Monday, 28 March 2011

Irrepressible creativity on the London Scene

Walk right out, sit right down

Readers may be aware of stirrings around the Writers Forum Workshop series in London. This series offers a room where people without any literary reputation can read their poems aloud to an audience which is there to hear new poetry. Discussion is banned in the sessions, but as they normally take place in a pub there is plenty of opportunity for people to hear reactions, and to discuss points of art, in the outfield. One of the two organisers resigned in July 2010, upsetting the fan base. Then in September 2010 twelve people sent a letter to the other organiser announcing that they were setting up a new series of open events, as they found him hard to work with. (The letter is currently available on the web here The dissident group set up forum/ reading events under the rubric of ‘Writers Forum Workshops (new series)’. The new series would not have Lawrence Upton as its director/ administrator. The letter was signed by Sean Bonney, Wayne Clements, Johan De Wit, Steve Fowler, Antony John Francis, James Harvey, Jeff Hilson, Matt Martin, Stephen Mooney, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Jamie Sutcliffe. While the sessions were always full of people with no understanding of poetry, the persistence of the avant-garde members meant that some share of the sessions was taken up by modern-style poetry, obviously varying from year to year.
(The rest of the world uses 'workshop' in a different sense.)

There is also a Writers Forum publishing house. While the sessions have always been completely open, and dominated by students and out-patients, the pamphlet series reflected Bob ‘the Gob’ Cobbing’s view of the universe. (Policy since Cobbing’s demise in 2002 then has inclined to follow his line.) The anthology of the first 500 titles was a memorably dreadful book, full of spattering and whitterings. Of the 1500 titles now published, it is fair to say that, if you read all of them, you would die. However, of the ones I have read, there is a deposit of pure gold at the bottom of the slagberg. The production values were miles below standard (this has changed since 2002), but there are important titles by Colin Simms, Sean Bonney, David Sellars, and Adrian Clarke, for example.

It is fair to say that the indifference of WF to the arts of publishing contributed to the obscurity in which the ‘London School’ languishes when it comes to being read by people who don’t go to Writers Forum. (‘School’ doesn’t mean they all swim head to toe.) We recall that truly important work has been produced by Maggie O’Sullivan, Ulli Freer, Adrian Clarke, Harry Gilonis, Gavin Selerie, Robert Hampson, and Allen Fisher, for example. I think we have to mention Veer Books as being the most satisfactory series of books collecting classics of the London scene going back to the 1970s as well as the new work, which is at a historic peak right now.

I think keeping the WF name is a mistake and unjustifiable. The basis on which this is wrong is unfortunately bourgeois - it relies on a notion of property, and then of inheritance, which is rather distasteful in an artistic context. If Cobbing owned the name, and passed it on to two people, and Lawrence Upton is the only surviving office-holder (after Adrian Clarke’s resignation), then the name does belong to Upton. Since the assets of an open reading session are, simply, the powers of the listeners to transform the poem for the poet whom they are listening to, the name on the flier is hardly of great importance.

We do not have any photographs of Lawrence behaving badly. However, there is a long history of people feeling that he is officious, long-winded, authoritarian, dogmatic in condemnation and loyalty, uninterested by most aspects of poetry, is stuck in his ways, has a mausoleum view of the avant garde based on genealogy and obsequy, etc. He has been described as ‘the Berlin Wall of the London poetry scene’. All of this coagulates like treacle but does not solidify into fact. But the split in this writers’ group is exclusively about Upton’s personality, not about literary differences. The workshop could sustain those, its members do not have to agree with each other about what the next poem should look like. Also there was no big bad thing that anyone has been able to name - just a persistent irritation. In fact, it is not too much to say that if Lawrence promised not to undertake any more monologues, in particular ones about loyalty, the rules of art, and his holidays in Cornwall and Serbia, he would be forgiven.

The twelve names include an impressive array of talent, many of them have been significant in AE’s past and no doubt will be in its future.

Any account of Upton’s history as someone dogmatic who annoys people has to go on for long enough to admit that WF was thriving under a duo which included him, and that there were at least enough people swarming around the WF scene to form a secession and stalk out.

My feeling is that the key events in the poetic realm are irretrievable, the evidence too fleeting to be recoverable. It would be hard to construct an account which all parties would agree to. Most probably the process had to do with dynamics of personal exchange which are too subtle to be caught.

Going back almost 20 years, the planning process for Angel Exhaust (not yet called that) involved meetings between Adrian Clarke, Andrew Duncan, Johan de Wit, and Robert Sheppard, which were chaired by Lawrence Upton as he was felt to be someone who could keep control of the time factor in the discussion. (I think Gilbert Adair dropped out before the meetings started.) The objective was to find a literary programme which a magazine could implement, and the starting point was to create an outlet for the London School. The challenge of writing policy texts which the other editors could agree to was extreme. Lawrence was a good chair and I am grateful to him for facilitating this process.

I think the trouble with Lawrence is that he doesn’t want to react. He has taken on systems of values, to do with Marxism and art, and sees all questions as being solved by them. In a way, this is selfless. He does not own the opinions, he is merely the servant of the person who owns them. But if you disagree he accuses you of disloyalty. The ideas Lawrence serves are condensed and immobile, like a house. They are deeply unlike ideas, but they are like property. Lawrence has an abiding feeling that everyone else is a deviationist, but what we are supposed to be loyal to is lost in the fogs of time. It is something like ‘all art has to be non-discursive, free-form, yibble-scribble’.

This conflict may give glimpses of process. Metaphors, for example - one thinks of the title of a 2011 conference on ‘legacies of modernism’. What does this mean? it starts with something big dying, we all stand around the cadaver and try to grab bits of it? Like a turkey or something? If you go for this lethality (someone has to die before you inherit the asset), it is a story like ‘The Midsomer Modernist Murders’. I don’t accept that what is happening in 2011 is a continuation of something that was happening in 1920. This is too much like trying to prove ownership of a house (”root of title” I think you say).

The unstated word is ‘ownership’. Lawrence owns WF but doesn’t want to use that term. Cobbing owned it & Lawrence inherits. And suddenly taking direction of the London School is a breach of Lawrence’s property rights. And we are being directed by the dead. I don’t think that legitimacy is something which comes from the dead and which is posted to us through a letter-box shaped like Cobbing or Upton. The funerary urn as message box. You press a tap and out comes a handful of dirty ashes in the form of acknowledgement from Kruchonykh, Hugo Ball, or Pound. Thanks a bunch. This preoccupation with legacy and inheritance has an unfortunate alliance with the belief that all talk of creativity, talent, personal choice, is bourgeois subjectivity. Both lead to a rigidity in the decision process. People writing poems following inherited rules, observing regulations, being like an official in the Ministry of the Avant Garde. Then, in the end, an authoritarian interpersonal style.

The theory is that anything freeform like ‘sound poetry’ or ‘visual poetry’ is subjective. But the subjectivity embedded in it can become vestigial, ritual, ineffective. Dogma too is subjectivity in cadaverous form.

I think it is actually a form of weakness to want to "acquire" the 50 years of history of Writers Forum. Surely the poets at the new series have autonomy & sovereignty and don’t need a legacy title? Surely the signatories to the letter to Lawrence are talented enough to float their own ship? And surely the London Scene is happening more than ever right now, and 2011 is not thirty years too late?

The key factor on the London 'underground' scene has been the strong interpersonal bonds which override artistic differences. Occasional rifts have little effect on a geology of mutual affection.

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