

Just getting my teeth into DS Marriot’s Incognegro (Salt) and Emanuel Litvinoff’s Journey Through A Small Planet (thanks, Hannah).

The Newgate Calendar (Folio Society edition picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Castleton, Derbyshire) awaits… as does Barlam & Iosaphat (Early English Text Society edition).

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I also bought something old, valuable and dusty… about which more later.