I love poetry which has a strange quality and there's
little doubt that much of Ian McMillan's writing is strange, even when it
deals with perennial subjects, such as history, memory, landscape, language
and overheard conversations. Overheard conversations are often strange, of
course. Take this poem from This Lake Used to be Frozen: Lamps, which I assume, is pretty much based on a
conversation/monologue which the author 'overheard':
Stopped Me on the Street
stopped me on the street
And he said
Hey, Ian lad
A cud go t't theatre
If ah wanted, ah reckon.
Ah cud sit theer an clap
At end an shart moor
An then ad gu om and seh
Wheer hev yore bin?
T't shop? T't bus stop?
T't wall? T't shed?
Ah bin t't theatre.
Av gorra programme.
Ah cud du that Ian.
Nowt stopping mi, is
Which has the ring of being 'true' as
well as quite hilarious. His talent combines the obsessive observational
quality of the hardened reporter with the panache and delivery of the
stand-up comic or music-hall entertainer. He is an entertainer but one who is also prepared to
provoke a bit, to prod around and to stimulate both thought and 'reaction'.
As he says of his own poetic practice in
the first stanza of the poem 'It's the 4th of July' - 'Always, for me, the struggle / between populism and / Linguistically
interesting work' ... .
McMillan is one of those rare, rare writers who can write effectively for the
page yet also, when reading or performing his material, brings a distinct and
thoroughly entertaining aspect to his work. In 'Aubade/Nocturne' he undermines the 'high-art' associations of the
title with a colloquial ramble around the absurd notion of '... putting some ideas
/ Into a bag to take to the Charity
Shop,/'- a poem which has the feel of the sort of strangely disconnected
conversation you might have with yourself when out walking. Ian does a lot of
walking - it's good exercise - and there seems to be a connection between the
rhythms of his footsteps and the continuous internal patter, which, when
transformed into live performance, feels so very warm and so marvellously
He's one of the funniest live readers I've ever heard, a fact which I was
reminded of recently when I saw him at the Plymouth International Book
festival. It's difficult to balance a concern with 'being popular' with
producing work which is experimental or exploratory, yet he manages to bring
this off with much of his material, often with hilarious results. He does a
wonderful job, as presenter of Radio 3's The Verb, of representing a wide range of contemporary
poetry, avoiding schisms or clashes within the differing 'factions' by
expressing a genuine interest in the work he is presenting and a curiosity
about the writers and wherever it is their writing is 'coming from'. This is
also a rare quality and we could do with more people like McMillan in the
narrow world of poetry broadcasting -he's the John Peel of the poetry scene.
This short collection from Smith/Doorstop is a real treat. Do yourself a favour and buy a
copy and if he's in your area soon go and see him live.
Hannah Silva is another poet who is probably primarily
known for her live work, both as dramatist/performer and as a sound poet of
unusual accomplishment. She too combines an interest in avant-garde
techniques with a more popular appeal, and in live performance - on the
occasions I've seen/heard her read - mixes her material so an audience is
both 'stretched' and entertained, not an easy balance to maintain. Her recent
introduction (as poem) to The Broadsheet
(an occasional poetry publication edited by Simon Williams and Susan Taylor)
is entitled 'Foreword: Poets prefer marmalade' and provides a
thought-provoking commentary on the current UK poetry scene and its
multifarious factions and attitudes, which also manages to be highly amusing,
if tongue-in-cheek at times.
Forms of Protest is her first
collection and although I'd seen some of her work published in magazines such
as Tears in the Fence I was
slightly apprehensive when approaching this book as I wasn't entirely sure
how well her work would 'translate' to the page, and whether in fact, her
'written material' would differ substantially from her 'performed' writing.
This dialectic opens up a whole 'Pandora's box' of questions which I don't
have the time or space to go into here but I needn't have worried so much. There
is a mix of tradition and experiment in Forms of Protest though I have to say, speaking entirely for
myself, that having heard Hannah perform her work on several occasions it's
now very difficult to separate my recall of her 'spoken word' from the texts
in this collection, especially when they are of an experimental nature.
Her experiments with sound and with 'chopping-up' language and snippets of
sentences, have an up-front musical quality, hardly surprising when you know
that she is also a highly accomplished musician who has chosen primarily to
work with language. Sometimes she works with variations on a theme, as in
'Blank the in' and 'in the Blank' (p 44-5) where the phrasal differences in
these fractured narratives are reminiscent of Bach's Goldberg Variations, if
that isn't an altogether cosmic analogy:
up woke laughter salted
slaughter tasted water wasted daughter
taste of I happiness of moments brief in emotion
thought I sex
changing imagined text by will my sent a great massacre has been
there completely a me made complete
me made I thinking by just
beginning the in
As with the work of Maggie O'Sullivan there are suggestions of narrative
rippling through the vocalised soundings, often of a dark nature but just as
often, amusing, punning and a combination of both dark and light. The section
entitled 'Opposition', extracted from her one-woman 'play' of the same title
has strong political overtones which mix a caustic, 'confused' and angry
critique with a much more absurd and humorous angle which is also quite
You can call it
You can call it
You can call it freedom
You can call it
I call it: 'Er Ih
My Big Passion
The Biggest Budget
My Big Idea
The Biggest Past Decade
Big enough and Bold
At our best when at our
We Do Big Things
A Big Bang Approach
Bish Bash Bosh
Which is 'indebted' to David Cameron's 'Big Society' speech!
'Hyas Araneus' (the name of a north sea crab) appears to be an exploration of
the notion of 'territoriality' and how this might relate to human notions of
'space' and 'land' and belonging and (perhaps) nationalism and all its
All animals have a
minimal space requirement
without which survival is
At certain times in the
the individual becomes
vulnerable to others.
Crabs are solitary
This is 1996. Look at the
held by those that have a
territory, a space
of their own. Look at the
Then again it might simply be information culled from a natural history
which provokes such thoughts due its change of context.
There is a variety of material here, from the lyrical and moving 'creation
myth' of 'In the beginning' through the listing and punning 'throwaway' of
'Insults', to the provocative and chilling commentary on militarism of
'@Prosthetics' to the intriguing (possibly a cut-up) 'dream narrative' of
'The Plymouth Sound', which manages to combine a lyrical tautness with a
sense of unease and mystery which feels much more at home in the realm
of 'European writing' than with
current UK practice. Altogether, this is an impressive debut collection,
which provides the reader with an array of materials to think about and take