[Poetry is] a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
The walk ended, as all walks must, at an unexpected tea room in East Coker, being persistently undercharged for an homemade fig quiche, a vegan hot dog (with red onion pickle) and pots of tea in the sunshine.
The unexpected tea room is my favourite part of any English journey. The tea room that hoves into view at exactly the moment it shouldn’t, in exactly the place it shouldn’t, but, inevitably, must.
The contradiction, you would think, must be unprofitable for these scions of Douglas Adams’ Improbability Drive, where the laziest deus ex machina is our hard-working deity in a world predicated against the odds.
But this contradiction is exactly why these unexpected English tea rooms thrive and, being so unexpected, can be utterly relied upon.
Unexpected Four Quart£!5
Like Douglas Adams, T.S. Eliot also understood the unexpectedness of the English journey. Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages, Little Gidding: the titles in Four Quartets are themselves a journey.
Burnt Norton, East Coker and Little Gidding are old time English thatch and stone, dependable, ecumenical, wrapped in a comfort blanket of bucolic countryside.
The Dry Salvages, a garbled hearing of ‘les trois sauvages’—‘the three savages’, are a rock formation off the coast of Cape Ann, Massachussetts, infamous for wrecking fishing vessels in violent storms. The unexpected.
Four Quartets was written as Eliot entered later middle age and discovered that, contrary to the disinformation put about by stairlift manufacturers, there is nothing of value in the ‘autumnal serenity and … wisdom of age’.
Elders, Eliot reports with growing consternation, have no great secrets to hand down to us, passing on only a ‘receipt for deceit’, and their age begets, not wisdom, but folly, fear and frenzy.
‘It was not,’ Eliot writes, ‘what one had expected’.
There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
My knowledge, derived from experience, of the fields and byways of the English lowlands and its villages, deceived the unfamiliar into the familiar.
In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
But there is no pattern, for the pattern is new in every moment.
Walking in summer is not like walking in winter. Over four days of almost unbroken sunshine, I wasn’t expecting to get my feet so sodden that they wrinkled pink. But the lush young grass and cow parsley up to my ears conspired with the dewy mornings to drench my boots in a refined distillation.
With untroubled views over open country, garlic, beech and bluebell, I wasn’t expecting navigation to be so hard. The footpaths were untrampled, unreadable in places. Every field a question mark, as rights became wrongs of way, running into deadend brambles, thickets of thistles, shin-raking nettles or electric fences of cattlebeasts.
In the field, human or beast, winter is a time for hibernation. But the hot stink of early summer, human or beast, tickles the hormones. The key is to distance yourself from biologically inaccurate catch-all terms like ‘cow’ and to correctly classify your cattlebeasts—before unlatching the field gate.
Dairy mothers are placid, calmly curious, watchful in the afternoon. But adolescents, the heifers, are troubled, unsupervised, driven to distraction from distraction by distraction—and keen to test their herd immunity against interfering walkers.
All this time, I’ve been talking backwards, from tea room in reverse.
The journey actually began on Wednesday evening in Bath, where I had been to see Ralph Fiennes give a highly improbable performance of Four Quartets.
What were the chances that a famous actor would alight upon the idea of a staged reading of a remote poetry cycle, written by an author long-dead, performed in a socially-distanced theatre only a quarter full, in a town where I had elected, before Christmas, to break my pilgrimage walk based on the titles of that same obscure poem?
The chances, both Adams and Eliot concur, were so improbable as to be almost certain.
Having listened to Alec Guinness’s somewhat sententious BBC recital, I wasn’t expecting something so conversational. But Fiennes made total sense of Eliot’s variations and abrupt shifts in tone. Like someone trying to explain the ineffable. Which is exactly what he was. For the first time, lines I’d never fully understood came swimming into clear focus.
I think he was a little ill, however. 75 minutes into the 77 minute performance, shining with rheumy fever, Fiennes took a seat at a table and you could almost see the finish line reflected in his mind’s eye. He galloped onward through the final stanza—
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started…
—and then he stopped.
A dramatic pause, we thought. He closed his eyes. A very dramatic pause. A pause so dramatic that it burst beyond the confines of the auditorium and bent the laws of space-time.
Then he began muttering the lines to himself, trying to regather the unspooled thread. The most famous line, perhaps, in the whole poem. Brainwaves pulsed from audience to actor. One man could bear the tension no longer and cried from the stalls: ‘And know…’
Fiennes opened his eyes, switched on.
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Fare forward, voyagers!
Huge thanks to mum, who joined me for the last couple of days of the walk. Thanks for sharing the footpaths, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, your snacks and your company!
Shouldering a much-too-heavy backpack, I finally set foot in the Cotswolds on Monday afternoon. Four days, and 131,000 metres of claggy stomping later, I arrived at Bath Abbey.
It was sort of a pandemic-friendly hiking of the Cotswold Way national trail, skirting the Tier 3 troubles of South Gloucestershire. An alternative trail demands an alternative name: I’m going with the Catswold Way.
Four Quartets (Part The First)
This week’s tramping of the Catswold Way was originally conceived as the most pretentious of walks. I originally intended to connect, by way of pilgrimage, the locations that inspired each of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets.
For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about: TS Eliot was a poet. His Four Quartets are a collection of four poems, written between 1936 and 1942, in which he tries to figure out humankind’s relationship to time and the universe.
If that’s not pretentious enough for you, then let me add that Four Quartets opens with two quotations from Heraclitus, the Ancient Greek philosopher. Untranslated.*
And, I hate to tell you, in all that follows there ain’t much rhyming.
Having said that, although Four Quartets might represent something of a high watermark for pretentious poetry, it’s still bloody marvellous. This, for example, is one of my favourite passages of poetry, rhymed or not, by anyone, anywhere:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Conveniently enough for travel writers looking for destinations, TS Eliot titled each of his four poems after the specific location that inspired the verse.
After a little research, I learnt that the Burnt Norton of the first quartet is a manor house sitting at the northern end of the Cotswold Way. The second quartet is named for East Coker, a village in Somerset. The final poem takes its title from a village in Cambridgeshire: Little Gidding.
So far, all so very Merrie Englande. I gleefully imagined the highbrow BBC 4 series that would surely follow, as I made a learned pilgrimage between Thomas Stearns Eliot’s four poetical inspirations.
The television cameras would focus on a boot splashing into a muddy puddle, scattering a reflection of the stars, as my voiceover gently muses on how Eliot’s masterpiece, penned during a world war, can help modern humans make sense of time and the universe during a wholly different kind of calamity.
Then I looked up the third of the poems: Dry Salvages. Dry Salvages? What the actual fuck. It’s in Massachusetts, USA.
Picking through the wreckage of my documentary dreams, I reassembled some semblance of the idea. Scaling down the grandeur of my vision, I decided instead to walk from the manor of Burnt Norton all the way through to East Coker, where TS Eliot’s ashes are interred.
As you can tell, I haven’t finished this walk yet. From Bath Abbey to the church at East Coker, another 80km awaits (restrictions permitting) after Christmas.
So it was that I began: stepping off a train, then stepping onto a bus, before finally stepping off the bus (a few miles further on than I should have done) and onto the road from Chipping Campden to the stately manor of Burnt Norton.
My pack was full (inadvisedly so), my bivvy bag was dry and my feet were not yet hobbling, not yet throbbing.
It turns out that, for someone who does it on the regular, I’m a bad trespasser. Burnt Norton, you see, is privately owned.
The famous rose garden even made it into the poem:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Absenting the lover, I would still follow in Eliot’s footsteps and discreetly trespass. There followed a nerve-jangling yomp through quiet woodland that crackled underfoot, doubtless alerting the trigger-happy gamekeepers to my intrusion.
This felt nothing like Eliot’s ‘cheeky’ trespass. In the poem, his walkers are drawn on into the garden by ‘the deception of the thrush’:
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves,
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air
I felt neither dignified nor invisible. The pressure over the dead leaves of this galumphing hiker made crispcracks that, at every footfall, had pheasants yawking up into the trees in a fluster of wings.
The path sank slowly into thick mud and wound past a gallery of shooting lookouts: would my backpack be mistaken for the hind quarters of a deer?
As it turned out: no. The trespass was all absolutely terrifying and all absolutely fine. In fact, the only thing that went wrong was my map-reading and I ended up parading up and down the Lord and Lady’s expensively-filled car park, in full view of their drawing room windows.
There isn’t an awful lot of serendipity built into my writing process, but occasionally I accidentally dig up something worthwhile that I’d completely forgotten about.
As I’ve mentioned before, I use the last few days of the year to peer back at the past and to throw forward to the next. While hacking through the state of my existence, I decided to search my writing archive for the word ‘life’ – and was surprised to rediscover the following unpublished poem from 2015:
Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals
Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals
Dinner should be littered with corks and candles
Life is a matter of taking your chances
Making the most of your circumstances
Taking up hands at dinner-dances
Falling in love with the merest of glances
Life should be lived as much in the sea
Entwined in a hammock, or under a tree
Vows should be made down on one knee
In the dark, in a church, in Tennessee
Write your own doggerel verses
Sprinkle your talk with Shakespearean curses
Pocket your change and don’t pinch purses
Petition the government to hire more nurses
Don’t be afraid to spend time alone
Enter outdoors and exit your phone
Listen closely, you can still hear the silence
Traffic and television are an odd sort of violence
The sky is a constantly changing companion
Instead of a down, it’s an up sort of canyon
Every breath is there for exploring
Forget all I’m saying and take up drawing!
But pepper your life with shocks and scandals
Life should be lived wearing shorts and sandals
Positive constraints are found everywhere in art. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is unimaginable without its frame. Bach’s Toccata would dissolve into meaningless without its reliability of time signature or key. And, from literature, Joyce’s labyrinthine Ulysses bamboozles us with words and sentences we still recognise as English, and even Tolstoy’s house brick epic War and Peace has an ending, eventually.
Obviously, these are all positive constraints: boundaries that the artists has chosen and used to contextualise their creation.
Sentence structure, picture frames and time signatures are all so common to their respective art forms that they almost fall into the category of unconscious constraints. I didn’t consciously choose to divide my thoughts up into sentences when I started writing this blog post, I just followed the customs of the art form so that you can easily understand what I’m trying to communicate. To a great degree, the constraint of good spelling and grammar is actually necessary to the art form of writing.
Introducing other totally unnecessary constraints can, however, make our writing more compelling, more interesting and, as writer Milan Kundera says, more ludic or game-like.
The writers Elmore Leonard and Stephen King are among many who advocate the positive literary constraint of No Adverbs.
In his article 10 Rules of Writing, Elmore Leonard saves his adverbial admonition primarily for dialogue, frowning upon constructions like: “Damn!” he said, angrily. Elmore says that such use “distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” and I’d completely agree with him. Stephen King, in his excellent book On Writing, is even more critical, saying that adverbs, any adverbs, are the preserve of “timid writers”, driven to clumsy writing by fear or affectation.
Verily, this is not the mere moanings of two crusty literary snobs. No Adverbs forces you to be more precise and active with your language. Quite often the attribution of dialogue is a refuge for laziness. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” Elmore growled viciously.
Elmore growling viciously is supposed to communicate an air of menace, but it’s far more effective to do that with action, not attribution. Elmore ran his finger along the keen edge of his pocket knife. “Don’t you dare use adverbs,” he said.
Counting words is a classic positive constraint for writing that every journalist or student will recognise, usually with something approaching dread. But a word count is such a simple device to make your writing, not only more concise, but also exist in the first place.
One simple thought experiment might help elucidate the theory. If I were to ask you right now to write something on the subject of women in literature, what would you do? Where would you begin and how would you know when to stop? Do I mean women writers, women characters or even women readers? It’s likely that, faced with such an overwhelmingly vague task, you would never even begin.
Now, on the other hand, if I were to ask you to write 100 words about women in literature, you would probably have a very precise idea of what to write. 100 words isn’t much (the same number of words as this paragraph), but you have some opinion on women in literature and you would want to get that opinion into those 100 words. There is no space for faffing around, so you’d go with your strongest idea, perhaps supported by a couple of examples. The imposition of a positive constraint somehow crystalises your thinking and helps you to write.
Similarly, if I were to ask you to write 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 words on women in literature. Each different word count suggests a different approach to the writing.
Target 1,000 words, and you can afford to introduce more supporting examples and perhaps a couple of different critical angles. With 10,000 words to play with, you must dig deeper and research your subject thoroughly. At 100,000 words, you can hunt down every last footnote and take a broad view of women in literature that encompasses the full sweep of history.
Right at the other end of the scale, Twitter is perhaps the most obvious and extreme example of modern literary concision, permitting only 140 characters. A well written tweet can nevertheless capture a thousand pictures.
And the utility of a word count goes far beyond inspiration and concision. You can use word counts to make sure your minor characters don’t take over the protagonist’s story, to beef up your B-plot, or to tune down your C-plot. I even use word frequency analyses to make sure I’m not using the same words over and over (I once used the word “just” 213 times in a book of only 50,000 words).
If you’ve ever actually listened to a conversation between two human beings, you’ll be amazed to hear how dull the language used by most people is. We default to clichés, crank out tired metaphors and serve up idioms that have long since lost their freshness. As a writer, it’s easy to let these slip into your writing and end up sounding like a sack of drunks at the end of a long night.
Now, I’m currently reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, a writer described on the cover as “Ireland’s funniest genius”. But what has captivated me is not so much the humour, but the freshness of the language.
Three samples of his language from one paragraph taken at random from the chapter I finished last night will serve to demonstrate my point:
“When I awoke again two thoughts came into my head so closely together that they seemed to be stuck to one another; I could not be sure which came first and it was hard to separate them and examine them singly.”
“The sun was in the neighbourhood also, distributing his enchantment unobtrusively, colouring the sides of things that were unalive and livening the hearts of living things.”
“A bird sang a solo from nearby, a cunning blackbird in a dark hedge giving thanks in his native language. I listened and agreed with him completely.”
Some of you might have skipped over my little introduction, so I’ll repeat: those are from just one paragraph. The richness, the depth, the clarity! A lesser writer could have covered all three images in one sentence: “I woke up to bright sunshine and birdsong.” Dull, dull, dull.
And if you’re ever doubtful about how far No Cliché writing can take you, think on Shakespeare. In the course of his writing career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 new words to the English language. He also coined dozens of new phrases that became so popular as to turn into clichés themselves: all that glitters isn’t gold, be all and end all, break the ice, green eyed monster, heart of gold, neither a borrower nor a lender be and to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.
Right. So far, we’ve looked at three positive constraints that can make our writing objectively better: more captivating, more concise and more interesting for the reader. I’ll end by looking at the more gameful ways we can use positive constraints.
Eunoia is a book by Christian Bok with only five chapters. The ludic twist is that each chapter contains only one vowel: A, E, I, O or U. Christian believes that each vowel has its own personality and his positive constraint allows that personality to flourish. Chapter A, for example, begins: “Hassan Abd al-Hassad, an Agha Khan, basks at an ashram – a Taj Mahal that has grand parks and grass lawns, all as vast as parklands at Alhambra and Valhalla.”
Gadsby, a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright, dispenses with the letter “e” for its entire 50,000 word plot. These kind of omissions in literature are called lipograms and have been used to rewrite Mary Had a Little Lamb (“Polly owned one little sheep”, without the letter “a”), Hamlet without the “i” (“To be or not to be, that’s the query”) and to imitate the song of a nightingale in Russian.
Right after writing The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words, Dr Seuss took on a bet with his publisher that he couldn’t write a book using a smaller vocabulary. Green Eggs and Ham clocked in with a vocabulary of only 50 different words. Dr Seuss won the bet and Green Eggs and Ham became the fourth best-selling children’s book of all time. Not bad for a stupid positive constraint.
Easily the most quixotic of ludic positive constraints in literature that I’ve come across is Pilish, in which the number of characters in each word matches exactly, and in order, the digits found in the mathematical constant Pi. Wikipedia tells me the following sentence is Pilish for the first fifteen digits of pi, 3.14159265358979: “How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”
And so we come to my all-time favourite example of literary positive constraints, from an article concerning Bob Dylan and plagiarism. I thought the article (which I can tragically no longer find online) was very well-written and made its point with artistry and intelligence: that plagiarism must be distinguished from the patina of collage that all artists must create when they create. The punchline was that the “writer” of this piece had “written” not a single word: every last phrase was “plagarised”. I was gob-smacked and re-read the article again and again, with utter delight.
The punchline to this blog post is that it is acrostic, the first letter of each paragraph spells out… Answers on a postcard to the usual address and thanks to C for the idea.
“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
– Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.
Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”
Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.
For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”
Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.
Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”
Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.
Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.
These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”
In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.
For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?
According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.
What does Creative-Response mean to You?
Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”
In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”
By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).
Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”
For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.
For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.
Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.
But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.
By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.
At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”
Art as Activism?
This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.
“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”
Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.
For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”
Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”
Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.
Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.
Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.
“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”
Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.
This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”
So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.
“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down
Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to be publishing a series of articles taken from my latest book, Elevate #10. This is the first such post, from the Elevate Festival’s opening ceremony, Deanna Rodger’s poem Read My Lips. Enjoy.
Deanna Rodger’s steel-capped poem, Read My Lips, kicks down the door to the tenth edition of the Elevate Festival. The poem embodies the elemental forces of Elevate, its gravity and its magnetism; the creative-response to not being heard.
Sometimes – by which I mean often times – it can feel like we are not just being overlooked or ignored, we aren’t even being heard over the sound of seven billion people upgrading phones, paying treadmill rent or pawning for a payday loan. Not being heard is about the most frustrating emotion a human can feel. It’s the emotion that spawns violence, anger and hate.
“As a teenager, I was really pent up,” Deanna Rodger tells us. “I had a lot of anger living inside of me and I didn’t have the means to let it through.” But we don’t have to respond to not being heard with unfocussed anger; we can use that anger to respond creatively.
Luckily, teenage Deanna Rodger ended up at a creative writing workshop, a reluctant tag-along for her best mate. “I didn’t really want to do it,” she says, “but then they said, Write about fire, and I thought, Ooh, I can definitely write about fire! I know what it feels like in my belly, I know what it feels like in my heart, I know what it feels like in my brain.” She has been writing and performing, burning anger into poetic fire, ever since.
The solitude, space and silence of, not school, not work, but creative writing is what gave Deanna Rodger her voice. “Not having to worry about my spelling or my punctuation or even it rhyming,” she says, gave her “that freedom to write whatever was in my head and then mould it into exactly what I wanted to say.” Writing allowed Deanna Rodger to respond creatively to the anger she was feeling, reclaiming it as something useful and empowering. And we hear her in a way that we wouldn’t if she’d stayed stuck at the angry stage, with empathy, love and solidarity.
The Elevate Festival gives voice to people, projects and ideas that are not being heard, or not being heard loudly enough. For four days in October, people from all over the world come together in Graz to hear each other and to relay, amplify and broadcast each other.
Elevate is, like Deanna Rodger’s writing, a creative-response to not being heard. But it is also a demand that we shall be heard.
Last night, I made my second ever spoken word appearance at Utter! Space in King’s Cross, reading The Complete History of the Moon in Sixteen and a Half Verses. Considering my first appearance was half naked at a FemDom club, I think I’m making progress.
You can hear the poem in all its educational glory by pressing play on the player below.
Please note: this may be less THE history of the moon and more A history of the moon… But at least I didn’t go for any cheap Michael Jackson gags.
BONUS MATERIAL YOU NEITHER ASKED FOR, NOR WANTED!
The process of writing a poem involves much scribblings and almost as much crossings out. Here are some of the verses that didn’t make the final 16.5, mainly because they weren’t about the history of the moon:
The moon goes round the earth,
Which goes round the sun, in ellipse.
When all three are in a line,
That’s a total eclipse.
There is a word for this celestial alignment,
But it’s testing my poetical wizardry,
Because there isn’t any rhyme in my dictionary
I don’t know if you’ve heard
of The Man in the Moon.
It’s another crap pub,
from JD Wetherspoon.
It looks nothing like a man,
It’s more like a foetus.
Or maybe a panda,
If you’ve drunk a few litres.
But of course we all know
that is total bullshit.
The Moon is really an
abandoned alien spaceship.
You might have heard of mooning,
Where you pull down my pants.
And then I’ll pull down yours,
Just like they do in France (pron: “Frants”).
The author, David Charles, is available galaxy-wide for lunar lectures and astronomical addresses.
I pat my brow and take a bow and all the world’s beneath, I take my hat and pat my cat and then I’ll brush my teeth. After the show, after the climb and reach – Do I dare to eat a peach? Things like these – like playing up (not throwing up), Learning to love and learning to teach – (And here’s another – hand in hand with mother – walking on the beach) – Seem too short and all we’re taught Is hold on, hold on…
It’s Spring in the city! But how can you tell? The concrete’s the same, And so is the smell. It’s Spring in the city! But how would you know? The bus is still late, The tube still runs slow.
It’s Spring in the city. You haven’t a clue. Your pay is still bad, Your rent is still due. Spring in the city. One hour’s less sleep Is all that you notice. Monday morning. BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.
But look! In the parks, the gardens, the squares- All the accountants have abandoned their chairs, The stock-brokers have forgotten their shares! Secretaries, actuaries, bankers, newsanchors- All the adults have turned six in the sun. Boys – Frisbee toys radio noise all the joys – Girls – dancing whorls spinning twirls hair that curls – Looking sooooooooooooooooooooooooo pretty – And that’s when we know it’s Spring in the city!