So You Want to Be a Poet

It’s open mic night at the Pensive Pelican and you’re the feature. You wear your best black jeans, the ones that are only three years old, and a beaded top you found at Savers. The host introduces you as her favourite rock star poet. Everyone cheers. Two people buy a chapbook. You live off that night for weeks.

Not literally, because the chapbooks cost ten dollars. But at work, in your “other” job at the convenience store (which this summer is your only job), you amuse yourself during inventory by turning shelf talkers into triolets, box labels into haiku. Before you leave for home you spend five minutes in the walk-in freezer, hoping the chill will last, because you’ve promised yourself not to turn the A.C. on unless the temperature in the house is absolutely over 80.

You’re the girl that would sneak out to poetry readings instead of parties, watching fierce semi-bearded men reading their poems from hand-stapled zines. Think of teenage you, with buckle boots and fishnet tights, waiting in the February cold outside Boston Public Library to see Ginsberg and Burroughs, and the egg-eyed old man who thought you were in line for a concert and handed you a comic book tract about the evils of punk rock, how a once-Christian band signed up with wily concert promoter “Lew Siffer” and met well-deserved fates: the drummer OD’d, the bassist died of AIDS, and the lead singer was “into vampirism.” You and your friends loved it; you cut up the comic for erasure poems, stayed up until light scraped the windows of your attic bedroom, reading them out loud and laughing. You wanted to cut the whole world up into poems that night. You wanted to never go to sleep.

You wish you had that tract now. It might be worth something. Once, as a joke, an ex-boyfriend gave you an old porn magazine with Allen Ginsberg as the interview. There was Ginsberg, talking about Buddhism and desire amidst the brazen 1970s muffs. You offer it up on eBay as a collector’s item. Someone buys it for $11.88.

In your mind, you translate that: three gallons of gas. If you use your employee discount, you can also get a large coffee.

Calculate this: when you finish paying off your MFA loans, you will be eligible for Social Security.

You tell yourself you’re not really poor, just bohemian-poor. Tell yourself there’s something artisanal and slow-food movement about soaking and boiling dried garbanzo beans, instead of admitting they’re the last available protein source in the house, not counting the flop-eared bunny who you’re sure has been looking at you suspiciously of late. Haunt the bargain produce box at the farm stand and take home brown-spotted tomatoes and oddly shaped zucchini and tell yourself they are the misfit toys of veggie-land and you are rescuing them.

Sometimes you dream a rescue will come for you. A genius grant. A two-year residency in Prague. A tenured teaching job, even if it’s in Arkansas or South Dakota. Your poetry workshop was cancelled for the summer but you’re sure it will run this fall. Every day, obsessively, starting in August, you check your class’s enrollment on the university web site. Five. Twelve. When it hits 15 you feel safe, temporarily, but you know it could still drop. You hope some people won’t decide they don’t really want to be poets.

Feature Film: I’m So Excited!

Still from trailer for Pedro Almodovar's film I'm So Excited

It is good of Pedro Almodovar to make it clear, right from the beginning, that we shouldn’t expect much in the way of seriousness during his most recent film, I’m So Excited! We definitely shouldn’t expect the kind of disturbing and darkly comic film he has won plaudits for in the past decade. If you’re hoping to relive the creepy thrill of The Skin I Live In or the rich tragicomedy of Volver, you’ll have to adjust your expectations – and sharpish. Instead, Almodovar takes us back to the 1980s and to the colourful, wonderfully kitsch, irreverence of early films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Bright, jangling graphics adorn the opening credits, and provide us with the first clue that Almodovar is here to have to fun. We just have to cross our fingers and hope we will, too.

Peninsula Flight 2459 is in trouble. The chocks – no, me neither – weren’t removed before take-off (blame a high-vis-jacket-sporting Antonio Banderas, who was distracted by a baggage-truck-driving Penelope Cruz), and the landing gear has failed. Instead of flying to Mexico as intended, the plane is forced to circle Toledo, desperately waiting for a landing strip to become available. The economy-class passengers have been delivered a drug that renders them unconscious for the entire flight, so it’s left to the first-class passengers, three gay male stewards and the two pilots to fear for their lives, drink themselves silly, join the mile-high club and generally ignore every aircraft-safety rule in the book.

Meanwhile, back on the ground, Spain is also in trouble, only this time it’s not fiction. Government fraud, a mortgage crisis, swindling bankers and the worst unemployment rate in modern history make for pretty grim reading in the on-board newspapers. The metaphor is obvious, but no less important for being so: the powerful few have chosen to live it up in merry abandon rather than tackle the fast-approaching disaster; their passengers, meanwhile, sleep unknowingly, with no say in their own fates. Almodovar, an outspoken critic of Spain’s right-wing government, has declared this his “most political film” yet, and beneath the gaudy, alcohol-drenched exterior is a satirical attack on embezzling banks, the royal family and corrupt politicians.

Which all makes I’m So Excited! sound much cleverer than it actually is. In reality, the satire lacks bite, and as neat as the metaphor is, it never develops to its full potential. Of course, none of this would matter if the comedy were as funny as the zany trailer promises, or if the plot didn’t feel as thin as it does, or even if the characters were half as nuanced as Almodovar’s usual cast. As it is, though, I’m So Excited! is a mildly amusing but ultimately flimsy screwball comedy.

The problem is, nothing really happens here. Yes, there’s high jinks and more double entendres than you can actually entendre; yes, the characters bond and chat and generally get things off their chest (pun intended); and, yes, the story comes to a coherent conclusion and everybody had some fun along the way. But the plot is so basic that at times it feels as if you’re watching a ninety-minute-long music video. Bizarrely, too, only one of the character’s stories is developed outside the plane – the others are not granted these coveted on-ground shots. In a film that is nearly exclusively set on board a plane, a sub-plot needs to be very special to warrant those extra on-ground moments. These moments may be sumptuously shot and full of rich colour, but they add very little to the film.

Noticeable, too, is the lack of female characters in a film by a director known for his strong portrayal of women. Why must the stewardesses slumber in economy class for the entire flight, giving the three stewards and two pilots centre stage? And of the three female characters in first class, one is a society dominatrix, one a virgin and the other is . . . asleep. It is not just the women who are half-drawn versions of clumsy stereotypes; the rest of the cast barely function outside their categories: camp stewards, mysterious Mexican, swindling banker, womanizing actor, party-mad newly wed.

Nonetheless, Almodovar fans will still find plenty to like here. His recurring themes of sexual identity, transgression, family life and desire all feature, even if they are not developed much beyond easy laughs, and the hedonistic, farcical style is infectiously charming – you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculously camp rendition of “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters. Bright, over-the-top and outrageous, this is entertainment at its silliest, and it’s certainly fun enough.

But that’s all I’m So Excited! can be. The sparse plot, stock characters and underexploited satire clip the wings of this light-hearted comedy and prevent it from ever really taking off.

Book Review: King of the Jungle by KS Silkwood

41S0FOjPnILThere is danger in KS Silkwood‘s King of the Jungle, the story of a misanthropic never-been artist working as a park-keeper who discovers vulnerability and rediscovers his humanity — namely, the temptation to descend into sub-Good Will Hunting soppiness – yet, Silkwood’s literary debut shrewdly dodges easy sentimentality. Instead Silkwood invites readers to join his hero as he tends to a stinking piss-soaked London park and monologues on hookers, homeless pals, junkies, officious councilmen and art. With perhaps some slight aspirations toward Irvine Welsh, Silkwood colours the unnamed London public garden and its regulars in vivid shades of excrement. To whit:

“I heard him splutter and wheeze and snot, and I knew then that he was okay. He stunk. Dry piss, wet piss, a sliver of diarrhea. The dribble of Special Brew vomit leaking from his nostrils. Ha! He’s all right!”

We learn that our correspondent, a thirty-something former painter whose friends and contemporaries have found success in the art world (the kind of people who are likely to use “creative” as a noun) has largely withdrawn from circulation in order to work as a custodian, a Gatsby to tramps and prostitutes. Not because he finds constance in his garden, but as a symbolic gesture, a parting shot to a community satisfied in mediocrity and the ordinary. Though largely unsaid, there is an underlying sense he believes that by choosing to be the man who collects cans and scrapes alcoholics off benches he is deliberately robbing the nation of a generational talent — a delusion common to recent graduates, but unseemly for an individual careening towards forty.

“He’s scared. He’s scared of life outside this garden. The streets are alive with threat for Conran, and the only way he can cope with it is to be shit-faced. Or engage in aggressive begging outside the Post Office, the Tube station, or anywhere else he hasn’t been ASBO’d yet.”

The novel’s pleasing episodic staccato skips from incident to incident, cleverly cutting in such park-related traumas as a coterie of hobos who stagger from gate to bin to bush to underbrush, alongside London art parties, where a coterie of chancers stagger from bar to street to brawl to a double-bed in the suburbs. Silkwood strikes a neat balance in his movement between these worlds, producing a hugely entertaining and very funny counterpoint that excoriates both lifestyles.

So engaging is the prose that you’ll forgive the pacing of the novel, where the material plot appears in fragments over the first half and is only really explored in earnest towards the very end. King is far more successful when playing to its strengths — vignettes and character study — than when it half-heartedly connects these back to romantic entanglements. Happily, this does not detract from the overall effect of Silkwood’s sort-of polemic, wherein he lays into the London arts scene with the kind of vicious contempt usually reserved for investment bankers. An ideal Father’s Day gift if you’re on difficult terms with your father.

“Just look at this. I really can’t be bothered with the work on show. It’s so nondescript and banal, it’s merged with the white of the walls; and that’s not a good thing, you know, not like Rauschenberg or something. Let’s have a look at these lesbians instead.”

King of the Jungle by KS Silkwood will be published 30 May 2013.

Book Review: Idiopathy by Sam Byers

“’Fuck me like you’re a child,’ said Keith, back from holiday and fucking her in a way that reminded her of an animal in a veterinary collar – as if she were something to be shaken off, a constraint of which he needed to reverse. “Fuck me like you’re scared of me.’”

Where to start? Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, psycfriday-idiopathy-ukhiatric wards, Twitter celebrities, unfulfilling sex, fulfilling loneliness, hesitant love, sharply honed humour, breath-taking assuredness, Idiopathy has it all. It is, of course, a satire but also deeply humane and, in Katherine, Sam Byers has created one of the most memorable characters in British fiction for some time.

The plot is simple and elegant: three old friends, Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, decide to stage a reunion a year or so after they last saw each other. The precise nature of why their friendship ended adds an interesting level of intrigue, as does the way Byers expertly teases out the grotesque and the hysterical in his premise. The three main characters often lose themselves in their own heads, and the deeper they tumble down their own private rabbit-holes, the stronger the novel becomes. Quite simply, solipsism has never been so damn funny.

“If it is possible to miss someone,” Daniel muses near the beginning of the novel, “while simultaneously hoping you never have to see them again, then this is how Daniel felt about Katherine.”

Set in and around Norwich, the modern English world is rendered hilariously disconnected – people exist, like separate atoms within a circuit, to bounce off of each other and collide but never come together. And where better to set a novel about conflictions and cattle than Norfolk? In a world where relationships and being perceived to be in a relationship is tantamount, Byers presents us with three brilliant characters who, despite themselves, just can’t do it. Katherine has resound herself to arbitrary sex, Daniel has trapped himself into a coupling he’s not sure he’s all for, and Nathan, well. Nathan is the true heart of the novel, and his story is best left experienced. Whilst Idiopathy is, firstly, a hilarious book, Byers still manages to generate a fair amount of pathos.

“Without fear, she thought, without drama, there was only the grey blankness of late-middle-age relationships, where, as far as she could make out, concepts like love and passion were replaced by what she saw as the wretched terminology of co-dependent ennui.”

The proliferation of connectivity tools that web our characters together – Twitter, mobile phones, language etc – only serves to reconfirm their isolation. Byers undermines anything and everything that humans use to connect, rendering them as useful to us as a set of stairs for a cow trapped on the second floor. “I’M TELLING YOU HOW I FEEL,” Daniel says to Katherine. “AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN.”

And it’s not just the humans. The amusing sub-plot of Bovine Idiopathic Entrancement, a disease spreading through cows which literally makes them anti-social, fleshes out the world nicely. Whilst this strand, in lesser hands, could have come off as too obvious, Byers cleverly places it behind the action, and we only catch passing glimpses of the growing pandemic:

“Any indication that a cow might be staring excessively, ceasing to move, desisting from common bovine behaviours such as cud-chewing and tail-flicking, or indeed simply standing alone for any period of time needs to be reported immediately.”

Love and loneliness, like a disease, are things that can transcend isolated bodies and connect two separate parties beyond the void. As much as Katherine, Daniel and Nathan feel alone, they are united by it. As much as they want to escape each other, they are drawn back together. This is mimicked in the prose, which is at turns terse and sharp and sprawling and circular, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace at his most entrancing.

Idiopathy is a very British novel, written by an insider-outsider with a keen eye and daggered tongue, and, if your reading experience doesn’t end with a distinct sense of having lost some quite wonderful company, then, please, check your pulse.

“No, no, [Katherine] thought. Better the sense of odds, of struggle; the ongoing and repeated relief of trauma endured and survived. Without it, there was only the security of the unimaginative: an unspokenly dwindling sex life; roiling resentment; his-and-hers facial hair.”

Sam Byers’s Idiopathy was published in April 2013.