Fringe Online 2021
Directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting by Johanna Town’s simple. Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till June 20th. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
Sci-Fi Poetry. It’s a genre going back centuries in one sense; you could cite Donne, Hudibras Samuel Butler the Duchess of Newcastle from the 17th century.
There’s James Kirkup’s echt-Movement 1950s poem ‘Tea in a Space-Ship’ too. But the earliest poet we have here is someone born two years after him, Glasgow Makar Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) also making it to 90. Most poets are living. That’s a bonus.
Live Canon take a different tack and bring us some of their most intriguingly off-piste and rewarding byways so far. Lucky they’ve got contemporary poets as friends. And inaugurated a haiku competition on the subject. This is easily the most innovative and interactive show even they’ve presented here.
Back for a fourth time in this Jermyn Street Theatre Footprint Festival, Live Canon are directed by Helen Eastman for JST’s Footprints Festival, bringing Sci-Fi Poetry in just 46 minutes. It seems right. Today previous canonistas Leon Scott and Guy Clark return with Rebecca Hare and Simon Muller.
The poetry’s different to much contemporary poetry. For one thing there’s several novelists here, as we’ll see, and there’s a greater emphasis on linked poems (ditto) and narration. Though imagery’s striking with a few poets, its mainly this narrational work on show. There’s less sheer poetry, more storytelling that makes strange. The language is clear. There’s often prose rhythms – in fact bar Glynn Maxwell with his three sonnets, Morgan, one or two others, if that, rhythm is virtually absent.
A suggestively remote poem actually entitled ‘Sci-Fi’ by Tracey K Smith leads off – as usual with all four canons bouncing it back and forth. The quartet always wear bright livery so you can get used to each performer, and it’s worth mentioning this. Hare brings one of the very best next, Margaret Attwood, known for many years as a poet first, delivers ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’ as a defiant repossession of the strange, of inner space, and studded with images as she does so. Hare’s a compelling performer too in yellow, with a fine clean resonance.
After this and familiar as I am with very many contemporary poets there’s names I’ve never heard of. Forget the sheer wondrousness of sci-fi, it’s a terra incognita of talent too.
Peter Pazak’s ‘Migration of Darkness’ with Scott (always a strongly characterised reciter) in black is another piece hinging on the liminal, and Muller in cream recites Geoffrey McDaniel’s ‘A Quiet World’ bears a premise that Sam Steiner in his 2015 debut play Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons took up: what if we were limited to the number of words, even characters we could utter in a day? Which came first I wonder? Muller adopts a more quizzical approach, as if turning the words over.
Guy Clark whose elven presence was a particular boon in Marvell two weeks back, takes on William Stevenson’s ‘The Lotus Bunker’ with its backdrop falling precipitously away from what we feel we know.
Hare delivers one of the most haunting, Kirsten Irving’s retro ‘Amsterdam 1901’, and Scott fires off the late Iain M Banks’ ‘18’ the first of the sci-fi/fantasy novelists to sliver off a poem as they cruise through prose. More of these gems please – and they duly arrive. Clark gives us Mike de Placido’s wonderfully narrationally whacky ‘Ridley Scott Coms to Yorkshire’ by Ken Macleod.
All four deliver Neil Gaiman’s ‘Instructions’ which traverse a fantasy landscape with keywords: eagle, fish, wolf, worm and other iterations. It’s like a game-plan, a grid poem of consequences.
Then Glynn Maxwell’s three sonnets on AI. A friend of Live Canon, Maxwell’s incredibly fluent formally and though often bracketed with Simon Armitage is a more virtuoso if conservative performer, more ambitious and always more surprising than many more nominally experimental poets would admit. These poems are a case in point. They need the sonnet-formality to set them off as AI propositions.
Poetically the highpoint as the performers well knew, Scott leading off on ‘AI Sonnet sets out the reflective mirror talk, whilst. Muller sets out ‘AI Resistance Sonnet’ that re-mirrors the foregoing, and we get the first of the duets, not seen in Live Canon so far here. Hare and Scott produce ‘Song’ also a sonnet with the others joining in with choruses.
L. J. Hind’s ‘The Department of Emotional Projections; is another highpoint and I’ve never heard of this writer. There’s six poems around the fiction of accessing moods, though some might eb oversubscribed. That’s what happens when Hare ties the first where ‘Peace’ can’t be accessed but ‘Calm’ can be – not so much soma as a kind of disquisition on the desirability of that mode or that kind of oblivion. Muller gets the next on ‘victory’ and Clark gets a cross-feed ‘ asked for gardens… but this ‘vegetal calm.. I’ve someone’s god and they have my ants.’ The fourth with Scott soe catharsis ending ‘and need to forgive/fill me with someone else, and live’ Clark returns with a poem ending elegaically ‘so softly glowing/how numb she is, and unknowing.’ Finally Hare with a poem ending ‘your hand in my purse for a quick getaway’. The six run a gamut of platonic feelings reified by recognizable emotions.
Sci-cu? You’ve guessed. It’s worth recording the ones chosen, sometimes rather brilliant and with a few sallies of memorable wit too – it’s a terrific idea. Mark Sanders ‘AI to Human’ Anna Foley’s ‘Triffids’, Professor Jim Anderson’s ‘Hidden Intentions’, Anthony Bishop’s ‘T-Rex’ and Anon’s ‘Crop Circles’ and Eva Hillberg’s ‘All is All’. Toby Barnett Jones is eight, winner of a LC competition no less’: Future scientist/here is there for everyone/science galaxy’. David Benjamin’s ‘Let the haiku pile high’… (that’s nothing to do with our theme!). Toby Barnett Jones again with ‘Open the porthole’, Susanna Bayes’ ‘Light Savers;, Anna Foley again with ‘Peaceful Planets’, Susanna Clayton’s ‘Phasers’ and Anon’s’Vogon’.
Hare brings us Emma Simon’s really fine ‘The Labyrinth of Sweet Surprises’ with its fascinating take on acquired feelings and identity. A name worth pursuing. Another duet has Clark and Muller produce a counterpoint and of the best-known poet here, Edin Morgan and ‘The First Men on Mercury’ where the men of earth are told to take what they’ve gained in plunder and go home. It’s managed by English versus a nonce tongue but gradually the Mercurians acquire English and the earthmen appear alien.
Scott recites another famous poet Billy Collins (b. 1941) with another critique of the Lost in Space decade, ‘Man in Space’ with its memorable conclusion:
when the men from earth arrive in their rocket,
why they are always standing in a semicircle
with their arms folded, their bare legs set apart,
their breasts protected by hard metal disks.
Finally another great woman novelist though not known for her poetry as much as Attwood rounds us out as Hare brings us Ursula Le Guinn’s haunting and quietly magnificent ‘Futurology’.
This shows how Helen Eastman and her ensemble of poets delve far beyond any known frontiers of poetry, boldly going in truth where no ensemble has gone before. Indeed they cause new material to be written, champion fresh work by contemporaries like Maxwell, discover poets like Simon – as well as bringing us famed novelists with their chips of brilliance, and established poets. It’s all utterly refreshing, breaking new ground.