Book Review

Through your blood by Toby Campion

i went to a poetry open mic night

So I went and did a poetry open mic night, and the re-growing of my interest in poetry began to be dampened again. Thankfully, though, I had – hours previously – sent off the latest draft of my debut poetry collection, Bad Boy Poet, to my prospective publisher, meaning an abatement of my interest in the form is kinda well timed.

I sat in a room for about four hours and listened to so so so many poets, poets from all walks of [pretentious] life, almost every single one of whom was as mediocre a poet as I am, and some were definitely worse (some were better). There were some posh high schoolers with nothing to say and some old communists with nothing to say, there were middle aged, middle class people, and there were people who changed accent between introducing themselves and reading their poems in order to affect a different, though always London-based, class (nb: as many tried to “climb” the social scale as shimmy down it). There were more men in hats than I had seen since my indie disco youth (when, at least for a bit, the trilbies weren’t just to hide a dangerous widow’s peak) and there were several people who spoke in the exact same pattern/tone, the one that performance poets do all the time, the only difference being that good performance poets use unnatural vocal patterns to emphasise particular words and ideas, and bad wannabe performance poets accidentally use unnatural vocal patterns to emphasise their own poor writing.

As I said, though, I’m a middling poet. It’s a bit of a let down to be forced to accept this, as I felt far more comfortable being a knowingly “bad” poet. Being a “bad” poet who was, against the world’s better judgement, writing poetry and getting it read (albeit with the help of oodles of white male privilege) felt complex: I saw my poetry as so much worse than “good” poetry that I didn’t think I’d offend anyone were I to, y’know, get it published. However, it turns out that a lot more other, earnest, aspirant poets are a lot worse than me.

When I began banging out poems instead of banging in negronis, it was because I thought I was being subversive. These poems about poo, these poems about Twitter, these blunt three line poems about my dad’s health: I thought of them as anti poems, and if/when any turned out to be moving, funny, sad or clever, that was an act of literary subversion. To make good writing out of bad poems was my aim, and I thought that if I could do that, I’d be doing something kinda clever, but overwhelmingly cheeky. Turns out, though, I was wrong.

I don’t feel comfortable kinda-satirising a “high artform” when said “high artform” has already been commandeered by armies of people who don’t have any skills better than mine. My critical faculties are a disadvantage: though I know my own failings, I also know the failings of my peers. I read, I critique, I analyse. If much poetry, then, turns out to be crap, my whole literary, poetic, justification falls apart. There are people who call themselves poets who are a lot worse than me, there are people with published poetry collections who are fucking atrocious at writing poems: I’m a distinctly mediocre poet, and that’s a much less exciting thing to playfully be than the bad poet I had viewed myself as before.

///

ANYWAY, I suppose what I’m doing here is cementing my ambivalence, is justifying and explaining my continued confusion and fascination with poetry. What do I want when I read a collection of poems? What do I want when I hear someone read? I think I know, I think I’ve worked it out, I think I have – still not at the end of this little poetry season – decided what it is that I need.

I need poetry with a kick.

I need poetry that is alive.

I need poetry that contains bodies and voices and desires and feelings.

I need poetry with ideas and experience and happiness and loss and desire and desperation and death.

I don’t need poetry that is delicate, unless an artful and complex building-up of images and ideas counts as delicacy.

I don’t need poems to be long or short, I need poems of any length where every word has been chosen with the utmost care so that the poems look, sound and mean something beautiful.

I don’t need rhyme, but I don’t think it’s without use.

I need poetry that makes me grin this fucking big fucking smile that is kinda like a bodily expression of the feeling of “yes yes abso fucking lutely yes.”

The poet Toby Campion’s book Through your blood (Burning Eye Books, 2017) made me do that multiple fucking times.

///

I’m running out of time to write this, as I have – as hard as it may be to believe – an actual life to be getting on with where I’m not just sat around in my pyjamas drinking coffee and blogging and-

Toby Campion is a hugely acclaimed poet, as is evidenced by the huge amount of awards won (and nearly won) that are mentioned in the author bio of this collection, Through the blood. Burning Eye specialise in publishing collections written by active spoken word performers, so the poems in Campion’s collection here – maybe not all of them, but certainly many – will have been honed by repeated performance.

Another digression:

Though I think there is perhaps a difference in intention between poems that are written to be read aloud and poems that are written to be read internally, I don’t – personally – think this is a distinction that is as concrete as many like to claim. If a poem doesn’t sound good when spoken aloud, then it doesn’t sound good, and likewise if a poem relies on delivery to evoke any feeling, then the words themselves don’t evoke sufficient feeling. I think an idea exists that the stage is more forgiving than the page for poets, however having seen enough people read bad poems aloud to last a lifetime (I have been to ONE poetry open mic night) I disagree. If I’m reading an anthology or a collection or a magazine that has a bad poem in, I can skim through to see if it improves and then go back if it looks like it does, or otherwise turn the page. If someone is reading a bad poem aloud, an audience – unless they are more impolite than me and feel comfortable leaving mid-performance – is stuck there until it’s over. I would far rather spend a fiver on a poetry magazine that turns out to be awful cover-to-cover bar like two poems and waste less than fifteen minutes ascertaining that awfulness, than waste hours and hours and hours consuming the entirety of poems with EVEN LESS MERIT than poems of my own. For reference on how little merit that is, I write poems like this:

Poo
is the opposite of
Food

Campion’s poems are not dull on the page, they are not lacking something, there isn’t a hook to his poems that disappears when they are read rather than heard. I think presuming there is is a patronising idea that comes from this elitism I’ve noticed within poetry before. As in, “oooh, performance poetry isn’t as serious as printed poetry”. Just because something is serious, doesn’t mean it’s good.

A LOT of poetry is shit, but it is more obvious it is shit when it’s read to you, earnestly, by a man in a hat who is dressed as if he were either forty years older or younger than he is. It seems like more spoken word poetry is crap than page poetry because people buy into beliefs, people are wary to criticise, people are wary to say “this is good, this is bad, this is mediocre”. I do not approve of circle-jerky praise marathons, I do not think there is ANYTHING to be gained from relentless, uncritical positivity. I think that if you are only explicitly positive about things you are only half a person.

Digression from the digression:

I disagreed with a self-identifying “book blogger” (I self-identify as a “literary lifestyle blogger”) on Twitter recently on this very topic. Said “book blogger” was unnecessarily rude to me, despite real restraint on my behalf. He was all like “i think it’s valid for people to repress their negative feelings” (paraphrased) and I was like “I furiously disagree” but I didn’t say what I actually felt, which was this:

THIS IS UTTER BULLSHIT. YOUR POSITIVE OPINIONS ARE WORTHLESS FUCKING FLUFFERY IF YOU NEVER FUCKING RANT ABOUT HOW OFFENSIVELY BAD SOME PIECE OF SHIT NOTHING ATTEMPT AT SHITERATURE IS. IF YOU CANNOT EVIDENCE THAT YOUR CRITICAL FACULTIES ARE WORKING BY BEING DISMISSIVE [AT WORST] OR OFFENSIVE [AT BEST] ABOUT A TEXT THAT FAILED TO ACHIEVE EVERYTHING IT SET OUT TO DO, WHY SHOULD I PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR CRITICAL PRONOUNCEMENTS? IF YOU PURPORT TO ANALYSE ANY CULTURAL PRODUCT AT ANY LEVEL, YET ONLY OFFER ANALYSES THAT ARE FUCKING HAGIOGRAPHIC, YOUR ANALYSES ARE WORTH EVEN LESS THAN MINE ARE AND MINE ARE WORTH INCREDIBLY LITTLE. IF YOU DON’T HAVE THE SELF CONFIDENCE TO CRITICISE THEN YOU SHOULDN’T HAVE THE SELF CONFIDENCE TO CRITIQUE. IF YOU HAVE A BOOK BLOG AND WRITE ABOUT HOW GREAT EVERYTHING YOU READ IS, YOU’RE LIKE A FUCKING SEA LION CLAPPING WITHOUT KNOWING WHAT IT MEANS.

tenor.gif

Sorry, Burning Eye and/or Toby Campion, if either of you are reading, I’ve hijacked my own post here, over and over again.

I’m gonna eat something and try again.

///

Right, just gonna bang through this.

The poems of Campion’s that I found most powerful are about self and about identity. There are lots of poems about sexuality in this collection, as well as identity related to sexuality, and several very moving pieces on homophobia.

I enjoyed the collection, and I felt that almost every piece in here worked very well, except for the handful of pieces that veered towards a kinda magical realism, but that’s more a personal taste kinda thing.

There are poems about family and several about the loss, to cancer, of a father. These poems are nuanced and moving, with grief appearing in the text as something significant. There are also poems about loss in relation to romantic disappointment, and these pieces tend to be angry. There is rage at rejection, and often rejection is coupled with the poems about homophobia. Let’s hit up brief descriptions of the ones I really liked:

  • One of the most affecting early pieces in the collection is ‘Old Friend’, about the narrator stalking a man who has rejected him for a wife and children and conventionality. It’s bitter and sad and moving and strong, wallop.
  • ‘Learning To Hold’ is about disgusting school toilets, loads of poo, my kinda poem;
  • ‘Lion’s Pride’, moving piece about high school homophobia;
  • ‘Learning to Swallow’, on a similar theme, but about intimidating and unpleasant encounters that happen in the evenings after school, the excitement of illicit teen drinking turned on its head when the places one feels safe and secure are invaded;
  • ‘Deliverance’ – from the perspective of a parent of a newly born gay son, particularly moving as it comes shortly after the first poem about parental death: I think it’s about acceptance and familial love, but I don’t know if it isn’t perhaps more about unwilling judgement, misunderstood/denied prejudice. It’s good, though, layered and complex but short;
  • ‘Summer Job Lifeguarding On Lake Fishkill’ is a darkly funny piece about power and control and life guards putting children at risk so they can save them. It’s good, tonally different from the ones I liked earlier in the collection;
  • ‘Notes from Mykonos Beach at 3am’ is similar in tone to ‘Old Friend’, about men playing that they can switch on and off their sexualities, about repression and pleasure and self-denial, it’s good;
  • ‘Notes from the Sexual Health Clinic Waiting Room’ is great: funny and charged and exciting and – now that I’ve actually had my blood tested for STDs – being able to visualise this experience made me feel like a real fucking adult;
  • ‘Grave’ is a moving piece about rejection and loneliness, expanding madeleine-like from looking at a former lover’s left-behind underwear;
  • ‘Learning to Dance’, about the homophobic terrorist attack on a Miami gay bar a couple of years ago. This is particularly moving given the theme of prejudice and the threat of violence that has been present in the poems up until this point. It’s about empathy and community and fear. It’s powerful.

There were also a couple of poems about being from the Midlands, which is an accident of birth I share with Campion. However, I think Campion’s experience of that part of the country is very different to my own. He paints his Midlands – the East Midlands – as a friendly, tolerant, nuanced, engaging, place, whereas what I remember of my Midlands – the West – is the opposite of that. It was dull, brexitty and sneery when I used to live there, but maybe that was just the people I ran into. I’m gonna spend a couple of weeks in the Midlands soon doing major decluttering, so hopefully Campion is right and my memories are wrong, but we’ll have to see.

This is Campion reading his main Midlands poem for the BBC:

So, yes, to conclude: Through your blood is a great collection, with a lot of big, emotional, weighty poems, just the kind I like.

Done.

PS: I spent my dog-walking time in the park this morning writing a quick poetic response to ‘From the Midlands’. It’s called ‘Also From the Midlands’. As I said, I’m a mediocre poet:

You’re lucky if you’re born somewhere good,
You’re unlucky if you’re born somewhere bad.
If you’re born somewhere mediocre,
Then you, alas,
Are normal.

By good I mean beautiful
Safe
Fertile,
By bad I mean ugly
Dangerous
Barren. 

But most places
Are neither good
Nor bad.
Most places
Have access to food and water
But no immediate beauty.
Most places
Are mediocre.

So why would you be proud
Of the place
You were born
When it’s so mediocre
People forget it’s there?

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