[ 01-07-2009 ] Tina Darragh, p.inman

Due to poor planning of my calendar I was in Alsager for a work conference for P.Inman’s reading at the Bury Text Festival on Tuesday. But I was able to get to The Other Room yesterday to see P.Inman and Tina Darragh read so the story has a happy ending.

There was a large audience there – I’m told not the largest, but the venue felt pretty full. It was hot and humid, especially indoors, and light both outside and inside right through the reading. Apart from just generally enjoying summer more I like the ambience it adds to readings at The Old Abbey Inn. Being away from the main road you get less traffic noise and rather more bird song – something P.Inman commented on during his set. From where I was sat I could also see some bushes that doves were eating from – mostly you couldn’t see the doves, just the bushes shaking as though someone was pulling a string tied to the branch.

I was most familiar with P.Inman’s work, having seen pieces published by if p the q, and heard readings online. Unfortunately I hadn’t had time to check out the material The Other Room linked to by either him or by Tina Darragh. I understand that Ad Finitum is the first full collection published in the UK from either author, which says a lot about mainstream British poetry publishing over the last 30 years. I finally bought a copy of Ad Finitum yesterday (along with Robert Sheppard’s Far Language – which I’m sure will be an important primer for me for some time to come), and today printed the text of Tina’s rather older on the corner to off the corner.

Tina read first, and didn’t have to contend for too long with the notoriously unreliable Other Room PA. In a change to usual policy the speaker was next to the reader to avoid the usual problem of the radio mic being blocked and the sound intermittently cutting out. And to begin with it worked but after only a couple of sentences the mic cut out in a definitive manner that suggested it wasn’t going to work again any time soon – or at least until the batteries were replaced. That obstacle out of the way she was free to get on with the reading.

Early on during her reading it occurred to me that one of the things I like about experimental practices in poetry and other art is that the vocabularies and modes of reception are not fixed. To me this means that you approach even the most difficult works in a way that seems closer to learning a language than to reading or listening to something more culturally familiar. I may be utterly wrong – but I’ll explain and if you disagree let me know. A large part of how I react to a culturally familiar piece of work is social. My friends, family, education, and surrounding culture provide cues as to how I approach a play or a gig for instance. A large part of that is external – it has to do with how I dress, how I hold myself, the kind of people I know – with the work itself being almost secondary. I come to the work from outside, and it may take me a long time to realise that although I dearly love the friends I go to the gig with, and although I enjoy the experience and understand all the references in the songs, that I actually think the band kind of suck and wouldn’t miss them if I never heard them again. This is not to deny that more experimental events have a social component to them, but rather that the social component has less of a role in determining how I react to a piece of work, and is in any case already more a matter of choice.

With The Other Room readings I find myself in a place where I’m not already familiar with the vocbulary, and where I don’t have fixed modes of reception in place. Like a child learning a language – or like an adult in a country where I don’t speak the language – at each reading I have to orient myself within the reader’s vocabulary. I have to look for clues to begin to construct my own meaning. The process feels much more active and participatory as well as more challenging.

The early pieces Tina read made some explicit and some not so explicit references to Allen Fisher’s work, specifically Place which is one of the books I’m currently reading, and finding easier to get to grips with than Leans for some reason. There did seem to be similarities of approach with Allen Fisher, at least so far as I understand Place, and with some of the methods that I’ve tried out in my recent writing. Looking at words not only as meaning or as sound, but as clusters of meaning, of etymological history and relationship to other words, as isolated phonemes, and as both visual and auditory elements of larger patterns – but without getting bogged down in unecessary detail or losing sight of what the whole piece is. Some or all of which may be entirely invented. Richard Barrett said that he saw similarities in Sean Bonney’s work, but I haven’t read enough of his poems in a sustained enough fashion to be able to expand on that – although I’m sure Richard will. While intangible I felt there were also elements of tone that echoed some of what I have read in Ron Silliman’s The Alphabet so far. I think a combination of distance and apparent intimacy with the author’s thoughts, a seamless movement from reflection to broad political, linguistic, philosophical concerns, to what appears to be personal.

Ethical concerns – with reference to Peter Singer and the responsibilities of being human, both in relation to animals and toward other humans – figured largely. As did matters of language and history. All of which are inherently political. Language in part was dealt with as a physical and auditory presence in itself, as a texture of sounds, of something derived from breath and the particular ways we manipulate that using the organs of speech. There were a range of non-linguistic vocal sounds deployed through the reading – as a sound poet I would have been interested to see how they were notated on the page. Sometimes they seemed to represent the failure of sense, at other times a surfeit of meaning overwhelming the author’s capacity to articulate it, at other times again to represent a simple physical block to articulation. The poems were deceptively simple, sometimes appearing to deploy a plain, unpoetic, even bland, quotidian language. But then the sentence might wrench in a different direction, or make a scholarly reference, or through cumulative repetition and variation begin to make a complex point about language and thought perhaps. But as I’ve said, the poetry didn’t consciously present itself as difficult.

Quite early on and I’m sure unconscious by both parties Tina’s reading was entirely in time with the movements of someone fanning themself as they listened. It drew attention to the quality of the reading and made that part of the reading at least a larger site-specific event. One in which the heat of the venue, the response of the audience, and the poet each impacted on the other in physically apparent ways. It often strikes me that it would be interesting to see poets or other artists more responsive to the environments in which they perform. This was a distilled example of that. Another later moment came when P.Inman commented on the sound of a dove from outside.

After the break, during which everyone went outside to cool down a little, P.Inman read – mainly from his recent if p then q published collection Ad Finitum. As James Davies observed in his introduction right at the beginning of the evening the work of both poets has a strong visual presence and identity on the page. With Peter’s work that presence is minimal, often symmetrical, and making use of the page space. From the work I had read I was expecting work that was highly fragmentary, and from which it might be difficult to extract even enough sense to construct my own meaning. It does not look like any of the minimalist works that I’ve seen, for instance, it is something distinctly different. To an extent the reading confirmed something that I thought from seeing the work on the page, that it looks like the result of progressive distillation. Not just of particular poems, but across a writing career, a refinement of technique to an alchemical process. It is as though a large set of ideas have been gathered, and the words used to express them subjected to powerful forces until all that remains are the most resistant, most important, most usefully suggestive words, or parts of words. I had the image in mind of pebbles.

What I hadn’t expected was how fluid the reading would be, how much like poetry it would actually sound. There was obviously a utilisation of space and silence (something I still have to learn how to apply in my sound work) but while it shared this with the appearance of the poems, it wasn’t as though the form of the poems interfered with the reading. What is less apparent on the page is a temporal (or on the page spatial) element whereby a word, or part of a word, or possibly even non-word suddenly seems to link to another word (or part word etc.) earlier on, and alters dramatically or subtly your understanding of that previous word. I still find it hard to construct sense – or at least a reductive description of what is described, what the poem ‘means’, how the different parts of the poem relate to one another – from the poems. What I did find were strands of meaning surfacing, ideas being alluded to and then dropping from view while another appeared.

The most persistant comparison I found is one that is both misleading and quite accurate. I was frequently put in mind of Samuel Beckett. Not so much for the subject matter or for the way things are expressed as for the sense that the language has been distilled down to only the most essential elements.

I was impressed by how distinct the poetic strategies of the two writers are, and how unforbidding their presentation and poems actually are. Not that the poems are simple or easy – I think that should be clear – but that there are no artificial barriers created to keep the reader away. Both were friendly and open, and clearly passionate about what they do. I will certainly read more of each, and in future may well include commentary on what I’ve read.

Yet again it was a stimulating, challenging and thoroughly enjoyable evening. Especially as it’s begun to dawn on me just how many significant linguistically innovative poets attend The Other Room on a regular basis. The readings have begun to establish a significance for themselves that I don’t think will be immediately apparent – although already they seem to have helped galvanise writers into action. To start with the relatively insignificant I have embarked on an accelerated process of catching up on 20 years of reading, as well as been emboldened to think it might be worthwhile releasing CD-Rs of my sound poetry. I’m sure Richard Barrett would acknowledge some influence on his launching of his knives, forks and spoons press. And I’m certain that we’re not the only people to have been affected in this way. However long The Other Room continues for it will have a legacy far beyond just a few nice evenings out.

Matt Dalby – Santiago’s Dead Wasp 

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