Poetry is Hell

The idea behind Void Voices came from nowhere. It was the last day of June, and I was on holiday near Dartmouth. I had been enjoying the unusually hot weather (a heat wave that was to last several weeks), lazy hours spent looking at the sea, leisurely evening meals… This earthly paradise, untainted by considerations of work or responsibility, somehow gave rise, suddenly and without preamble, to a vision of Hell that superimposed itself on the prospect of a peaceful harbour. I saw burning masts, wracked shadows, a dirty bandage across the sky. The last time inspiration had struck so violently was during another holiday in 2012, when two sentences happened into my mind:

The Bird King is mad again. He caws through empty midnight streets, moulting tar-black feathers.

I tweeted the words I had chanced upon through @echovirus, a Twitter collective, and thus began a long run of tweets about the Bird King, culminating in the construction of feverish poems and an illustrated book called The Madness of the Bird King. The Bird King rapidly came to dominate an evolving personal mythology, and he has even appeared in writing projects that aren’t about him at all.

So when, in June this year, Void Voices started germinating in my imagination, I knew I had to go with it, let it have its way. All I had to do was listen and record. As I’m typing this, I realise how preposterous and precious this sounds, but that was the way it happened.

The concept behind Void Voices is simple. It is a reimagining of Dante’s Inferno. A version of me (the equivalent to the Pilgrim) is the protagonist. I am led through Hell not by the spirit of Virgil (Dante’s literary hero), but by the reanimated corpse of T S Eliot (mine). Populated with monsters and characters from the Greek and Latin epics, as well as many of his contemporaries, Dante’s Hell was shaped not so much by theology as by his reading and satirical imagination. He misses no opportunities to mock and gloat over his enemies, as they languish in the Hell of his words, the Hell-poem. Void Voices is no different; the poem draws upon diverse source materials to explore the Hell inside (mind) and outside (world). The voices I recorded came from both places, if it is possible to distinguish them.

I have admired T S Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land since my teens. Every time I return to it, it is a different poem. Its meanings have changed as I have grown into adulthood and parenthood. It challenges me now no less than it did when I was 17. A big part of the poem’s magnetic pull on my attention over the years is its accessibility. Despite being heavily allusive and containing passages in other languages, The Waste Land comprises images and situations of extraordinary vividness and immediacy. Furthermore, Eliot avoids the solemn monotony of some of the writing produced under the banner of modernism or the avant-garde by employing different voices. High-flown literary passages contrast starkly with the debased and demotic. The poem never settles into a safe, rigid style, and Eliot is unafraid to include material that, at the time at least (1922), didn’t belong in poetry.

So, in allowing Eliot to be my guide to the underworld, I revised The Inferno through the lens of The Waste Land. It felt natural to draw on heterogeneous materials. I used and doctored whatever was to hand: news stories, adverts, tweets, tiny fragments of Artaud, Bataille, Mansour, lines from The Waste Land. The Inferno is there too, now in a truncated tercet from Henry Longfellow’s sonorous translation, now in a transcription of Google Translate’s mutilated attempt at rendering Dante’s Italian in modern English. And because barely a moment of my waking life passes without an earworm interfering with (or shaping) my thoughts, I included fragments of song lyrics, most of them from artists I admire. Appropriately, Adam Ant, David Bowie and Marilyn Manson crop up several times in the poem; to varying degrees all three are rock chameleons, adopting personas, changing who they are from album to album, changing faces, changing voices. In Void Voices, David Bowie’s Major Tom became an avatar of Thomas Stearns Eliot, a new mask for my guide:

The descent into Hell is the descent into the poem, and a descent into nightmare. However, while much of my previous work explored dream states and phantasmagorias, engaging only tangentially with reality, I knew from the start that Void Voices would look out as well as in. The rise of the far right in Europe and America is a catastrophic development that it would be insane to ignore. How can we make art and poetry that does not address a force that threatens, ultimately, to silence both? Over the past couple of years, the Bird King has morphed in my writing from a grotesque figure of surrealist whimsy into a caricature of the fascist dictator. A long prose poem from 2016 entitled Drowning in Neat Rows presents the Bird King as a hybrid of Hitler, Trump and Manson’s Antichrist Superstar:

The prose poem ended up as part of Void Voices, as did a piece I wrote a couple of days after the result of the 2016 EU referendum:

The voices of Brexit and the alt-right assail us every day. Like the maddening chatter of advertising, they’re ubiquitous. What can we do about it? What can we do about these and the other voices, the infinite, tedious variety of voices that shout at us and whisper to us from our smartphones, telling us to buy products and ideas and denouncing us when we ask questions or disagree? Is individuality even possible when we constantly, unconsciously absorb so many voices, when the hackneyed formulations we’ve read so often on social media become our default mode of speaking?

At moments of crisis, the voices are so overwhelming that part of me blacks out, erases the words, leaving a dirty residue, a smudge in my memory. I have had fainting fits since I was a child, and the black-out is a key symbol in my writing. At times, the black-out represents censorship (a conscious suppression of language); at others, it embodies the involuntary act of passing out.

Dante’s Pilgrim passes out too from time to time, for example at the end of the third canto of The Inferno:

The land of tears gave forth a blast of wind,
And fulminated a vermilion light,
Which overmastered in me every sense,

And as a man whom sleep hath seized I fell.

Each of the 34 parts of Void Voices corresponds with a canto of Dante’s epic. I had originally numbered them, but a few weeks after completion of the first draft I decided to provide the reader with a less linear experience by removing the numbers and replacing them with monochrome pictures, each of which would be a brief blackout or gateway between one part and the next. When constructing the pictures, I drew on a limited range of motifs (for example, insects, mannequins and statues), playing freely with them, but always linking them in some way (usually obliquely) with the words that followed. The sequence of pictures provides an alternative narrative to the poem, a voice that speaks through dream images. The gateway to part one of the poem features the lion that, in The Inferno, represents pride:

The Inferno ends with the Pilgrim leaving Hell and facing the prospect of the next phase of his spiritual journey, Purgatory. Void Voices, meanwhile, offers no such hope of progress or redemption, ending with a variation on the poem’s opening lines; we never find our way out of the forest. Thus, the final picture of the cycle is a glitchy variation on the first:

Finally, a word of thanks. Writer and artist ReVerse Butcher (creator of the magnificent On the Rod) provided detailed feedback on the first 13 parts of Void Voices when I was in the throes of writing. Her comments and questions encouraged, stimulated and challenged me, and I have no doubt that Void Voices is the better for her input. I must also thank Paul Hawkins of Hesterglock Press, whose warmth, enthusiasm and flexibility helped make Void Voices what it is.

Void Voices is available from Hesterglock Press here.

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Void Voices sample

Modelled loosely on Dante’s Inferno, Void Voices is a descent into the Hell that is our contemporary culture. Dante’s guide to the underworld was Virgil; mine is an undead T S Eliot. Along the way, the reader is assailed by a cacophony of heterogeneous material, including fragments of song lyrics, doctored news stories, lines from old poems, transcriptions of nonsense texts generated by Google Translate, automatic writing and dark satire. Each of the poem’s 34 sections is preceded by a surreal, glitchy artwork, which foreshadows some of the themes and imagery.
A free sample of the first four sections of my poem (corresponding to Cantos 1 – 4 of the Inferno) is available here.
Void Voices is available from Hesterglock Press here.

Void Voices

Void Voices is a nightmare in 34 parts.

Void Voices is a fly-blown cacophony.

Void Voices is a love letter from a cyborg.

Void Voices is a nasty feast.

Void Voices is salt on a slug,

Void Voices is a black and red machine that overwrites your memories.

Void Voices is a dumping ground for defective literary devices and other amusements.

Void Voices is a white silhouette on a white background.

Void Voices is a thorn in your eye.

Void Voices is a communion with an undead poet.

Void Voices is a symphony for violins, down-tuned electric guitars, broken synthesisers and wolves.

Void Voices is a glitch in Donald Trump’s face.

Void Voices is an advert for the life you already lead.

Void Voices is a flooded utopia.

Void Voices is a song inside a song.

Void Voices is the Bird King’s doppelgänger.

Void Voices is damp laughter.

Void Voices is #EndTimesPizza

—–

Info

Reflections on White

Back in the Spring of 2016, David Shakes tweeted that he wanted contributions to a horror anthology called The Infernal Clock. The premise was simple: the action of each story would take place in one hour. There would be 24 tales, covering one hellish day. David invited writers to bagsy specific hours. I put my virtual hand up for the midday-to-one-o’clock slot straight away. 

I don’t know much about horror fiction. I’ve seen lots of horror films and am a particular fan of classic Japanese films such as the Ring series and The Grudge, but I have read few modern horror novels. When I volunteered for The Infernal Clock, I didn’t consider my lack of knowledge of the genre a disadvantage. Much of my writing has a nightmarish quality and I unconsciously default to the monstrous, so I felt equal to the task of creating something weird, unsettling, frightening.

I asked for the noon slot because I wanted to create horror out of light and heat, rather than the more usual darkness and cold. My story would begin at noon in the height of summer, on a particularly hot day. When I was 14 I had a paper round. Once a week, I would deliver unsolicited free copies of the local rag to all the houses and flats in a couple of streets. I tended to start the round at about five o’clock in the afternoon. However, on one occasion in the summer holidays I covered for someone who was ill and so delivered to a different street, full of affluent houses. I started the extra round in the late morning of a very hot day, and at around midday I walked up the pathway towards an imposing house, painted brilliant white. It’s no exaggeration to say that I had to squint as I approached the whitewashed facade, which reflected the sun at me aggressively. The combination of dazzling light and unpleasant heat made me sluggish, nauseous. It made everything seem unreal. The whiteness of the house was inimical, poisonous. That memory came back to me as soon as I decided to write a story exploring the horrors of daylight, and it informed the narrative itself, even supplying the title: White

I also knew that my story would be about a mirror, and someone seeing something in the mirror and as a result experiencing a crisis. I keep coming back to mirrors in my work.

Writing the thing was not so straightforward. My first attempt was telegrammatic in style, but lacked momentum. The protagonist was a little boy. This excerpt gives a flavour:

Outside, everything is too bright, too solid. Sounds have a hard quality. The world is amplified. He hears the scuttling of beetles in the flower beds, the drone of bees, birdsong, his own breathing.

He runs around on the lawn and the gravel pathways, but soon he’s exhausted. He sits down and looks up at the house. Something in him wants to go back to the bathroom, to look in the mirror again. He doesn’t know why.

Above the house, there is a cloud that looks like a skull.

It just didn’t feel right for The Infernal Clock. Really, I was writing a fragment for my novel, which is about a boy entering puberty amidst the silence and strangeness of a new home. So I started again. This time, the protagonist was a grown man:

So he went up to the bathroom. The village church bell rang twelve as he opened the door. The beginning of the afternoon. He stood in front of the basin, put the plug in and turned on the cold tap. He was looking forward to the feeling of the water on his face and the sight of it on his face when he looked in the mirror. 

When the basin was half full, he turned off the tap, stooped to bring his face closer to the water, cupped his hands together in the water, closed his eyes and splashed his face. The water was like a slap, icy blue. His face tingled. The summer sun had been quenched. 

He straightened up and opened his eyes. 

Initially, he didn’t see the other man. He was looking at the mirror, enjoying the sight of the droplets of water running down his face. He felt refreshed, awake. 

But after a few seconds he thought, That isn’t me. The man in the mirror is someone else.

Now I had a scenario that could work, but the writing was dull dull dull. I had thought that by presenting the story as simply and unemotively as possible, I would enable the reader to experience fully the uncanniness of the situation described. I hadn’t anticipated the results being so stilted. I realised that the first attempt, for all its faults, was better, partly because it benefitted from the immediacy and intensity of the present tense. 

Attempt number three was the one that ended up in The Infernal Clock. I kept the storyline of attempt two, but wrote it again from scratch, as an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness, narrated by the protagonist himself. This time, the words came intuitively, organising themselves in the final section into lines of free verse. Here’s a taster, from the beginning:

starting at noon at midday twelve o’clock exactly this story if it is that this event more accurate that has left me doubting my own mind wondering if I’m right in the head doubting even the facts as I remember them if they are facts in the absence of any means of verifying them no one else having been there no witnesses to any part of what happened to me is happening to me the sequence of events starting at midday when I closed the bathroom door behind me wiped out exhausted by the white slab of sunshine outside the whiteness of everything white walls white gravel white roses wiped out slightly dizzy dots appearing and disappearing before my eyes from the hot white day desperate to feel cold water on my face in my mouth down my throat anxious not just to obtain that relief the relief of the feeling of the cold water but also wanting to see the droplets of water on my parched face see them running down my baked face seeing is believing seeing would reinforce the existence of the water make it more real appealing to more than just the sense of touch the sense of sight being more powerful anyway sights swaying us all the time images making up minds I wanted my mind made by that image that vision of little droplets of water running down my face a spectacle a miniature piece of theatre not possible downstairs in the kitchen where there is a sink but no mirror possible only upstairs in the bathroom

I am proud to be part of The Infernal Clock. There is an impressive variety of storytelling in the book, and the venture as a whole is ambitious. Hats off to David Shakes and Stephanie Ellis for their editorial work, and to Tamara Rogers for her striking cover design. I urge you to get a copy and savour every horrible hour!

My new ebook is free

  
I have published a new collection of poems, prose-poems, fiction and assorted oddities. The book gathers together writings produced over nearly three years, and I consider it the sequel to Head Traumas, which is my best-selling book so far. Like Head Traumas, the new one contains several 13s and poems about the Bird King. It also includes a lot of material about mannequins (as you’d expect!) and pieces inspired by Graeco-Roman, Norse and Biblical mythology. The tone ranges from the whimsical to the nightmarish. 

The book is available as a free ebook (multiple formats) from Smashwords and there is a cheap paperback version available from Lulu. I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!