2021 was an interesting year for me. My working rhythms changed dramatically, as I found myself moving away from my previous pattern of creating small-scale projects very intensely over a few weeks (with a couple of exceptions, which I’ll come to), to building much larger structures more slowly, and with less anxiety about the need to publish.
2021 was also the year in which my little publishing venture, Steel Incisors, truly got off the ground, having made a modest start in late 2020 with the publication of (dis/re)membered.
What follows is a month-by-month breakdown of the highlights of the year. I write this largely for myself, so I have a chronological record of my activities. If anyone else reads it, that’s a bonus!
My first publication of the year was a pair of visual poems from my Cosmic Horror cycle, which appeared in the wonderful Babel Tower Notice Board.
The UK was in full lockdown from January to mid March, and I struggled throughout. I was teaching online, working very long days in front of a screen through the darkest months, and my creative output was virtually nil. This contrasted with the first lockdown that started in March 2020; several projects, including Rites & Passages, Cosmic Horror and a series of film poems, were the unlikely offspring of that experience. Going through another lockdown in 2021, I expected to be equally productive, and felt disappointed with myself when that wasn’t the case.
February was slightly more productive than January, thanks largely to an invitation from SJ Fowler to contribute a filmed performance or poem to Writers’ Kingston. The result was “Organism”, a film poem that marked the Bird King’s first (virtual) outing of 2021! It was a joy to make.
March saw the release of my chapbook Rites & Passages, published by one of my favourite small presses, Salò Press. The project was inspired by first-person video games, in which the player is simultaneously immersed in and alienated from the action; you become the character, running down corridors with a gun trained on anything that looks hostile, but you’re also hunched over your laptop, enjoying the story from a safe distance. Two other sources of inspiration for the book were choose-your-own-adventure books (which provided the architecture of the text) and the repetitive labyrinths of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels.
Another project that took inspiration from Robbe-Grillet (as well as Cluedo and whodunnits) was The Murderer Threatened, a short cycle of visual poems. Around the time of the publication of Rites & Passages, Paper View Books in Portugal printed a limited run of The Murderer Threatened. For a few months I had only a tantalising glimpse of them in some photos, but in the autumn the book became available.
April was a good month. Lockdown was over and I had a few new pieces out, including a contribution to the Trickhouse Press anthology of collaborations between human writers and AI artists, Virtual Oasis. Also out that month were “la mer” (a poem published online by Osmosis Press), “Ritual 2” (a film poem published by Beir Bua Press in their “Secret Vispo” collection), and a review of Michael Mc Aloran’s In Dim Forgotte(n) in the Babel Tower Notice Board.
And I enjoyed the Zoom launch of Rites & Passages, along with new Salò Press comrades Nina Ines Ward and Molly Ellen Pearson.
One of my all-time dream publications, Alienist Manifesto, included “Death Machines”, two visual poems. Bear Creek Gazette featured four poems from Cosmic Horror. Three visual poetry diptychs from a new project called Bloods Dream were included in Beir Bua Journal, and another three went up at Selffuck. Bloods Dream was a welcome return to my pre-2021 compositional rhythms, having been produced very quickly and intuitively. However, it differed from most of the visual poetry I had produced in recent years because the imagery was all hand-drawn, rather than collaged and distorted.
A major highlight of May was the publication of mother tongue by innovative publisher Colossive Press. This too included hand-drawn elements, and gave me the opportunity to explore the possibilities of an unusual format – that of the old-fashioned fold-out map.
May also saw the publication of the Broken Sleep video game poetry anthology, Hit Points, in which I had a poem about the classic FPS Doom, entitled “Maimed Sonnet 666: Low Health, a Love Poem to Doom.” Initial attempts to write this poem had taken me in a different direction and ended up becoming Rites & Passages. So I really owe the editors of Hit Points, Aaron Kent and Matthew Haigh, a massive thank-you for their call for submissions, as it had set me off in a very productive direction!
As a publisher, I had the tremendous pleasure of releasing the first Steel Incisors anthology, The Mouth of a Lion. The book was an important statement of intent for Steel Incisors; I was keen to give a platform to visual poetry that challenged, surprised and provoked, and that broke away from some of the more well-worn pathways of the form. The anthology’s apocalyptic theme was explored in an intoxicating variety of ways by the contributors, who included a mixture of well-established visual poets and some better known for purely textual work.
The Bird King enjoyed an outing in June, in the form of two prose poems, for which Alex Stevens provided illustrations, in the Surreal-Absurd Sampler series at Mercurius. New online journal Arc included a visual poem from Cosmic Horror. And I took part in Photo Poetry Surfaces (an exhibition and online event that was part of the Bristol Photography Festival), showing and discussing some of my photography-based visual poems. The exhibition was accompanied by a handsome catalogue, published by Hesterglock Press.
As a massive enthusiast of twentieth century French poetry, I was thrilled to be invited by the Stephen Spender Trust to film a short piece, reading a poem of my choice and commenting on its musicality. I chose a prose poem by Fernando Arrabal from La Pierre de la folie, a surrealist nightmare that has long inspired me.
Some more visual poems from the series included in the Photo Poetry Surfaces catalogue appeared in Mercurius. They were all part of Cosmologorrhea, a collaboration with Richard Biddle, for which each of us has created several visual poems. We have yet to find the right publisher for the venture, and it’s my hope that we will do so in 2022…
At the end of July Beir Bua Press published Bloods Dream, with generous blurbs by two of my favourite poets, Paul Cunningham and Evan Isoline. You can see the launch event for Bloods Dream and other Beir Bua Press releases below.
August was an exciting month: through Steel Incisors I published Bastard Poems by the inimitable SJ Fowler, and took part in the launch, my first non-virtual event since November 2019.
Meanwhile, a visual poem called “Persephone Meltdown” was issued as a limited edition postcard by Osmosis Press.
“Persephone Meltdown” is part of a Bodies, a massive project begun this summer, which I am giving myself a year to complete. In Bodies I explore the wonder and wretchedness of our corporeality through visual poetry. Structurally, the work is divided into numerous brief sections, but I have removed formal divisions or markers, so that the shock of temperature changes and new textures is felt keenly by the reader. At the time of writing this blog post I have a lot of material for the project, and it is growing and morphing all the time, quite organically.
Early September saw the publication of Test-Isles, a Poem Atlas catalogue accompanying an ambitious and imaginative exhibition of textile-based visual poetry in Rhodes, masterminded by Astra Papachristodoulou. I was honoured to have a piece in the catalogue and exhibition, a t-shirt poem “Receivers” based on a piece from my Cosmic Horror cycle.
In October I received copies of The Murderer Threatened from Paper View Books and was able to start selling them. Sal at Paper View had done a brilliant job: the book is printed on thick paper, and every copy is unique because of minor differences caused by the printing process. I hope to be able to sell some more early in 2022.
I recorded a reading from Cosmic Horror with accompanying visuals for the Prague Micro Festival, which you can watch below.
In mid October I took part in the second launch of Bastard Poems at Eachwhat Industries in Bristol, with some fantastic poets. I also got to meet Richard Capener, whose Babel Tower Notice Board has been a constant source of inspiration and support.
Later in the month Steel Incisors published Dan Power’s extraordinary Selected Dreams and several friends of the press took part in a Zoom launch, which you can watch below.
A long excerpt from Bodies, my work-in-progress, was published by Selffuck.
One of the most sensational visual poetry publications of 2021 was the Trickhouse Press 2022 Annual, a massive compendium featuring over 20 poets, each of whom contributed up to 12 pages of material. My contribution was a ten-page selection from Bodies.
Another large selection from Bodies also appeared in Strukturriss.
Beir Bua Press issued their 2021 anthology, including excerpts from all the year’s book releases, including Bloods Dream. Ever the innovator, Michelle Moloney King at Beir Bua invited me to collaborate on a 2022 calendar, for which each of us made six visual poems. This was the second time in 2021 I was able to recapture my erstwhile working rhythms, and I produced a large number of pieces in a short space of time, six of which looked to me good enough for the calendar. Incidentally, the textual elements of these visual poems all come from Void Voices, my book with Hesterglock from late 2018.
My main project being Bodies, I shall continue playing and experimenting with text and images for it, and I’ll do my best to find relatively self-contained bleeding chunks to submit to journals in 2022.
I’m pleased to report that Cosmic Horror now has a publisher and will emerge, blinking, into the dubious daylight late in 2022. I consider the poems and visual poems in the cycle some of my best work, and I’m excited to see what the finished physical product looks like.
Meanwhile, I have lots of plans for Steel Incisors, including a late January release of ReVerse Butcher’s Kaleidoscopic Erasures, the Milk Teeth slim volume series, and a fabulous collaboration inspired by a seminal surrealist text. Watch this space…