BRISTOL FASHION: REVIEW BY MATT SIMPSON
BLUECHROME ANTHOLOGY 2004 edited Ronnie Goodyer, 114pp,
THE RIDICULOUS NESTS OF THE HEART by Gary Bills, 134pp,
£7.99, bluechrome publishing, PO Box 109, Portishead, Bristol BS20 7ZJ
If only the editors of bluechrome publishing had
kept quiet about their achievements, this anthology, representing the three
winners of bluechrome's 2004 competition and the twenty-seven runners-up,
would be been a straightforward recommendation. But the book is primarily an
advertisement. Of the one-hundred-and-fourteen pages only fifty-six are
devoted to the competition poets. Most of the rest, frankly, is
over-enthusiastic advertising of forthcoming single-volume collections by
seven bluechrome poets, with two-poems-each appetisers and some rather
embarrassing editorial comment. This ‘forthcoming’ section purports to
contain poetry 'created by some of the brightest talent in the UK today.'
Well, maybe. But to call the forthcoming volumes 'Major Collections' is
really tempting fate. It goes hand-in-hand with the intrusive
self-congratulatory tone of the editors in their Introductions and
their back-cover blurb, which talks of bluechrome's 'best-known poets
chipping in a couple of their finest pieces of work' to 'this stunning collection.'
What is being asked of us is that we recognise and admire editorial fine
judgement as well a degree of exclusivity. Anthony Delgrado, bluechrome's
editor-in-chief, tells us the book is a 'collection of some of the finest
work we have seen in many years'. I don't think it would be too immodest of
me to say that I have seen lots just as good and much that is loads better.
This anthology contains 'some of the great names of poetry today.' Well, I'm
sorry, that's just OTT and does the poets listed no great service beyond
possibly dangerously feeding their egos. I would claim to be a moderately
experienced reader of contemporary poetry and I can only say that I
recognised three names. What I'm saying does not necessarily undervalue what
is actually there in the collection… but more of that in a minute.
Delgrado's enemy, oddly, seems to be the vanity presses. In bruiting the
launch bluechrome's 'sister press', boho, he says the aim is to combat 'the
vanity trade that blights poetry in the UK today.' Well, does it really? It's
too obvious and easy a target. Isn't the best way to ignore it? The real
enemy is the bad poetry vanity presses so easily exploit. And, yet, don't
competitions do something very similar? Make money from no-hopers. Where does
the money come from for the hugely ambitious programme of publishing that we
are told is going to come from bluechrome/boho enterprise? I have judged
enough poetry competitions to know that nearly all the hopefuls, who pay good
money to submit their work, don't stand a cat-in-hell's chance of winning.
Ronnie Goodyer, poetry editor, tells us that 'some eight hundred entries were
received.' Were any of the no-runners given their money back? Shouldn't some
kind of declaration be issued about competition organisers' experience of
poetry and their expectations, something that makes it clear to entrants how
to be in with a chance? (Who, by the way, were the judges of this 2004
competition? Their names are not given). Indeed, Delgrado is simply abusive:
he talks of his enemy as the 'over-priced, poor quality anthologies these
scumbags purvey.' Yes, but aren't there more serious things to combat? I will
confess I do get angry when I hear of the inroads into schools these people
sometimes make, deliberately and cynically exploiting the pride of parents
and grandparents. But those adults I have met who have paid to be in a
vanity-published anthology are usually pleased with themselves. A word like
'scumbag' is playground language and gets no-one anywhere.
It would be churlish not to admire the enthusiasm and energy that is clearly
going into bluechrome/boho. I applaud Delgrado when he tells us that '2003
has been a fantastic year' (there's a substantial fiction list too) in which
'we are proud to have been able to work with some great authors and poets.'
There's no way I'd want to denigrate any of this. In fact, the competition
poems make for a good read. And, yes, I feel that the three winners do
deserve their podium positions. That said, I can't help worrying that the poetry
world is just too obsessed with competitions, like the commercially-driven
world generally, where everything is constantly being graded and valued in
money terms. What, in all seriousness, makes any poem worth say £1000 and
another, from the same set of submissions, £500... and hundreds of others
worth nothing at all? (What were the prizes awarded by bluechrome? There is no
mention of this either in the book). We've got to the point now where
well-known poets actually proudly state that they were somewhere
'shortlisted'. It's a bit like 'B.A. Dehli (failed).'
What may be churlish is to point out is that the twenty-seven runners-up all
get grouped together in a section misnamed 'anthologists'. Oops! An
anthologist is a compiler of anthologies, not somebody represented in one.
(Wouldn't you just hate the word'‘anthologee' if it were to exist?)
Gary Bills'The Ridiculous Nests of the Heart is –surprise,
surprise – a very impressive collection. I came to it, after reading the Anthology,
with a degree of suspicion, expecting to find something portentous. I have
to say it
grew on me and, as it did, my admiration grew: I came to the realisation that
Bill's is quite an exceptional and accomplished poet. Bluechrome can
certainly be proud of having published this collection.
A casual reader might think that there was an old-fashioned air to the poems,
a rhetorical quality (I was often reminded of tones of voice you find in
Yeats), a formal poise which in a less-gifted poet would sound
portentous. The criticisms I began marshalling – that there was too much
trust put in adjectives, that there was a generalising tendency in the
language which was making the poems seem opaque – these began to fall away
as I grew more convinced that this poet was technically very well-equipped
knew exactly the effects he wanted. I am tempted to say that he is restoring
to poetry something that went missing when laissez-faire attitudes took hold:
a proper seriousness, a genuine respect for craft, the feeling that poetry
is more than mere self-expression. Bills may perhaps reconnect us with the
powerful tradition and the still-available techniques of English poetry. The
biographer of Alexander Pope, Maynard Mack, wrote 'Particulars – ephemera –
the flotsam and jetsam of experience all are fascinating but have value for
the artist only in so far as they can be organised in a patterned whole.'
Bills is not just a poet, he is an artist. He controls an enviable range of
forms – from haiku to ballad, from sonnet to free verse – and his measure is
that he is comfortable in all of them, using them (not being used by them) to
tell us interesting things about the world.
© Matt Simpson 2004