||||| THE POETRY BUZZ ||
|| When university professors with big bibliographies hit sixty, they're frequently honoured with a festschrift, a solemn tome of panegyrics from admirers and learned friends.
Professor Allen Fisher has recently turned sixty. He gets a ride on a big red bus. But it's going to be a grand tour with his old bardic mates. They'll follow an intricate route through the London cityscape that enfolds the inscape of his poetry, over a hundred publications now collated in three major collections: Place, Gravity and Entanglement.
"We're celebrating three decades of Allen's work," says his partner Paige Mitchell, "but it's also a kind of Salon de Refuses on wheels for some of the poets who've been working away for years outside the Brit lit media establishment. And some new faces...." The Poetry Buzz. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Or buzz away under the cultural duvet like a wasp inching up a hairy inside leg.
Paige has planned free outdoor readings at Brixton, Vauxhall Gardens and Lincoln's Inn Fields, followed by an evening concert /reading in a converted church. There's going to be an art gallery on the bus and live performance via the bus PA system. Plus prerecorded sounds from absent friends - and music.
There's a cameo role here for Brother Paul. Many texts in Gravity and Entanglement use the titles of old jazz/ R&B dance tunes, cuts he knows from his glory days as Little Brother Saul, 50,000 watts of Soul on CBC-FM Vancouver. The Twist - The Mashed Potato - The Hully Gully - The Horse... Paige wants a carnival feel to the day, so he's tasked to source these and play them over the PA, along with suitable sound contributions and some Culture Court product like his own BP Blues or LR's Message from Turner. He's unearthed rare groove from the vaults aand devised an elaborate playlist, designed to segue elegantly between William Burroughs Road to the Western Lands and Junior Walker's Roadrunner, while showcasing Jack Kerouac reading from On The Road. The greatest hits also have to include Albert Ayler, a tribute to Lapland throat-singing and the Famous Hokum Boys singing The Pigmeat Strut, recorded in Richmond Indiana on May 2, 1930. The disc sounds as if pigmeat was being fried throughout the session. There are tricky programming decisions.
Meanwhile Paige is dealing with logistical problems. Lambeth Council are especially anxious about public readings and insist she makes a full risk assessment. "Are they going to say anything offensive?" asks a worried official. Paige says she doesn't know - they're poets. But she assures them that first-aid equipment will be on hand if anyone collapses through moral outrage or sits on a broken bottle.
By Friday 22 July more ominous complications are lurking. "Never seen so many suits taking black cabs," says the cabbie, swinging past the police vans clustered around Hyde Park Corner. "My missis just missed the Tube at Aldgate... no stopping the bastards." Tomorrow's Buzz route includes Westminster Bridge, the Old Bailey, Trafalgar Square and the Houses of Parliament - all nice sites for a truck bomb. There are reports that a "suicide bomber" has been shot dead in Stockwell, another zone on our tortuous route through the territory of Allen's Place. You don't have to be a psycho-geographer to start feeling edgy.
Paige is determined that the Buzz will roll, but there's always the possibility that a bomb alert will re-route us into a maze of diversions and roadblocks. Maybe the Ensign Bus Company will cancel the hire of its precious vintage AEC Routemaster. Or the poets will all hide under their beds. Perhaps the motorway signs will flash "LONDON CLOSED".
But next morning the Victoria Embankment is open, and beneath a grey sky Paige and Allen are squatting on a bench, surrounded by baggage and artefacts. The bus pulls up on cue. It's a time-machine from an early sixties South London adolescence, with its maroon and cream interior and steep stairwell.
The PA system is retro, too. No mixer, only a tiny amp with a single socket for either a microphone or a portable CD player. The bus company have thoughtfully provided a CD player and have super-glued it in place so you can't steal it - or turn it over to change the batteries. But Brother Paul has never forgotten Stockhausen's advice to "always check the plugs and bring a spare". He improvises a primitive set-up and fiddles with feedback while Paige and Allen create an instant gallery of small artworks and visual poetry on the upper deck. Trevor the driver smiles indulgently. He did a Gay Pride hire last week and is used to the rich variety of customers' requests.
The poets troop up clutching books and bottles and cans. Over sixty of them. There are people Bro P hasn't seen for years - venerable bearded figures of the Brit avant-garde like Bill Griffiths, perhaps the only man in England to have a Doctorate in Old English plus L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattooed on his knuckles. Here's Harry Gilonis who's going to be our Conductor of Chaos, collecting fares in his peaked cap; and cris cheek still slanging away in lower-case but mysteriously taller and balder than he used to be when he was doing free improv in the eighties at the London Musicians Collective.
New faces, too - lean young guys with brutalist haircuts and torn jeans. They call themselves London Under Construction but they look like they'd fancy taking a ball-hammer to 10 Downing Street. Chinese tourists are taking pictures of this quaint English gathering while a passing middle-aged bus fancier enthuses to us about the classic Routemaster and its superiority to its effete single-deck successors. An American tourist thinks the Poetry Buzz is yet another heritage attraction and has be gently dissuaded from boarding.
on the road
|| As we lurch off to Bessie Smith's Cakewalking Babies from Home, the growl of the ancient diesel over-rides the lower-deck sound, and Bro P pumps up the volume, thereby deafening the upper-deck and establishing the distinctive Poetry Buzz: an interference pattern; a ring-modulation of conflicting signals; the crackle of faulty sockets and wobbly jacks.
After a brief entanglement of cables MC Rob Holloway is on the mic. "I guess we're all very conscious of the connotations of destruction that buses carry at the moment. But today we'd like to celebrate and create something positive. If anybody wants to read, just ring the bell and ask for the microphone." No readers yet, so Bro P hits them with the blues grind of The Continental Walk. "It's the dance of the day/ so you better git with it/ 'cos it's here to stay."
We're on the first leg of the trip heading south of the Thames down through Lambeth, William Blake's old patch, towards Brixton, where Allen grew up. Outside the streets are a blur of brown brick. Brixton Mosque is out there somewhere. There's a steady rhythm of sirens and flashing blue lights, a constant motif throughout the day.
Bro P has spun Message from Turner, even though we're not passing Tate Britain, and tried The Cool Jerk by the Capitols. "The moment of truth has finally come!" shouts lead singer Donald Storball, over the middle eight. "Can you do it - can you do it - can you do it? " But they're not dancing in the aisles yet. A lovely Hispanic girl takes the mic to announce a project involving text written on balloons, which are launched by characters wearing animal masks. The silver spheroids bob around the bus. Poet Dell Olson, unable to attend, has sent Allen a T-shirt, re-naming him ALIEN FISSURE.
As we head down Brixton Road, it's dub time with Lee Perry and King Tubby, framing a clip from a 1979 radio piece about Allen which the BBC never broadcast. We hear him in Brixton Market buying vegetables and inspecting a taciturn mynah bird.
live fractals at the brixton plaza
|| Brixton Plaza on a Saturday morning is one of the livelier intersections of South London. The traffic hoots and surges and roars. Outside the library a group of dudes in bandanas are smacking down cards in an intense game of blackjack. Somebody has put a tire around the neck of Sir Henry Tate's statue, as if to necklace the dead sugar magnate. A thin unsteady man with a shopping bag approaches as we perch in a semi-circle on a low wall while Paige and Rob wrestle with a battery-driven portable amp. "Are you doing the Lord's Work?" he enquires, checking our credentials. A burly guy who resembles the soul singer Eddy Floyd plumps himself down in the semi-circle as Allen embarks on a reading from an early sequence of Place. He sets the scene:
This is the
borough of Lambeth
Eddy Floyd shakes his head with increasing disbelief. "Sixty-five per cent? Shit!" He stomps off pondering this civic crime. Brother P is distracted by a stylish young black girl in pink jeans who appears from nowhere and starts taking pics. An unmarked car hurtles through the traffic lights, a hand extending from the window to clamp a flashing blue light on the roof. We're in a typical Brixton Fractal.
How to take in even a bite of this huge work, with its intertextual synaptic/synoptic leaps from The Poor Law to Wilhelm Reich to Dickens to the Situationists to Blake to the monologues of vagrants? But Allen's on his turf, calmly putting himself about. In a sense the book has come home.
Next up, Chris Goode forgoes the puny PA as he launches himself into a verbal RPG attack on the Right Hon Anthony Blair. Shoppers hover at the edge of the group. Is this a rally? What planet does this party come from? Soon Chris is working the whole space, bouncing around, now throwing his voice across the Plaza at maximum throatburn in a playful toast to Alien Fissure:
A haughty spaced-out woman in a woolly hat - bohemian aristo or working girl? - joins the circle, and snaps her fingers for a light. She puffs quizzically through the readings for a few moments before drifting off.
Bill Griffiths asks the group to move in closer. He's reading more intimate work, but there's a carnival connection. Rob holds up the speaker like the Lost Ark as Bill reads his Tour of the Fairground, snap shots that light up a collective South London memory of the Botton Bros Amusements on Tooting Bec Common or the Battersea Park Fun Fair.
Mocked by young young skate-makers
The dry tumble
Bill's voice seems to have a steadying effect on the flux of the crowd even though it's bedded by a montage of street noise. We finally disperse and return to the bus.
poets in motion / the police shot the wrong man
|| Orchestrating poets in motion becomes a scrum. The audio kit is housed in a cabinet under the stairwell with a swinging door, which either blocks the gangway or prevents the DJ from sorting his discs. The rock 'n' roll gait of the vehicle doesn't help. The DJ feels more like a cook in the galley of a North Sea trawler as we rumble down Tulse Hill. We're passing the top of Scotia Road, where Brazilian electrician Charles de Menezes set off on his doomed trip to Stockwell Tube; but it's only a few hours later we'll learn that there were more arrests in the area - and that the police shot the wrong man.
of State may cancel an identity
Harry Gilonis is first on the open mic reading from his Identity Theft.
a person in
possession of an identity
Then there's a splendid blur of performers, punctuated by an increasingly random selection of sound tracks. Bill Sherman, The Peppermint Twist, soundscapes from T.H.F. Drenching and Tony Baker, Jeremy Hilton swaying from the hand-rail like a rush hour commute. Bill Griffiths intones an authentic Old English number for Allen.
Brother P's battered Anglo Saxon can only cope with a fragment, which possibly translates as " Whether the sun shines or whether it rains hard, we come here singing all over London's earth." And that seems about right.
The bus stops outside a public lavatory, but it's chained up. For security reasons? Or budgetary cuts? The passengers will have to take their chances in the lary pubs bordering Vauxhall Spring Gardens. Meanwhile there's a roar of concrete poetry from Ira Lightman.
London Under Construction have been active all day improvising performance texts, using material about the Tarot from one of Colin Wilson's occult blockbusters, lines from Place and the anti-smoking warning on the vehicle "Maximum Penalty £1000". Their overlapping voices boom across the top deck.
The DJ tries to follow but he's fumbling with jack-plugs, a CD player that keeps cutting out and mislaid CDs covered with his own illegible writing. To keep his spirits up he babbles at random, the Alan Freed of Buzz-FM narrowcasting on fifty thousand nano-watts across six micro-speakers. Thankfully poets keep staggering down the stairs to read, and Spring Gardens is now only minutes away.
p buzz urban banquet / bird, traffic and aircraft sounds intermittent / no signposting
Vauxhall Spring Gardens has been around since the eighteenth century as a pleasure zone for beaux, belles and trollops. A large multi-national property developer wants to buy the site from Lambeth Council and build over it "because this park is in the wrong place" but the inhabitants seem to like it and there's a shallow bowl of dusty grass that suits us fine as a natural amphitheatre.
Behind us are the low arches of the railway viaduct housing Oriental carpet wholesalers. Commuter trains rumble past and a helicopter circles overhead. We pitch camp beside some squat abstract sculptures. Rob Holloway and friends suddenly appear with a generous spread of salads and wine and beer - his flat is only a few minutes away.
It's dejeuner sur l'herbe as Allen reads from Gravity. So many words dancing around. Will he boogie down the Birdland or bop up the Bristol Stomp? They're all in the book, post-cubist explorations of jagged space-time. This is how he begins Bel Air. Hard to convey the range and scope of this "poetry of information" in sound-bites. It's the constant sound of surprise.
Brother Paul is also struck by Ken Edwards' prose text Nostalgia for Unknown Cities. Its terse psychic bulletins scroll across the CCTV movie in his head:
They had imagined the city. Signal failures in all directions. They saw the police cordons. They recalled loud, quick African voices. Passengers waiting in line without ambition. An ancient dog lay near them. Unseemly scrambles for vacant bus seats. Buildings being constructed for unknown purposes. A vast pool of undrained water. Bird, traffic and aircraft sounds intermittent. Of course, there was no signposting.
Peter Manson reads work by American poet Clark Coolidge, as well as his own Dow Hill, a very unWordsworthian encounter with the physicality of the natural world. Andrea Brady, Jeff Hilson, Lawrence Upton all read new work, or work that's new to this listener - all dense, elliptical, nervy, counter-intuitive, the post-modern self at full stretch. But after a couple of beers and little sleep he's losing it now and is drawn into the scene as a composition, this inner-city pastoral of post-grad students eating pita bread and drinking Stella under the overcast as kids scamper after their mothers in the middle distance.
As Lawrence Upton comes to the end of his sequence, two dodgy young men race past. "Look at 'em all!" they shout, maybe winding up for a bit of the old Class War. "They got champagne!" Then one of them fires off a instant couplet, so quickly nobody can quite remember it afterwards, but something like:
HE FELL OFF
THE BUS COS HE WAS SPASTIC!
They run on. We applaud uneasily.
lincoln's inn / drifters at the edge of the circle hover more reflectively
|| On the road again, heading for Lincoln's Inn Fields. We loop back over Southwark Bridge, passing Cannon Street, Tower Hill, and, inevitably, Aldgate Tube Station. It's supposed to open again on Monday but "investigations are still continuing." Caught up in the microcosm of the bus we've been isolated temporarily from TV and radio. Coming up to the top of the hour here on Buzz FM - you've been listening to Charles Bernstein reading The Bricklayer's Arms and John Tilbury playing a prepared piano. Not forgetting Mambo Baby by Miss R&B, Ruth Brown. Finally the tribes of the scribes gather under an octagonal bandstand. Its wooden roof creates a warm acoustic and drifters at the edge of the circle hover more reflectively.
Allen reads from Entanglement - pieces like Pimp Walk with Fragments from King Lear, verbal labyrinths as intricate and risky just like our mystery city, syntax crushed and compressed like the urban strata of centuries, juxtapositions as unpredictable as the behaviour of quantum particles.
John Seed takes another route into the city's past using Henry Mayhew's interviews with Victorian working-class Londoners as a source text, an extension of the "found poetry" of Charles Reznikov or John Robert Colombo. It's like a Cool Edit makeover, paring the words down to the raw direct speech, trying to find the rhythm:
We weren't a
I knew them
all in Lambeth
& he drank
Peter Middleton is gnomic, very writerly, flashing lots of shiny verbal surface. There's a smart gloss on those glossaries. Brother P's head is pretty lumpen by now and can't get round it. But Robert Sheppard's reading of Byron James is OK really hits the spot. There's been a lot of free-floating polysemy today and your wordslinging jock revels and rolls about in it as much as the next biped; but there are times, toughening around us, when some rude referentiality has to say it all, even in the first two verses:
photo no-name news-clips
Only the city
has a name. It's
the mottramites remember
The bus deposits us outside the Museum of Garden History, which is the venue for the evening's event. Time for a drink and some reflection. If this journey has had an ancestral spirit guide, it has to be the late Eric Mottram who mentored many of today's travelers, as Professor of English and American Literature at Kings College London and as a dynamic editor of the Poetry Review in the nineteen-seventies. A brief clip of Mottram has been part of the Buzz sound-track (we've passed close to his old house in Herne Hill) and this prompts some recollections as some of us gather in a faux-traditional pub on the Lambeth Road.
Mottram's intellectual energy, his interest in physics and biology and psychology and economics - in everything - his voracious reading, his delight in innovation and experiment are all recalled. As are his energetic practices in the kitchen. There are anecdotes about chicken curries that left blood on the ceiling, great feasts of fish and vodka martinis. Eating our fake Ploughman's Lunches and plastic steaks, we toast him.
an evening of entanglement / not your standard poetry gaff
The Museum is a Perpendicular Gothic church, restored by the Victorians but deconsecrated in the seventies and converted to a shrine to the history and lore of the British Garden. The graveyard has been cultivated as a garden. The choice of venue interlaces somehow with the gardening motif that has developed through Fisher's writing over the years - and with the allotment in Hereford that he shares with Paige.
So this isn't your standard poetry gaff. Illuminated glass cases display spades, trowels, lawnmowers ancient and modern. There are portraits of famous plant hunters. There's even a display dedicated to garden gnomes. The cavernous acoustic of the the darkening clerestory is worrying composer John Wall, who's premiering a long electronic piece with a wide dynamic range. But there's a proper PA, and Bro Paul sneaks in a couple of his B-sides as people take their seats in the nave.
Mark Sanders and John Edwards start an extended improvisation on drums and and string bass, discovering outre sonorities and fusing them together with some neat telepathy; which sets the stage for Ulli Freer. He emerges slowly, shrouded in green netting - camouflage? - ectoplasm ? - a caul? Then, having established the space of his persona, disdaining the mic, jumping down from the platform, he rocks. With his whole body. He's more compressed than an mp3:
...feeling dissipated crowd
You have to see him really; like you have to see his morphed fonts and swaying typography. There's a connection with Iggy Pop somewhere in the DJ's head, but it's drifting.
We segue into another improvisation session from percussionist Eddy Prevost. He sits down with a small kit, a huge gong and a selection of violin bows. Using these simple tools - no electronics - he creates a mirage of sound, angling the bow across his ride cymbals or the trembling rim of the gong to extract a hypnotic vocabulary of sustained tones, constantly evolving through subtle shifts and variations.
Equally mesmeric is John Wall's electronic piece, a subtly crafted sequence of sonic enigmas - samples? - electro-acoustic? - analogue-synth?- that immerse the listener in a meditative sound-world. The antecedent here might be Xenakis or the early French musique concretists like Pierre Schafer but it's quite a distinctive evolution. Allen is a visual artist as well as a poet. He presents a cheerful rapid-fire slide show taking us through the early Fluxus influence - the edible books - the recurrent themes of tools - spanners, clamps - to the oils and canvases of abstracted "traps". The slides flicker past at REM speed - was that a photo of a blazing car? Those urban motifs don't go away. There's visual input, too, from cris cheek, who reads with increasing dismay as he projects a processed video clip of Governor George Pataki introducing G.W Bush at the Republican Convention. Rob Holloway reads. He takes an improvisational approach to reading and experiments with different performance procedures. Tonight the reading is fairly straight on the mic. But there's that chaos-factor syndrome in the texts, that urban acceleration and compression, a sense of sensory overload/overdrive. The grammar of classical surrealism implodes: "Brawling eggs in raincoats in his mouth shout for air as slow clocks peel back reveal gas full of butter". "Thanks, guys," says Allen, winding things up. "It's been great."
echoes of the buzz
|| Your commentator takes a late train to the outer suburbs where he's staying with old friends. He hasn't been able to take notes on the bus but the intention is to scratch something down while the gig is still hot. But the train is full of pleasant young people talking very loudly about student politics and then when he arrives at Anne and Mike's house, Anne sits him down in front of a bottle of red wine and then some brandy and they all have a long chat about 1963 and psychic phenomena.
So his early-morning jottings are already fragmented. Exact chronologies have started to dissolve, just as his playlist did, while those glistening verbal fragments that hung in the air are disintegrating fast. There's a kind of verbal tinnitus fuzzing away in his inner ear, in which flutter-echoes of poems merge into an infinitely long delay....
Thus he's becoming an unreliable narrator. In a way, that's apt. So much of the writing today has engaged with uncertainty, relativity, the slipping 'n' sliding of signifiers, polymorphologies of persona and form. It's often underview folded and cut up against overview. Or it's the raw meat phenomenology of experience, unpacking language from its supermarket wrapping. Or it's The Surrealism of the Masses, like Lautreamont prophesied, "Poetry must be made not by one, but by all." So many narratives could be voiced over this. In the sixties British poets read against the Bomb. Now, atomised, they read amid the infinite possibility of bomblets.
All the more reason for a grand day out....
©Paul A Green 7/2005
*Thanks to Paige Mitchell and Robert Sheppard for images. All quotes © The Authors
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