The last reading in the Other Room series, (Susana Gardner, Peter Manson and Nicole Mauro) was easily the best that I’ve been to. I absolutely loved it. All three poets had me pretty much mesmerized for their entire set. There’s not a lot of point in me describing their performances though as they were filmed and can be viewed here on this very site. I’ve just had another quick look at the first half of Peter’s reading myself actually and am now smiling stupidly at the thought of what a brill evening was had by myself and my mate Fran (and, judging by the look of sheer joy that was on their faces, most of the other people in the room.)
Susana brought with her a little table full of exquisitely packaged poetry from her Dusie Press, on sale for a pound per item. I bought a selection, the coolest of which came in a squashed loo roll tube matching, if not beating, my collection of Matchbox poems in the funky packaging category.
I loved the Scottish and American accents of the night. I loved Peter’s fanatical flailing and precise pronunciation of lines like ‘the least dismissive of the leaf police’. I loved Nicole’s military style stance and how she seemed to smoothly slip something about a head wedged up an ass into every poem. I loved how hypnotic Susana was, especially as she repeated the word shore shore shore, turning it (for me) into sure sure sure and then back again and reminding me of Sylvia Plath, only without the woe-is-me-ishness.
The whole night was great fun with lots of naughty swear words and beer.
Yesterday was the latest reading at The Other Room, with three very good performances from Susanna Gardner, Peter Manson and Nicole Mauro. After a previous week where I was performing three times, including once in a jazz band, it was a relief to sit back and watch for a change.
I have to confess that The Other Room is a kind of lifeline for me: in a city that seems at times to be dominated by performance poetry evenings, it’s a real pleasure to go somewhere where the art of the bleeding obvious isn’t constantly on display. And it continues: tonight at Fuel, Matt Dalby and Richard Barratt are hosting an evening involving Holly Pester and others. And then there’s the if p then q launch later on this month.
Because I have friends who are very much in the performance or the mainstream scenes, I can’t entirely divorce myself from those scenes; even if at times I get so frustrated with the whole thing that I go off on a massive grump about the whole thing. And many of them are good at what they do, seasoned performers or writers of well-crafted poems that might not break any boundaries but are good in themselves. There’s a place for performance and a place for well-crafted mainstream poems. Just not anymore on my bookshelves, or in my head.
But it’s complicated: I want to be nice to people, and sometimes I say things that make me sound terribly pompous and even elitist about poetry I don’t really connect with. And I get frustrated that poet x is famous for nothing much (it seems to me) while poet y, who is actually extending the idea of what poetry can be, is languishing in obscurity. Elaine Randell, for instance, knocks the socks off Carol Ann Duffy. But who’s famous?
I like adventure in writing. I like something that is at the edge of understanding, at the edge of acceptable, that makes me think, but that also takes an emotional risk. There aren’t many mainstream poets who do that (Jane Holland manages it, for instance, but not Armitage.) I don’t see the point in saying what’s already been said in ways that have already been used.
Anyway, I’ve got a whole host of Dusie chapbooks to read, plus a couple of full length collections. So it should keep me satisfied for awhile. I’m off to Arran in two days time, for a week of R’n’R on an island with only two roads and a distillery.
Things have been a little odd lately because I’ve felt quite directionless while taking a lot on. All of which means I get a little frayed. So I’m learning to relax and just accept how I feel about things, rather than trying to please other people. Which is a way of saying I might not be as generous in this review as I normally might be. So try not to take offence.
Susanna Gardner somehow didn’t quite work for me. She seems very nice, and performance-wise there were superficial similarities to Holly Pester, but something didn’t work. Around her third piece, and intermittently after that, when the language was very much fragmented, and German jostled with English, you could hear the beginning of something interesting. For the rest of it I was too aware that she was reading, and that her intonation and phrasing might be almost any other poet reading.
This is probably not a problem with the poetry, although I’m not familiar enough with it on the page, but I suspect has more to do with the performance. The third piece, with its collision of languages sounded to me like it might be better performed with multiple voices, or with synthetic voices, or with some other method of breaking apart the single voice and overlapping the fragments. This was confirmed for me when I heard her talking about how she could envision overlaying different voices to build up a kind of cacophony. This very much reminded me of some of the work I wrote in the mid-nineties when I simply didn’t have the equipment, friends or imagination to make my ideas of overlaid voices and cacophonous/polyphonic poetry come to life.
The solutions that eventually worked for me – loop pedal, microphones and portable recorders might not work for Susanna, but I think there is the potential for something really interesting to happen with her performance. As it stands it felt quite clumsy and uncertain, and made the poetry seem somewhat samey and one-dimensional. But having said that, a samey and one dimensional Susanna Gardner is significantly better than any number of certain more mainstream poets I’ve endured at readings in Manchester. I’ve almost certainly said it before, but performance is a completely different discipline from writing, and if you’re a shit performer then even the best poetry is doomed. Susanna isn’t a shit performer, she just doesn’t seem quite comfortable.
Despite the apparently unrelenting negativity above I did enjoy her set, I just felt that the effect of the poetry was dimmed by not being terribly well realised. But as I said, I’ve had kind of a tense month or more, and I can’t be bothered trying to be polite any more.
Anyway, onto Peter Manson. Now I was more torn by what Peter did than by anyone else on the night. Interestingly, and since I’ve decided not to pull punches this time I might as well land some retrospectively, it wasn’t for the kind of reasons that I initially expected. When I saw his performance style and heard the poetry I was afraid that there might be several of those painful moments when someone otherwise quite talented makes a series of uncomfortable misogynist statements in their poetry. I’ve found myself getting quite irritated with several previous male readers. On this occasion there was a lot less of that sort of discomfort.
My discomfort this time was again primarily to do with performance rather than the actual content of the poems. He had a style I’ve encountered (and practiced) many times before. It’s a combination of confidence and nervousness, but neither particularly under control, that leads the performer to shift about from foot to foot. It can often, as in Peter’s case be quite energetic and apparently purposeful, it can sometimes develop into a distinct performance style, but it usually dissipates the performer’s energy away from the poem, away from the audience, and more into the private ritual they’re enacting.
The poetry itself I came and went with. Sometimes it was fragments, almost nonsense, sometimes it was funny, at other times it was much harder to pin down. That was when it became more interesting. Digression: it’s struck me over recent months that it’s easy to elicit laughs from an audience, it’s easy to provide an audience with something familiar that stands in for a more interesting thought that both of you would have to work harder at. There were quite a few of those moments in Peter’s performance. Like Susanna I thought there might be something more waiting to get out.
Peter’s set was drawn from related pieces of work, and was split across the break. If anything I preferred the first set, which I felt had a greater coherence, even while the faults were perhaps more obvious. I was torn because I felt that there was some really good poetry buried amongst less interesting work, and because the performance was really grating. I felt that with a little more focus he could achieve something more than he did tonight.
Finally Nicole Mauro performed. I enjoyed her performance more as it was happening, but I’m unclear whether her poems were any better. I thought she very much fell into the trap of familiar references, and reflecting the audience’s prejudices back at them. Her performance though, was as I’ve said, better. Her voice was more confident and had less of the poetic intonation about it than either Susanna or Peter. She also appeared to be more physically confident and in control. Even when performing with projections of her self-created not-quite-Rorschach blots she remained the focus.
But as I alluded to above her poems just seemed to reflect a series of popular prejudices without adding a great deal to it. Just happening to agree with a popular prejudice doesn’t make it any more true. Perhaps – and this is raw speculation that may be utter shite – perhaps Nicole is too interested in pleasing the audience to do the things she truly wants to. There seemed to be potential somewhere in the Rorschach poems for something unusual to emerge, that was just about suppressed.
I’m not sure what that might be – whether she needs to draw a greater distinction between the visual and the text-based, or whether she needs to draw them closer together I couldn’t say. While her performance was by far the best, there did seem to be something a little superficial about the poetry itself.
Now I really don’t mean to be negative. I had a really fantastic night, I enjoyed the poets, and I’m certainly interested to see how Susanna Gardner develops as a performer from here. But I don’t think it’s healthy for me or anyone else for me to be blandly positive all the time. And remember that any one of these performers is more interesting than an average night at an open mic in the Green Room or some other mainstream poetry venue. Tonight at least I’d rather think about what innovative poets might do to remain innovative, to genuinely push themselves.