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"Smartarse"
 
an anthology edited by Rupert Loydell, pub. The Knives Forks and Spoons Press. ISBN: 978-1-97812-50-7. £9

 

On the back cover of this book, the editor, Rupert Loydell, explains the title:

"The poetry I want at the moment is smartarse: a whirlwind mix of comedy, fiction, collage, free association, confession, bravado, parataxis and storytelling. It uses or may use experimental or linguistically innovative techniques, be rooted in modernism or postmodernism, but maybe not so that you as a reader would notice."

In his introduction, Nicholas Rombes, expert on punk and professor of poetry at the University of Detroit Mercy, says: "Rupert Loydell ran the term by me in 2010, and without even having to think about it, I knew what it meant." Rombes cites the influence of the internet on young USA writers, which, he claims, has resulted in a "renewed attention to the vernacular", which, Rombes continues, involves attention to "the way people talk - their voices and language, and the rhythm and texture of their words, mediated through all manner of digital technologies".

Loydell has assembled fifteen writers who, as he sees it, embody the principles above. Whether they do or not, as a mirror of Loydell's current taste, this is certainly a lively mix, and the poets as a whole, are not lacking in "attitude" or irony. No-one here takes themselves too seriously. I liked this anthology. Loydell’s candid admission that the book is filled with poetry that he just happens to like is refreshing. There are no dud contributions to this book, though obviously, there are some poets who appeal to me more than others; but I'm reviewing it as an anthology, and in that sense, it makes the grade. The poets fit together well, though they range from two poets under thirty to Martin Stannard, who must be approaching sixty now. The two younger poets make strong contributions; Peter Maxwell, aged twenty-three supplies some appealing prose poems, and Bobby Parker, just a few years older, provides some highly readable, freewheeling anecdotal poems.

Martin Stannard is a distinctive presence on the contemporary scene; there's no-one quite like him, and he now seems to relish his role as an outsider; his acerbic, ironic and sometimes tender lyrics are very much his own, and he’s been an important influence on a number of younger poets. He seems to be the pivotal presence in this book, along with the American poet Bob Hicok. One of Stannard's current poem-types is one in which the speaker is addressing an out-of-sight interloctor, who may or may not be the poet himself. The single, long poem that Stannard contributes here is in that style; it's called "I Want To Hear From You But The Authorities Have Other Ideas And Are Making You Learn How To Sit". The poem consists of a series of verse paragraphs, each headed with the words "I want to hear from you":

I want to hear from you.
Because I live alone I'm vulnerable to acts of stupidity.

Several sacks of dried mshrooms were delivered
to the castle this morning but I don't know who sent them;
they reek of irony, but perhaps it's a form of sarcasm too.

This sequence is vintage late-Stannard, in which he manages to amuse us while examining notions about the subject-object / writer-recipient relationship. Smartarse indeed.

Luke Kennard is a poet I haven't yet made my mind up about. I was disappointed by his book 'The Solex Brothers', but 'The Harbour Beyond the Movie' contains some very good poetry. Kennard's contributions to this book are expansive and entertaining, particularly a poem called "Dolphin with a Time Machine". Steve Spence seems less flip and ironic than some of the others in this book, and Nathan Thompson's tender lyrics, are in a different vein to most of the other contributions. But both Spence and Thompson fit well in this anthology because there is something knowing about their work; they're sophisticated operators who successfully avoid cliché and have the nous to allow the reader some leeway to make up the poem's meaning.

As far as I can gather (not all the biographies are explicit) there are only two American poets in the book. It’s interesting that, without knowing, it’d be hard to identify them as American, as they’re not obviously different in tone to the British poets; this supports Rombes’ claim that the internet has engendered a sort of trans-national vernacular. I was very taken by American Bob Hicok’s work. His breathless monologues never stand still, are constantly moving in a stream of free-association. Rombes quotes Hicok as an example of the vernacular “in the sense of Walt Whitman or Mark Twain or Anthony Burgess”:

And he was like, and I do wonder what they are,
As both of us lifted our heads like birds
Waiting for our mother to throw up in our mouths.
When I shared the image, he was like, gross

(from “Speaking American”)

Rupert Loydell's own contribution is in just one of the several styles available from this chameleon-like poet. Here we have his blunt, plain-speaking mode, with some nice openings:

Gravity was everywhere back then,
But I didn't let it get me down.

          (from "The Taller You Are The Shorter You Get")

The trouble with liking strong women
is that they come home later than you
and are tough enough to shrug off
any objections you make.

          (from "Fourteen days to Pay")

His poem "Waiting for Luke" is a nice, Frank O'Hara-style meandering about waiting in a pub for "Luke" to turn up while musing on the passage of time in a person's life.

I'm not sure I agree with Loydell's notion - expressed on the back cover - that we should forget about the politics of poetry (though I agree with him that no-one should dictate what anyone else should read). To my mind there are still unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) issues around power and official acceptance in British poetry, and, as I understand it, American poetry has similar, if less intense issues. And this anthology is surely an attempt to at least suggest to people what they should read. But still, Loydell's positive and energetic outlook is a great thing, and something we could do with more of. And I like the book's production - it has an unpretentious, rough-and-ready feel which fits the tone and intent of the anthology.

Finally, the most obvious observation one could make about this anthology is that it contains work by men. Not one woman. Normally, I'd object to that, but in this case I'm prepared to make an exception, because disregarding such a consideration is part of its attitude, and its attitude is what makes it a good anthology. It is partisan, and it has an agenda; as a result you can come away from this book having learned something new, or at least having been given a fresh angle on contemporary poetry. If that angle tells you that "Smartarse Poetry" is something written by men, then fine. At least we know where we stand.