reviewed by Simon Turner
Back in April, the Guardian ran a feature on Kate Tempest, an up-and-coming performance poet who’d just been awarded a Ted Hughes Award for her work Brand New Ancients. The piece was fairly unobtrusive as far as mainstream press coverage of poetry goes – there was a lacklustre attempt to generate a tension between performance poetry and ‘page’ or academic poetry, because a newspaper article on contemporary poetry really isn’t earning its keep without a faint whiff of controversy wafting over the pages – but what was really striking was the vituperative quality of the comments below the line. There seemed to be a perfect division between those who loved Tempest’s work, and those who detested it. But more pertinently, these celebrations or critiques were couched in much broader terms. Appreciating Tempest’s work apparently equates to trashing ‘elitist’ page poetry in its entirety, outing The Waste Land as ‘unreadable’, and holding academia to account for the unpopularity of the poetic arts; whilst to dismiss Tempest, conversely, required an assault upon the multifarious spoken word scene as somehow irredeemably unpoetic and populist.
‘Poems about nothing’, although perhaps a tad mean-spirited – Velky here has in his sights the mainstream middle class epiphany poem, a worthy target which, in this instance, he nails perfectly – is arguably the strongest poem here.
The problem, as I see it, is one of definition, as to where ‘poetry’ and ‘performance poetry’ begin and end, and whether they’re the same thing at all. This is an issue that Jon Stone (one of my merciless overlords here at Sidekick) tackled thoroughly in a series of blog articles (see here, here, and here) a couple of years back – articles which, inevitably, resulted in some below-the-line controversies of their own, comparable to, though infinitely more refined than the commentariat shit-storm generated by the Tempest piece. Simply put, our shared critical vocabulary is not yet sophisticated enough with regards to spoken word or performance poetry, and its fraught relationship with ‘page’ poetry (a term I loathe, by the way: ‘page’ poets not only exist in the real world, but they do occasionally read their work in public, too).
Arriving amid a welter of extra-textual sturm und drang, Mistaken for Art or Rubbish is the first publication by Alexander Velky, and it’s unlikely to settle the page-performance dispute any time soon. The book is self-published, with the cash supplied partially by the crowd-sourced funding website Kickstarter, and much is made of this in the book’s press release. That same document is not above trying to generate a degree of controversy, too – it’s what poetry does best, I guess – asserting that Velky’s work “is anomalous in a UK poetry scene fixated on naval-gazing and egoism . . . Be they the literary introverts of insolvent periodicals and poorly attended art-centre readings, or the spoken-word exhibitionists who never quite nailed singing or rapping, most UK poets offer little encouragement for the future of the art form.” Them’s fightin’ words, as they used to say, though I suspect – I hope, anyway – that there’s a degree of irony in Velky’s confrontational fanfare: the press release is a form, like any other, and as such is ripe for critique, deconstruction, and parody. Whatever the intentions behind the aggressive posturing of this book’s press release, it does leave the reader expecting something truly ground-breaking, or shocking and controversial in any case. Our appetites suitably whetted, what we’re presented with is actually disappointingly traditional and pedestrian.
Not that Velky lacks ambition. The collection’s over-arching theme is art’s relationship with commerce, which apparently “is more fraught than ever”, although this might be news to the various great painters and sculptors of the Renaissance, who had to earn their living pandering to the unpredictable caprices of scheming Popes and murderous noblemen: convincing a Russian oligarch or two to shell out for your latest daubs strikes me as a great deal less ‘fraught’ than keeping yourself in the Borgias’ good books in exchange for ready cash, but maybe that’s just me. Velky’s epigraphs – one from Bill Drummond of the KLF, who famously burned one million pounds in a field as a radical anti-capitalist gesture; and one from Damien Hirst (though a footnote tells us that this isn’t the YBA of tabloid notoriety, but rather an “unknown Slovenian artist” of the same name) – kick things off in lively manner, but the collection simply doesn’t match up to the provocation of this entry point.
The book’s opener, ‘Please don’t fund my art’, is catchy, and gets its point across (that poetry and public funding are locked in troubling symbiosis) with ease and efficiency, although it’s worth remembering that similar subject matter has been mined recently, and more effectively, by Sam Riviere in his Austerities project. It’s immediately followed by ‘Alchemy’, which expands upon the theme – here, the inexplicable scenario of a poet becoming rich as a result of their scribbling is presented in punishing detail – but which quickly outstays its welcome. Satire, to be effective, has to have some grounding in reality, but no poet in living memory ever got rich from writing, with the possible exceptions of Murray Lachlan Young (a performance poet, if anyone remembers, who won a £1 million record contract with EMI, produced one book, and promptly vanished), and Felix Dennis, who was already a millionaire before dabbling in poetry, and so doesn’t really count. One or two poets, I’m sure, make a comfortable living from their writing, but the majority of them do other things to support their material needs, and write poetry because they truly love their chosen art form. ‘Alchemy’ feels like an easy extended sneer at a hazy chimera. It’s toothless satire, its jaws snapping at empty air.
‘How to decide whether something is art’, meanwhile, itself can’t seem to decide whether it’s a reactionary ars poetica for ‘real’ – which is to say, painted – art that has been produced at great emotional cost by a solitary genius, or a satirical critique of the way in which aesthetic and monetary value are conflated by the marketplace. These are two distinct concerns, and don’t really work together in the same poem. In fact, upon second reading, I think the poem could be greatly improved if the second stanza – where the critique of art dealing occurs – were to be moved to the end of the piece, and deployed as a punch-line. Just a thought.
Velky’s work for me only really comes to life when he narrows his focus and keeps himself on a tight leash. ‘My art is greater than your art’ does a passable job of pastiching an ugly self-aggrandising strain in certain sectors of slam poetry, undermined in the final analysis by the tired ‘shock / cock’ rhyme with which it concludes. ‘Poems about nothing’, although perhaps a tad mean-spirited – Velky here has in his sights the mainstream middle class epiphany poem, a worthy target which, in this instance, he nails perfectly – is arguably the strongest poem here. It is also, tellingly, one of the few written in unrhymed, unmetered verse; whether adopted with ironic intent or not, free verse is clearly a strategy that works. Elsewhere, however, rhymed quatrains coupled to a mechanistic iambic pulse predominate, but neither are deployed with any degree of originality or dexterity. The context of performance might be of value in this regard. For example, in the case of ‘The box’, I’m entirely at a loss as to whether the iambic infelicities it’s infected with, and its awkward use of enjambment (a sample: “Its dimensions are delicious: / All three of them equally so. / Its composition is comparable / In purity to snow. / / Although it isn’t complicated; / It has a history / Of sorts. But details remain blurred: / Dates fast become a mystery”) are the result of a finely tuned parodist’s ear, or are simply marks of poor workmanship. To hear the work performed might clear that little mystery up.
We’re back, finally, to the question of definitions. This is, ultimately, performance poetry of a very particular kind, and many of the problems of the collection are due to the tensions generated by the act of replicating performative or stage verse in a printed format. A piece like ‘A duck with two heads’, for example, might well raise a titter or two from a suitably lubricated audience towards the end of an open mic night, but on the page it’s little more than a whimsical squib that manages to test the patience of the reader, in spite of its brevity. More seriously-intended poems like ‘Poverty’, meanwhile, are sapped of dynamism by the rhythmic and stanzaic straightjackets Velky insists on forcing them into. Labels aren’t always helpful, certainly, and there is no universal law which states that performance poetry inevitably fails on the page. However, it seems significant that the poems which worked for me were those that either critiqued the formal or aesthetic conventions of performance poetry, or jettisoned them altogether; although what this might say about the ongoing and occasionally brittle relationship between the two tribes of page and stage, I leave to others to judge.
Simon Turner was born in Birmingham in 1980, and has published two collections of poetry to date; his most recent, Difficult Second Album, appeared with Nine Arches in 2010. His poems have also featured (or are forthcoming) in a variety of publications, including Tears in the Fence, The Wolf and PN Review; and the anthologies Lung Jazz and Dear World and Everyone In It. With George Ttoouli, he co-edits the poetry blogzine Gists and Piths. He lives and works in Warwickshire.