September 09, 2010

And the Award for the Best Poetry Dog goes to…

I have a dilemma in writing about the Manchester Literature Festival which has launched its programme for this October: I have noticed that my blog readership doubles when I critically blast some aspect of UK literary banality – so if I comment on the MIF programme in the way that most of my readers would expect I will increase my hits; on the other hand I also notice that the Manchester Blogger Awards are situated within the Festival, so if I say something less critical maybe I’d increase my chances of a Blogger nomination. So prostitute myself for blog-reader popularity or sell out for an Award nomination?

I jest, of course. I couldn’t get a Manchester Blogger nomination because I am too negative about too many things Manchester. This is not because I have particular pleasure in denigrating the city; rather it is because I am fond of Manchester, because I like living here and therefore want it to be what it could be. I want Manchester to be an international city, and am saddened that it only has delusions of grandeur not real prospects (except in football which irritatingly, as an Everton supporter, is the one greatness I am against). A great city has certain characteristics. I want it to have great contemporary architecture and it doesn’t. I want it to have a great orchestra but it doesn’t. I want it to have a great Gallery and it doesn’t. I want it to have an International Festival that's not corporate or Literature Festival that actually contributes something to global artistic dialogue and its own cultural life but it doesn’t (well it does – the Text Festival but Manchester doesn’t acknowledge it). As Kurt Vonneghut would say: so it goes. So I can forget the Blogger nominations because I want Manchester to be more than it is - and so I turn to the Literature Festival programme.

My thoughts on it are mostly poetry related, as nowadays I get very little time to read fiction, but I guess we can extrapolate the quality of the poetry programme as consistent across to fiction.

Having built up to the big statement, it may not be world-shattering news for me to say the programme is dismally dull. Self-evidently the hegemony of the banal is installed in this and most other UK literature events, intertwined with the dumb marketing-led publishing, prize-winning poets giving each other prizes and facile literature newspaper coverage. So in this sense, Manchester is merely representative of the UK situation - the hegemony of the banal is a gauge symmetry – pretty much interchangeable with other such festivals in the UK - accommodation of mediocrity, indeed its celebration. Fundamentally, the purposeless Hegemonists have no artistic direction (just telling their own stories in their own voices) and so their festivals are artistically static. It is analogous to Richard Dawkins’ observation of the corrosive effect of day-to-day superstitions such as astrology on rationality; or the delusions of ‘be-nice’ liberalism – which have been cruelly exposed for their political vacuity in the current evil of the coalition government.

The only event that seems odd is the Tribute to Roy Fisher, which raises the question: Why has this particular poet been located in a relation to the mainstream? After all as Marjorie Perloff observed: “Fisher’s ‘cutting’ of the page, with its removal of words from their ‘planned situations’, anticipated a mode that became prominent in the U.S., not only in Silliman’s poetry but in that of many other Language poets, at least a decade after Fisher had written the (evidently unknown to them) Cut Pages”. But then in the brochure copy you find that his work has been championed by Carol Ann Duffy – the festival is shot-through (as Sartre would say) with Duffy. As Nate Dorward notes in Jacket 12 “a new mainstream postmodernism represented by authors like Craig Raine, Carol Ann Duffy, Paul Muldoon and Simon Armitage, and more generally by the popular dissemination of the clichés of poststructuralist theory…Fisher’s poetry has become less formally unpredictable since the mid-1970” and “The Cut Pages, Fisher’s most experimental text, is little known outside the ranks of Fisher enthusiasts because of its exclusion from the Oxford and Bloodaxe editions of his poems”. So that explains it.

Ordinarily MLF would not occupy my thoughts for more than the time it takes to flick through the brochure and be confirmed in the expectation that there is nothing worth attending. However, the mainstream is fond of its competitions – it is the way in which it validates itself, sells its books, rewards its mates. MLF is liberally sprinkled with awards, there’s even a gala prize dinner (in the company of Simon Armitage et al) for something called the Manchester Poetry Prize. But there is one prize which the mainstream can never have, despite their bid for it in the centre spread of the Festival Brochure.
And that is Best Poetry Dog. MLF’s whimsical design conceit is minimalist and newsprint style, punctuated by photos of flyposted epigrammatic sentences, with the addition on the centre spread of an intensely focused Border Terrier pulling toward something out of shot (amusingly it seems to have more directional intent than the mainstream poetry it has been co-opted to represent). The mainstream has a tendency to raid beyond its boundaries to pick up less threatening elements of more experimental work, the flyposting is a neat absorption of street poem installations stretching back to Cobbing and beyond, and more recently Phil Davenport’s interventions in Manchester and other cities; but the inclusion of the Border Terrier, can only be seen as a doomed attempt to take on the world’s most famous Poetry Dog – Barney. (I obviously highly rate Márton Koppány’s Gertrude S. in Budapest but I think Márton would accept that Barney holds the crown). This is a field of poetic contention which the Hegemony can not win. So the terrier – nameless therefore simply a model rather than a real poetry dog – fails miserably to challenge the Barnster. As evidence of Barney’s poetry credentials I offer the illustrations in this blog:
Barney and Derek Beaulieu
Barney (as a puppy) sitting in Robert Grenier’s shoes
Barney and Ron Silliman reading Geof Huth (photoed by Geof himself)

And therefore I am sure you will join me in celebration as the Award for the Best Poetry Dog goes to … Barney.


Márton Koppány said...

Yes, Gertrude S. is still rather unknown in Hungary. Arthur, the white mix likes her a lot though. Anyway, congratulations to Barney!

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony
Please tell me... have you ever been tempted to call Barney "the Barnster"? I hope you will answer in the affirmative.

Tony Trehy said...

He is frequently referred to as the Barnster - I have edited the usage in the blog to reflect its grammatical use. Thanks for the reminder.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Can't disagree about the festival really. Not a lot to whet my appetite. However, in a spirit of openmindness, I'd heartily recommend that you come along to see C.K. Williams read.