Walking the half hour from Trinity College to my hotel at the end of the first full day of the sixteenth Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry, I find that I’m suffering—as I often do these days when I visit my alma mater—from what might perhaps be called Norma Desmond Anxiety. Is it just me, or did the pictures get small?
As a smalltown boy studying at Cambridge more than a decade ago, the vibrancy and promise of the place made it seem like an expansive city, seething with ideas, containing and nurturing (as a point of honour) every possibility. Now, when I come back, I’m always surprised at its villagey feel, the narrowness of the main streets, the nearness-at-hand of everything. It’s as if, after I graduated, the whole place was replaced by a model accurate in every detail but scaled down by a third.
This weekend, I’m wondering whether the same has happened to CCCP (as the Conference is always known; it started in 1991, and it was much as if the dissolution of the Soviet Union that same year somehow led directly to Cambridge’s stubborn knot of leftist poets being granted custody of the initials.) In fact, on paper, the Conference is larger than it has ever been: 27 poets were programmed this time around, and a further four were invited ad hoc during the weekend. And yet, in scope and effect, the gathering seemed reduced.
In this, at least, I can’t be making invidious comparisons with soft-focus memories of my student days. My first visit to CCCP wasn’t until 2000. (Undergraduate students don’t know that it happens, not least because the Conference is always convened out of term time: presumably so that university facilities are available for use.) I was, perhaps, something of an ingenue, but by no means a tremulous pushover. Yet I remember, in those first couple of years of attending, extraordinary readings by—among others— Kathleen Fraser, Randolph Healy, Tadeusz Pioro, and performances by Brian Catling and Jeremy Hardingham by which I still feel marked, having attended dozens of readings at numerous venues before and since.
One secondary outcome of such remarkable presentations as those I mention is that they have the effect of obscuring a basic question: what is an event like CCCP for? Healy’s understated but overwhelming reading from Arbor Vitae, or the resounding impression of Catling’s Man in the Moon performance, are self-evidently reason enough. But of course this won’t quite do. In any group of thirty readings, there are bound to be the good as well as the bad and the ugly, and it’s in encountering these latter groups that the pertinent questions come more readily to mind. Why am I sitting here listening to this?, you will say to yourself. By dint of being in this audience, of what, if anything, am I a part?
Such questions will inevitably start to throb, a bit like Poe’s tell-tale heart, if the programme does not seem to articulate in itself a proposition, or even an inquiry, to its attendees: and so it is, now, with CCCP. The Conference has made much of its more international outlook in recent times: and certainly, the line-up of earlier years appears parochial by comparison. But those first few editions must have done much to establish an updated (at that time) understanding of what currents and tendencies were then important in Cambridge, and what conversations may have been going on between poets and artists associated with those tendencies. Whereas the avowedly internationalist programme of 2006 actually does nothing to signal an ‘outlook’ or describe a perspective, beyond the gestural commitment of putting poets on aeroplanes. What are the connexions, the meeting-points that are being intimated in a session featuring Niels Lyngsø, Krisztina Tóth and Lissa Wolsak? CCCP’s web site describes the Conference as “a cartography of modern poetry”: so, does anybody know how to mark the contour lines on this map?
There is perhaps a heightened sensitivity to how CCCP is currently curated, as, after many years in the guardianship of a steering group of distinguished practitioner-critics from within and outside the University, the Conference is now programmed by one individual, the poet Kevin Nolan. It would certainly be fair to say that Nolan has been a contentious figure since his prominent involvement with CCCP began, and that if his penchant for subversive game-playing and combative humour has its strong admirers, they are considerably more reluctant to make themselves known than is the man himself. But the divisiveness of Nolan’s presence and tactics has had what could be seen as an unexpectedly healthy consequence. Where, not so long ago, CCCP was notoriously characterised by an atmosphere of poisonous mistrust and resentment between various factions (organised regionally, and then by supposed association, and finally by temperament; and minutely described across many years of increasingly eccentric essays by Nolan’s compadre Andrew Duncan), Nolan’s stewardship has had the effect of alienating representatives of all of these micro-tribes apparently without discrimination. Relations are now, it seems, more often established with individuals in their own right, rather than with affiliates: nobody stands for anything larger than themselves. The programming may therefore seem capricious, and sometimes downright puzzling; but it has now achieved a kind of coherence, despite—perhaps even because of—the absence of any point of view inferable from the curation. (Thus, the Conference has also become considerably friendlier.)
The attending critic is therefore left with not much to say except variations on “I like her but I didn’t like him”. Thankfully, despite occasionally bewildering juxtapositions and some egregious modes of self-presentation, there was plenty to like. Among the British poets, the two who impressed most for me had the (always difficult) task of opening each of the two full days.
Martin Corless-Smith (billed here as a US poet, though born in the UK and still more classically English than anyone else in the room) gave a subdued and quite abbreviated reading, highly concentrated without feeling impacted, drawing mostly on Swallows, newly published by Fence Books. I previously heard Corless-Smith read some of this work not long after the publication of his last book, Nota, and so the continuity between the two collections seems to me strong and suggestive; but the readings themselves could hardly have been more different in character. The earlier reading brought out the careful good humour of his work, which finds its movements and its pleasurable tensions in his intelligent and provocative games with intertextual slipperiness and the delusions of authorship. In this new reading, though, Corless-Smith seemed to me to be sounding for the first time a deep hurt in the work, an anxiety about the love of literature and the transferability of those values that serious readers may locate in the writings which lie before them. The playfulness of Nota, its faithful response to the instability of written texts and the contested histories of their unlikely perseverance, has darkened into a more troubled and tangling confrontation with prior literatures and half-obscured (half-‘distinguished’) lives, with the question of what we ‘take’ from books, of how we (may or may not, and may or may not aspire to) reach through and beyond them to a more direct encounter with the world that refuses to endorse them. The poetry seems shadier, more anguished even, very gently and restrainedly adumbrating a kind of tantalised dread. I was already a keen admirer of Corless-Smith’s work, but he continues to rise in my estimation: Swallows is an exceptionally fine book, and here it was bravely and candidly opened to us.
Another quiet and unhistrionic poet, Andrew Brewerton, first to the crease on Sunday morning, wryly introduced himself as “number seventeen”. (After a pretty variable Saturday, some of us were perhaps keener to look forward than to count backwards!) He read from a sequence, Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty, which has been emerging slowly for a while now—I first read extracts in The Gig more than three years ago—and which will eventually come out from Wild Honey Press. Everyone should both urge Brewerton on towards completion, and wish him all the time in the world: this is immensely attractive, finely worked stuff, and still, evidently, fully alive. Again, a previous (London) reading by the author was quite different: reticent, on that occasion, even a little remote, and only perhaps fully realised as a live presentation when the writing itself became so delicate that the fragility of the situation as a whole seemed suddenly risky and exposing. Here, though, was another quality altogether: Brewerton’s voice—he shunned the microphone that most poets used through the weekend (quite unnecessarily in a smallish lecture room)—was still barely louder than the creaking of his shoes, but the plastic resilience and the musical precision of these beautifully balanced and organised poems was utterly compelling. It was a superbly judged and nuanced presentation, illuminated at moments by his openly apparent pleasure at encountering, in the moments of this public reading, the poems still arriving, still soft in his hands.
There were other good showings from the British contingent: I was particularly glad to hear, for the first time after many years of admiring his work, Peter Riley (who had earlier given an exemplary introduction to Brewerton’s reading, in a welcome break from the strenuously facetious house style); confounding my expectations of him, Riley paced about, reading harder and faster than I’d imagined he would, and interpolating a number of sweetly undercutting remarks into his presentation of fragments from the unfinished third section of a new work, The Glacial Stairway: “I think that bit might have to go”; “Unfortunately for me, the good part of that stanza is by D.H. Lawrence.” And this was also the first time I’d heard the superb Tim Atkins, who read from his translations from Horace (some of which can be seen in issue 3 of his web journal Onedit): hard, naughty, intellectually agile poems to file alongside Peter Manson’s Before and After Mallarme and Michael Kindellan’s gorgeous Charles Baudelaire.
Of the overseas poets, perhaps the most immediately striking was Helena Eriksson. (I’d been primed for this by Caroline Bergvall, who should know: her extraordinary recent collection Fig is one of the most important books yet to emerge from the giddyingly busy Salt Publishing in Cambridge.) The complex repetitive patterns of Eriksson’s surfaces were powerfully offset by her performance: hesitant, trailing, continually lapsing. The predominant tone, secured by the writing and wonderfully enhanced by the reading, is erotic; I was particularly interested in her use of what appeared to be empty lines: a way of sounding white space, perhaps, by inhaling as if to speak, and then not speaking, and then inhaling again. It is a controlling poetry, and seems to establish a passive role for the listener: but I surrendered quite willingly, lulled even by what were, as far as I could tell, rather fine translations by Nolan and Duncan. (Later, Nolan’s rapport with the dazzling Astrid Lampe was also notable: but I feel sorry, on the whole, for visiting writers relying on CCCP’s provision of translators and English readers; especially, this year, for the hapless Slovenian poet, Primo? Čučnik, whose tautly serious and inventive verse was appallingly mismatched with the grandstanding buffoon Andrew Johnson. Čučnik accidentally unleashed a horrible burst of microphone feedback at one point: I couldn’t have agreed more.)
If there was one major disappointment—and this, I think, is where the sense of reduction or depletion comes through most clearly—it is that CCCP seems no longer to care about the places where poetry meets performance or digital arts. It is extraordinary for an event that has hosted Catling, cris cheek and Fiona Templeton, among others, to be able to boast no more developed or achieved performance than Laurie Duggan’s gung-ho donning of dark glasses to perform an excruciating ‘rap’ history of modernism. (The sticky end of an otherwise genially entertaining set.)
Equally, in the past, the conference conspicuously celebrated the historic and aesthetic ties between modernist poetry and free improvised music: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill all performed here. This year, double bass-player Martin Brunsden was called upon to provide improvised accompaniment to about ten of the poets. Now, let the record show that Brunsden is clearly a talented musician and a hugely generous and affable bloke: but it’s impossible to think of a single example, from the entire weekend, of any of the represented poetries being enhanced by the music. (Unless you count Andrew Johnson, who was briefly rendered inaudible.)
As the weekend went by, I began to wonder whether Nolan had conceived the repeated involvement of Brunsden as a kind of satirical effigy of the presence at three previous conferences of bassist Simon H. Fell: the Jeremy Hardingham performance I mention above, for example, included an awesomely insinuated improvisation from Fell, which in retrospect seems very ‘old school’ CCCP. But not only is Fell extremely sensitive in his live readings and acute in his responses and anticipations, he is also every bit as adept in non-idiomatic improvisation as Bailey or Parker. Brunsden, on the other hand, habitually reaches towards the poetry in different idiomatic ways. There was mimetic, gamely illustrative accompaniment for Frances Presley and Elaine Randell. There was rudimentary phrasal call-and-response with Philip Terry’s Queneau translations. And there were fake hipster walking-bass lines, introduced especially for Nigerian writer Femi Oyebode and (visibly wincing) African-American poet Nathaniel Mackey.
These last deplorable underscores were the worst of it, but none of it truly avoided cliché: for which the blame must lie not with the musician, whose willingness to participate was faultless, but with Nolan, whose roping-in of Brunsden is thoughtless and lazy. Why, for heaven’s sake, a double bass player? How can that not invoke risible thoughts of Steve Allen and every sketch-show lampoon of finger-snapping hep-cat poetry since the mid-fifties? What makes a bassist particularly compatible with the poetries on display at CCCP? Why not a tuba player? A xylophonist? Why not have an old woman up on stage pushing wet laundry through a mangle? Why not a small child with measles on a revolving platform? Throughout the weekend, the secret value system that supports Nolan’s schema gradually becomes apparent. Will he inflict musical accompaniment on the young Slovakian poet Katarina Kucbelová (sample line: “anguish is the anticipation of decay”)? Of course not. Brunsden’s presence on the platform is like a neon sign: You don’t have to take this poetry too seriously. Which is to underestimate most of the poetry concerned, and moreover, of course, the scope of what could be done with the conjunction of poetry and music; but at this event, working out the terms, the frames, the possible languages of that relationship becomes a decision categorically equivalent to figuring out whether or not to have mustard on your hot dog, for that little extra frisson.
It’s the clearest indication of all that CCCP has, of late, stopped paying overmuch attention, beyond the haphazard direction of Nolan’s own personal enthusiasms. Naturally the atmosphere has calmed: nothing much is at stake any more, beyond the mild fluctuation of personal stocks. It seems possible that this is, not least, a quietly traumatised reaction to the work that Sam Ladkin, Sara Crangle, Neil Pattison and others have been doing in providing a vastly more engaged and energised focus for poetic activity in Cambridge in the last couple of years, through two (so far) editions of the weekend-length Poetry Summit and a remarkable weekly, term-time reading series. The audience for these sessions is smart, switched-on, curious, enthusiastic; alongside the established readers that the series attracts, there are reading opportunities for younger, emerging poets. It is a talkative, opinionated, celebratory scene. Its crossover with this year’s CCCP was negligible.
There were, I guess, in all, half a dozen readings I’m very pleased to have heard, and many entertaining conversations to be had. But it was that stroll back to my hotel at the end of the first day that really threw CCCP into relief. Walking past all the old independent record stores that have turned, of late, into coffee shops and junk food outlets; through streets crowded with drunk Saturday night teenagers, all out to get wasted; through one city hubbub overlaid with another, as my iPod Shuffle dealt me Arcade Fire and Asian Dub Foundation to listen to; back to my hotel, and a choice of twelve punningly-titled ‘adult movies’ to watch in my room if I wanted… A late-evening wander through a shrunken city made up of language under pressure and people trying to invent more tolerable lives for themselves and their friends. This is where the next British poetry is formed; but it’s a city that doesn’t yet feature on CCCP’s map.