Sunday, November 29, 2009

Casting and Gathering, Friendship - on the contrary

by Andrew Boobier

In his poem, Casting and Gathering, dedicated to his friend Ted Hughes,
Seamus Heaney writes:

I love hushed air. I trust contrariness.
Years and years go past and I do not move
For I see that when one man casts, the other gathers
And then vice versa, without changing sides.

Heaney evokes here the push-pull effect of friendship, the fact that
two people can have different natures, contrary impulses yet be united
in the common bond of mutuality and respect for each other as fishermen
and poets. The poem is also about growing up and learning to respect
these differences, 'I have grown older and can see them both...' he

There is a dialectical movement in which the two opposing forces of
Heaney's and Hughes' language (the 'hush' and 'lush') are not only
synthesised into their bonds of friendship but also as a resolution
within the poem and Heaney's own contrary. The strong resolutions
within Heaney's poetic output in general are indicative of his
allegiance to his Romantic forbears and his own particular need for
balance and redress (e.g. see his lecture, The Redress of Poetry -
essentially a post-romantic rebuttal of post-modernism).

I have a great [*word missing?] of sympathy with Heaney's trust of
contrariness, though I have a harder time coming up with cosy
resolutions. I once wrote a poem combining
suicidal American poets with the need for public displays of mourning
after national tragedy, it ended:

Human beings,
as Eliot says, cannot bear too much
History is a register of fancy.
War is a matter of personal
taste. Poetry is the language
of saints.
If only everything
were so black and white.

That last line is an ironic, wistful sigh mimicking the
romantic-capitalist desire to categorise discourse and ideology into
neat manageable parts which can be subsumed or appropriated into a neat
manageable whole. I certainly do not blame people for seeking these
kinds of resolutions; we're all looking for something to hold on to
when reality gets too heavy [*to] bear. But having been schooled these
last twenty years in existentialism, surrealism, and the works of
Georges Bataille, Lacan, Barthes, Derrida and Foucault, I tend to have
a more sceptical eye on such matters.

I, too, trust contrariness. But it is one that is intuitive, left open
to its own raw and rough edges, dark and often unresolved. This kind of
operation is not always easy to undertake when you have also been
influenced by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wallace Stevens, Eliot, Heaney,
Hughes, and others who have trod the well-worn path of Romantic
academic poetry fed to the young on undergraduate courses. Like
Whitman, I say: Do I contradict myself? Well, then, I contradict
myself. This attitude is undoubtedly rooted in the fact
that I am a working class kid educated to highfalutin middle class
intellectual values.

So, on the one hand I am a poet - the ne plus ultra of post-romantic
narcissistic navel-gazing. On the other, I hate that kind of widely
accepted and highly-acceptable form of egocentricism. Poor Andrew, torn
between the ego-impulse to express himself and desire to lose the
'self' in a more communal project!

Anyway, a few years ago this came to a head. I've always been too
much of a misanthrope to be enthused by 'community arts' and so instead
I was drawn into the more cerebral collective adventure of surrealism.

One day I was browsing through one of the larger chain-store bookshops
when I came across a strange 'calling card' which had been left in a
book of surrealist short stories. I can't recall what it said exactly
but it intrigued me enough to contact the authors. I thought it was a
flyer for a magazine and I had just starting writing 'surreal' poetry
and so I sent them a letter with a couple of poems and told them I was
familiar with surrealist history and had even translated a novel by
Georges Bataille at university. They wrote back immediately and set up
a meeting in a nearby pub. So I then met up with four people calling
themselves The Leeds Surrealist Group. They were four friends who'd
originally met at university, united by a passion for black attire and
exploring the darker side of the imagination first begun in the 1920's
by Breton and his band of collective adventurers.

For some time the Leeds Group had been adhering to strict Bretonian
principles: collectively drawing[s] and writing, and devising games in
the single-minded pursuit to wrench the imagination back from the
all-devouring profit-motive and market forces. It was all very
idealistic, historically informed and seemingly exactly what I was
looking for. Inevitably we hit it off and I passed the 'interview' - my
wife and I were invited to one of their creative evenings. In the
candlelight and semi-gothic darkness we'd sit drinking red wine
discussing the politics of surrealism, the activities of other groups
in Prague, Paris and Stockholm, the mutual respect for Artaud and the
equally mutual hatred of 'Avida Dollars'. We'd play exquisite corps and
initiate new games. Once every week we'd sit in a pub, seething into
our beers with hatred for the 'system', all the while plotting a
'revolution of the mind' by collectively drawing on a beer mat.

The real glue that held everyone together was a deep, though often
fraught, friendship. Being newcomers, it took some time for the others
to let their guard down and let us into their inner sanctum of trust
and bonhomie. And yet, group dynamics being what they are, a certain
strained tension was never far away. There was a definite leader of the
group. He was the one who would organise sessions, the intellectual
force behind the whole project, be the overall spokesman etc. Coming
into the group from my own intellectual position (my 'Bataille' to his
'Breton') shifted the weight in the boat a little. Not that this would
come out in any overt way - we never argued - it was more subtle in the
way I would question given assumptions or undermine some of the
pomposity of what we did with humour. The group could be very serious,
sometimes to a point of blind self-righteousness. I find it difficult
to be totally serious about anything that doesn't appreciate the
absurdity of one's own human, all too human, situation.

There is no text without a context, and I wanted to understand more the
context of what made the group and its friendships tick. I therefore
devised a collective game called The Misfortunes of Memory which would
explore the limits of surrealistic discourse and what held us all
together. The game itself was quite complex, involving players choosing
objects from their past, writing them down and distributing them
secretly among the others where they would undergo various
'transformations' (visual representations, narrative reconstructions,
etc). One controlling individual called 'The Puppet Master' would have
little to do with the game except at the end when he would create a
small 4 act play based on material given by the others. The players
would then have to act out this play. The fifth act would be an act of
revenge whereby the actors view the puppet master's objects and devise
an ending to the play (including the Puppet Master's inevitable
'death') based on this new material.

The idea of the game would be for people to give up some aspect of
their past, like a gift (in more anthropological terms, an act of
'potlatch') and allow this to be manipulated and changed by others to
create something new. It would be an act of artistic trust and faith in
the Other. What it ultimately meant was that no act of self-reflection
would fall into a single 'fetishised' discursive form; it would be open
to a series of manipulations and interpretations outside any
individual's controlling ego. All-in-all I thought it quite an exciting
(and difficult) challenge and felt it would take the group's activity
to a new level.

My wife was equally enthusiastic about it though the rest of the group
were highly suspicious of my motives. They didn't seem to take in the
spirit it was presented: as a game. They wanted to analyse it and
discuss it further, reformulate it so it conformed to a mutually agreed
format with a more defined outcome. The fact that the game was
dictatorial was intentional; imposed by an Other like so much that goes
on in society. That's why I included the role of the Puppet Master
(i.e. the role of Authority) who has an unequal amount of power yet
gets his comeuppance. What I hoped the game would produce was a
microcosm of the power structures both within the group's own dynamics
and in society 'out there', as well as how collective engagement (i.e.
artistic friendship) could transform and corrupt power's own corruption
through the work of the imagination. It was everything we'd talked
about, enacted. OK, it might not work as a piece of art - it was the
taking part that was most important - lessons would be learned; the
armour (amour) of our friendship would have been tempered in the
white-hot forge of collective and imaginative engagement. Blimey, it
would have at least been a laugh!

It was not to be. I felt by this time the group had moved on and fallen
foul of the need to justify its existence through the production of
more bone fide 'works'.

Endless discussions, overt lack of enthusiasm, needless suspicion... it
was the beginning of the end, at least for us. And my wife and I began
to see less of the group.

In the end we re-enacted one of the more sordid episodes in the history
of surrealism - the ideological split. Breton vs Bataille all over

You cannot blame the group or any individual for this outcome. It was
an experiment after all. It's just disappointing that we couldn't take
the risk and that, in the end, the ego's defences were set too strong
for this particular collective adventure.

People confuse my contrariness with being just plain awkward or
difficult. Perhaps I am. But being contrary, for me, means exploring
given assumptions about the world, seeing how far you can push things
before they fall off the edge or transform into something new. For me
it's nothing aggressive or nasty; it should be fun, playful. It's just
a tool of the imagination that many poets and artists employ. How far
should it go though? Should this imaginative prodding extend to the
bonds and boundaries of friendship too? As I found out there's a risk
involved. Is it worth taking? That depends. One man casts the other

All this happened six or seven years ago now and I haven't heard from
the group since. Despite our differences, I still think about them and
wonder what they are up to. As for myself, I still live a contrary life
- relatively alone - between writing acceptably narcissistic poetry
(which has found a modicum of success) and devising more 'weird' stuff
with a new writer, Anton Brassiere (which has also had a slight drizzle
of public approval).

My wife and I have also resurrected the Misfortunes of Memory game
which we are currently playing: less as husband and wife but, more
comfortably, as friends. Where it's going, we're not sure yet, but we
are enjoying the ride!

Andrew Boobier was born in Haworth, West Yorkshire in 1963.
He has published poetry and translations in the UK &
US. In 2003 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Andrew is also the editor of the Alsop Review's
prestigious online quarterly magazine, Octavo
( Andrew has just
launched his own web site at;
He'd be pleased to hear from you.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Beyond Cats and Chocolate: Two Writers Learn Through Friendship and Work

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”

--Anais Nin


by Suki Wessling

I met Penny Cagan at the Vermont College Post-Graduate Writers Conference. It was the first conference---or workshop, for that matter---that had attracted me for years. My last writing group had descended into psychotherapy on the cheap---"What does this story say about Suki's relationship with her mother?"---rather than real critique. But I hoped that this conference would be different. At least, I assumed, there would be no beginning writers there who would ask what point of view was.

I was a fiction writer at the time. I was suspicious of poetry and poets. The former because I'd been taught very badly in high school that poetry was "serious," and I'd taken refuge in fiction, which could be "fun" as well as meaningful. The latter because MFA programs seem to foster this mutual suspicion, in spite of the many cross-over writers who are among our greats. There was a poet in my fiction workshop at Michigan, and without fail she was critiqued with a sort of patronizing pity---"her images are beautiful, but the plot doesn't hold together."

So there I was in Vermont, in the middle of a room where everyone seemed to know each other. For the most part, they did. Most of the students were former MFA grads of the college. There were chairs set up for a reading. Sitting alone in a sea of empty chairs was a striking woman in black. "I have always felt like a head without a body," was one of the first things she said to me. Then we found out that we both had beloved cats, and loved chocolate. Not much more is needed for a friendship.

What grew from my friendship with Penny, however, has been much more than girlish chats (we've had many of those), support through hard times (I think we rate well there, too), and loyal enthusiasm for what the other is doing. Penny introduced me---again---to poetry. This time, the right way. Penny's love of poetry is deep and instinctive. She can keep up with the best of them in literary analysis, but when you ask her what she likes in a poem, she tells it from the soul. She's introduced me to some of my favorite poets, suggested I read others I didn't care for. In every case, I've learned from her long love affair with poetry.

Early on in our friendship, when I had a small graphic design business, I confided in Penny that I'd always had the dream of starting a publishing company. "Then you'll publish my first book," she said matter-of-factly. It seemed silly to me---she'd been published in many fine journals and had a growing reputation. Why have a novice publisher put out her book? But I thought it would be fun, so we put together a chapbook of what I called her "city poems"---her work that reflected her great love of New York City. It was a great thrill and also instructive---never again will I hand-bind 250 copies of a book with a rivet gun!

I assumed that Penny would go on to publish with a larger publisher, as I made plans to go forward with my small company. She did, in fact, start working with a very well-known publisher on her book, but she felt that her work was just getting lost in a large bureaucracy. Once again, she came to me to publish her work. I was honored but also wary of the responsibility. I warned her that I wouldn't be able to get the distribution that the large company would have, that the Chatoyant name on a book would mean nothing to people who didn't know her work. But she had loved the intimate process of her first book so much, that she convinced me it was the way she wanted to go.

Penny's book And Today I Am Happy is now on Chatoyant's list, and doing well. Penny is still working and living in New York City. I am now a mother of a small child (with another on the way) and going on with my publishing. Our friendship thrives. I know that my relationship with other authors will probably not be one founded first on friendship, but I hold my relationship with Penny as an example of how writers can work together, teach each other, and also be friends. Penny has never let any professional disagreement we might have get in the way of our friendship, and I continue to learn from her and enjoy her company---whether we're talking about writing and publishing or cuddling with our cats and a good cup of hot cocoa!


Suki Wessling is a writer and publisher of Chatoyant, a small poetry press. Her work has been published in a variety of literary journals, and she has a great stash of rejected novels on her hard drive.

Mort Marcus, 1936 - 2009

In a piece, a prose poem titled "The Library," my friend Morton Marcus wrote, "When I die I will be a book on a shelf in the library, and this notion doesn't bother me. I look forward to leaning against Melville and Montagine, and I can't wait to stand in the ranks..."

Attended Mort's Memorial at Cabrillo College, Aptos, CA, where he taught for 30 years... profound sense of loss, outpouring of emotion... An extraordinary event and extraordinary, too, was that sense of Mort as impressario, poet as magician... Mort with a magic flute... overseeing it all... it was as if the man was hosting his own funeral and, following that, the wake. In the last weeks of his life, dying of renal cancer, dealing with the pain and the one or two good hours a day left to him he managed to function, he put together the program, invited the various speakers and performers (businessman and long-time friend George Ow, Jr.; historian Sandy Lydon; poet Joe Stroud; novelist Kirby Wilkins... musician John Walther, artist James Aschbacher and writer Lisa Jensen, poets Gary Young and Stephen Kessler, Leonard Gardner and Jack Marshall, California Poet Laureate Al Young and Mark Ong, San Francisco author and book designer...).

The word _gravitas_ comes to mind, that, and bravery, facing one's death and preparing at the same time to mount a celebration. Yeah, Mort had more than the usual amount of vitality and appetite for life... an impressario, he knew how to make an entrance, and he knew how to make a departure.