Poetry Bites has a deserved reputation for delivering high quality conventional poetry. It is to organiser Jacqui Rowe’s considerable credit that this time around she was prepared to take a chance with a more left-field choice of guest poet, which this month was Ira Lightman, upon whom this review is soley focussed, a first for Behind the Arras at Poetry Bites. Having one, rather than two guest poets, she was also able to offer Lightman thirty minutes performing time to enable the audience a proper chance to hear him stretch out in two fifteen minute sections.
Currently resident in Newcastle upon Tyne, but a past visitor to the Black Country and Kings Heath, Lightman is a conceptual poet with a particular interest in public art. He regularly appears on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb, and has three published collections. Phone in the Roll, (Knives Forks and Spoons Press), uses poems spoken into an imperfect dictation transcriber, which produces misheard transcriptions of the intended text. Mustard Tart as Lemon , (Red Squirrel Press),draws together work written over 15 years and includes Concrete poetry . Duetcetera, (Shearsman Books), offers twin column poetry which can be read individually, or together, and is written as two voices. He has also been featured on New York based website Ubuweb (www.ubu.com/ubu). To be published on Ubuweb is a considerable feather in his cap, The Sunday Times named it as one of the top ten “benchmark websites” in the world. There are just five UK poets published there, and Lightman is one of them. This comes as no surprise to me, his poetic experimentation is reminiscent of the musical experimentation of New York based 1970’s New Wave band Talking Heads- they embrace this sort of thing in the Big Apple.
That experimentation on the night included Homing a piece half sung to a random musical programme, and an extract from an I- Ching hexagram. Such forays off the beaten track will not suit all. Conventional patterns are deconstructed and rigid forms explored, often at the expense of conventional narrative. Critics may argue that the primacy of form over content produces a result where the outer shell becomes more important than what is contained therein. Aficionados of Lightman’s work may counter that he is breaking new ground on what is possible, and that what we are seeing are bold prototypes, with value as such. Evolution will come. He is a man who does not accept the sclerotic torpor of mainstream poetic presentation.
Phone in the Roll exploits mishearing as a poetic device. When Lightman dictates ,he has no idea how the transcriber may misinterpret his words. For example “money” was mistranscribed as “mummy” in a serious piece, to comic effect. On the one hand the conventional narrative is lost. Equally new possibilities are created. What was the original word? What new meanings emerge? How is the imagined context of the original poem altered by successive mistranscriptions? It is a device of unintended consequences designed to compel the reader, or listener, to ask questions, not to provide answers. Questions are the answer.
Homing was performed to a random musical backing track. The objective ? To artificially randomise the pace, structure, intonation and therefore meaning of the words, and poem. No two performances can ever be the same. In application this is more sophisticated than at first appears. A specimen line, “The timing tight, the bus arrived, and we headed for the great noun, BIRMINGHAM, its centre,” is written to be broken up, and is disjointed from the start. Hence this is not a deconstruction, it becomes a first time construction- every time. Lightman did not expand on the mechanics of this, but on the page it appeared to borrow from the “cut-up” aleatory literary technique whose lineage stretches back through the likes of David Bowie, William Burroughs and the Dadaists of the late 1920’s. Poems will always be open to interpretation, the random backing track is an external force which adds an aural dimension to the existing intrinsic ambivalence of the writing on the page.
The previous two devices had immediate aural impact in a way that Lightman’s I-Ching hexagrams could not. The I Ching, is one of the oldest of the Chinese classic texts dating back to 475 BC. It centres on the ideas of the dynamic balance of opposites, the evolution of events as a process, and acceptance of the inevitability of change. Inevitably there are numerous hybrids of the form but the essence is that it is a set of oracular statements represented by 64 sets of six lines each called hexagrams. Each hexagram is a figure composed of six stacked horizontal lines, each line is either Yang ,an, unbroken or solid line, or Yin, broken, an open line with a gap in the centre. With six such lines stacked from bottom to top there are 64 possible combinations, and thus 64 hexagrams represented. I had the benefit of seeing it on the page, as a performed piece it does not do justice to its incredibly complex and demanding requirements. Some may argue that it is a mathematical, theoretical, form whose benefits are outweighed by its rigour. However it has an illustrious and distinguished history which predates much Western poetry . Over the decades, poets have always created and battled with new forms. Sir Thomas Wyatt in the 16th Century was obsessed with ancient classical forms as he evolved the sonnet. Lightman, although avant-garde in his approach, has distinguished antecedents.
Duetcetra definitely is a performance piece, and challenging work it is too. It takes two columns running independently down the page, both containing a self sufficient poem, but also capable of being read across, line for line, as one poem. Performed, this is an onerous challenge for Lightman as he delivers the lines read across in two voices to distinguish between the two poems which have become one. On the page this can look like a clever exercise, performed with the independent voices the symmetry and conflict of the two poems come to life. Physically, it places huge demands upon Lightman’s voice, especially when one voice is that of a small boy and the other a grown man. I suspect that finding a sympathetic alter ego to perform the other half of the duet would ease the load immeasurably, whilst not detracting from the scale of the achievement, which is considerable. Read out loud, it was innovative, demanding, funny and a delight.
A good poetry evening should inspire, and Ira Lightman did just that. His allotted time was not long enough for him to explain the background to much of his work, which was a pity, I was eager to learn more of that. His work hammers at the gates of the Gleichschaltung of the Poetry Establishment and was as rewarding as any conventional lyrical poetry set, but for very different reasons. Poetry Bites returns on Tuesday 22nd May with Clare Best, before then on 22nd April, Flarestack Press launches new pamphlets by David Hart and Joel Lane at the MAC in Birmingham.
Gary Longden 28/3/12