Reviewed by L. Tumbleweed Parker, Charismatic High Priest, Morbid Books
In the summer of 2016 I sent the book nerd Scott Hadley a collection of poetry I had published as a joke, in the expectation that he might review it on his Triumph of the Now website.1
When Scott and I realised we lived near each other, maybe the two most pretentious, insecure young alcoholics in the borough of Islington agreed to convene in my second living room, the New Rose on Essex Road, for a handover.2 Scott came in with his fluffy little dog, Cubby, the kind that really belong to men in their sixties, on a lead. He was styling it out with a hideous cartoon-print sweater and a snap-back baseball cap. His manner was somewhere between humanities-department politeness and Internet-generation snark. As we drank the gin and tonics my legendary status in that particular locale had bought us, I recognised in Scott the same regrettable manner I had so frequently employed as a journalist in my early twenties:3 the steering of conversation from an emotional distance, the placing of speech marks around his own voice, the creation of conversational spaces for me to fall into, all in the hope that I would make some controversial admission, reveal a prejudice that he could use to his advantage. I did not blame him, although I did not particularly like him or find him very entertaining company, although admittedly, I was not paying attention to the artistic transformation from hipster book blogger to poetry performance artist that was happening slowly before my eyes.
In the intervening period, Scott has called the titles flung from my literary death star Morbid Books “surprisingly masterful,”4 “highly commendable,”5 and “aggressively close to aggressive misogyny”,6 all the while trying to maintain what Freud terms the “vanity of small differences” between us. We were, after all, both artistically successful compared with of our former classmates, but nobodies in London terms, and our ambitions in the same field were matched by our willingness to improve our self esteem at other people’s expense, especially each other’s.
In his review of Sex with Theresa May and Other Fantasies, Scott finally got his chance to wag his finger at me and elevate his status as a censor of the liberal left. He then made a lame attempt at manufacturing a scandal by publishing some of my emails. When I gave him my address to return one of the books, he did not post it, but turned up at my door at 11 in the morning and told me that his partner had left him, he was homeless, and he was close to committing suicide.
The book he was returning was my first one, Suicide Notes. I probably made a poor-taste joke. I told him he could stay with me for a few nights if he needed, but thankfully he was okay.
From that day, I decided to pay a little more attention to Scott’s social media posts in case I might need to stop him swinging from a tree. So having muted Scott’s profile[s] for annoying the hell out of me with inane drivel about his dog, his hair loss, his daily walks, his conventional social attitudes, &c., I then unmuted him, and in doing so, I became privy to the news, approximately twelve months ago, that in hindsight I may have been better not knowing.
Scott had decided to turn his hand poetry. Not just write poetry—in the social media age, that would not provide enough instant recognition.7 No, he had decided to become a Poet. And not just any old poet either—a “Bad Boy Poet.”
My initial reaction was to scream, “Hey, that’s my fucking territory.” But since I am not the kind of person to send unsolicited abuse to a suicidal depressive—there is so much terrible poetry already being written by way more toxic, less insightful depressives than Scott—when he announced the news that he’d actually found a publisher,8 I offered to make the role reversal complete by reviewing it for him on his website, adhering to his style guide,9 providing he promised not to edit, whine, or create any kind of ironic distancing between himself and the criticism—a luxury he obviously affords himself when reviewing others. He would have to accept it in a quiet, dignified manner, and have some Savlon handy for the aftermath in case it stung.
Scott deserves credit for acknowledging that dignity does not come naturally to him, and it is easy to see why. Marxists are right in pointing out that capitalism whacks most people’s dignity, especially in the “attention economy,” where young people are expected to make increasingly degrading spectacles of themselves to make themselves visible to capital. It is no coincidence that for a man with two degrees, Scott’s employment history seems to be as unedifying as his Twitter feed. The quest to create a reputation has obviously taken its toll on his psyche in very nefarious ways. What I assume started out as a way of building professional contacts, his Tweeting and other attention cravings seem to have had the opposite effect on his personal growth and stunted his late development into adulthood. His sense of self has been formed to a large extent by the vampires of social media. His emotional defences against traumas such as unemployment and rejection (on and off social media) appear to have become reliant on broadcasting his feelings on those same platforms. Like many people of the damned millennial generation, he uses his Facebook and Twitter profiles to inflate huge buffers of irony and self-awareness that have the crafty double-edged effect of appearing introspective, sensitive and genuinely selfless, while their equally powerful secondary purpose is to further his ego’s impulse for intellectual supremacy by seeking a combination of validation, sympathy and LOLs. Having taken my reviews on the chin and learned a lot from the process of standing in concrete while some uppity little turd criticised, analysed and misinterpreted me, I wanted Scott to go through the same process not only for the sake of fairness, or for my own sadistic pleasure, but to see if we could learn anything about him as a specimen in the silence, when his technological and rhetorical armour was stripped away. For some unknown reason—probably an undying need for attention—he agreed.
It is 4.41am in October, I am back on the amphetamines because otherwise it would just never get done, and I have the review copy of Scott Manley Hadley’s Bad Boy Poet open in front of me. It is a smaller-than-A5 paperback with a white, uncoated mat cover depicting a black Sisyphus-like jelly baby struggling to carry a large golden globe. It is published by Open Pen, whose name and visual style is so similar to PEN International, it looks to me like it was deliberately chosen to associate itself with officialdom. Not to undermine or recontextualise it—rather, to become it. For me, to use a contemporary weasel word, that is “PROBLEMATIC.”10
On the inside page, there is a photo of Scott naked with his legs crossed and his dog on his lap, covering his manly parts. Having spoken to Scott by email, I know that there are full-frontal photos, but the publisher did not want to risk publishing them. On this point, I am wholly supportive of Open Pen’s editors.
The poems have no titles. Most are so brief, so unrefined, so obnoxiously, self-consciously bad, without insight or wit.11 A poem that goes,
Is a lot like sex
With a long term partner
You’re not in love with anymore:
Even when it’s good
It’s still kinda boring.
so obviously revels in delinquency, any attempt at reprimanding it will only increase its effect. Scott’s poetry is capitalised and comes with hard line breaks that clash with the most mundane statements.
I don’t know if Scott delivers the poems in a politically incorrect “spastic” voice when he reads them aloud at poetry events,12 but that’s the voice I can’t help but hear some of them in. And it makes me wonder where the emphases in “Bad Boy Poet” should be. Is the author a badboy poet—a punk rebel taking risks with edgy material; or simply a bad boy poet—a low-IQ Rimbaud, an overaged Foyle’s Young Poet reject?
There is obviously an inherent folly in reviewing, or analysing too deeply most of the work here, whose author is masquerading at the sacred house of poetry as a retard. So when the speaker is interpreted as a character with not just mental illness, as the press release says, but appears to either have or be mimicking an actual learning difficulty, the poems about sex, reduced to their most bleakly prosaic functions, and compared unfavourably with defecation, make for very uneasy reading indeed, sort of like Lars Von Trier being given the final edit over Forrest Gump.
Thankfully, coming across as a moron isn’t all that Scott has achieved. Aside from the obvious throwaway page fillers that proclaim “poo is the opposite of food,” and a stunningly (hilariously?) banal list poem that registers his personal strength at “not hating myself” for lifestyle choices such as being a vegetarian (but not vegan) and “my awareness of privilege,” there are a few poems here that do offer the kind of genuine emotional insight Scott looks for in other people’s poetry, but from within his own ultra-laconic range of expression.
Unlike the majority of the poems here, which command as much attention as bogeys flicked at a wall, a small few have the most important aspect for any artwork: good subject matter. His stripped-back reflections on relationships hit me squarely in the feels. When reduced to a list of things his former lover paid for, Scott finds an essential depressing truth in the wreckage. In contrast to the coldness of dating apps he sounds intelligently human: “I tell strangers I like / Karaoke and my dog / But what I really like / Is being held.”
The rawest ones of all are those that deal with his ageing parents. In a matter-of-fact way that is usually the best way of conveying a powerful image, Scott tells us about the funny, but very sad moment in Amsterdam, when his elderly father was unable to walk, but kept getting high-fived by young people who thought he was stoned. Observations such as this do not require any excessive poetics to get their message across.
Scott was open from the outset that he did not believe he had any poetic abilities. He does not respect the societal misconception that deems a “poet” to be somebody of extraordinary insight or technique. In the Dada spirit, he is right to assert that poetry is not and should not be conceived as an exclusive club like freemasonry, but simply an activity that one does, regardless of ability. It is appropriate, then, that somebody who admitted he knows nothing about the Surrealist movement should so perfectly embody Breton’s belief that there is no such thing as talent.13
This year I published SEND CA$H: The Collected Poems of Stewart Home, a book eerily similar in style and approach to Scott’s.14 The fact that I was the only publisher interested in the collected works of this avant garde pioneer shows that unlike the artworld, which opened its gates to conceptual interventions decades ago, pranksters and agitators are less prominent in poetry now than they were in the punk era. While the ridiculous excesses of the conceptual artworld are regularly mocked—and to be fair, they embrace or rather appropriate that mockery as well—poetry as a collective milieu seems to exist in a hermetically sealed continuation of the pre-punk era, where satire and hijinks are still frowned upon or outright condemned by the shockingly earnest, and ultimately repressive guardians of the arts.15
The main difference between Stewart’s and Scott’s “anti-poetry” is that Scott’s political awareness, and therefore the subversiveness of his project, is limited to centre-ground liberalism. Stewart’s comes from Marxist cultural theory, the radical modernist “anti-cannon”, and he cites Unica Zürn, Amiri Baraka and Spike Hawkins as his chief influences. Scott’s biggest influences appear to be Anne Carson and Pierce Brosnan.
“What got me focussed on banging out poetry was my dislike of the romantic versifying of a mixed crew of poetasters,” Home writes in the introduction-cum-manifesto to SEND CA$H, which could just as easily serve as an intro for Scott’s collection if we changed the period details and gave him more antagonistic political views.
“I found myself getting up on stage to perform short banal pieces as a humorous riposte to a horde of po-faced hacks wallowing in misery,” Home says, as if foreshadowing Scott. “I wanted to make still life pictures in words and provide a quasi-punk counter-offensive to the bloated gothic whinging that too many self-styled ‘serious’ ‘young’ poets were grinding out at that time.”
Like Stewart, whose poetry was written as an accompaniment to public performance, Scott’s character works not as a poet of the page, but as a nouveau-Dada performance artist who holds a mirror up to the inadequacy and the vanity of those around him. He has already cultivated a believable persona as a shockingly vain egotist in bad clothes, who masquerades as a paradoxically sensitive and self-reflective, but ultimately cringeworthy spokesman for “woke” men. All he has to do now, to realise his full potential as a human and an artist, is perform his special-needs pastiche poetry in an inappropriate voice at Bang Said The Gun; then Scott Manley Hadley will have elevated himself in stature from my favourite book blogger to my third favourite Sasha Baron Cohen-*style* character.
1. Previously written exclusively by Scott Hadley, but now contains this review written about Scott by Tumbleweed Parker, the Charismatic High Priest of Morbid Books, who has hijacked the airwaves for reasons you will discover when you scroll back up. ↩
2. Before Christmas I had spent an evening in the boozer adorned with kitschy pop-culture memorabilia, my confidence so inflated by morbid cocktails and amphetamines that I had taken to selling copies of my avant-garde stocking filler 100 Haikus about Haemorrhoid Cream, in the barroom. I sold more books in the pub than at the release party the night before, and swapped a few books for fifty pound’s worth of cheese. My skills as a book slinger were still talked about with amazement among the bar staff eight months later. ↩
3. Although we were then both 28. ↩
7. Doctor, cure thyself, &c. ↩
8. Actually, mea culpa: I was the first person to publish Scott’s poetry when he contributed to 100 Haikus about Boris Becker’s Breakfast, a brilliantly inventive alliterative haiku collection, or “tautogram.” ↩
9. Or should that be David Foster Wallace’s style guide? Sorry, too easy. And hypocritical. Who, after all, hasn’t discovered DFW and found themselves writing endlessly verbose streams of self-conscious jargon? ↩
10. Why? Not because I care about the ethics of fooling readers with crafty visual ploys. Rather, the press release, which Scott didn’t write, tells me that Open Pen is a publisher of writing “willing to take a risk,” although it doesn’t say what that risk is. Howls of “show, don’t tell”? A ticking off from PEN International? A lengthy Arts Council application form? Somebody asking why such an obscure figure as Fernando Sdrigotti is getting tapped for blurbs? ↩
11. Hallelujah. I hate the reverential, sober paranoia of reviews. ↩
12. I really hope he does. ↩
13. But a little respect for the gods wouldn’t go amiss. ↩
14.I say eerie because only about 20 people have bought it and Scott wasn’t one of them. ↩
15. To see the censorship in action, and maybe understand why I don’t like Open Pen’s assimilation into the aesthetic of officialdom, feel free to read my emails to and from the Poetry Society where they labelled themselves my “enemy” and refused to acknowledge Morbid Books’ magazine A Void for daring to criticise the conformist nepotism in the poetry establishment. ↩