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

Self-portrait in Blood, Teeth and Mist

1: Blood

Already made of blood largely of blood more blood than imagination desire ambition conscience memory

I am a readymade in red

In a sequestered corner of the gallery (Do not touch)

Formless

Wet, salty, warm

Don’t hold up a mirror to my shameful shapeless face

I’ll probably faint

When I was nine years old I passed out at school

Because of words:

and dashed their brains out on the rocks

Words have held horrors for me ever since

I worry that people will say brains, stab and most of all blood

These words can flip my switch, trip me, slip me over into nothing

Most of all blood

Bl spews from the tongue, ood lands heavily

A corpse sound

My favourite Shakespeare play is Macbeth

I don’t like seeing what I’m made of

Or thinking about it

2: Teeth

I remade myself in teeth / out of teeth / from teeth / my teeth / who else’s / they were mine / my dental record was unique / my dental record was my blueprint / you could make me / fake me / bake me / delicious / from just that / just that dental record / worse than DNA / a worse betrayal than DNA / so I remade myself using my teeth as the sole medium / I was a self-sculptor / a red-handed god / a slave to myself / it took ages / the teeth didn’t always want to stick together / the teeth didn’t ever want to do anything / sometimes resisting / sometimes falling for gravity / falling to the floor / enamoured of the ground / grinding themselves into the ground / grinding teeth / grounded teeth / still I persisted / I fought on / clacking teeth together like sharp white Lego / never letting go of the picture lodged behind my eyes / my selfie / my self image / my imagined self / left foot bigger than right / handsome-ugly asymmetrical face / lower right jaw down and out / in surrealist Paris and hot hell London / hands gesturing grandiloquently / signifying nothing / man-chest / boy-arms / I didn’t dare give myself a cock / let alone a dick / a willy / a penis / a manhood / anything short of hyperbole would have been risible

My off-white near-totality

Needed a good brush

I hadn’t flossed in years

(The lies with which I have plied my smiling dentist!)

But it was good enough for now

Nearly good enough

Enough

3: Mist

a cloud of tiny water droplets suspended in the atmosphere

a cloud of tiny teeth suspended in the atmosphere

a cloud of white blood cells suspended in the atmosphere

a cloud of neurones suspended in the atmosphere

a cloud of thoughts suspended in the atmosphere

clouded thoughts suspended in the left hemisphere

crowded thoughts upended in the right hemisphere

rowdy thoughts ended in the noosphere

randy thoughts in bed

rancid doubts embedded

random debts

condom deaths

nom nom meth

om pests

wrong pets

schlong vets

shocking tests

stocking arrests

stock characters at best

sick characters in vests

slick characters undressed

Cyrillic characters going to press

lyric characters flowing East to West

lyric poems feverish with beasts and nests

lyric poems feverish with ceasefires and peaceful tears

ridiculous poems farting yeast and treacle years

ridiculous thoughts imparting blighted bleak creaking fears

cribbed thoughts impounded in the tight biosphere

crow thoughts upended in the right hemisphere

clouded thoughts dead-ended in the left hemisphere

a cloud of thoughts depending on the atmosphere

a crown of thorns descending on the lost seer

a cloud of neurones ending in beer

a cloud of white blood cells suspected of murder

a cloud of white teeth suspended in the mouth

a crowd of witches suspended in the moon

a can of worms suspended in your room

a can-can kicking rage

a clown kicking against age

a cloud of words on the page

a blank page

a blank face

a bank phase

a banned phrase

a bad phrase

bad days

sad daze

slight haze

white haze

missed gaze

mist

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