Is it fiction, is it poetry, is it truth — what are the rules here? Kirsty Dunlop tackles the difficult, yet illustrious art of the poet bio in this review of Joe Dunthorne’s All The Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything To Everyone (Rough Trade Editions, 2018).
Whenever I read a poetry anthology - I hope I’m not the only one - I go to the bios at the back before I read the poems…it’s also a really strange thing when you publish a poem…you brag about yourself in a text that is supposed to sound distant and academic but is actually you carefully calculating how you’ll present yourself.
> It’s the middle of a night in 2019 and I’m listening to a podcast recording from Rough Trade Editions’ first birthday party at the London Review Bookshop, and this is Dunthorne’s intro to the reading from his pamphlet All The Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything To Everyone (2018). As I lie there in that strange limbo space of my own insomnia, Dunthorne’s side-note to his work feels comfortingly intimate because it rings so true (the kind of thing you might admit to a friend over a drink after a poetry reading rather than in the performative space of the reading itself). Like Joe, and yes surely many others, I am also fascinated by bios - particularly because I find them so awkward to write/it makes me cringe writing my own/this is definitely the kind of thing you overthink late at night. Bios also function as this alternative narrative on the margins of the central creative work, and they do tell a story: take any bio out of context and it can be read as a piece of flash fiction. When we are asked to write bios, there is this unspoken expectation that we follow certain rules in our use of language, tone and content. Side note: how weird would it be if we actually spoke about ourselves in this pompous third person perspective irl?! Bios themselves are limbo spaces (another kind of side note!) where there is much left unsaid and often the unsaid and the little that is said reveals a lot. Of course, some bios are also very, very long. Dunthorne’s pamphlet plays with this limbo space as a site of narrative and poetic potential: prior to All The Poems, I had never read a short story actually written through the framework of a list of poet bios. The result is an incredibly funny, honest and playful piece of meta poetic prose that teases out all the subtle aspects of the poet bio-sphere and ever since that first listen, I can’t stop myself re-reading.
> This work is an exciting example of how formal constraints in writing can actually create an exhilarating sense of narrative liberation. I see this really playful, fluid Oulipo quality to the writing, where the process of using the bio as constraint is what makes the rollercoaster reading experience so satisfying as well as revealing a theatrical stage for language to have its fun, where the reality of our own calculated self performance can be teased out bio by bio. The re-reading opens up a new level of comedy each time often at the level of wordplay. I’ll maybe reveal some more of that in a wee bit.
> It’s a winding road that Dunthorne takes us on in his narrative journey where the micro and the macro continually fall inside each other. So perhaps this review will also be quite winding. Here is another entry into the text: we begin reading about the protagonist Adam Lorral from the opening sentence, who we realise fairly quickly is struggling to put together a ground-breaking landmark poetry anthology. His bio crops up repeatedly in varying forms:
‘Adam Lorral, born 1985 is a playwright, translator and the editor-publisher of this anthology.’ ‘Adam Lorral is a playwright, translator and the man who, morning after morning, stood barefoot on his front doorstep […]’ ‘Adam Lorral is a playwright, translator and someone for whom the date Monday, October 14th, 2017 has enormous meaning. Firstly Adam’s son started smiling.’
The driving circularity of this repetition pushes the narrative onwards, whilst the language is never bogged down: it hopscotches along and we can’t help but join in the game. Amidst a growing list of other characters/poets- that Adam may or may not include in this collection he seems to be pouring/ draining his energy into, with just a little help from his wife’s family money- tension begins to build.
> Although Adam is overtly the protagonist in the story, to my mind it is, in fact, Adam’s four-week-old son who is the real heroic figure. Of course, this baby doesn’t have a bio of his own but he does continually creep into Adam’s (he’s another side note!). He comes off as the only genuine character: there is no performance, no judgement, he just is. Adam is continually amazed by his son’s mental and physical development which is far more impressive than the growth of this questionable anthology. The baby is this god-like figure, continually present during Adam’s struggles, with the seemingly small moments of its development taking on monumental significance. Adam might try to immerse himself fully in this creative work but the reality of his family surroundings will constantly interrupt. This self-deprecating, reflective tone led me to think about how Dunthorne expansively explores the idea of the contemporary poet and artist identity through metanarrative. In Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016), he writes ‘There is embarrassment for the poet – couldn’t you get a real job and put your childish ways behind you?’ In a recent online interview with the poet Will Harris, when asked about his own development as a writer, he spoke about how the career trajectory of a poet is a confusing phenomenon and I’ve heard many other poets speak of this too: there are perhaps milestones to pass but they are not rigid or obvious, and of course they are set apart from the milestones of more ‘adult’, professional pursuits. I think Dunthorne’s short story accurately captures this confusion around artistic, personal and intellectual growth and the navigation of the poetry community, through these minute, telling observations and the rejection of a simplistic narrative linearity. The story doesn’t make any hard or fast judgements: like the character of the baby, the observations just are. Sometimes, it feels like this project could be one of the most important aspects of Adam’s life (it might even make or break it) and we are there with him and at other moments it seems quite irrelevant to the bigger picture, particularly as the bios get more ridiculous. Here, I just have to highlight one of the bios which perfectly evokes this heightened sense of a poet’s importance:
Peter Daniels’ seventh collection The Animatronic Tyrannosaurus of Guadalajara, is forthcoming with Welt Press. He will not let anyone forget that he edited Unpersoned, a prize-winning book of creative transcriptions of immigration interviews obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, even though it was published nearly two decades ago. His poetry has been overlooked for all previous generational anthologies and it is only thanks to the fine-tuned sensibilities of this book’s editor that has he finally become one of the chosen. You would expect him to be grateful.
> Okay…so I said above that there weren’t hard or fast judgements; maybe I should retract that slightly. The text definitely doesn’t feel like a cruel critique of poets generally (its comedy is too clever for that) but, yes, there are a fair few judgements from Adam creeping into those bios. I am so impressed with the way in which Dunthorne is able to expertly navigate Adam’s perspective through all these fragments, to create this growing humour, as the character can’t help inserting his own opinions into other poets’ bios. Of course, we are also able to make our own judgements about Adam and his endearing naivety: shout out here to my fave character in the story, Joy Goold (‘exhilaratingly Scottish’) who has submitted the poem, Fake Lake, to the anthology. Hopefully if you’re Scottish, you can appreciate the comedy of this title. Adam Googles her and cannot find any trace of her, which feels perfect…almost too good to be true.
> Dunthorne plays with cliché overtly throughout the text. You could say all the poets in this story are exaggerated clichés but that certainly doesn’t make them boring; it just adds to the knowing intimacy that, yes, feels slightly gossipy (which I can’t help but enjoy). For example, there is the poet who has:
[…] won every major UK poetry prize and long ago dispensed with modesty […] Though he does not need the money he teaches on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His latest collection is Internal Flight (Faber/FSG). He divides his time between London and New York because they are both lovely.
I am leaving out a fair bit of this bio because I don’t want to take away some of the joy of simply reading this text in its entirety but it’s one of many tongue-in-cheek observations that feels very accurate and over-the-top at the same time (I feel like everyone in the poetry community knows this person). It is also even more knowing when you consider that Dunthorne actually has published a collection with Faber, O Positive (2019), a totally immersive read that also doesn’t shy away from poking fun at its speaker throughout. I always like seeing the ideas that repeatedly crop up in a writer’s work and explorations of calculation and cliché are at the forefront of this collection. I keep thinking of this line from the poem ‘Workshop Dream’:
We stepped onto the beach. The water made the sound: cliché, cliché, cliché.
Interestingly, there is this hypnotising dream-like quality to O Positive - with shape shifting figures, balloonists, owls-in-law – in contrast to the hyper realism I experienced in the Rough Trade pamphlet. However, like All the Poems, in O Positive, we’re always one step inside the writing, one step outside, watching the poem/short story being written. It’s this continual sensation of being very close to failure and embarrassment/cringe. (I can also draw parallels here between Dunthorne’s exploration of this theme and the poet Colin Herd who speaks so brilliantly about the relation between poetry and embarrassment- see our SPAM interview.) Failure is just inevitable in this narrative set up. It makes the turning point of the narrative- when it arrives- all the funnier:
As Adam typed, he hummed the chorus to the Avril Lavigne song–why d’you have to go and make things so complicated?–and smiled to himself because he was keeping things simple. Avril Lavigne. Adam Lorral. Their names were a bit similar. He was looking for a sign and here one was.
> If it isn’t clear already, this is a story that I could continually quote from, but to truly appreciate the work, you should read it in its beautiful slim pamphlet format created by Rough Trade Books. For me, the presentation of this work is as important as the form: this story would have a different effect and tone if it was nestled inside a short story collection. I think a lot of the most exciting creative writing right now, is being published by the innovative small indie presses springing up around the UK. Recently, I listened to a great podcast by Influx Press, featuring the writer Isabel Waidner: they spoke about both the value of small presses taking risks with writers, and the importance of recognising prose as an experimental field, rightly recognising that experimental work often seems to begin with, or be connected to, the poetry community. Waidner’s observation felt like something I had been waiting to hear…and a change that I had noticed in writing being published in the last few years in the UK. I could mention so many examples alongside the work of Rough Trade Books: Waidners’s We are Made of Diamond Stuff (2019), published by Manchester-based Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Eley William’s brilliant Attrib. and Other Stories (Influx Press, 2017), the many exciting hybrid works put out by Prototype Publishing, to name just a few. There is also a growing interest in multimedia work, for example Visual Editions, who publish texts designed to be read on your phone through their series Editions at Play (Joe Dunthorne did a brilliant digital-born collaborative text with Sam Riviere in 2016, The Truth About Cats & Dogs, I would highly recommend!). But this concept of combining the short story with a pamphlet format, created by Rough Trade Books as part of their Rough Trade Editions twelve pamphlet series, feels particularly exciting to me and is a reminder of why I love the expansive possibilities of shorter prose pieces. Through its physical format, we are reminded that this is a prose work you can read like a series of poems without losing the narrative tension that is so central to fiction. The expansiveness of the reading possibilities of Dunthorne’s short story also reminds me of Lydia Davis’s short-short stories. Here’s one I love taken from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (Penguin Books, 2009):
They take turns using a word they like “It’s extraordinary,” says one woman. “It is extraordinary,” says the other.
You could read this as a sound bite, an extract from an article, a writing exercise or a short story, the possibilities go on; there is a space created for the reader and consequently it encourages the unravelling of re-reading (which feels like a very poetic mode to me). Like Davis, Dunthorne’s work also highlights how seemingly simple language can be very powerful and take on many subtle faces and tones. I think short forms are so difficult to get right but when you encounter all the elements of language, tone, pacing, style, space, tension brought together effectively (or calculatingly as Dunthorne might say), it can create this immersive, highly intimate back-and-forth play with the reader.
> All The Poems Contained Within Will Mean Everything to Everyone. The title tells us there is a collection of poems here that are hidden: the central work has disappeared leaving behind the shadowy remains of the editor’s frustration and the marginalia of the bios. We feel the presence of the poems despite not actually reading them. The pamphlet's blurb states that this: ‘is the story of the epiphanies that come with extreme tiredness; that maybe, just maybe the greatest poetry book of all is one that contains no poems’ The narrative, as well as making fun of itself, also recognises that poetry exists beyond the containment of the poems themselves: it can be found in the readings, the performances, the politics, the drafts, the difficulties, the funding, the collaboration, the collectivity, the bios.
> A friend of mine recently asked me: Where are all the prose parties?…And what might a prose party look like? We were chatting about how a poetry party sounds much cooler (that’s maybe why there’s more of them). I think prose is often aligned with more conventional literary forms, maybe closed off in a way that poetry is seen to be able to liberate, but I think Dunthorne breaks down these preconceptions and binaries around form and modes of reading in All The Poems. I want to be at whatever prose party he’s throwing.
 University of Glasgow’s Creative Conversations, Sophie Collins interviewing Will Harris, Monday 4th May 2020 (via Zoom)
Text: Kirsty Dunlop Published: 10/7/20