A few weeks ago a man I’d never met before contacted me over the Internet. After a brief back and forth email exchange we arranged to meet in a pub close to my house at 10pm. He had told me he had something to give me that I’d probably enjoy, and from pictures I’d seen online, I knew that if he meant what I thought he meant, I was going to love it.
The stranger was Lewis Parker and what he gave to me was 100 Haikus about Haemorrhoid Cream, a poetry collection published by Parker’s independent publishing company, Morbid Books.
Parker’s day job is as a poetry busker, a job he implied (though didn’t state) earned him enough money to live on. If you don’t know what a poetry busker is, it’s someone who writes poems on spec for cash in public places. Parker explained to me that the way he works is by asking for a word or phrase of inspiration from the client, and then writing a poem based on that. Some suggestions are easy, i.e. “love”, “death”, “massive throbbing wanger” (my examples), whilst others are more difficult, “The Soviet Space Programme” or “Epistemology” (my examples). But Parker does this for a living, so squeezing out a poem on an unpoetic subject, such as “haemorrhoid cream”, is something he does every work day. However, much harder than writing one free verse poem on an unpoetic subject is writing 100 on the same theme. And much harder than that is 100 poems written in a strict, syllabic form[i], every single one about Haemmerhoid Cream.
I counted a couple to check, and they were both bang on, and Parker gave me a firm assurance[ii] that every poem checked out to the 5/7/5 syllable quota of classic haikus. The point of the exercise, he told me, was to subvert an ancient poetic form traditionally used to convey ideas and images of sublime beauty or heartbreaking understanding. Parker’s book takes a small form, conceived to be an all-encompassing shiver of existence, and instead uses it to focus on something considered banal or, at best, disgusting. I.e. the cream used to treat piles.
Of the 100 haikus, about two thirds are written by Parker, sometimes in collaboration, and the rest are the produce of 19 other people, all named at the start of the book. In crediting every haiku to an individual poet, Parker can be seen as democratic, but by getting so close to writing the target 100 haikus on his own, the reader almost feels vicarious disappointment. About 30 more, and the work would’ve been entirely Parker’s. As an individualist and cynic, my criticism lies in this gap, particularly as a handful of the haikus attributed to Parker feel a bit like page fillers (the pair of Wimbledon-themed haikus, for example), and I did end both readings of the collection feeling like I wished he’d collected more than 100 haikus about haemorrhoid cream and then edited them down to form a collection. Because it very much feels like 100 was the aim and that once that figure had been hit, the poems stopped.
This is a disappointment, because although there are far too many (i.e. three) poems that directly refer to Parker’s project in a way that presumes all readers were involved in its production (think bigger, Lewis!), and about ten/fifteen more that don’t really work, the vast majority of 100 Haikus about Haemorrhoid Cream are great. Inventive, witty, entertainingly crass or, on a couple of unexpected occasions, moving.
I laughed a lot, though I am a reader of Viz, which makes gags about haemorrhoids every issue. I’m also someone who disapproves of the po-faced way many people interact with the production and consumption of poetry (see post on Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry), so 100 examples of texts keeping to a strict form whilst their content was aggressively non-traditional appealed to me on a very personal level.
There are haikus of pain, of relief, of love, of death, of ageing, of shame, of denial, of desire. We see friendship and hunger and illness and life, and in 1700 syllables, Parker’s collection offers a wide exploration of the human condition, impressive given its surface focus on the medicine people to use to alleviate the pain of swollen anal blood vessels.
Given the ambition of the project, it would be miraculous if all 100 haikus had turned out perfect. However, the mere fact that Parker has managed to collate 80ish good haikus on fucking haemorrhoid cream is an impressive achievement in itself. And let’s look at the context of actual poetry: who’s ever read a themed collection where every last piece was worthy of inclusion? Maybe Parker, as editor and lead writer, allowed his ego to get in the way and included a few slapdash pieces of his own instead of more worthy pieces submitted by his collaborators? The impression Parker gave of himself in that Islington pub was not of someone who’d be so inclined. He spoke at length of his dislike of Shakespeare due to Shax’s innate conservatism, and his speech was so impassioned that everyone else in the pub (all both of them) got involved in the conversation. Parker appears to be someone who cares about literature, and with Morbid Books he is looking to produce arresting and unique texts that do something other published books do not. I think this is highly commendable.
Although I did believe there were a few dud haikus within the book, as a whole I genuinely enjoyed reading it. In terms of tone, it varied a lot, but as only the second book published by a fledgling indie publisher, this is something bookfans like myself should be promoting as an exciting example of non-traditional physical book production.
Great fun. Looking forward to what Morbid Books does next.
[i] Parker told me that the poems he writes as a busker are, almost always, free verse. As he tends to busk in touristic places, he writes a lot for non British natives, who are always far more comfortable with a poem that looks like a modern poem than the Brits are, as we are (alas) a nation that broadly expects the p word to connote some kinda Renaissance throwback. Americans have been consuming beautiful poetry without regular rhyming patterns for over a century, and whilst the Brits have been writing similar stuff, the general populace doesn’t encounter much poetry in school other than trite Victoriana and earlier outdated pieces. Very few poems on the GCSE syllabus lack a regular syllabic pattern and most have a rhyme scheme that can be diagrammed using the letters ABABABBACD etc.. #closedminded #brexitbastids
[ii] As well as said assurance, Parker also gave me several gin and tonics that he was buying at about a quarter of the standard London price. The reason for his discount was never explained, and I wisely didn’t ask.